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xinyan jiang



This article discusses Confucius’s view of courage in comparison

with Aristotle’s and Neo-Confucians’. It proposes the following argu-
ments: (i) Confucius’s conception of courage is much broader than
Aristotle’s, since it does not confine courage to the category of
martial virtue and moral excellence that presupposes a noble motive;
(ii) both Confucius’s and Aristotle’s conceptions of courage hold that
courage is concerned with the fear of external threats but not the
strength in self-improvement as Neo-Confucians have proposed; and
(iii) Confucius’s conception of courage is more relevant and signifi-
cant than Aristotle’s and Neo-Confucians’ to contemporary life.

This article discusses Confucius’s view of courage in comparison with

Aristotle’s and Neo-Confucians’. It proposes the following argu-
ments. First, Confucius’s conception of courage is much broader than
Aristotle’s, since it does not confine courage to the category of martial
virtue and moral excellence that presupposes a noble motive. Con-
fucius regards courage as both a martial and civic virtue and allows
the possibility for courage to serve evil, although for him courage
possessed by a truly virtuous person ( junzi ) is necessarily good.
Second, both Confucius’s and Aristotle’s conceptions of courage hold
that courage is concerned with the fear of external threats, but not
strength in self-improvement as Neo-Confucians have proposed.
There is no textual evidence that Confucius regards steadfastness in
pursuing self-perfection as courage. Third, Confucius’s conception of
courage is more relevant and significant than Aristotle’s and Neo-
Confucians’ to contemporary life, especially in those societies where
great social change and political reform are urgently needed. Aristo-
telian courage has become less important, given less frequency
of wars and more application of high technology in military act.
The Neo-Confucian view of courage advocates more inward self-
examination but not more challenges against abusive power and

XINYAN JIANG, Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Redlands.

Specialties: Chinese philosophy, comparative philosophy, ethics. E-mail: xinyan_jiang@
Journal of Chinese Philosophy 39:1 (March 2012) 44–59
© 2012 Journal of Chinese Philosophy
confucius’s view of courage 45

social injustice. Only the courage of Confucius’s junzi that enables

one to face external threats for what is right encourages more
outward moral, political, and social critique and change.


In our time, “courage” as a virtue is often defined in a very broad

sense. Courage that we understand today does not exclude bravery
displayed in military actions, but its emphasis is more on moral
strength to risk what one holds dearly such as life, career, reputation,
friendship, fortune, etc., for what is right under nonmilitary circum-
stances. However, Aristotle’s conception of courage is much nar-
rower. It does not cover the cases of bravery in nonmilitary situations.
This is clearly demonstrated by what he says below:
Now we fear all evils, e.g., disgrace, poverty, disease, friendlessness,
death, but brave man is not thought to be concerned with
all; . . . With what sort of terrible things, then, is the brave man con-
cerned? Surely with the greatest; for no one is more likely than he to
stand his ground against what is dreadful. Now death is the most
terrible of all things; for it is the end, and nothing is thought to be any
longer either good or bad for the dead. But the brave man would not
seem to be concerned even with death in all circumstances, e.g., at sea
or in disease. In what circumstances, then? Surely in the noblest. Now
such deaths are those in battle; for these take place in the greatest
and noblest danger.1

Obviously, typical Aristotelian courage is confined to the field of

battle.2 Given such a narrowly defined concept of courage, it has been
suggested that the term “valor” is a better translation of Aristotle’s
courage than “courage” or “bravery.”3 Furthermore, Aristotelian con-
ception of courage requires noble motivation. For Aristotle, a coura-
geous person must be the one who risks his life on the field of battle
for the sake of what is noble.4 What is noble is what is right. When one
does something for the sake of the noble, he does it not for pleasure
or usefulness but for rightness.5 “For the sake of the noble” is a
necessary condition of Aristotelian courage.6
Aristotle distinguishes true courage from five forms of pseudo-
courage. The following five kinds only resemble true courage but not
true courage itself.The first is “the courage of citizens” that looks most
like true courage. The person who has such a kind courage stands firm
against great danger due to the sense of shame. More specifically, such
a person acts “courageously” with the aim of avoiding reproaches and
legal penalty and of winning honor not for the sake of the noble.7 The
second is “the courage of experience and expertise.” The person who
46 xinyan jiang

has such a kind of courage stands firm against great danger due to the
fact that he knows that he is not really in danger since his skill can
help him get out from the danger. The valor of a professional soldier
may be a case of this kind of courage.8 The third kind is “the courage
of emotion.” The person who possesses such a kind of courage stands
firm against great danger due to irrational feeling such as love or
anger. When one is in love or anger, he can face great danger fear-
lessly, for passion is beside him. Once his emotion is under control, he
will be no longer able to face great danger firmly. Children and
animals can have this kind of courage.9 The fourth kind is “the
courage of hope.” The person who has such a kind of courage stands
firm against great danger due to the fact that he disbelieves that he is
in danger and believes that nothing really bad could happen to him.
Once the thing turns out differently than he has expected, he will flee.
Drunks often have this kind of courage.10 The fifth kind is “the
courage of ignorance.” The person who has such a kind of courage
stands firm against great danger due to the fact that he does not know
he is in danger since he is inexperienced and ignorant. When he
realizes that he is in danger, he will run away. In all of these five cases,
the agent is not truly courageous, because either he does not act from
a noble motive, does not actually face great danger, or does not realize
his being in great danger.
Briefly speaking, Aristotelian courage is both a martial and moral
virtue. Furthermore, this means that Aristotelian courage is a unity of
a physical and mental quality that is required for one to stand firm
against great danger.
Unlike Aristotle’s, Confucius’s conception of courage is defined in
a much broader sense. This is shown in two aspects: (i) it has both
military and civilian meanings, and emphasizes the latter more; and
(ii) it does not make a moral motive a necessary condition for courage
per se, although it entails that courage is a necessary condition for
being a junzi.
Compared with Neo-Confucians, Confucius has given more signifi-
cance to courage in human life. As is well known, courage is one of
three cardinal virtues of Confucius’s junzi.11 Confucius says: “The way
of junzi is threefold; . . . Those who are wise are free from perplexi-
ties; those who are humane (ren ) are free from anxiety; those who
are courageous are free from fear.”12 “Junzi” has a broad meaning
that refers to both military and nonmilitary persons of virtue.
However, the image of Confucian junzi is usually associated with a
person of letters more than a military man. The courage of junzi is
connected with doing what is right at great risk. Courage enables a
junzi to do what is right when doing so means risking what he holds
dearly such as life, career, friends, etc.Without courage, one will not be
confucius’s view of courage 47

able to do what is right under such circumstances. Therefore, courage

is a necessary condition for being a junzi. As Whalen Lai has pointed
out, courage is the ability to do what one ought to do.13 When one
realizes what is right but does not dare to do it, one does not have
courage. As Confucius famously put it: “Faced with what is right, to
leave it undone shows a lack of courage” (Jianyi buwei, wuyong ye.
, ).14 Clearly, in this context, courage that Confucius
talks about does not have to be displayed on the battlefield but can be
shown on any occasion where doing what is right requires risking
something that one holds dearly. To a great degree, such an under-
standing of courage has anticipated in the later Confucian conception
of great courage or courage of shi junzi .15 Xunzi summarizes
the courage of shi junzi as follows: “To do what is right regardless of
power or profit: even if to be offered the entire state on the condition
that he gives up rightness, he will not be wavered in upholding right-
ness. He treasures his life, but is persistent in doing what is right even
if at the cost of life. That is the courage of shi junzi.”16 Confucius does
not explicitly propose the concept of courage of junzi or shi junzi, but
his saying about giving up one’s life to achieve humanity (sha shen
cheng ren ) well expresses the highest degree of Confucian
moral courage.17
Although Confucian junzi’s courage is necessarily morally good
and high moral achievement, Confucius does not define courage per
se as a virtue that requires a moral motive. This is another difference
between Confucius’s and Aristotle’s conceptions of courage. For Con-
fucius, to be a junzi, one must be courageous, but to be courageous
does not entail one’s being a junzi. “Those who are humane are
definitely courageous; but those who are courageous are not neces-
sarily humane.”18 Here “humane” (ren) refers to the total of virtue or
perfect virtue,19 and a person of ren is a junzi who is virtuous. What he
is saying is that a virtuous person or a junzi is certainly courageous
(otherwise he cannot be so virtuous that he always is able to do what
is right), but a person who is courageous does not necessarily possess
other virtues. Courage as a virtue is a desirable human quality, but,
when it is not guided by other virtues, it may serve bad purposes.20 A
junzi needs it in order to do what is right, but a small person (xiaoren
) who is not morally good may use it to do what is not right. That
is why Confucius suggests that courage must be subordinated to other
virtues. For him, without other virtues, one’s courage will lead to
morally undesirable consequences. As he put it, “To love courage
without loving learning is liable to lead to insubordination”;21
“. . . without propriety, courage of a man will lead to insubordina-
tion”;22 “Those who love courage and hate poverty would be
insubordinate.”23 Clearly, Confucius does not consider courage as
48 xinyan jiang

significant as some other virtues such as rightness, propriety, and

humanity. By contrast, Aristotle regards courage as an independent
virtue that is as important as other virtues, since his conception of
courage is more strictly morally defined.


Although Aristotle’s and Confucius’s conceptions of courage are

greatly different as discussed above, they do share something signifi-
cant. They both agree that courage is a desirable quality in dealing
with fear and that fearful things that courage is concerned with are
external in the sense that they are from other people and forces
outside oneself. In this aspect, Confucius’s conception of courage
is closer to Aristotle’s than to that of those Neo-Confucians who
take courage as the strength needed for internal self-criticism and
For Aristotle, courage is obviously concerned with fear, because the
courageous person is dealing with the most fearful thing but does not
fear excessively. Aristotle is well known for claiming that courage is a
mean that is concerned with both action and feeling. As far as feelings
are concerned, courage is the mean about feelings of fear and confi-
dence. More specifically, courage is a mean between excessive fear
and deficient fear, and a mean between excessive confidence and
efficient confidence. Courage is concerned with both fear and confi-
dence, but concerned more with fear.24 A courageous person has
appropriate fear and appropriate confidence. Namely, he both fears
and is confident when he ought to, and in this sense he reaches a
mean, or he is confident or fears as reason bids him.25 The truly brave
person will risk his life only if reason indicates what is noble and
worthy requires him to do so. What a courageous person fears with
appropriate amount can only be death in a just war, given his confin-
ing courage to the battlefield. Obviously, the Aristotelian courageous
agent is the one who deals with the greatest external threat—possible
death caused by his enemy on the battlefield, but not something
internal such as selfish desires inside.
For Confucius, courage is clearly concerned with fear as well. This is
explicitly expressed when he said “those who are courageous are free
from fear” (yong zhe bu ju ). No matter how one interprets
“free from fear ” (bu ju), at least one has to admit that for Confucius,
courage has something to do with fear in the sense that the coura-
geous person is not overcome or disturbed by fear. But, what does
Confucius means by “bu ju” when he says “yong zhe bu ju”? Does he
literally mean that a courageous person has no feeling of fear at all?
confucius’s view of courage 49

Having fear is usually considered a precondition for being coura-

geous. As David Pears has argued, if one has no fear, one will have
nothing to face and therefore cannot be courageous.26 Courage is
commonly regarded as a matter of overcoming fear and standing firm
against what is fearful. When courage is so understood, a courageous
agent is not one who is psychologically fearless but one who is not
emotionally perturbed by fear or one who is at least able to control
fear. Although we do not have to infer that courage must be a form of
self-control,27 it seems that we have to say that a courageous person
has a certain amount of fear, no matter whether she needs to control
it or not in order to act courageously.28
However, we may consider that Confucius’s saying “yong zhe bu
ju” is compatible with the view that courage requires the presence
of fear, because it might mean that in general the courageous agent
acts fearlessly in the sense that she shows no hesitation in facing
what is truly fearful and her fear does not perturb her and interfere
with her decision and action. According to psychologist S. J.
Rachman, there are three main components of fear: (i) the subjec-
tive experience of apprehension, (ii) associated psychophysiological
changes, and (iii) attempts to avoid or escape from fearful situations.
These three components often fail to correspond. The second and
the third components do not necessarily accompany the first. Some
people feel frightened but remain calm outwardly and make no
attempt to avoid danger, and even have none of the expected psy-
chophysiological correlates of fear such as perspiring, trembling, or
increased heart rate.29 When fear is understood in this way, fear nec-
essarily involves emotional distress, though it does not necessarily
involve outward attempts to flee and physiological reactions. We
probably could assume that a courageous person who is fearless has
experience of the first component of fear described above, i.e., the
experience of apprehension accompanied by a certain degree of
distress, but does not have the second and third component of
fear, namely she does not have obvious physiological changes and
outward attempts to flee or quit. So, she can face what is truly
fearful without showing any hesitation and act as if she has no fear
at all.
Linguistically, in Chinese yong zhe bu ju does not have to mean that
the courageous person psychologically has no fear. It might mean that
the courageous person shows no fear.Very often, in Chinese language,
we say that someone is “a fearless solider” or “fearless before enemy.”
When we say these, we do not mean that, psychologically, one abso-
lutely has no fear. What we really mean is that one behaves fearlessly,
that is, no matter whether one has fear or not at the moment of action,
she shows no fear in her action. Actually, some Aristotelian scholars
50 xinyan jiang

have given similar interpretations to Aristotle’s saying “the coura-

geous person is fearless.”30
However, by “yong zhe bu ju,” Confucius might truly mean that
under certain circumstances the courageous agent feels no fear at the
moment of her courageous action. We should not take it for granted
that feeling fear is a precondition for being courageous. Perhaps, only
perceiving or recognizing danger or risk is a precondition for being
courageous. However, perceiving or recognizing danger or risk does
not necessarily cause feeling of fear. It is logically possible for one to
know danger or risk but does not feel fear. Therefore, the courageous
agent may indeed feel no fear under certain circumstances.
The situations in which the courageous agent does not feel fear
when he acts courageously are often emergency situations such as
rescuing a human life from great danger. As we may all know, in
emergency cases that could occur in both daily life and military acts,
great courage is called for and quick actions of courageous agents are
required. In these cases, courageous agents face immediate danger
and their choice between life and death (at least possible death) must
be made within a very short time. For example, when a hero throws
himself on a grenade which is about to explode to save many lives, his
decision is made and action is taken within a second. Similarly, when
a courageous person risks his own life to save a child who is caught in
fire or attacked by a wild animal, he must act very quickly in order to
save the child.
In such cases, the courageous agents concentrate their thought on
what has to be done and do it without thinking much about the
dangers they put themselves in by doing what they are doing. Given
our understanding of fear discussed earlier, we cannot see any sign of
fear in such courageous agents.As a matter of fact, very often, they act
spontaneously without feeling fear. In cases of emergency, spontane-
ous actions are not rare but very typical.
An example used by Mike W. Martin may illustrate that the cou-
rageous person in such a case may act spontaneously without feeling
fear and without taking time to deliberate much. According to
Martin’s description, when a person named Gregory Ysais heard a
mother’s frantic screams and found a mountain lion was attacking a
girl, he ran, without any hesitation, to fight against the mountain lion
and saved the girl. Ysais later reported that he was not thinking
about danger but just how to save the girl. He said, “I didn’t give it
much thought. I just heard people crying for help, and I just ran as
fast as I could. I was just doing what I had to do. I couldn’t think of
anything else.”31 In this case, the agent acted spontaneously. The
only thought he had was to save that child. He even did not feel
confucius’s view of courage 51

Of course, in some emergency situations, courageous agents may

think of danger to themselves for a moment but their thought is
focused on what should be done. Their thought of their own safety is
too weak or fast to make them hesitate to face danger. A heroic
soldier might think of his death when he threw himself on the muzzle
of the heavy machine gun stretched out from an enemy’s blockhouse
for the sake of victory, but he did not fear his death. What he really
thought most was that the gun must be stopped. Therefore he did not
hesitate to face death. The agent does what he does, not because he
succeeds in controlling his fear and overcoming his desire to avoid
danger, but because he does not fear and does not desire to avoid
danger due to his being concentrated on desired goals.
The courageous exhibited in these situations may be called “spon-
taneous courage.”32 Although spontaneous courage could be dis-
played in some nonemergency situations,33 the paradigm of such
courage is the one exhibited in emergency situations.34 The agents
who display spontaneous courage are truly courageous. It seems
implausible to deny their courageousness simply because they do not
feel fear at the moment of their action. They do know the danger in
which they are getting into and the risk that they are taking although
they may not think much about them when they act courageously. At
the moment of action, such courageous agents perceive what should
be done without much reasoning and act upon their judgment about
what should be done. For example, in those cases in which such
courageous agents are trying to save others’ lives, their concern for
safety of others is much stronger than their concern for their own
safety; they temporarily silence their knowledge of the danger to
themselves.35 Their forgetting their own safety at the moment of
action is not due to their ignorance but due to their moral achieve-
ment. Spontaneity of moral action is the mark of a high degree of
moral perfection. The more virtuous, the less difficult one will feel in
taking virtuous actions. When doing what is virtuous has been so
internalized in oneself that one feels very natural in doing so, very
often one might just act virtuously without much deliberation. That is
why a courageous junzi will be able to act courageously and sponta-
neously or almost spontaneously when the circumstances such as
emergency situations require acting as such. Her spontaneously or
almost spontaneously courageous actions are results of a long-term
moral cultivation.36 In short, spontaneous courage that does not
require the presence of fear does exist. When it is used for moral
purpose, it is highly admirable.
If the above discussion on “those who are courageous are free from
fear” is plausible, we may conclude that, for Confucius, a courageous
person is one who faces great danger or risk without being emotion-
52 xinyan jiang

ally perturbed by fear. Furthermore, the courageous person may take

courageous actions spontaneously without feeling fear under certain
circumstances such as emergency situations. When the courage as
such is possessed by a junzi, it will enable him to do what is right
without hesitation.
Another issue related to interpreting Confucius’s saying “yong zhe
bu ju” is the explanation of what kind of fear from that a courageous
person is free. There are different understandings of it. I am arguing
that in this sentence by “fear” Confucius only refers to the fear of
external threats but not something caused by one’s inner self. To
understand what Confucius means better in the context, we may first
examine the exemplary person of courage that Confucius praises in
the Analects. Bian Zhuangzi is mentioned by Confucius as such a
human being, when he replies to Zilu about how to become a perfect
person. Here is the conversation:
Zilu asked about the way to be a perfect person.
The Master replied: “If one is as wise as Zang Wuzhong, has as few
desires as Gong Chuo, is courageous as Bian Zhuangzi, and talented
and skillful as Ran Qiu, plus the mastery of ritual and music, he will
be a perfect person.”37

Here, obviously, for Confucius, the courage of Bian Zhuangzi is what

one ought to have. The fear that Bian Zhuangzi is free from is the fear
that a typical courageous person is free from. Bian Zhuangzi was a
famous warrior of Lu, who was best known for fighting against two
tigers and killing many enemies on the battlefield.38 Clearly, the fear
that he is free from is the fear of possible death caused by human
enemy and beasts. Therefore, the fear that a courageous person like
him is free from is the fear of external threats. Furthermore, in the
Analects, Confucius often takes Zilu as someone courageous although
he does not think that Zilu’s courage is always appropriate. However,
it is well agreed that Zilu is a warrior-like person whose boldness is
always toward external threats as well.
However, to say that courage is about dealing with external threats
is not the same as to say that courage is only concerned with what is
physically fearful from outside. When Confucius says “Faced with
what is right, to leave it undone shows a lack of courage,” he could not
mean that only physical threats such as bodily injury or death are
things that frighten those who fail to do what is right. Threats such as
the possible lose of career opportunities, good reputation, friendship,
wealth, etc., are all external—caused by forces outside oneself,
although they are not physical. For Confucius, courage to do the right
thing requires firmly facing both physical and nonphysical threats
from outside.
confucius’s view of courage 53

In the existing literature on Confucius, it has been argued that the

courageous person that Confucius talks about is one who has no fear
of internal examination or no fear of punishment by his own con-
science, because he does not do anything really wrong.39 The textual
evidence for this interpretation of the fearlessness of a courageous
person understood by Confucius seems to rely on the following
Sima Niu asked about Junzi.
The Master said: “A junzi has neither anxiety nor fear.”
Sima Niu asked: “If one has neither anxiety nor fear, he is a junzi,
isn’t he?”
The Master said: “If one finds nothing wrong inside by self-
examination, what will he worry about or afraid of?”40
But this conversation does not show that “fear” in this context is the
same as “fear” in “those who are courageous are free from fear.”
There are many kinds of fears only some of which are relevant to
courage. Confucius has never said that as long as one is free from
some kind of fear, he must be courageous. The fearlessness mentioned
in the conversation above is the peace of mind resulted from internal
moral examination, while the fearlessness that a courageous person
such as Bian Zhuangzi exhibits concerns external threats such as loss
of life, etc. There is no textual evidence to indicate that Confucius
considers these two kinds of fearlessness the same. On the contrary,
his taking Bian Zhuangzi as the paradigm of the courageous person
shows that he believes that courageous agents are fearless in the face
of great external threats.
It was Neo-Confucians in the Song-Ming period but not Confucius
who connected courage with internal self-criticism and self-
correction.41 When the Song-Ming Neo-Confucians regarded Yan Hui
as the exemplary person of great courage,42 they shifted the focus of
courage from standing firm against external threats to standing firm
against internal flaws such as selfish desires or old habits. Several
Neo-Confucians made the similar point. Cheng Yi argued that no one
is more courageous than Yan Hui, because he did his best at becoming
a sage like Shun.43 Zhu Xi says that Yan Hui seems to be soft and weak
but actually has great courage.44 Lu Xiangshan thought that Yan Hui
deserves praise for having “great courage.” For him, correcting oneself
needs courage, and sages are not flawless but have courage to do
self-correction and improvement.45 Wang Yangming also believed that
it is impossible for one to hold one’s moral character without being
affected by external force if one does not have the greatest courage.46
As it has been pointed out, connecting Yan Hui with courage indi-
cates that Neo-Confucian courage is a theoretical creation.47 For the
54 xinyan jiang

Song-Ming Neo-Confucians, courage is almost the same as determi-

nation in pursuing sagehood and steadfastness in self-improvement.
Although the tendency toward this kind of understanding of courage
in the Confucian tradition has already appeared in The Doctrine of
the Mean in which there is a saying “Knowing what is shameful is
almost the same as being courageous,”48 in the Analects Confucius
does not interpret courage in this direction. Despite Confucius indeed
said “One should keep the sense of shame in the mind when he
conducts oneself” (Xing ji you chi ),49 he never linked that to
courage, just as no matter how much he praised Yan Hui, he never
took Yan Hui as an exemplary person of great courage. Given the
difference between Confucius’s and Neo-Confucians’ conceptions of
courage, Neo-Confucians actually erased “courage” understood by
Confucius from the list of cardinal virtues of junzi, that is, no longer
regarded courage that is concerned with the fear of external threats as
a virtue that a junzi must have. Although there is some connection
between determination in self-improvement and courageously facing
external threats, they are not the same. To identify the latter with the
former is to deny courage as a unique and significant virtue on its own
right. Some may think that the Neo-Confucian conception of courage
fits contemporary life better since we no longer often face external
threats that call for the courage of Confucius’s junzi. But, I am arguing
otherwise in the next section.


As has been discussed, for Confucius, courage is not a privilege of

junzi, but the courage possessed by junzi is always morally significant.
In contemporary life, it is such a kind of courage—the courage of
junzi—that is still greatly and constantly needed and highly admi-
rable. Although Aristotelian courage as a martial virtue has become
less significant in more peaceful and more high-tech societies today,
the courage of Confucius’s junzi that enables one to face various
external threats for the rightness is in demand as much as in the past,
especially in those societies where injustice overwhelmingly prevails.
Such courage, on the one hand, unlike military courage, can be equally
associated with men and women, therefore is not subject to contem-
porary feminist criticism of male-biased concept of courage;50 and on
the other hand, it is needed more than that of Neo-Confucianism
since it encourages more outward moral, political, and social critique
and change.
Although Neo-Confucian courage of self-criticism and self-
correction is definitely desirable, and to a certain degree it can help
confucius’s view of courage 55

develop one’s ability to face danger or other risk from outside, it

encourages more inward examination than outward actions against
injustice and oppression. In a world in which injustice, corruption, and
violence are still part of reality, even prevail in many places, the
courage to face external threats for what is right is more urgently
needed than the strength in self-improvement (Neo-Confucian
courage). In those places where abuse of power is severe, abusive
rulers will be frightened if many people courageously stand up to
challenge their authorities, but they would not fear much if people
internally examine themselves and criticize themselves more. Self-
examination and self-criticism may lead one to realize that she needs
to be more courageous in standing up against injustice, but strength in
self-improvement cannot replace the courage that enables one to
firmly face external threats for what is right. Since self-improvement
can go in many different directions, one’s strength in self-
improvement does not necessarily lead to the ability to face external
threats. To regard the strength in self-improvement as the greatest
courage is to deny courage understood by Confucius as a genuine
virtue and downplay its significance in human life. Furthermore,
without significantly improving unjust and corrupt social environ-
ment, self-improvement that is aimed at sagacity can only be practiced
by few exceptional individuals, and cannot effectively enhance the
level of morality in society. For so many hundred years, without
changing social and political systems in China, although Neo-
Confucian doctrine had been accepted by the Chinese ruling class,
almost no ruler was truly benevolent and there were only very few
scholars who were close to the Confucian ideal of sage.51 This
has shown that teaching of self-perfection advocated by Neo-
Confucianism cannot prevail without reforming social and political
systems in those societies where such reforms are urgently needed.
Social and political reforms require the courage of Confucius’s
junzi. In those contemporary societies where social and political
reforms are in great demand, not only direct actions toward social and
political reforms are risky, even telling the truth, criticizing secular or
religious authorities sometimes mean risking one’s life and freedom.
In these places courage to face external threats for what is right may
be spoken least but needed most. In other contemporary societies,
although there are fewer occasions on which doing what is right
requires risking one’s life (e.g., fighting against a criminal or a beast to
save someone’s life, or rescuing someone from natural or man-made
disasters), there are still often situations in which standing by moral
principles such as justice requires one to risk one’s career, reputation,
social status, and even friendship or family relationship. One who
takes such risks is not concerned with fears of internal flaws but of
56 xinyan jiang

external threats that may take away what she holds dear. No matter
which society we are living in, we all have occasions to test our
courage of this kind.52
Courage of this kind is not outdated in contemporary life at all.
Such courage is demanded everywhere. Confucius has famously criti-
cized those who have no courage to stand by moral principle but only
try to please everyone around him. He calls such persons “good
villagers” (xiangyuan ).53 Many people feel that today there are
even more “good villagers” and courage is in more demand than in
the past. For example, according to a recent survey conducted in
Taiwan, 50.9% of people think that Taiwan citizens are less morally
and socially courageous than ten years ago,54 57.7% think that Taiwan
politicians do not have enough courage to carry out their policy,55
5.6% believe that people in Taiwan in general are very courageous in
defending social justice.56 It has been worried that courage is a quality
that is disappearing in Taiwan: less and less people are able to do what
is right under great pressure to do otherwise; it is getting harder and
harder not to be “good villagers” but stand out for justice.57 The
similar worry does not exist in Taiwan alone. In the United States,
people have increasingly paid more attention to the issue of courage
as well. As Rushworth M. Kidder and Martha Bracy have observed,
“It’s also a term that appears to be growing in public favor, at least
across American culture early in the twenty-first century. Where a
casual mention of the need for ethics brings knowing nods, a mention
of the need for moral courage can bring people to their feet in enthu-
siastic agreement.”58
As long as doing what is right involves great risk in societies,
courage to face external treats is needed. The worse a society is, the
more difficult one becomes courageous, and the greater demand there
is for courage. If more people have courage to be morally right, our
society will be a much better place. It is because very few people are
courageous that there is often silence or nonresistance when unfair-
ness and injustice occur and when the weak and powerless are bullied.
It is very hard to have courage, especially courage to be moral, but
courage is indispensable for good life and just society. Therefore,
courage is one of the most admirable virtues in both ancient and our
own time. Winston Churchill once said, “Courage is rightly esteemed
the first of human qualities . . . because it is the quality which guaran-
tees all others.”59 Although Confucius might not agree with him com-
pletely, at least he would say that without courage there is no junzi
who exemplifies virtue.

Redlands, California
confucius’s view of courage 57


The earlier and shorter version of this article, entitled “What Is Courage—A Comparative
Study of Confucius’ and Aristotle’s Views,” was presented at the 17th International
Conference on Chinese Philosophy organized by the International Society for Chinese
Philosophy in Paris, July 4–8, 2011. I would like to thank the audience at the conference,
especially Dr. Richard King and Mr. David Machek, for their helpful questions and
discussions. My special appreciation goes to Professor Chung-ying Cheng, Dr. Linyu Gu,
and an anonymous reviewer for their valuable comments and suggestions on the latest
draft of this article. In addition, I also would like to thank everyone who commented on
my unpublished article, “Confucius on Courage,” which was written around 1999 and
slightly overlapped with the current article. Their criticisms and suggestions on that article
greatly helped me rethink Confucius’s view of courage and produce a new article on the
same topic.
1. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (NE), 1115a10-30, trans. W. D. Ross (revised by J. O.
Urmson), in The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, Vol. II,
Bollingen Series LXXI 2, ed. Jonathan Barnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1984), 1760.
2. For a more detailed discussion, see Xinyan Jiang,“Courage and the Aristotelian Unity
of Action and Passion,” Philosophical Inquiry 22 (2000): 24.
3. J. O. Urmson, Aristotle’s Ethics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988), 63.
4. NE, 1115a10-13.
5. Sarah Broadie, Ethics with Aristotle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 92.
6. Xinyan Jiang, Courage, Passion, and Virtue (PhD diss., University of Cincinnati, 1994;
Ann Arbor: U.M.I., Order No. 9520101, 1995), 18.
7. See NE, 1116a8-35, and Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics (EE), 1229a12, 1230a16-30. The
edition of EE that I rely on is the one translated by J. Solomon in Jonathan Barnes,
ed., The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, Vol. II, Bol-
lingen Series LXXI 2 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).
8. NE, 1116b5-20; EE, 1130a13-14, 1129a13-16.
9. NE, 1116b23-1117a6; EE, 1229a21-30.
10. NE, 1117a8-20; EE, 1229a19-20.
11. There have been discussions of whether Confucius considers courage a virtue. For
example, Manyul Im has argued that courage presented in the Analects is not a virtue
at all but something instrumental to the pursuit of virtuous ends. Some others disagree
with him. Their counterarguments include, but not limited to, that Confucius indeed
lists courage along with other virtues, and that a virtue could be used for bad ends, but
it characteristically makes people better. For their detailed arguments, see Manyul
Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog at http://manyulim.wordpress.com/2008/01/25/
courage-yong- -a-confucian-virtue (accessed August 26, 2011). Richard King has
questioned whether Confucius has a concept of virtue, given the way in which “virtue”
is understood in the Aristotelian sense (he made the point during our conversation on
Confucius’s conception of courage). In this article, I do not intend to get into the
debate in the existing literature over whether courage in Confucianism is virtue or
whether Confucius regards it as a virtue, but I will consider courage a virtue in a
broader sense than that defined by Aristotle, namely, regard it as a desirable quality
that in general helps human flourishing. It is courage but not cowardice that more
benefits human beings. I believe that Confucius would not disagree with this. For him,
although courage needs to be guided by yi and li , it is still a desirable quality in
12. Analects, 14: 29. My translation. Some other translations are referred. All my trans-
lations are made from the Analects in Zhu Xi, ed., Sishu Jizhu (Changsha:
Yuelu Shushe, 1985). Unless indicated otherwise, all references to the Analects are by
book and passage numbers, following the ordering of passages in the Zhu Xi edition.
13. Whalen Lai, “Yung and the Tradition of Shih,” Religion Study 21 (1985): 201.
14. Analects, 2: 24. Confucius’ Analects, trans. D. C. Lau (London: Penguin Books, 1979),
58 xinyan jiang

15. “Shi junzi” refers to a junzi who is also is a shi—a scholar or scholar-official.
16. My translation. Some other translations are referred.
17. See the Analects, 15: 9 where Confucius says: “A man with high ideals or purposes and
a man of humanity will never save his life at the cost of humanity; he may give up his
life for fulfilling humanity” (Zhishi renren, wu qiusheng yi hairen, you shashen yi
chengren. , , ).
18. Ibid., 14: 5. My translation.
19. According to Feng Youlan (Fung Yu-lan), “ren” may refer to “loving others,” or “the
perfect virtue” or “the total of virtue.” See Fung Yu-lan, A Short History of Chinese
Philosophy (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1948), 42–43.
20. See note 7 for my argument for why courage should be considered a virtue, although
it sometimes may serve a bad purpose.
21. Analects, 17: 8. Lau’s translation. See Lau, 145.
22. Ibid., 8: 2. My translation.
23. Ibid., 8: 10. My translation. Others’ translations are referred.
24. NE, 1117a30-34.
25. EE, 1229a5.
26. David Pears, “Courage as a Mean,” in Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, ed. Amelie Oksen-
bery Rorty (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 178.
27. For a more detailed argument on the view that sometimes genuine courage is not a
form of self-control, see Xinyan Jiang, “Courage and Self-Control,” in The Proceed-
ings of the Twenty-First World Congress of Philosophy,Vol. 1 (Ethics), eds. Harun Tepe
and Stephen Voss (Ankara: Philosophical Society of Turkey, 2007), 59–62.
28. The third person singular pronoun “he” is used in all discussion of the original texts
of Aristotle and Confucius, while “she” is used in other context.
29. S. J. Rachman, Fear and Courage, 2nd ed. (New York: W.H. Freeman and Company,
1990), 3.
30. In general, Aristotle emphasizes that the courageous person has the medial fear that
is neither too much nor too little but appropriate in a given situation. See NE,
1107a31-b2. But in EE he seems to believe that a courageous person is fearless
(1228b20).To reconcile this with his belief that the courageous person has medial fear,
the following interpretations have been made. According to David Pears, by “the
courageous person is fearless,” Aristotle means that the courageous person is emo-
tionally unperturbed and behaves fearlessly although he has fear in the face of the
greatest danger such as death (Pears, “Courage as a Mean,” 178). Charles Young
argues: when Aristotle describes courageous agents as fearless, by “fearless,” he prob-
ably means that courageous agents do not experience the possibly disabling
symptoms of fear: nervousness, rapid heartbeat, and so on (see Charles Young, “Aris-
totle on Courage,” in Humanitas Essays in Honor of Ralph Ross [Claremont: Scripps
College, 1977], 197). Such interpretations of Aristotle’s saying that the courageous
person is fearless seem equally applicable to Confucius’s saying “yong zhe bu ju.”
31. Mike W. Martin, Everyday Morality: An Introduction to Applied Ethics (Belmont:
Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1989), 123–124.
32. See Jiang, “Courage and Self-Control,” 59.
33. This is pointed out by Terry Horgan during one of our conversations.
34. Jiang, “Courage and Self-Control,” 59.
35. I borrow the word “silence” from John McDowell. See John McDowell, “Virtue and
Reason,” The Monist, 62 (1979): 331–50.
36. See Jiang, “Courage and Self-Control,” 59–60.
37. Analects, 14: 11. My translation.
38. Xunzi once said that people in the state of Qi did not dare to attack the state of Lu,
because they were afraid of Bian Zhuangzi (see Xunzi , “Da Lue” ). For
the folk story about Bian Zhuangzi, see “Courageous Warrior Bian Zhuangzi”
(Yongshi Bian Zhuangzi ), http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_4ceffd1d0100
gkgo.html (accessed August 31, 2011). About his fighting against tigers, there is a brief
description in Sima Qian , “Shiji: Zhang Yi Liezhuan” . Bian
Zhuangzi’s courageousness on the battlefield and death (after killing 70 enemies)
were mentioned in Han Ying , Han Shi Wai Zhuan, Vol. 10 .
confucius’s view of courage 59

39. For such an argument, see Chen Lisheng, “Courage in the Analects: A Genealogical
Survey of the Confucian Virtue of Courage,” Front. Philos. China 5, no. 1 (2010): 5.
40. Analects, 12: 4. My translation.
41. For a detailed discussion of the Neo-Confucian view of courage, see Chen, “Courage
in the Analects: A Genealogical Survey of Confucian Virtue of Courage,” 12–23.
42. “Great courage” is moral courage. Since it is the only kind of courage that the
Song-Ming Confucians advocated, it is plausible to regard their conception of great
courage as their conception of true courage.
43. See Er Cheng Ji (Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1981), 211.
44. See Zhuzi Yulei (Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1985), 1244.
45. Lu Xiangshan, Lu Xiangshan Quanji (Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1992),
46. Wang Yangming Quanji (Shanghai: Shanghai Guji Chubanshe, 1992),
47. See Chen, “Courage in the Analects: A Genealogical Survey of Confucian Virtue of
Courage,” 13.
48. The Doctrine of the Mean, chap. 20. My translation.
49. Analects, 13: 20. My translation.
50. For a summary and analysis of feminist critique of traditional heroic courage, see
Linda R. Rabieh, “Feminist Critique of Courage,” in her Plato and the Virtue of
Courage (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2006), 10–17.
51. Except those legendary sage kings such as Yao, Shun, and Yu, according to the existing
historical records, there was no Chinese ruler who was considered truly benevolent
(ren ). Given the brutality of power struggle at Chinese imperial court, this is no
surprise. There were indeed some exceptional Confucian scholars or scholars-officials
who lived up to their Confucian ideal to the greatest degree. For example, Wen
Tianxiang ( 1236–1283) has always been regarded as one of the greatest
Chinese heroes, and Hai Rui ( 1515–1587) has been well memorized as an
incorruptible and caring official. However, there were only few people like them in
Chinese history. Otherwise they would not have been praised so highly.
52. Here I am inspired by John F. Kennedy’s following words: “In whatever arena of life
one may meet the challenge of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he
follows his conscience—the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the
esteem of his fellow men—each man must decide for himself the course he will
follow” (John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956],
216). A well-known example of courage in contemporary political life discussed by
Kennedy was Edmund G. Ross’s voting “not guilty” in the frenzied trial for acquitting
President Andrew Johnson (see ibid., 122–25). A contemporary Chinese example of
moral courage is Liang Shuming’s resistance to “criticizing Confucius” during the
Cultural Revolution (for details see Liang Shuming, Wo Sheng You Ya
[Beijing: China Renmin University Press, 2004], 284).
53. See Analects, 17: 13.
54. See Xu Ren Quan and Hong Ling Rang, Liucheng Minzhong: Zhengtan Zui Quefa
Yongqi , Yuanjian (August 2011), 95.
55. Ibid., 99.
56. Ibid., 95.
57. Ibid., 92.
58. Rushworth M. Kidder and Martha Bracy, “Moral Courage: A White Paper,” http://
www.faulkner.edu/admin/websites/jfarrell/moral_courage_11-03-2001.pdf (accessed
November 1, 2010).
59. Winston Churchill, http://www.great-quotes.com/quote/3124 (accessed August 27,