What is Courage?

An Essay posted by dang on August 23, 2013.

Author's Note: I don't include full names on my quotations, but you can find them with a quick Google search.

So what exactly is courage anyway? Isn't it simple to define? Is it a "know it when we see it" idea? The many, varying viewpoints on the subject often conflict. Why would it be difficult to define courage? One reason is its reported duplicity.

But before we tackle duplicity, we must basically define courage. Probably the most common definition of courage is simply the mastery of fear.

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.

We've all experienced and witnessed the overcoming of fear. And we all respect that. We admire the brave; we want to be like them. Our admiration is the source of courage's almost universal superstar status. This simple definition (mastering fear) is also universal, independent of locale or nationality. It suffices for simplicity but not for depth.

When we look a little deeper at courage, we see some difficulties with this definition; we arrive at courage's alleged duplicity. Most would deem courage a positive attribute, even a virtue. So what happens when we have a brave thief? What if courage is used to steal, defraud or cheat? What about rape, murder or molestation? Certainly one could overcome fear (if none other than the fear of being caught) in each of those circumstances. Is courage still a virtue at this point?

It would seem not. A virtuous rape? A virtuous molestation? But there still needs to be a term for overcoming fear in non-virtuous situations, and "courage" is often used in these instances. So we arrive at a division: virtuous versus non-virtuous courage. Most people refer to virtuous courage when they use the term, but a few do make the distinction.

Courage, considered in itself or without references to its causes is not virtue, and deserves no esteem. It is found in the best and the worst, and is to be judged according to the qualities from which it springs and with which it is co-joined.

Does non-virtuous courage have any merit? Potentially and occasionally. If the crook tunnels under the police station to crack the bank vault, we are somewhat impressed by his "guts." We respect the simple fact that fear has been overcome.

Courage is a quality so necessary for maintaining virtue that it is always respected, even when it is associated with vice.

We certainly recognize that the act was non-virtuous and illegal. Then our conscience strikes and we wonder if we would have overcome the same amount of fear for a virtuous cause. That same conscience too often admits that we would not, and this realization is the source of our respect. Non virtuous courage, then, if nothing else, exemplifies how we might act in a parallel virtuous situation.

But our respect (if that is the correct term) is limited. We aren't impressed, but rather we revolt, at the child molester overcoming his fear and committing the act—even if it was a daring act. There is a limit, then, to respect, in regard to overcoming fear; once that limit is reached, respect disappears, replaced by revulsion.

Another difficulty in defining courage as a concept is applying it too broadly. For instance, we might know of a soldier who performed bravely under fire. And we rightly label him brave or courageous. But that same soldier might flinch or flee at the need to face a large audience and speak. Courage under fire, but fear in the face of public speaking—so is he brave or a coward?

It is an error to suppose that courage means courage in everything. Most people are brave only in the danger to which they accustom themselves, either in imagination or practice.

Our courage is weaker or stronger in different areas of our character. We all are a mixture of courages and fears. It is easier to branch out from areas of strength than to attempt something completely new. To change employment in a field in which we have experience can be frightening. But to change industries completely, is more so. So our courage runs in streaks or strips throughout our character, rather than influencing it wholly.

The courage, like the talent, of common men runs in a narrow groove. Take them but an inch out of that, and they are done.

Is bravery different than courage? Some make a distinction. The most common is that bravery deals with the physical side and courage deals with the rational or moral side.

Bravery is physical; courage is mental and moral.

As noted, courage runs in narrow grooves. One of these grooves can be physical, another mental. But the purest courage always presupposes virtue broad enough for both areas.

Physical courage which despises all danger will make a man brave in one way; and moral courage which despises all opinion will make a man brave in another. The former would seem most necessary for the camp, the latter for the council; but to constitute a great man, both are necessary.

Which is the greater, physical or moral courage? The consensus says moral courage. Although this response is probably adequate, another answer might be: whichever is needed at the moment. Trapped in a dark alley, you might not be thrilled with a companion who was devoid of physical courage, whatever his other qualities might be.

Now these two types of courage, physical and moral, are very distinct. I have known many men who had marked physical courage, but lacked moral courage. Some of them were in high places, but they failed to be great in themselves because they lacked it. On the other hand, I have seen men who undoubtedly possessed moral courage very cautions about taking physical risks. But I have never met a man with moral courage who would not, when it was really necessary, face bodily danger. Moral courage is a higher and a rarer virtue than physical courage.

Another definitional difficulty comes from experience. Once we gain experience, once we have overcome our fear often enough that the task is routine, is courage then gone? If we see a cliff-diver dive from 80 feet, we are impressed with his courage. Yet if he has dived since a young age, he might not feel fear anymore during the jump. So no fear was overcome (or very little). Is there, then, courage, or not?

A sailor who braves the terrors of the ocean certainly feels less fear having faced those terrors over time than he did on his maiden voyage. Feeling less fear, means overcoming less fear. So, is his courage now less? Some certainly feel so.

The bravery founded on... experience of success,... is but common bravery and does not deserve the name.
—La Noue

But to answer the question more fully, we need to look at another aspect in the definition of courage: ignorance. For courage to exist, there must be knowledge of the danger. Let's return to our cliff-jumper scenario. What if the water below extended far and wide so it was basically impossible to miss the water during the dive? However, the safe landing area really only consisted of a four-square-feet area.

If a new cliff-diver launched into her first jump with the idea that all she needed to do was hit the water (ignorant of the fact that she must hit a four-square-feet area), her fear might be minimal. She might ignorantly think that this was a simple dive, since from above, the water looked deep everywhere and there was a large target. And let's say that fortune was with her and she hit the correct four-square-feet area and jumped safely. An outside observer might assume that she made the jump with very little fear and, therefore, was quite courageous.

Yet, unless the diver truly understood the dangers (which she did not), and faced the accompanying greater fears, she did not exhibit courage but rather ignorance. Very often in our judgments, we mistake ignorance for courage.

But the bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding go out to meet it.

Now we are back to our sailor. Having braved the ocean terrors many times, he has experience which blocks many fears. Therefore, he overcomes less fear. But, the same experience brings knowledge of dangers he hadn't realized before in his ignorance of the sea. So experience both lessens his fear and heightens his respect for the dangers.

Obviously, a tightrope walker who has walked the tightrope for years feels less fear than on his first attempts. But probably in those same years, he has seen other performers fall to injury or death, sealing in his mind the true danger of what he does. Thus, experience does not kill courage but rather wisens it.

Another imposter-courage, a sort of cousin to ignorance, is rashness. Anger, revenge, vanity, and the energy of the crowd/mob can move us to overcome fear we might not be able to otherwise. The young man, noticing the pretty girl watching, jumps from the trampoline over the fence, just misses the tree, and lands in the pool. A few inches either way would have meant—at least—broken bones. Impressive? Maybe. Courageous? No.

The truest courage is always mixed with circumspection, this being the quality which distinguishes the courage of the wise from the hardiness of the rash and foolish.

Often in a state of rashness, dangers are not recognized, causing a state of forced ignorance and, therefore, less fear. But rashness can dissipate quickly and with it goes "courage." We find that without the audience or emotion, we are not as brave as we are otherwise.

Perfect courage is to do unwitnessed what we should be capable of doing before the whole world.
—La Rochefoucald

This does not mean we can't use groups to our advantage. Courage is usually greater in groups. In recognizing this, we can create or attend groups that strengthen our courage in weak areas. But the surest courage comes from the individual, independent of externalities.

And now a third imposter-cousin: courage stemming from "fear overcoming fear." What of the citizen, frightened that the new law will slow his business, but even more afraid to speak his views? His fear of the new law is overcome by fear of the opposition he might encounter from voicing his opinions. A fellow business person might be impressed with how this citizen faces a challenge to his business so stoically. Sometimes, apparent bravery is really cowardice.

Some have been thought brave because they were afraid to run away.

This lesser "courage" is without virtue but not completely without merit. These fears which overcome fears are, sadly, oftentimes the source of a useful pseudo-virtue. The soldier ready to desert, knowing that desertion means death, fights. Later, he might be praised for his efforts, and we are glad for what his fear produced, but true, deep virtue was absent from his efforts.

Courage is incompatible with the fear of death; but every villain fears death; therefore no villain can be brave. He may indeed possess the courage of the rat, and fight with desperation when driven into a corner... yet the glare of a courage thus elicited by danger, where fear conquers fear, is not to be compared to that calm sunshine which constantly cheers and illuminates the breast of him who builds his confidence on virtuous principles.

"The glare of courage." Well said. Not true courage, but a shadow of it.

If the definition of courage is to overcome fear, the question then arises: If fear is completely absent, is courage absent as well? The subscribers to this argument are often visible.

Courage is doing what you are afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you're scared.

But this definition is too confining. Courage is broader and abler than this. Courage also overcomes fatigue, boredom, misfortune, and pain which might or might not also involve fear. A parent caring for a disabled child might grow weary of that daily care. Fear is not necessarily involved, but courage is still the rescuer in such a situation.

Endurance often requires courage, especially when that endurance is entering realms previously unvisited.

The courage of working day in and day out, year after year, is the toughest variety.

Paul Tillich, the German philosopher/theologian, in his classic book, The Courage to Be, defines courage as the very substance that defines our being and existence. This is the force with which we push back against the forces of life pushing in. It is the substance which allows us to properly act on things around us rather than be acted upon by them.

Raw courage or pure courage is very, very rare. It is independent of externalities, experience, rage, vanity, and the like. It is completely knowledgeable of the dangers (this being one source of its rarity—as we seldom completely understand the dangers before us). It adapts itself to whatever situation is at hand. It doesn't calculate; it simply faces. It is virtuous and based on unselfish love. Its presence ensures composure and freedom of judgment under all conditions. Its influence is almost tangible and can be felt by those in its vicinity.

Napoleon said he had rarely encountered the "courage of 2 a.m." — that is, the extemporaneous courage, which even in the most sudden emergencies, leaves one's freedom of mind, judgment, and decision completely unaffected. He asserted unequivocally that he had known himself to possess that 2 a.m. courage to a higher degree than any other man.

The accuracy of Napoleon's self-evaluation is up for argument, but the reason he rarely encountered this courage is because so few possess it. This is the courage spoken of and sought after by poets, philosophers and theologians. This is the courage which changes lives, nations and worlds. This courage has a worth incalculable.

Courage is frequently noted as a foundation for other virtues. The proponents of this doctrine are many.

Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because
it is the quality which guarantees all others.


However this "foundation" position seems to be claimed by several virtues.

Humility is the solid foundation of all the virtues.

Compte-Sponville, in his powerful work, A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, suggests that courage can share the foundational spotlight with other virtues without diminishing any of them.

...[courage] is a virtue, one that is a precondition of all the others... It might be recalled that I said of prudence, too, that it was the precondition of all the other virtues. Well, why not? Why should the virtues have only one other as their precondition?
—Compte -Spoonville

And why not? It certainly seems reasonable. The virtues are so interconnected and intertwined that it is often difficult to distinguish where one ends and the next begins. They all mutually reinforce and strengthen the others.

But, too many champions water down the championship. Too many foundational virtues leave us wondering where to truly begin in our virtue development. Where is the true beginning, the first step? Yes, humility, integrity, prudence and others, to varying degrees, are all foundational virtues. But courage is more than that. It is the bedrock on which the foundation sits. It keeps the foundation steady and is the deepest, surest platform on which to build.

...courage is not merely a virtue; it is the virtue. Without it there are no other virtues. Faith, hope, charity, and all the rest don't become virtues until it takes courage to exercise them. Courage is not only the basis of all virtue; it is its expression. True, you may be bad and brave, but you can't be good without being brave.

Courage is, then, expressional, as well as foundational. Both for nurturing and developing virtue, as well as for its expression, courage is required. So is courage the greatest virtue? It is not. All other virtues build and compound on each other to arrive at charity. Charity is the culmination and completion of all other virtues. It is the greatest of all.

But as we embark on this long, lonely (no need for a car-pool lane here) road toward virtue, our first destination is courage. And what a destination it is!