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Aristotle, Courage, War And The Bible Essay, Research Paper


From Desert Storm to Tailhook, prevailing attitudes about military women are

being reformulated and tested in myriad ways. How smoothly or quickly a shift

in attitudes occurs is chiefly a matter of leadership. Commanders must give

women equal access to a level playing field on which each competitor either

succeeds or fails based on individual merit. If you put points on the

scoreboard, you play. Tough standards outlawing fraternization, shunning

paternalism, and minimizing segregation must be accompanied by changes, the hard

fact is that women will fight as well as die in our next war. While a

gender-neutral meritocracy may be difficult to achieve, an initial step is to

promote a shared common identity and purpose: man or woman, a soldier is a

soldier first. (Mariner 54)

Rosemary Mariner writes on a very important topic that circulates through the

ranks of the military as well as through the public eye. We ponder whether or

not women should be allowed to serve among the ranks of those serving in the

combat arms and fighting at the front lines; and if they are not allowed to do

so, why? The reason most likely stems from the early writings of the great

philosophers, which give credence to the belief that women are incapable of

possessing virtues, and in this case the virtue of courage. “Aristotle

maintains that woman is a mutilated or incomplete man…[and] since he

associates heat with life or soul, he therefore supposes women to have less soul

than men” (Agonito 41). For Aristotle the virtue of courage is associated with

the actions of soldiers in battle and soldiers in the armies of his times were

all men. If such is the case, according to Aristotle, then women are incapable

of fighting in wartime situations, because they are not courageous enough.

Plato on the other hand argues that “…we’re dealing with a physically weaker

sex: the males are stronger” (Plato1 162). Other Platonic writings coincide

with this belief. Plato wrote in Laches “If someone is willing to remain in the

ranks and ward off the enemies and not run, you know he is courageous” (Plato2

100), this being the definition of courage according to General Laches. Laches

further explains that “manliness, though fully expressed only in the actions of

war, naturally includes a whole set of other physical and mental habits without

which the citizen-soldier would be incapable of fighting bravely and would lack

the willingness to do his duty, if only because of physical and emotional

exhaustion” (Plato2 109). In either case it would seem that the consensus is

that women should not be allowed to participate in war either because they are

incapable of possessing virtue, or because they are too weak. Nevertheless, it

will be the primary focus of this paper to argue that courage is not a gender

specific virtue. There will be no discussion as to whether or not females are

the weaker of the two sexes as this is a moot topic today, primarily because of

the use of steroids and other strength enhancement drugs as well as the

acceptance of women into the realm of professional strength training.


Virtue ethics as a theory of morality has existed, most notably, since

Aristotle, who maintains that women are “incomplete men”. Courage is one of the

virtues discussed by Aristotle. To display courage a person must experience

fear and perceive danger, although the circumstances surrounding an act of

courage need to be proportionate to perceived risk to avoid the activity

becoming an enterprise of foolishness. Furthermore, the potential consequences

associated with the risk must be proportionate to the ends concerning the

bravery. These elements associated with courage are undoubtedly equally

available to both sexes, and in the sense of equality woman can and have been


A virtue is an ideal of the way someone should be, a component of character.

Aristotle described virtue as being a mean, or average of attitude, which could

be uncovered via reasoning and displayed through personality and behavior styles

(Hinman 334-335). For example, the average between an excess, like

contrariness, and a deficiency, like sycophancy, might be honest opinion.

Hinman mentions further the difference between substantive virtues; those that

are closer to the ethical good, like philanthropy, and executive virtues; those

less associated with being morally good and more directly linked with qualities

of desirable persona. Courage is said to be an executive virtue, one that

contains at least two components.


First, there must be an internal factor of fear or even phobia. Psychology

informs us that fear is an awareness of physiological changes in response to

some stimulus or other. These changes include increased respiration, heartbeat,

blood pressure, and higher production of epinephrine (adrenaline). Other changes

such as pupil dilation, increased sweating and decreased production of saliva

are often present too. This process occurs in a part of the autonomic,

non-voluntary, nervous system called the sympathetic division (Aitkenson 331).

All healthy humans have sympathetic divisions of the autonomic nervous system

and are thus prone to the physiological, and psychological effects of fear.

Second, there must be an external factor of perceived danger in a circumstance

for a courageous deed to be possible. The degree of such will depend on how the

individual relates the present circumstance with experiences of past events and

situations. For example, if I see a torrentially flooded river an attempt to

cross it would be perceived as dangerous because I have seen many such

situations on television where lives have been put at risk. This cognitive

component is important in danger because I may enter a dangerous situation

without realizing it and thus act without courage. It could be imagined that an

individual has no idea that in order to cull an animal so that they can feed

their family, they have to walk across a minefield. If the minefield is

unknown to the individual then no fear will be experienced because no danger is

attached to collecting the prey on the other side of the field. In this case no

act of bravery has been committed. Alternatively, it appears courage can be

displayed without any real danger existing. Socrates responds to Laches’

definition of courage with one of his own, stating:

“…courage-like quality is to be found in the movements of the soul that

involve the firm control of passions, the enduring restraint of appetites and

their corresponding pains of frustration of fears of loss, no less than the

endurance of ordinary pain and restraint of ordinary fear. But courage as a

virtue of choice is expressed only in rational actions having to do with danger

and suffering, not temptation and pleasure” (Plato2 109).

Courage & Phobias

Phobias have the component of fear without physical danger. A phobia may be

defined as an irrational fear, associated with a stimulus containing no

objective hazard. To confront a phobia takes similar courage needed in

non-phobic situations because the associated behaviors necessary to conquer the

phobia are manifested despite fear or anxiety. This is contrary to Hinman’s

concept of rightly ordered fears. He maintains that once phobias have been

overcome courage is no longer part of the relationship between actor and

situation. He also maintains that if courage is responding to objectively

identifiable danger then responses to psychological dangers will not count and

if individuals do not perceive objective dangers as such they will not be

counted as courageous. This all appears to be acceptable. However, Hinman then

seems to discount facing phobias as a valid form of courage (Hinman 338).

Phobias may be placed in the objective realm of rightly ordered fears because

for the phobic actor, because no matter how illogical the response is to the

stimulus all elements of fear and danger still exist. The proportion of fear to

actual risk to an un-empathetic observer may be unbalanced. But because fear is

a subjective emotion, it seems illogical to try and objectively quantify, or

comparatively ordinate it with dangers that are also subjectively assessed by

the phobic. All of this infers that courage is more attached to overcoming fear

rather than danger. Indeed, the dangerousness of a situation is often out of the

actor’s control. However, fear is not always a controllable phenomenon either,

and this is perhaps why when people act against perceived danger, in spite of

fear, they are considered courageous (Hinman 338). Again it appears that most

healthy, rational humans, woman and men alike, are capable of recognizing

dangerous situations with the relevant knowledge in tow. Both men and woman

also confront phobias, and so in these respects courage does not appear to be a

gender specific virtue.

There must also be appropriate self-confidence and a relatively accurate

assessment of the risk involved in any action for it to be courageous, rather

than foolish. To skydive without training would be risky. A person, who has

partaken in such an activity without worrying about the likely consequences,

would be quite foolish. However, the same act carried out by someone who is

properly trained can be seen as moderately courageous, at least for the first

few times. Once more, as skill and experience is gained fear is less likely to

be experienced. Indeed, the physiological components once associated with fear

may be associated with an experience of exhilaration. Sensibility is also a

factor in courage. It would also be foolish to do something like risk one’s

life for the sake of something like a Twinkie, because the risk involved, when

compared with the outcome, is far too great. But, to risk life or injury for

the sake of another human being would not be so foolish because the intended

ends justify the possible cost (Hinman 339).

As all of the above appears to be equally applicable to both men and women it

seems almost inane to ask whether or not courage is a gender specific virtue,

but the context of the question needs to be illustrated. For Aristotle the

virtue of courage is associated with actions of soldiers in battle and soldiers

in the armies of his times were all men. Historically, acts of courage

exhibited by woman have tended to be under-valued, or even unrecognized (Hinman

341). The above modern framing of the concept of courage is far wider than

Aristotle’s and women are generally more accepted as being equal to men now, and

it is therefore safe to say courage is not gender-specific. Courage is not

limited to the confines of the battlefield; it can be displayed in any risky

situation. However, to keep with the argument that Aristotle asserts we will

first use an example of a wartime situation that had occurred prior to the life

of Aristotle and proves that women can possess courage during battle. We will

then access an example of a non-wartime situation from the present that shows an

example of courage in women. The first example comes from the Old Testament and

was readily available for Aristotle and his students.

The courage of Jael

The book of Judges is dated between 1200-1020 B.C.E. (New Revised Standard

Version 367). In the book of Judges there is a reoccurring theme of Israel

being delivered into the hands of another nation because they are not right with

God. However, the Lord, as intolerable as he may be, eventually hears the cries

of Israel and raises up Judges to deliver Israel from their oppressors. One

such Judge was Deborah. Deborah, along with an Israelite General named Barak,

was to deliver the Israelites from the Canaanites by defeating the army of

Jabin. As Barak and his army defeated Jabin’s army, Jabin’s top General,

Sisera, fled for his life.

“He came to the place where Heber and his family dwelt, and assumed that he

could accept Jael’s hospitality since they had an alliance with Jabin King of

Hazor. Sisera, exhausted form the battle and chase, fell asleep while hiding

under a covering in Jael’s tent. While he slept, Jael took a tent peg and ran

it through his temple–a very brave deed, considering that the Israelites had

not totally subdued the area and Jabin could be expected to retaliate” (Gardner


Gardner has given a good summary; however, it does not heed the justice that is

deserved either to the story or to the character of Jael.

Jael & Sisera

In the Biblical account we are given first the information that, “All the army

of Sisera fell by the sword; no one was left” (New Revised Standard Version,

Judges 4:16). So even from a fairly distant location, onlookers would know that

Sisera was defeated in battle. We also know that Sisera was afoot (New Revised

Standard Version, Judges 4:17) and the place where he would hide would have to

be close. It further follows that King Jabin and the clan of Heber had a peace

treaty of some sorts (New Revised Standard Version, Judges 4:17), and that Jael

was from the clan of Heber. Jael at this point becomes the primary focus of

Judges chapter 4 (New Revised Standard Version, Judges 4: 18-24).

It can be construed that she is fully aware of her political situation not only

that she, and her clan, are allies to King Jabin but also that there is some

political tension between the Israelites and the clan of Heber; this stemming

from the hatred between the Israelites and King Jabin. In fear of being

succumbed and enslaved by the Israelites Jael devises a plan and sets it into

motion. It can be assumed that this is done to ensure the safety of her, her

family and her fellow clansmen. This is done first by offering safety to General

Sisera; “Jael came out to meet Sisera, and said to him, “Turn aside, my lord,

turn aside to me; have no fear” (New Revised Standard Version, Judges 4:18).

She guarantees his safety by insisting that he have no fear. She covers him

with a rug and he asks for water, “So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a

drink and covered him” (New Revised Standard Version, Judges 4:18). Her choice

of giving him warm milk as opposed to water is important to note here. She

chooses milk primarily because it is a time-tested sedative. “Experts believe

the amino acid l-Tryptophan (found in milk and other foods such as turkey and

eggs) makes eyelids heavy by raising the level of a chemical in the brain called

serotonin” (Ahealthyme.com). Jael knew the affect that the warm milk would have

on Sisera, which was part of her plan. Once Sisera was asleep “Jael…took a

tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the

peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground…and he died” (New

Revised Standard Version, Judges 4:21).

It is only logical to conclude that Jael, knowing of her political situation and

knowing how to ensure her and her clansmen’s safety, acted in a courageous

manner during a time of war. She did this by killing and delivering Sisera into

the hands of Barak and the Israelites. Knowing that the Israelites were

pursuing Sisera she took him into her tent, her violation was two-fold. First,

had her husband come into the tent at any time prior to the death of Sisera it

may have been perceived as an act of adultery, and second, had the pursuing army

caught her hiding him they would have killed her. Despite the fact that neither

happened there still was the element of fear.

As a matter of fact, all of the aforementioned signs of courage are mentioned:

an internal factor of fear or phobia, an awareness of physiological changes in

response to some and it is almost assured that there was increased respiration,

heartbeat, blood pressure, higher production of epinephrine, pupil dilation,

increased sweating and decreased production of saliva all of which are

autonomic, non-voluntary. There was assuredly an external factor of perceived

danger as mentioned before. The pursuing army, the chance that she could get

caught by her husband or Barak with Sisera and even the possibility that she

could be raped or killed by Sisera in the chance that he was not sleeping.

Despite the fact that Jael was not fighting on the front lines, she was capable

of assessing the situation and making a sensible decision, the consequences of

which could have been death. She did not choose the path of the coward or as

General Laches would have put it she was “…willing to remain in the ranks and

ward off the enemies and not run…” (Plato2 100), per se.

Non-Combat Examples of Courage

There are many situations that could be spoken about to display non-combative

examples of courage. For example, many women become pregnant without the

resources material and or psychological means to cope with such an event and yet

courageously trod through the experience. Women who abort as a result of their

immediate circumstances experience much pressure yet do so with an overabundance

of courage. Both experience fear that is not attributable to phobias. The

single mother faces the persecution of church groups, peers, and the

disappointment of the parents. She can be perceived as not living up to the

expectations that have been set upon her by society. A young woman that chooses

to abort the fetus does so knowing that there will be protesters, religious

zealots, and possibly a health risk, keeping in mind that any procedure is

capable of going wrong. Fear is further coddled because of the huge moral

debate, which must increase trauma, as well as the taxation that the procedure

has on the body. It is hugely stressful physically and psychologically.

Surely, courage is needed to make decisions in circumstances such as these. The

act of giving birth is also one that requires great courage. Historically, this

ordeal was extremely risky because of crude medical technology as Hinman

recognizes (341-342).

Women also partake in military roles traditionally exclusive to men. The Red

Army contained female regiments, as did the Vietnamese army. Female fighter

pilots are a valuable part of some modern Air and Naval Forces, amongst others,

all of which employ woman with in their ranks. Our Air Force now allows female

combat bomber pilots to fly in wartime situations. Most police forces and fire

departments have women assigned to front-line duty. Courage is now equally

available to women, in consideration of this, even if the Aristotelian

definition of such is adhered to. Perhaps women, because of the sex roles they

historically held, require another facet to be added to the definition of

courage. This addition may make the acts of courage exhibited by woman more


Courage and Sex-role Stereotypes

The implications of how to act in order to display the virtue of courage appear

to lean toward male sex role stereotypes. Men who have been socialized

accordingly have displayed the stereotypes over centuries. In the early 21st

century, in order to attain gender equality, it seems as if females have to

display courageous behaviors according to how men have defined them, rather than

modifying how one should act in order to manifest such. Historically, it

appears that Hinman’s definition of courage is applicable to how men have been

defining and displaying courage. It may be argued that the traditional role of

woman in the family and society is one that has been directed by men resulting

in the suppression of real female freedom and ability, and thus female


MacIntyre proposes that virtues are based on sources, gathered through

historical perspectives, allowing society to retrospect and then endeavor to

find standards of excellence based on such. These standards encourage

individuals to behave according to moral perspectives found in areas such as in

popular culture. Thus, different genders could have very different thoughts

about what is an issue of courage and, also have different perspectives on how

to deal with such issues (Csongradi).

Plurality Ethics

The discussion above highlights the relevance of Hinman’s plurality ethics. He

bases his pluralism on four principles. First is a principal of understanding

through a sincere desire to comprehend variance; we must embrace different

expressions of virtues regarding how such are defined by cultures and

sub-cultures. Second, by acceptance of the validity of different manifestations

of courage as a virtue in different sexes, diversity in such can be recognized

and Hinman’s principal of tolerance will be accommodated. Although, tolerance

appears to have a slightly negative connotation in that it implies an attitude

of putting up with something. Here, a principle of acknowledgement is possibly

more appropriate. Third, acceptance of multiplicity in the expression of courage

endorses its non-gender specific nature. Because courage is a virtue,

validating diversity in the expression of such will likely reinforce its

proliferation and, will apply to the principal of standing up against evil, and

perhaps help extinguish the vice of cowardice. Fourth, Hinman’s principle of

fallibility is relevant because, it has been the implication that a traditional

male conception of the dangerousness aspect in courage may be subtly lacking in

points of emotion and responsibility. Importantly, the realization of this

emotional facet in perception of danger will validate not only difference

feminism, but also related experiences faced by men. Today, although perhaps to

a decreasing extent, we live in a society wherein emotionality as a part of how

men experience fear and danger, and thus display courage, is inclined to be



It is apparent that courage is not a gender-specific virtue. In all aspects, for

courage to be expressed, males and females appear to be equally equipped. Both

sexes experience fear and are capable of assessing dangerous situations,

accurately or erroneously. Both sexes are involved in roles, which regularly

necessitate courage. When Plato wrote Republic he was not far off base as to

how the future would turn out. His ideas of a society that would share the

duties of the society with all of the members, not differentiating between men

and women, have been realized, for the most part, here in the United States. As

he suggested “Both men and women have the same natural ability for guarding a

community, and it’s just that women are innately weaker than men” (Plato1 168).

Nevertheless, Mariner maintains that there is a problem in not letting women

serve in combat situations based on loose notions of virtue and myths. She

sustains the belief that the only reason women are still segregated from the

military is because “…war is that of the warrior-protector: men protect

women, women don’t protect men” (Mariner 56). She concludes by saying, “A

person’s sex is irrelevant” (Mariner 61); and it certainly is in the matter of

courage and virtue.

Works Cited

Agonito, Rosemary. History of Ideas on Woman. New York; Capricorn Books.


Ahealthyme.com. Sleep Aids During Pregnancy.

18 Nov. 2001.

Aitkenson, R. L. et al. Introduction to Psychology (8th Ed.). San Diego;

Harcourt, 1983.

Csongradi, Carolyn. Factors Influencing The Way In Which Decisions Are Made:

Why Teach

Bioethics in the Classroom?.

. 15 Nov.

2001. 18 Nov. 2001.

Gardner, Paul. ed. New International Encyclopedia of Bible Characters: The


Who’s Who in the Bible. Grand Rapids; Zondervan. 1995.

Hinman, Lawerence. Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory (2nd Ed.).


Diego; Harcourt Brace College Publishers. 1998.

New Revised Standard Version: Study Bible. San Francisco; Harper Collins.


Mariner, Rosemary. A soldier is a soldier. JFQ. Winter 1993-1994.

20 Nov. 2001.

Plato1. Republic. Trans. Robin Waterfield. New York; Barnes and Nobles Books.


Plato2. Laches: On Manly Courage; A Study of Plato’s Laches. Trans. Walter


Schmid. Carbondale; Southern Illinois University Press. 1992.

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