return to religion-online

Graceful Courage: A Venture in Christian Humanism by Roger Hazelton


Walter Wink is the author of The Powers That Be (Doubleday). This essay appeared in Loving God With One’s Mind, by F. Thomas Trotter, copyright 1987 by the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church. Used by permission. This document was prepared for Religion Online by William E. Chapman.


Chapter 2: A Necessary Virtue


Courage mounteth with occasion. -- Shakespeare, King Lear

The Uses of Adversity

Making virtue out of necessity may seem a rather hackneyed phrase, but it provides a useful vantage point for understanding courage. By almost all accounts, courage is thought to be some kind of virtue -- that is, a capability of character deserving praise and practice. As Robert Louis Stevenson put it, courage is the footstool of the virtues, for unless other virtues such as temperance or justice are exercised courageously, they will be honored more in the breach than in the observance.

Courage is also rightly linked with necessity, sometimes called fate, which is supposed to be written into the very nature of things. The old word always had a forbidding ring because it kept in view those untoward circumstances and conditions that have to be faced but cannot be prevented or controlled. What is bound to happen and cannot be helped suggests a picture of reality as ruled by forces that frustrate hope and foil effort. Or a single force may be suggested, nonaccommodating and even threatening, which beings like ourselves are up against and which has all the earmarks of sublime indifference, if not hostility, to human will and effort. Seers and sages have never quite made up their minds whether to call the force Doom or Chance, fateful or fortuitous; either way, necessity has come to stand for that which has to be, cannot be helped, and must be faced.

Making virtue out of necessity is sometimes understood as an insidious form of hypocrisy, throwing a cloak of moral worth over oneís inevitable self-interest by a cynical cover-up. Or it may be identified with passively adapting oneself to the unavoidable, not expecting more than niggardly nature can deliver. Yet neither of these is the real meaning of the commonly used phrase. Making virtue out of necessity is not swimming with the stream; it is better illustrated by the person who met the wolf at the door and emerged the next day wearing a fur coat. It has to do with the uses of adversity, whether in the shape of built-in handicaps or public structures that inhibit private purpose.

At first glance, making virtue out of necessity seems not to be an exclusively human trait. All living beings, in varying degrees of capability, develop mechanisms of protection and flight against predators. Under a microscope one watches tiny organisms in what seems to be a rhythm of attack and avoidance. Contending with harsh climates, hostile neighbors, cramping environments would appear to be the rule of life itself. Human courage is no doubt part of a much longer evolutionary process, yet it has characteristics of its own as well. While it is foolish to deny that animal ancestry plays an indispensable part in human behavior, it would be just as foolish to suppose that human responses are nothing more than animal reflexes. Making virtue of necessity is based on qualities of consciousness and purpose, quite as much as upon chemical stimuli and environmental pressures. In other words, it is a rising or mounting to the occasion in which a human measure of the world is taken.

On Virtue-in-General

Everyone wants to be virtuous or at least to be thought so. Rascals at heart and other devious people try to conceal their actual intentions under a mask of virtue. The truth is not in their mouths; their throats are open sepulchers, as Psalm 5 observes. But people whose moral soundness is unquestioned have also been known to present their actions in a most favorable light, knowing the importance of setting a good example. Doing the best one can with what one has is never simply a private, hidden matter. And yet virtue, being rather shy by nature, cannot be made to put on a command performance. No sort of incantation or bargain with the powers that be can summon it forth. Virtue, then, if and when it does appear, is not only a matter of appearance. For instance, an actor on stage may be required to simulate sincerity, although in real life sincerity is perhaps the one thing that cannot be simulated. There a "sincere performance" is a contradiction in terms, or worse.

Before focusing upon the virtue of courage in particular, it is useful to inquire as to the meaning of virtue in general. Does virtue consist chiefly in the act, in the decision or intention leading to the act, or in the character of the one who decides and acts? Is virtue something we do, something we have, or something we are? As might be expected, moral philosophers in the past have answered these questions positively yet differently. Recently, the active behavioral side of virtue has been stressed with special interest in its practical, public aspects. In Jewish and Christian Scriptures, on the other hand, virtue was typically located in the heart or will where action is first formed and initiated. Thinkers in ancient Greece and Rome generally depicted virtue as a settled quality of human nature, dependably present even when dormant or perverted, and thus capable of being aroused and trained to good and wise ends.

Through these diverse, contrasting ethical traditions runs a thread of genuine consensus, however. Wherever virtue is finally to be situated, it lies within the range of distinctly human experience and endeavor. Human beings are virtuous insofar as they take upon themselves the task and art of becoming fully human. Knowing the difference between right and wrong, following the one and avoiding the other, does not come naturally; but virtue means developing what Aristotle called a state of character into a kind of "second nature." It means a learning by doing which is also a doing by learning. Virtue is exercised before it can be fully possessed and in order to be possessed more fully.

"Being good," or virtue, is thus in fact a becoming that is guided and given shape by visioning, deciding, acting beings who thereby demonstrate their humanhood. Aristotle liked to compare it with the crafts of building or music making, implying thereby that virtue is a kind of virtuosity or expertise. The word itself, to cite the dictionary, originally meant an "inherent power, efficacy, strength"; although it may be applied to such things as sap in trees or the healing potency of certain herbs, the word is grounded psychologically in what are ordinarily called human feelings of value. Interestingly, the wordís circuit of meaning travels in both directions, as when Psalm 1 compares the upright person to "a tree planted by the rivers of water," and when a later Christian writer calls the world "a vale of soulmaking." In both instances, a primitive sense of being at one with physical nature is compounded with an equally elemental intuition that persons are not merely things.

Human goodness in the sense of moral virtue, therefore, is an excellence attained through exercise; as Aristotle says, it is concerned "with what is harder -- for even the good is better when it is harder.íí1 Platoís unforgettable figure of the soul as a charioteer driving two horses, one intractable and stubborn (the passions), the other intelligent and teachable (reason), was intended to show how much a life according to virtue is informed by conflict and crisis. Such a life is a struggle or agon between opposing forces threatening to divide the self against itself unless they are brought into harmony by that same self. We see this ancient pagan view of the virtuous athlete carried forward in the images of the Christian warrior and pilgrim that were so cherished in the Middle Ages.

A second principle for interpreting virtue comes from the classical idea that it represents a mean between extreme or opposite kinds of behavior. Our present difficulty in understanding it is due mainly to the fact that we take "mean" as a synonym for "average." A mean temperature, for example, is an average, a statistical abstraction which may help in predicting long-range weather changes but cannot tell whether it will rain or shine tomorrow. That is obviously not the sort of mean that virtue can be said to strike, in the classical sense of the term. No arithmetic is available for changing human conduct into standard quantities which can be measured or controlled. The life expectancy tables drawn up for use by insurance companies cannot furnish me with the date of my own death. A polygraph test administered by a police officer falls short of answering the question, "Is the subject lying?" An average, statistical morality, or mortality, does not exist. A standard of rightness in conduct is very different indeed from taking an opinion poll and averaging out its results. Sampling techniques or majority votes are quite beside the point when moral virtue is in question, despite what technocrats and politicians may say or think.

No, the mean that is struck by virtuous conduct is more accurately described as a midpoint vibrating between too little and too much of a good thing. Let us call it, then, standing oneís ground between deficiency and excess (representing not quantities, but qualitative possibilities that are relevant to choice and action). Here we are back at the drawing board of a human measure that is not uniformly applicable to all cases but only relatively to each human situation as it arises. Such a moral measuring of oneself or others, nevertheless, is as imperative as it is also elusive. It may easily be mistaken but its errors can be corrected, and should be, as self-understanding and social sensitivity become more mature. A virtuous mean is situational, pragmatic, ever changing with the requirements of "necessity." It is as far as can be imagined from that middle-of-the-road maneuvering that seeks safety at all costs, proceeds with caution, looking apprehensively to see what others think, and moving gingerly through peril and promise alike. That is to say, living virtuously is bent on attainment, not on mere avoidance of unpleasant options. It is not a "safe middle" but a "live middle" that strives for some consistency amidst the pull of contrary lures and pressures. Striking a balance between acting and being acted upon, holding the center, has been well set forth by Pascal as embracing contrary qualities of response while occupying the whole distance between them. That always takes a bit of doing, as the saying goes, since most of us most of the time are fairly predictable types whose responses tend to run in single file. Or are we? The classical view of virtue allows that we may be more complicated, interesting beings than we customarily think.

Let us give some illustrations. A good-tempered person is neither irritable nor complacent. A liberal person holds the balance between miserliness and showy extravagance. A friendly person steers clear of both surliness and flattery. Diogenes, you recall, had a hard time searching for an honest man; if he had found one, he would have been recognized by the absence of undue modesty and immoderate self-assurance. Persons of virtue do not spend their time sitting on the moral fence; they seem rather to be in constant motion, make surprising moves in search of basic integrity, and know when to fall back as well as when to press forward. No wonder then that "it is no easy task to be good" (Aristotle again).

This traditional idea of virtue has little in common with the "donít" and "mustnít" negativism that mark Puritan and Victorian morality still in force today. Portrayed in strenuous, dynamic colors, the classical view sees virtue as hard-won integrity made possible by contrast and tension in the moral life. Consistency must keep close company with spontaneity if one is to escape the deadening effects of rigid legalism or moralism. No virtue comes from blending copybook abstractions such as honesty or purity into a character mixture according to some recipe or prescription.

Rather, virtue combines traits of human character and conduct that are potentially in conflict with each other, yet over which some measure of direction may be established by a centered and centering self. Robert Frost once wrote a poem about what virtue is like:

For every parcel I stoop down to seize,
I lose some other off my arms and knees,
And the whole pile is slipping, bottles, buns,
Extremes too hard to comprehend at once,
Yet nothing I should care to leave behind . . .

After the image comes the "moral":

With all I have to hold with, hand and mind,
And heart, if need be, I will do my best
To keep their building balanced at my breast.
I crouch down to prevent them as they fall;
Then sit down in the middle of them all
I had to drop the armful in the road
And try to stack them in a better load.2

Virtue, then, is a bending from oneís center, living on purpose in the middle range, touching and being touched by the confusions of experience without becoming utterly confused oneself. It is a theme with many variations, one of which is clearly that of courage.

Resilient Steadfastness

This particular kind of virtue has been documented and acclaimed by a multitude of voices in world history. Campfire fables and courtly allegories, ballads and sagas from every known literature bring to the theme of courage a universal concreteness and appeal. One thinks at random of the Hindu Ramayana, the No dramas of Japan, the epics of Norsemen, or the songs and stories of the American frontier. We may be embarrassed by such cultural riches but no one can claim to be without resources or examples for guidance in the matter of courage, as thought and speech concerning it have become bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.

So what is virtuous about courage? Ethical theories both East and West have offered definitions. These may appear sterile and "academic" when contrasted with real situations or vital choices, whether actual or imagined. Yet if we are to take our own bearings from the images and symbols of courage some effort at definition should be made. Only so can practice become pliable to thought instead of being pushed and pulled about by throbs of feeling or by doctrinal winds which sow the seeds of moral confusion and eventual disaster.

One of the best definitions is that found in a little-known treatise from the period between the Old and New Testaments entitled Letter to Aristeas. Written in Greek yet reflecting Jewish ethical concerns as well, the letter asks a question: "What is the true aim of courage?" The Jewish sage answers: "To execute in the hour of danger, in accordance with oneís plans, resolutions that have been rightly formed."3 What makes this definition commendable and useful is the fact that it reflects a nondogmatic stance at a cultural crossroads, voicing what may be termed a humane minimum with no religious or philosophical strings attached. Its value as a working, preliminary definition makes it worthy of notice and respect.

Courage thus defined is no fixed posture or attitude that is available for instant inspection. That is a first point. Often this virtue goes by other names like valor or honor; it may be deliberately disguised, as in the windmill tilting of Don Quixote, who is certainly courageous despite his frequent lapses from good judgment. Again, courage may be quite at home with meekness, no less than with the tone of bravura or panache too generally associated with it.

Not all virtues are equally appropriate at all times. On the occasion when justice is called for, wisdom may have to take a back seat, not delaying or diluting matters with the pale cast of thought. Or if the possibility of angry confrontation with another person looms, does this mean that keeping my temper must take precedence over honesty in speaking out? Single-issue people tend to forget that virtue is not confined to one side of a conflict over principles, namely their own.

It comes down to the fact that courage like any other virtue comes in a wide array of shapes and guises, some more quickly visible than others. Benjamin Franklin, who should have known better, contrived his checklist of thirteen virtues each of which was to be strictly practiced for one week at a time -- "A Course compleat in Thirteen weeks, and four Courses a Year" -- thereby making moral endeavor trivial and fatuous. Jonathan Edwards came much closer to the mark in The Nature of True Virtue, perhaps just because he would not specify the "excellencies" that belong to it. A phrase such as his "consent to Being in general" gives no detailed directions for day-to-day behavior, but it does bring resonance and even grandeur into daily moral striving which by making it deeply meaningful also makes it truly practical.

Carrying through resolutions that have been rightly formed is not, as we shall frequently need to emphasize, a simple problem-solving technique. There is no "how to" book capable of being written on the subject of courage. Who can say what form my portion of courage will assume tomorrow or next week? What resolutions are to be required of me then?

Second, courage is by no means an easily identified trait. It does not separate the men from the boys, or the strong from the weak, or the mature from the immature. Recently a television program zoomed in on some children who were facing death. These terminally ill youngsters displayed no heroics and yet their bravery was unmistakable. It was not so much how they looked or what they said as their candor in replying to hard questions, their willingness to be quite vulnerable and open toward their own dying, which struck the resolute note of courage.

Soldiering has probably received undue attention as a school of courage, but what about parenting or teaching or farming? In central Michigan many small farms have stump fences that mark the boundaries of pasture and field. Several generations ago when this country was first settled, trees were felled and the stumps pulled out by teams of oxen before the land could be tilled and planted. Then the stumps were dragged and placed where they remain today, roots touching, gnarled and tilted against predators or intruders -- mute testimony to the courage of these settlers and their animal partners.

And third, we shall be disappointed if we expect to find courage confined to some particular life style where it puts in a positive appearance. Humanity has proved to be amazingly versatile in dealing with the dangers and hazards of everyday existence. When the range of free choice narrows abruptly, when resources are badly straitened, and frustration comes in like fog from the sea, then virtue must be made out of necessity if it is going to be made at all. To take but one example, is obedience to orders always morally right? No, for there are times and places in which civil disobedience may be the only true test of courage. Joan of Arc before her clerical accusers at Rouen, or Billy Budd protesting his innocence on shipboard, provide dramatic examples of an "inherent power, efficacy, strength" which human living exemplifies in well-nigh infinite diversity. Rising to the occasion courageously assumes a great variety of forms that defy classification and analysis.

Here is a biographerís account of Saint Francis of Assisi:

A certain precipitancy was the very poise of his soul. This saint should be represented among the other saints as angels were sometimes represented . . . with flying feet or even with feathers, in the spirit of the text that makes angels winds and messengers a flaming fire. It is a curiosity of language that courage means running; and some of our skeptics will no doubt demonstrate that courage really means running away. But his courage was running, in the sense of rushing. With all his gentleness, there was originally something of impatience in his impetuosity.4

How full of surprises, how changeable in his constancy, is this little poor man, whether standing before the Pope or preaching to the birds!

If it is true that we lack stable norms or behavior patterns for recognizing courage in others and ourselves, does this mean that we should give up trying to say anything more? Hardly, since our folkways and thought-ways have treated the subject so volubly and so enthusiastically. At least its temper and tendency can be described with something like humane truth. Building on the working definition borrowed from the past, let us say that the courageous temper is a resilient steadfastness, which takes things in stride without presuming to dictate outcomes or to disown responsibility for bringing them about. When the time came for Saint Francis to plead the cause of his sisters and brothers before the Pope, his precipitancy took the form of persistence and his meekness became boldness. But rushing or standing, Francis gave singular expression to the extraordinary gift in ordinary people of living with resilient steadfastness. This is a sign of courage in every condition and situation that make human beings human. Yet how words stumble and fumble when they stand for deeds!

Courage in All Virtue

Saint Ambrose of Milan, whose preaching was influential in converting his younger contemporary Saint Augustine, once wrote a long essay on courage in which he declared: "Courage . . . defends the glories and protects the decisions of all the virtues. It wages relentless war against all the vices." Quoting this, six centuries later, Saint Thomas Aquinas commented that this virtue is both special and general, as it has its own work to do while it contributes at the same time to those virtuous habits and dispositions of every other kind.5

To be sure, there is something decidedly old-fashioned about this personalizing of a virtue such as courage, as if it were itself a moral agent or actor. But the point made by Aquinas quoting Ambrose is important and can be updated. Any striving for moral excellence has what may be called a courageous component. Without supposing that it somehow has a life of its own apart from the rough-and-tumble of experience itself, courage does possess distinguishable marks which can be thought and spoken about, especially in relation to those resolutions formed and carried out in the face of danger, and which seem always to be called for and indeed called forth.

So, while courage is not a separate ingredient or additive within the morally virtuous life, it enters into that life at every point in human time and space. The road from plan to execution must be paved with more than good intentions. Choosing a particular goal of conduct for oneself is but a first step and may be revised many times over. There must also be a resolution to follow through from intent to act, and a flexibility in using available resources and strategies to that end. Such resiliency and steadfastness may seem to be in tension with each other, and they often are; but the very tension can be creative of good. At all events the one cannot be exercised without the other, unless some kind of rigor mortis sets in early.

But what most needs to be said about the "general" virtue of courage is that it is a virtue utterly necessary to all others. Hence any course of conduct that deserves to be called virtuous is bound to have its courageous aspects. Example: a relationship between a man and woman that can be described as "loving," if it is determined chiefly by the ups and downs of sexual attraction, may well be only a "sometime thing" unless courage enters in to create what may be termed a loving situation. Another: a professional therapist whose counsel is sought by others supplies expert know-how on demand, turning it on and off in time-clock fashion, thereby betraying the truth that "it is not wisdom to be only wise" (Santayana). Plainly it is courage that makes the vital difference, although it travels under such assumed names as fidelity in love or humility in wisdom.

A similar case might be made for other virtues too, of course. Take wisdom: Plato and most ancient thinkers believed that seeking after the good in any form implies discernment and discrimination -- comparing possibilities, previewing outcomes, aligning preferences with options -- all of which is the work of wisdom as they saw it. Or take justice: without it, can we dare to speak of other moral values such as temperance or prudence? Are these values actually available to victims of political oppression and economic inequity? A union organizer in Chicago kept this framed slogan on his desk: "Love thy neighbor, but organize him." Moral life is all of one piece even if it is not all cut from the same cloth, and the virtues support and enhance one another.

Here, however, our business is with courage. Not being a brand name, it does not always come properly labeled. The Bible, for instance, seems oddly reticent in speaking of courage, in striking contrast with nonbiblical writings over the same period of time and open to similar influences. Human excellence of any sort, it seems, must be related or referred to God. Thus the great patriarchs are remembered and praised for their faith, not their courage: Abraham who went out not knowing where he was to go, Jacob wrestling with the dark angel at the ford of Jabbok, Noah building the ark amidst the jeers and insults of his neighbors, Job who dared to expostulate with God over his undeserved misery. Although human courage runs like a bright thread through the patterns of biblical history, it is almost always rendered as "faith" -- as if to call it by its proper name might be taken as a challenge to the divine authority over human life. Later, we must inquire as to the reasons for this reticence in Scripture; here the fact is simply noted.

With courage, as with any sort of virtue, most of us are determined allegorizers. That is, we keep looking for a simon-pure instance embodied in a single individual or group of our fellow human beings. This leads to some curious oversimplifications. At election time a politician may be lauded for his "compassion" or "honesty" although these are scarcely the most conspicuous marks in his public record of canny, hard-nosed ambition. How strange it is that "the patience of Job" has become proverbial, despite the fact that what strikes the reader most forcefully is Jobís impatience in demanding an audience with God, the urgency with which he clamors to be vindicated. And in the plays of Shakespeare "honor" is the subject of some powerful monologues, which can be easily detached from the occasions and encounters that alone give such a virtue its true dramatic, human worth.

Following the American Civil War, some enterprising manufacturer cast a single statue of an infantryman which was reproduced many times and stands today in village squares both South and North memorializing those soldiers who lost their lives on opposite sides of the tragic conflict. Such figures are more artificial than genuine, representing the inveterate tendency to allegorize a given virtue by personalizing it. Worn smooth by popular legends, all but neutralized by the passage of time, these figures of generalized virtue leave us as much in the dark as ever about the actual weight and color of courage in a human life.

But courage runs deep, and its sources and outcomes remain hidden, not readily open to public acclaim or verification. Every artistic effort to portray it in direct allegorical fashion runs the risk of losing the very virtue that one attempts to locate and celebrate. Thus Sandro Botticelli painted a mural figure of Fortitude as a sullen, strapping young woman looking for a fight. And Bertolt Brechtís play "Mother Courage" tried to convey in similar fashion the human sense of this particular virtue, but its chief protagonist suggests that courage is associated with a grubby self-assertiveness. Only the greatest allegorizers like Bunyan or Dante have been above such unmeaning and demeaning characterizations.

There is indeed an allegorical strain in all depictions of courage, as in any effort to portray a universal character of life in an indubitably concrete form. Courage is both monumental and elemental as it appears amidst the pressures and complexities of "this mortal life also," to quote from Lutherís great hymn. Of all the images of courage, ancient or modern, surely the battered, headless sculpture known as the Victory of Samothrace comes closest to achieving this quality of awesome particularity. "Wind-beaten but ascending," the female figure at the head of the grand staircase in the Louvre continues to evoke not only the admiration but the participation of generations of beholders in the very presence of courage. No more can be asked of any symbol than this.

It is certainly true that some situations seem to require the exercise of courage more than others, and so may be chosen to reveal its presence in singular and uncomplicated ways. When I must make the best of a bad bargain or choose the lesser of two evils, courage seems to be stripped down to its bare essentials and stands clear for anyone to see. Such low-keyed wrestling with necessity, verging perhaps on desperation, affords a genuine perspective upon how courage becomes necessary in all virtuous conduct. Having to make a choice where very little choice is possible, where the available options are equally unappealing, may represent the only sort of heroism that is open to oneself -- a heroism quite without heroics -- where oneís true measure is taken simply by being demanded. Such courage, being strictly proportional to need, calls for neither display nor defense. Its value is just that it exists and is therefore good, quite apart from any motives that produce it or from any results to which it may lead.

Only Self-Preservation?

Thus far, it may seem, a rather negative route has been taken to approach an understanding of courage. Instead of giving shining examples of this much-honored virtue in its most conspicuous instances, we have chosen to describe it as a kind of moral minimum, close to the grain of human being in its simplest, starkest moments. The approach here has been somewhat like that of an old French peasant woman whose home has been burned and whose husband and son had been killed in the last days of the Second World War. Asked by her priest to define faith, she said, "Faith is what you have when nothing else is left."

This approach is not without its risks, to be sure. The more courage is identified with necessity in the form of straitened circumstances or unmanageable conditions, the less it seems to be a matter of genuine virtue. For is not virtue, in itself and as such, our human way of rising above necessity, refusing to allow the course of oneís life to be determined by whatever hinders or harasses it? In other words, does not virtue always express a strong No spoken in the face of necessity rather than a servile or supine Yes? At least this seems to be true of the particular virtue called courage.

There are several questions here instead of only one. The first concerns the weight of moral value to be given to passive over against active behavior. Obviously, ours is an activistic age that gives scant respect to what it calls passivity. The child in school who fails to respond is often labeled "passive" -- a code word signifying listlessness, daydreaming, or some other form of inattention to the task at hand. And the elderly person who does not go out much, merely lets things happen, preferring solitude to company, draws a similar reproach. Is it not an axiom of our time and place that activity is the very sign of life while passivity is but the ominous prefiguring of death itself?

Yet something is plainly amiss here. Living in the middle human range cannot be calculated merely in terms of energy output; that would only confuse persons with machinery. Nor can action pure and simple be allowed to lord it over the claims of thoughtful judgment, taste, or belief. Indeed, the notion that passivity, or letting things be, is no more than a regrettable lapse into inertia is a prejudice that ought to be exposed for what it is. The growing absence of quiet reflection and concentration among us, abetted by scientific-technical activism in its drive for acquiring power and profit, threatens to make a wasteland out of human experience. Hurried and harried by incessant calls to action, abandoning oneself in reflex submission to whatever overt functioning or role playing is demanded at the moment, can only lead to tragic results for persons and communities. Activism very easily becomes an unwitting form of escapism, as it grossly neglects what Socrates liked to call the tendance of the soul.

Small wonder, then, that people in all walks of life should be turning eagerly toward Eastern forms of meditation or to Western disciplines of contemplation. Yet how ironical too is the tendency of these seekers to promote such practices into techniques for acquiring financial, vocational, or amatory success!

So far as courage goes, our ageís announced preference for active over passive virtue is especially questionable. The solid moral worth of sheer stasis, staying in a difficult place, should not be slighted by those who suppose that keeping busy or in motion is the meaning of life. Is not strength held in reserve often more powerful in its impact than strength expended and perhaps wasted? In todayís world, resistance against oppression is generally accounted virtuous, except of course by the oppressors themselves; but is not such resistance always as much a holding fast as surely as it is a fighting back? The apostle Paul, after comparing Christian virtue to the various pieces of a soldierís armor, summed up his counsel with the words, "and having done all, to stand."

A second question to be asked about this view of courage is whether it is not merely a kind of self-preservation. Is courage so described anything more than the inveterate instinct of any organism to persist in being, to hang on to life in spite of change or crisis? And if so, why dignify it with the name of virtue?

In reply let us admit that survival is indeed an instinctual fact noticed in all living beings, not excepting humans. But how is the instinct of self-preservation to be accounted for? Is it to be dismissed as no more than a biological drive, or is it better understood as a goal suggesting the presence of something like consciousness and purpose, however minimal or undeveloped?

Comparative psychologists quite properly hesitate to draw sharp lines between human and animal behavior, preferring to speak of differences in degree rather than of differences in kind. But can self-preservation or survival even be conceived without assuming that some degree of "subjective aim" is at work? Hardly, for even a carrot-and-stick psychology must assume that pain is avoided while pleasure is desired, if not desirable. Saving oneís own skin is not, apparently, an exclusively human trait, yet this does not mean that it is nonhuman or subhuman only. The sheer fact that courage is based in animal instinct does not "prove" that instinct may not take the human form of courage. Even exact science measures all things humanly even when it leans over backward not to do so. A thoroughgoing objectivity is always something of a psychic if not a "spiritual" achievement.

If morality is a late arrival on the evolutionary scene, its presence has still to be acknowledged and appreciated. Granted that virtue is the wrong word for describing rats in mazes or two chimpanzees sharing one banana; but is it not entirely appropriate for grasping what human beings do to survive in times of dearth, disaster, or other life-threatening situations? In such cases a sense of self-worth, or " Iím I" is clearly present, and also that rather frightening but bracing "freedom of choice," even if it is only the choice between living and dying. These are the morally necessary factors out of which any sort of virtue must be made. And courage, as a virtue necessary to all others, arises in this same primeval grappling with necessity.

Being neither simply animal nor purely angel, I exist in that precarious middle zone where flesh and spirit mix and mesh inextricably. I cannot abandon the mean, as Pascal says, without forsaking my humanity. Hence I live necessarily within the tension struck by needs, interests, and instinctual drives -- some of which I share with animals and others of which appear to place me on the side of the angels. I must make such life as I can out of materials as contrary as body and soul, instinct and intelligence, the necessary and the possible. This stance may well be both my misery and my grandeur as a human being. It marks where I live as well as where I come from and where I am going. Neither more nor less can be expected of me. In this sense, courage is the sine qua non which by keeping humanity alive also keeps living human.

NOTES

1. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 2.3.

2. Complete Poems of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1967), 343.

3. Moses Hadas, Aristeas to Philocrates (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), 179.

4. G.K. Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1923), 42.

5. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica pt. 2. question 123.art. 2.

Viewed 59063 times.