Is Courage a Masculine Virtue?

"Is Courage a Masculine Virtue?" In Character, Winter 2009.


Courage is not solely for men, but it is mainly for men. The Greek word for courage is andreia, which comes from he-man and also means manliness. The Greek philosopher Aristotle was, however, critical of the implication in his language that courage was for men only. He said something not so definite: men find it easier to be courageous than women, and women find it easier to be moderate than men.

We all know of courageous women unafraid to risk their lives in defense of a principle–Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for example. We know of many more women who would defend their children with their lives, the sort of action that made Rudyard Kipling say that “the female of the species is more deadly than the male.” And we know women who can rise to the occasion, overcoming their ordinary characters, like Grace Kelly’s Amy Kane in the film High Noon, a pacifist who shoots an outlaw who is about to shoot her man.

Aristotle makes this remark in the Politics because such inclinations are relevant to politicians who must know the natures of those they rule. But in the Ethics, he speaks of courage as a virtue and does not mention this sex difference. The reason is that virtues are not suggested to us but are demanded of us, and Aristotle does not want to give excuses for not being virtuous based on human weakness (you notice he impartially does not excuse men for being rowdy). The ethical way of treating this question is not so forgiving of women as the political way, which is more accommodating of their tender natures.

Giving women equal opportunity for displaying courage does no obvious harm if the need for courage remains clear. It would not be good to measure the amount of courage we need from the willingness of women to produce half of it. Less obvious harm might result from the loss of tenderness, and the loss of esteem for tenderness, in women.