Assumption behind the question: Kant variously divided the aesthetic types into two or three: the agreeable, the beautiful, and the sublime. Somewhere (in the SEP or IEP, I don't remember), I was reading about a similar division into five: the beautiful, the sublime, the tragic, the comical, and the horrible or ugly (I think). We assume here instead that every (family of) emotion has an "aesthetic interpolant," so that e.g. the interpolant affiliated with fear (historically, the sublime) is perhaps different from that affiliated with anger (though rage can be terrifying, we should note). In at least one case, that of saudade or love, we suppose that the emotion is its own interpolant (or something along that line, anyway).

Formulation of the question: If beauty is like pleasure or even happiness, but the sublime is fearsome, then does courage a priori consist in prioritizing the beauty of virtue over virtue's sublime aspects?R Assuming, that is, that neither of these two representations (the beautiful and the sublime) is "escapable," neither can be foregone from this scene because any moral theory will at least at some juncture face this specific priority problem (of a beautiful vs. a sublime (or worse) theorem, so to speak). If we must allow for duty's fearsome demeanor (betimes),A yet we ought to focus more on its joyful light, perhaps.

Put another way: is courage when joy triumphs over fear? There is a gleeful defiance of fear, the bliss of resistance. Hume at one point speaks of joy and courage "in the same breath":

...since the soul, when elevated with joy and courage, in a manner seeks opposition, and throws itself with alacrity into any scene of thought or action, where its courage meets with matter to nourish and employ it.

And Paul Tillich talks about a sort of ontological courage:

Courage is the self-affirmation of being in spite of the fact of non-being. It is the act of the individual self in taking the anxiety of non-being upon itself by affirming itself... in the anxiety of guilt and condemnation...

Kant himself does say something somewhere about being cheerful even in an imperfect world,K but he also cautioned against "enthusiasm" and overly heroicized portrayals of do-gooders (for his commentary on "enthusiasm," see the third Critique). Still, we can imagine finding the purest joy in the particular success we have in life, rather than in obsessing over vague magnitudes of general happiness from now to eternity. So even if the happiness that defeats horror is, as courage, pure unto extremity, this doesn't mean that those who achieve courage are performing a classically "heroic deed," and they are able to submit that their enthusiasm is not meant to influence public reason but only to animate their own other genuinely courageous actions for a personal (aesthetic) kind of reason.

Metaphorically speaking, does participating in the Form of Courage mean participating in the victory of the Form of the Beautiful over the Form of the Sublime, or the Form of Joy over that of Fear? How essential is the "combat imagery" of courage (as a thick ethical concept) to the intended representation of its nature, or can we yet abstract to a more general or alternative imagery if we really so wish, here?Z (For example, instead of representing the Forms of Good and Evil, say, as combatants, one might represent the Good as an inculpably abused romantic partner of Evil, and the moral narrative's outcome is that they "break up" as the Good learns to distrust Evil's wiles. And so how much courage does it indeed take to "break up" with someone, sometimes?)

RFor more on the general notion of a "priority problem" in ethics, see Kant's Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone and Rawls' A Theory of Justice.

ACuriously enough, Aquinas at one point debates whether it would be enough for the damned to suffer from fear of being burned forever, without being actually burned forever. He seems to conclude that actual burning is required, although he perhaps vacillates on this issue because he also seems to defend the possibility of eternal torment via intellectual, not just physical, vision.

KHe also says that we have a direct duty to support the happiness of others, and in some sense, at least sometimes, an indirect duty to support our own happiness. Debased fear of God and the moral law is not his ideal, so though Kant claims that the moral law is more sublime than beautiful, we should think either that he is wrong about that, or that the sublime is not always fearsome (perhaps this is awe), or something else along these lines (his subtle thesis is that fearsomeness occasions sublimity, but that sublimity in itself is a sort of aesthetic disclosure of the awesome, or at least awful, infinity of reason in comparison with the imagination, so that faculty-dynamically, fearsome objects are not themselves sublime but the feeling of the sublime is itself the courage that transcends the image of fear, here).

ZOne might differentiate between, "Which combat imagery is appropriate to the narrative of courage?" and, "Is any combat imagery appropriate to that narrative as such?" and so find that I am asking two questions at once, here. However, if one denies that combat imagery is appropriate to the "pure (a priori) story" of courage, one will deny that courage is when some good thing "triumphs over" something evil. In other words, then, though, the appearance of two different questions, here, elides the fact that they can have equivalent answers: saying, "None," to, "Which," is equivalent to saying, "No," to the "second" question.

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    Reminds me of the story about WW2 General Norman Cota - "I'll show you how to take a house with Germans in it."
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Feb 12 at 11:48
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    You may find interesting the incident of the 19th century mystic-saint Ramakrishna when he as a young boy seeing white cranes flying against the black clouds is so overwhelmed by the beauty that he passed out... and into samadhi
    – Rushi
    Commented Feb 13 at 6:19

1 Answer 1


It is, if a philosopher says it is. On the other hand, it isn't if another philosopher says it isn't. By this I mean that there is no "right answer" to that question, especially since Kant himself cannot sit down with us today and define his terms and explain what the heck he meant.

Note for completeness that it is also possible for the two philosophers mentioned above to be the same person.

  • Although this is a "grim" answer, I appreciate it. I suppose my question is whether things that various commentators (philosophically minded as they may be) have said about courage, when summed up and subjected to deductive reasoning, would have as an implication that when we try to situate courage and the sublime, we find this imagery of some sort of victory in play. But I also have in mind the aporia from the Laches, or a curiosity for an idea implicit in Rawls AToJ, where we try to find principles of other virtues besides justice, e.g. courage. Commented Feb 13 at 1:24

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