Aristotle on Toughness

We have become soft and it’s time to get tough. Aristotle says that “it is softness to fly from what is troublesome” and so the coward does. But then most of us are flying from what is troublesome. Can we even recall what courage is?


The coward, the rash man, and the brave man, then, are concerned with the same objects but are differently disposed toward them; for the first two exceed and fall short, while the third holds the middle, which is the right, position; and rash men are precipitate, and wish for dangers beforehand but draw back when they are in them, while brave men are excited in the moment of action, but collected beforehand.

All three men are concerned with the fearful and the excellent (kalon), yet the rash man rushes headlong into something without having knowledge of what is to be feared whereas the coward is full of fear and reacts accordingly. What Aristotle observes is that both the coward and the rash man draw back, ultimately.

What of the brave man who pushes forward, when such is appropriate? As I read him, when Aristotle says that courage has to do with fear and confidence and that the courageous man aims at kalon, he is saying the following:

1.) The brave man has (must have) knowledge of what is to be feared in this situation. I take it that he knows that X poses a threat to his life or to what he cares most about and–to put it even more colloquially–that it is a force to be reckoned with. He would be able to seize things up, determining what sort of threat it poses, what dangers (if only in an indeterminate sense) could lie in wait, how great of a danger these things are. He “senses danger” and its potential for destroying him or what he cares about.

2.) The brave man has the right motivation. Aware of what is to be feared, he acts for the sake of the excellent/fine/noble. He is not motivated by fear to do the right thing but has his mind set on what is higher. Time and again, one discovers this in the philosophical life: that some notion of the good wins out over what is to be feared.

3.) The brave man has the right disposition. He has a confident disposition in the face of the fearful. Beautifully, Aristotle says that he is “excited in the moment of action, but collected beforehand.” Think of the moments beforehand: he is composed, alert, at the ready, yet also somewhat relaxed. During: shored up, buoyed up,  responsive, excited without being hotheaded, lustful, or full of rage. He is motion and efficiency, even grace. Nietzsche might say “cheerful,” but it must be borne in mind that cheerfulness is not stupidity, not blithe optimism. Remember that the brave man has a knowledge of what is to be feared, and that knowledge has not gone away.

Putting these three thoughts together, we can say that the brave man has knowledge of what is to be feared (in this situation), acts for the sake of the good, and has, throughout, a confident or cheerful disposition. That’s toughness.