Sunday, February 06, 2011

Courage & Facing Death

A recurring point of emphasis in my teaching partner's (Helen Bennett's) discussion of Antigone (in our Honors Humanities course) was that one way in which Antigone "missed the virtuous mean" had to do with the way in which she evinced disregard for her own life. Not that her family life was great, obviously (you've heard of her dad, Oedipus, right?). But if you read the play, there's something to the idea that she's being (or speaking) a bit reckless (even though she was doing the right thing in trying to bury Polyneices).

At the end of his discussion of courage, Aristotle claims that a courageous person is properly pained by the prospect of his or her own death:
the more he [the courageous person] is possessed of excellence in its entirety and the happier he is, the more he will be pained at the thought of death; for life is best worth living for such a man, and he is knowingly losing the greatest goods [by sacrificing his life in war], and this is painful. But he is none the less brave, and perhaps all the more so, because he chooses noble deed of war at that cost. (NE Bk. III Ch. 9)
This forces Aristotle to hedge a bit on his prior claim that the exercise of virtue is always pleasant to the virtuous person, "except in so far as it reaches its end." What I found really striking here, in connection with my previous thinking about courage here, is what Aristotle then says about the "best soldiers" perhaps being people who aren't quite fully courageous (or virtuous or happy, in his sense):
But it is quite possible that the best soldiers may be not men of this sort but those who are less brave but have no other good; for these are ready to face danger, and the sell their life for trifling gains.
This isn't something you'd want to put in the recruitment literature, but given what Silke says about the background story of many suicide bombers (see p. 183 and the citation of Kushner 1996), Aristotle's remarks have some plausibility. Of course, there's also something off-putting about this (even if it is a dark truth) when one thinks about it in connection with, for example, the reasons young people might choose to go into military service. But I'm not sure what else to say now about that.

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