Aristotle, the Greek philosopher and scientist, was born in Macedonia. He moved to Athens at about age 17 or 18 and became a student of philosophy under the tutelage of Plato. He remained in Athens for the next 20 years, where he continued his studies and became a teacher at Plato’s Academy. With the death of Plato in 347 B.C., Aristotle traveled to Asia Minor and counseled the ruler Hermias. He married Hermias’ adopted daughter Pythias, but was forced to flee to Lesbos, where he carried out research in zoology and marine biology, when Hermias was seized and executed by the Persians. In 343 or 342, Aristotle was called to Macedonia, where he tutored Philip II of Macedon’s son Alexander, who would later be known as Alexander the Great. About the time Alexander became ruler in Macedonia, Aristotle returned to Athens and founded his own school, the Lyceum, which for the next decade served as the center of Aristotle’s explorations into virtually every field of inquiry. In 323, following the death of Alexander, an anti-Macedonian movement gained power in Athens, and Aristotle was forced to retire to a family-owned estate in Euboea, where he died a year later.
Very few of Aristotle’s own writings survive today, although a large corpus of his lecture notes, most likely delivered orally and written down by students, exists in an edited arrangement prepared by the first-century B.C. editor Andronicus. This extensive body of thought includes treatments of almost all branches of philosophy, politics, and art. Some of the best known of these works are Physics, Metaphysics, On the Soul, Politics, Poetics, and the Nicomachean Ethics, dedicated to his son Nicomachus.
The Nicomachean Ethics, from which the selection in this volume is taken, is an exploration of the virtues of intellect and characte in relationship to happiness. In it, Aristotle formulates what is called the doctrine of the mean as applicable to virtues of character, exhibited in behavior: one should try to achieve the “mean” between opposing excesses. For example, to achieve the ideal of courage, one should try to seek the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness, a mean modified by one’s circumstances but nevertheless functioning as an intermediate between extremes. In this discussion of courage, from which the first selection is taken, Aristotle maintains that committing suicide to avoid pain or other undesirable circumstances is a cowardly act. In a later chapter, he further argues that suicide is unlawful and is an act committed against the interests of the state.
Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea, Book III, vii. 5-13, 1115a-1116a; Book V, xi, 1138a, ed. and tr. W. D. Ross. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1925, pp. 155-163, 317-319.
from NICOMACHEAN ETHICS
…it is for a noble end that the brave man endures and acts as courage directs…
The coward…is a despairing sort of person; for he fears everything. The brave man, on the other hand, has the opposite disposition; for confidence is the mark of a hopeful disposition. The coward, the rash man, and the brave man, then, are concerned with the same objects but are differently disposed towards 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 keen in the moment of action, but quiet beforehand.
As we have said, then, courage is a mean with respect to things that inspire confidence or fear, in the circumstances that have been stated; and it chooses or endures things because it is noble to do so, or because it is base not to do so. But to die to escape from poverty or love or anything painful is not the mark of a brave man, but rather of a coward; for it is softness to fly from what is troublesome, and such a man endures death not because it is noble but to fly from evil…
Whether a man can treat himself unjustly or not, is evident from what has been said. For (a) one class of just acts are those acts in accordance with any virtue which are prescribed by the law; e.g. the law does not expressly permit suicide, and what it does not expressly permit it forbids. Again, when a man in violation of the law harms another (otherwise than in retaliation) voluntarily, he acts unjustly, and a voluntary agent is one who knows both the person he is affecting by his action and the instrument he is using; and he who through anger voluntarily stabs himself does this contrary to the right rule of life, and this the law does not allow; therefore he is acting unjustly. But towards whom? Surely towards the state, not towards himself. For he suffers voluntarily, but no one is voluntarily treated unjustly. This is also the reason why the state punishes; a certain loss of civil rights attaches to the man who destroys himself, on the ground that he is treating the state unjustly.