11 July 2009

The Virtues of Courage & Shame

In his description of ‘Aristotle’s Account of the Virtues’, Alasdair MacIntyre writes (After Virtue, 2nd ed. [Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 1984]):

The educated moral agent must of course know what he is doing when he judges or acts virtuously. Thus he does what is virtuous because it is virtuous. It is this fact that distinguishes the exercise of the virtues from the exercise of certain qualities which are not virtues, but rather simulacra of virtues. The well-trained soldier, for instance, may do what courage would have demanded in a particular situation, but not because he is courageous but because he is well-trained or perhaps—to go beyond Aristotle’s example by remembering Frederick the Great’s maxim—because he is more frightened of his own officers than he is of the enemy. The genuinely virtuous agent however acts on the basis of a true and rational judgment. (pp. 149-50)

I’m not sure if I quite follow him. Isn’t the virtue of courage precisely the result of training? Furthermore, if we are discounting the morality of an action because it is done from fear rather than a rational decision to do what is right only because it is right, haven’t we got into a sort of Kantian ethics?

Thus, the teaching of St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain on the virtue of shame (ἐντροπή) seems to conflict with MacIntyre's account of Aristotelian ethics at this point. ‘This virtue’, he says, ‘is a natural one, implanted by God only in human beings. It is manifested even in little children who at once blush from shame when they do something wrong. It is a charming virtue to all who observe it’ (Spiritual Exercises, p. 242; qtd. in Constantine Cavarnos, Orthodoxy & Philosophy [South Canaan, PA: STS, 2003], p. 138).

Indeed, we may consider a specific instance of such shame, and in a situation that dovetails nicely with MacIntyre’s military illustration, to see just how charming it is. In his biography of the WWII submarine commander, Vasilis Laskos, M. Karagatsis narrates Laskos’s decision not to surrender to the Germans with these words (Modern Greek Reader: Demotic, comp. and ed. George C. Pappageotes [NY, 1960], p. 194):

Nevertheless, Laskos did not do as other commanders who had found themselves in similar predicaments. He looked at this matter differently. Should he, Vasili Laskos, surrender without fighting, without firing a single shot? How could his Hellenic spirit bear such shame [τέτοια ντροπή]?

‘By the cross, I’ll never surrender like this to those dirty Krauts!’, he said to himself.

On Karagatsis’s account, surely Laskos is acting in this way in large part because he is ‘more frightened of his own’—whether the officers watching him or the people of the Greek nation—or at least of their judgement of him, ‘than he is of the enemy’? And yet Pappageotes refers to this as ‘a heroic act’, and taking his cue from Karagatsis’s reference to ἡ ἑλληνικὴ ψυχή του, associates it with ‘the Greek fighting spirit’ itself (p. 196). The official website of the City of Eleusis commemorates Laskos as ‘the Eleusinian Vasilis Laskos, governor of the submarine “L. Katsonis”, [who] pursues the Germans by sea until September 1943, when he dies as a hero when his ship is wrecked during the fight with an enemy warship’.

Of course, there is also (HT: Ζήσε το σήμερα!) the classical example of Telamonian Ajax’s typical exhortation to the Argives in Iliad 15.651-655 (in Homer, The Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles [NY: Pengin, 1998], pp. 405-6):

‘Be men, my friends! Discipline fill your hearts!
Dread what comrades say of you here in bloody combat!
When men dread that, more men come through alive—
when soldiers break and run, good-bye glory,
good-bye all defenses!’ . . .

Is the virtue of courage not to be equated with trained responses? Is it incompatible with fear-based motivations such as shame? I don’t know, but these seem like potentially fruitful questions.

No comments: