Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics

Four Cardinal Virtues

I. Prudence

II. Temperance

III. Courage

IV. Justice

I. Prudence, also known as practical wisdom, is the most important virtue for Aristotle. In war, soldiers must fight with prudence by making judgments through practical wisdom. This virtue is a must to obtain because courage requires judgments to be made.

II. Temperance, or self-control, simply means moderation. Soldiers must display moderation with their enjoyment while at war in the midst of violent activities. Temperance concerning courage gives one moderation in private which leads to moderation in public.

III. Courage, the one we will focus on in this article, is “moderation or observance of the mean with respect to feelings of fear and confidence.” Courage is “observance of the mean with regard to things that excite confidence or fear, under the circumstances which we have specified, and chooses its course and sticks to its post because it is noble to do so, or because it is disgraceful not to do so.” Concerning warfare, Aristotle believes soldiers are morally significant and are military and political heroes. War is simply a stage for soldiers to display courage, and is the only way courage can be exemplified. Any other action by a human is simply them copying a soldier’s ways; they are not actually courageous.

IV. Justice means giving the enemy what is due to them in the proper ways; being just toward them. In other words, one must recognize what is good for the community and one must undertake a good course of action.

Vices of courage must also be identified which are cowardice and recklessness. Soldiers who are not prudent act with cowardice, and soldiers who do not have temperance act with recklessness. One should not be unjust toward their enemy no matter the circumstance. On another note, one becomes virtuous by first imitating another who exemplifies such virtuous characteristics, practicing such ways in their daily lives, turning those ways into customs and habits by performing them each and every day, and finally, connecting or uniting the four of them together.

Only soldiers can exemplify such virtues because war demands soldiers to exercise disciplined and firm virtues, but war does everything in its power to shatter the virtues it demands. Since virtues are very fragile, they must be practiced always, for if they are not practiced they will weaken and eventually disappear. One who is virtuous has to avoid the enemies of virtue which are indifference or persuasion that something should not be done, self-indulgence or persuasion that something can wait and does not need to be done at that moment, and despair or persuasion that something simply cannot be accomplished anyway. In order for one to be virtuous they must display prudence, temperance, courage, and justice; moreover, they have to display all four of them and not just one or two to be virtuous.

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