The Great Conversation: Courage

By Gabriel Blanchard

Courage takes many forms, some of them downright paradoxical.

The virtueshow best to define and practice themhave always been a favorite topic of the Great Conversation. Lists of virtues have varied extensively; Greco-Roman culture traditionally recognized four “cardinal” virtues. These are named from the Latin cardo, or hinge, the idea being that all the other virtues depend on these as a door depends on hinges. The cardinal virtues are wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.

We find courage celebrated in literature as soon as we have any literature. The earliest books and poems we possess are mostly tales of adventures, battles, and all but superhuman feats of bravery: the Epic of Gilgamesh, Egyptian myths about the perilous underworld journey made nightly by the sun god Ra, the Iliad and the Odyssey. In literature of this kind, courage primarily means courage to take down enemies on the battlefield, or animals in a hunt.

This concept grows more sophisticated in Aristotle. One of his most famous books is the Nichomachean Ethics, in which he propounded the doctrine of the “golden mean.” Virtues are a quality of character, balanced between two extremes, vices. The vices are opposed not only to the virtue in between them, but to each other. Applying this to courage, Aristotle therefore defined not only cowardice but rashness as failures from the genuine virtue. Cowardice is the obvious opposite of courage; but rashnesswhether the kind that brags about its willingness to face danger and then fails to follow through, or the kind that comes from irrational excesses of passion rather than a settled quality of characteris opposed to courage too.

Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.

In the Jewish and Christian traditions, we find courage applied in a new context: religious persecution. The idea of martyrdom as we know it begins during the Jewish Second Temple Period, when the Seleucid Empire tried to exterminate Judaism. The book of II Maccabees contains dramatic martyrologies of Jews who preferred execution to any violation of the Torah. Early Christian accounts of persecution fall into the same genre. The courage to do violence fades, while the courage to endure violence and even death is placed front and center.

The archaic ideal of courage and the more specifically Judeo-Christian one were fused in the Medieval archetype of chivalry. Embodied for English speakers in Arthurian legend, a knight was supposed to be a fearless protector of the weak, yet also a gentle, pious man who would gladly accept martyrdom if condemned to it. The actual practice of this ideal was imperfect at best, but the fusion itself is fascinating to contemplate.

In non-violent movements in the Modern period, we get a revivial of something analogous the classic Judeo-Christian definition of courage. Mahatma Gandhi unconditionally rejected violence, even in self-defense, in his efforts for the independence of India; when opponents called this cowardly, he replied that it takes more courage to stand in front of a cannon than behind one. His outlook was a strong influence on Dr. King’s wing of the civil rights movement. The same ideal is represented in the words of Malala Yousafzai, describing her determination to secure education for young women in the face of Taliban opposition:

I used to think that the Talib would come, and he would just kill me. Then I would reply to myself, “Malala, just take a shoe and hit him [a grave insult in Afghan culture].” But then I said, “If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty.” Then I said, I will tell him how important education is, and that “I even want education for your children as well.” And I will tell him, “That’s what I want to tell you; now do what you want.”

Some suggested reading on courage:
Alcestis, Euripides
The Martyrdom of Polycarp, St. Irenaeus of Lyons
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, anonymous Middle English poem, modernized by J. R. R. Tolkien
Statement at the Great Trial, Mahatma Gandhi

Cover image: The Battle of Waterloo by William Sadler II


If you enjoyed this post, have a look at one of our author profiles, like this one on Herodotus or this one on John Milton. Or you might like another “Great Conversation” post, like this one on evolution.

Published on 19th March, 2020.

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