Virtue at the Testing Point

By Travis Copeland

Literature offers us tools to rise beyond a merely imaginary idea of courage.

Classical education centers around moral instruction, particularly in the four classical virtues: wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. Each virtue has great depth and width to it; there is no end to the conversation that can be had concerning any of the virtues. While the virtues can be discussed at length in theoretical terms, they are best observed and analyzed in the great books, where they are incarnated. The incarnation of courage or moderation gives any reader an example to observe and either honor or reject. Of the four virtues, courage seems like the easiest to grasp. Everyone theoretically knows what courage is, thanks to modern media, especially film and other story-telling forms with a false courage, giving the impression to the reader or watcher that they clearly understand it. Therefore, students in a classical school assume they understand courage over-and-above the other three.

To a degree, my students are right when they say they understand courage, but this is not because of the media. Most of them have at least heard C. S. Lewis’s dictum, “courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at its testing point.” Lewis is right, and it is pleasant to read it and quote it to our friends, but the incarnation of this statement in real life causes a quite different reaction. It should quickly become apparent that most people do not understand courage until it is played out before them, complete with consequences. I find that my students do not understand courage properly until a character is injured or killed while acting with courage. Only then do they truly begin to grasp this virtue.

Modern literature often either takes the cardinal virtues for granted or maligns them, but there remain notable exceptions. Both Earnest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird present men who, against all odds, are defeated but not destroyed. They show courage, because they choose to do and to be good, despite the near certainty of coming defeat (certainties which both novels realize). They take up what they are tasked with not because they will win, but because they know that it is good and right. Their responsibility to integrity supersedes their need to win.

Santiago, Ernest Hemingway’s beloved old Caribbean fisherman, spends three days reeling in a large swordfish off the southern coast of Cuba. Prior to hooking the monstrous fish, Santiago had caught nothing for over eighty days, yet the old man set out again and again. Despite his poverty and age, he perseveres. Finally, he snags a twenty-one-foot swordfish. After reeling and fighting it for three full days, he hauls it in—only to have sharks devour it. These too he fights, even after saying “now they have beaten me.” Only the skeleton of the swordfish is left when he returns to shore, “beaten … without remedy.” Yet it neither dampens his hope nor sways his perseverance. Worn and defeated, he nevertheless enters his small fishing village with his head held high.

Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can't practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.

Unalike in many ways, Santiago and Atticus Finch share this virtue. Atticus Finch is a defense lawyer in Maycomb County, Alabama: dignified, learned, and a single parent to Jem and Scout, a maturing but rambunctious pair of children. In one attempt to bring up his children rightly, he has them read to a dying neighbor several houses down. They view the task as a chore, and are exasperated by its confirmed tendency to linger an extra few minutes every day. Only after her death does Atticus reveal why he asked Jem and Scout to meet with her:

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

These words of Atticus could equally be written about Santiago; and in To Kill a Mockingbird itself, they refer not only to the neighbor, but to Atticus. In time, he takes up a court case defending an innocent black man, accused of rape, who is eventually killed. Atticus knew that he was unlikely to win, but he took the case because it was right. Doing his duty took immense courage, as the town became increasingly hostile to himself and his children, even endangering their lives.

Both Atticus and Santiago sharply exemplify the unattractive truth that courage often ends in defeat. There is almost always a way out of being brave, and often, little is remembered about it.

“I would never do that” and “Why can’t he just help him without getting all caught up in it” are too often the response of students—or, more temptingly, “He could still be a good man if he didn’t help.” Nor are these responses a special foible of students. We all recognize duties and shy away from consequences. Once a virtue is incarnated in literature, we all get skittish.

Atticus was already a good man, but if he wanted to remain a good man, his only choice was to defend the accused. Santiago did not quit because he might lose his catch. Indeed, courage is our only option. If we don’t help that man, we cannot simply “go to church and worship God”; as Atticus says, “before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself.” Literature demonstrates how our whole character is at stake in our courage. Returning to Homer, anyone “hanging back from battle—he is finished. … [There is] no way for him to escape the dogs and birds.” Courage or death.


Travis Copeland holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, and teaches humanities at Covenant Classical in Charlotte, NC. When not writing and teaching, Travis aspires to a “Hobbit” lifestyle of poetry, gardening, baking, and conversation with good company around good food.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like our series on the Great Conversation, which deals with topics from the four cardinal virtues to the laws of thermodynamics. Thank you for reading the Journal!

Published on 13th April, 2023.

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