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 4: From Coping to Daring
What a new face courage puts on everything! -- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Letters and Social Aims
While endurance is an indispensable part of all courageous conduct, it is by no means the last word to be said on the subject. For courage is a most elastic and therefore elusive virtue. That is why efforts to personify it usually fall of their own weight into bland irrelevance. Such larger-than-life models end up by becoming less than life. Taken too literally they can only bring distance and perhaps despondency into the moral picture. Who can possibly be so good, so pure, so wholly dedicated as this?
The case may be somewhat different with respect to other virtues -- justice, for example. Pictured on courthouse walls, an allegorical figure blindfolded and holding scales represents evenhanded impartiality. As the figure is invariably female the added quality of sympathy for individuals is suggested. Just how these different traits are to be combined in one decision is far from clear. And what this monumental personage has to do with the words and actions over which she is supposed to preside is even less apparent.
But courage, unlike justice, is not to be fixed in any particular institution or tradition. Throughout history, it is true, it has been closely associated with warfare and a soldier under fire may still serve as a prime example. So the names of Bunker Hill or Bull Run are treasured in a nationís memory, and marines raise the flag on Iwo Jima. That is understandable enough, the world being what is is. But see how Emily Dickinson amends the military image of courage:
To fight aloud is very brave,
Because courage is so often anonymous, even in wartime an unknown soldier represents it best. Every language and culture has shining examples kept alive in song and story, yet their very diversity is as striking as their universality. What strange company Cyrano de Bergerac keeps with Joan of Arc, or Samson with Sojourner Truth! Courage is a theme with endless variations. It can be traced all the way from Ice Age to space age, in all walks of life, among enemies and friends alike, through all the modules and modulations that constitute the human world. What people of all times and places have most in common, let it be noted, is their uncommon personhood or selfhood, which is the perennial seedbed of courage.
We should not lose sight of this larger, longer picture when considering our own favorite examples of courage. Any random sampling opens out upon an entire panorama, or pilgrimage, perhaps, of people very like ourselves, hard pressed (we are all in this together) but still resolute (we shall overcome). Before us is a whole spectrum of behavior and belief that is somehow to be included in describing courage, along with its synonyms like bravery, valor, fortitude, honor, and many others. The analogy of a spectrum will guide us through the following.
Of course, no single standard spectrum exists for elucidating the full range of meanings and bearings in the one term, courage. One must choose from many that are possible. The range may run from bare survival at one end to bold aggression at the other. Or it may go all the way from physical vitality to lofty spirituality, say, from Tarzan to Parsifal. Again, it may cover in Pascalian manner the distance from human wretchedness to human grandeur. Medieval moralists, following Aristotle, considered courage as gradations from endurance to attack. It should be noted too that we have no moral spectroscope available for analyzing into its component colors the common-uncommon virtue known as courage. Nevertheless the work of understanding its varied shades and tones of meaning, or what might be called the chromatics of courage, should prove both intriguing and important. Passing the light of human courage through the prism of speech and thought regarding it, what are some of its more readily acknowledged expressions?
One of the dimmer bands in our courage-spectrum is lighted up by the word "coping." Today we use it constantly to indicate very specific chores like getting meals or making business deals, so that it may have lost the very aura or feel of courage. Ordinarily, when a word like this is employed to cover almost everything, it manages to identify nothing. All the same, its use is significant as it reveals a sense of life as marked by difficult, demanding tasks. Far from being as recent a word as might be thought, "coping" was employed in Chaucerís and Shakespeareís England to refer to such activities as fighting on a battlefield or trading in a marketplace. I cope with my enemy by contending with him according to rules of combat binding us both. Or I cope in the market by buying or selling goods or services, bargaining with others under conditions of supply and demand. In either case, coping implied some measure of success in field or market, due to strength or shrewdness on the coperís part.
Presently we use the word in a much wider frame of reference. Almost every publishing season brings out books on coping with illness, coping with a family budget, coping with midlife crises, divorce, job pressures, religious doubts, and so forth. The word has come to mean any kind of problem solving with a prospect of success.
Probably the field of work provides our most conspicuous kinds of coping. Getting the work out makes the whole world kin, whether one is a homemaker on a lonely farm or an executive in a skyscraper office. Each is a worker whose work is new each morning and old each night. The most glamorous of occupations is not free from piecework and chore work, going through motions that have been learned, adapting simple means to short-range ends. Even the temporary occupant of Washingtonís Oval Office must meet a rigid schedule of people to be seen, reports to be read, letters to be answered, speeches to be written under deadlines -- all of which means coping with the toil and drudgery that is a part of all work.
We used to hear about the dignity of labor. That made sense when the worker was essentially a person with a craft learned after a period spent as an apprentice, at home, shop, or school. A loaf of bread baked in the family oven, a basket, chair, or cupboard, a field plowed for planting -- here were sturdy tributes to human ingenuity and effort. As in all coping, the monotony and persistence of the job itself might outweigh the satisfactions to be found in it. And yet a certain degree of pleasure could be given by the fact that a workerís task was his or her own; credit and compensation came from doing it well, so that a direct, obvious connection between materials and methods used placed the worker above the work for which responsibility had been assigned.
Today, however, the craftsmanship which formerly went into the making of a better mousetrap or a well-wrought urn has all but disappeared from most work. The dignity of labor has become an empty phrase for many workers. Credit and blame are not so easy to fix; standards of beauty and utility do not support one another; mass-produced articles designed to sell cannot provide a sense of participation and contribution to the worker in the work. A certain amount of training and skill are still required, but they are soon offset by the tending and operating of machines that seem more necessary to the work than the worker can ever claim to be. Making bricks without straw has its modern counterpart in Charlie Chaplinís assembly-line clowning ("Modern Times") or Arthur Millerís tragically bumbling, ever-smiling "Salesman."
The question every worker asks sooner or later is, Do I control my work or does my work control me? Whether or not robots-monitoring-robots is a preview of things to come, the present alienation of the worker from his or her work is a signal ominous enough. This term, borrowed of course from the writings of Karl Marx, points not only to an increased distancing of workers from the goals or aims of their working, but even more to their detachment from the means of production as the work is speeded up, fragmented, and depersonalized. The proliferating of labor-saving devices only makes work more laborious. And have we not been learning to our sorrow that health and welfare for the worker do not result automatically from the technical advances that were supposed to guarantee them? Instead there are more things to watch, more things to go wrong, more possibilities of failure and accident, as workers come to be controlled more and more completely by the built-in demands of their work.
The alienation of workers from their work has created a syndrome of lowered self-esteem and chronic anxiety. Today, millions of so-called skilled or unskilled workers must cope not simply with the wearisome drudgery that is involved in all work, but even more with their own feelings of powerlessness and aggressiveness, which are bound at some time to explode in street violence, general strikes, or political revolt. Capitalist as well as socialist countries have known the bitter fruit of this unholy, inhuman alliance. The deepest effect, however, is that upon individual workers themselves. A vicious circle of resistance and repression leading to new resistance begins. As the collaborative and contributive nature of work disappears from view, earning oneís living becomes the wresting of private gain from whatever work place one happens to occupy. With few exceptions, compensation comes not from work itself but is ulterior to the work; and this reduction of work to its cash value puts an effective end to craftsmanship and cooperation while at the same time it hastens the advanced stages of oppression and alienation. It is scarcely to be wondered that the battling and bargaining for workersí rights should become almost an obsession on almost every job. Whether in Poland or in Appalachia, in the British Midlands or in California vineyards, the news is not good.
Now there is something entirely healthy and honorable in recognizing that work is essential to living humanely in any time or place. For the majority of men and women most days are work days, as they have always been. Home keeping, bread winning, and family rearing have been the common lot of humankind ever since Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden. And such work is necessarily coping, for it is done largely in bits and pieces, broken up into specific tasks and duties, endlessly repeated yet always strangely unfinished.
Let it be granted that coping in the work place is a life style without very much style. Lacking the flourish of final accomplishment, its benchmarks are instead those of patient adjustment to the job immediately at hand. Such coping, however, should not be denied its rightful name of courage. In its own, perhaps small, way it shares in the resilient steadfastness embodied and enacted in all courage. Staying on the job, refusing to cut corners or patch over blemishes in oneís work, may not add up to anything like a victory march; but the very absence of personal recognition and reward may greatly enhance the moral excellence of coping. Moreover, it can yield genuine personal pleasure and a sense that progress is being made. There is a story of a priest who stopped to talk with a farmer in his parish. The priest said, "You see, my good man, what you and God have wrought together." "You should have seen this place," replied the farmer, "when God had it all to himself."
If coping keeps a low profile on the spectrum of courage it does manage nonetheless to give concrete expression to significant moral truth. It is a principle to be reckoned with that the higher moral values are weaker than the lower values on which they depend, even if the stronger exist for the sake of the higher. Thus Scripture tells us that we do not live by bread alone, while common sense insists that without bread we cannot live at all. By the same token, skills performed routinely and chores carried out on schedule are the necessary steps that make possible all pure science and fine art. Practice does make perfect, which is to say that humankindís most splendid achievements are based solidly upon coping effectively with available materials by appropriate methods.
Courageous coping, or problem solving, may appear quite unreflective just because it is so clearly practical in nature. Becoming preoccupied with practicalities does not exempt us from the rigors and ardors of careful, honest thinking. Merely venting our antagonisms or discussing our difficulties may only make them greater and less manageable. This is a lesson that those much given to "talking it out" find hard to learn. But there are problems that problem solving cannot really cope with, for a truly human world includes mysteries not amenable to coping, such as those informing our relationships to one another -- all the way from intimacy to hostility. Those predicaments and emergencies to which mortal flesh is heir may not lend themselves to any all-out problematic, manipulative approach. Rather, they demand and invite the sort of wisdom undergirded by courage that is more intent on understanding than on getting things done.
But for all that, coping goes part way if not the whole since it is a low-keyed kind of courage not to be underestimated or disregarded. Keeping on and bearing up, if not indeed the entire meaning of life, nevertheless has been known to repay stubbornness with a precious gleam of confidence; and that is always worth remembering in any time of toil or trouble.
Another band in the courage-spectrum is suggested by the familiar word timing. Earlier we noted the difference between mechanically kept time and humanly realized time. But there is a sadness about time in either sense; for it is as plain as day and as mysterious as night that everything mortal bears the mark of sheer temporality. We never step into the same river twice, declared an ancient philosopher. The only permanence is actually change, his modern colleague added. Time waits for no one, never comes to a full stop, leaves its mark on everything we do or have or are. A suspicion forms and grows that time may be the very meaning of reality as we know it.
Is time only another word for change? Think of what we do in telling time. Checking a date on the calendar or glancing at a wristwatch may seem simple enough, but is it? My ancestors used hourglasses and sundials for the same purpose, while I employ split-second instruments and standardized procedures. Does this give me great advantage over them in knowing what time it is, humanly speaking? Perhaps then change is not the last word about time, if it is so important to fix the right time with its signals of delight or duty, promise or warning, good fortune or bad. Creatures of change we certainly are, who know not what a day may bring forth or what response will be required of us. Nevertheless we go on taking the measure of that which is measuring us. Our life in time is not all drift and waste, or we would long ago have given up the effort to determine where we stand in it. Which is to say that our clocks are always striking the hour of courage.
Courageous timing strikes a mean between two oddly contradictory attitudes toward time. "There are times that make us happy, there are times that make us blue," as the song says. When under stress of future peril or past failure, I am tempted to regard time as the enemy of all I hold dear, perhaps even as Fate itself, carrying me along with everything else in the world through endless cycles of change from which no escape is possible. Forever in transit, in motion from life to death, growth to decay, I can see no signs of anything resembling progress. All I can be sure of is that "time like an everlasting stream bears all its sons away" -- and daughters, too, let it be added to keep the record straight. Such a mood of fatalism with regard to time grips all of us from time to time. It holds, with the writer of Ecclesiastes, that there is nothing new under the sun, and with the modern philosopher Whitehead that time is a "perpetual perishing" from which no good may finally be expected.
But then in moments of relative security and happiness I may slide easily into a mood of optimism about time, feeling its passage as a benign undercurrent to my purposes and projects. "Thereís always tomorrow." Time gives me room to move in so that everything does not have to be done or decided at once. In such a mood swing I will cherish the image of timeís arrow flying from the known past toward an unknown future that is pregnant with possibility, opening up range upon range of opportunities long wished-for.
What matters, then, is to make the best of time, as those who watch for the morning, like Zona Galeís father of whom it was said, "He loved to stand at the prow of the boat and let the spray of the future splash against his face." Although this opportunism with respect to time is chiefly emotional and practical, like its opposite number fatalism, it can usually come up with enough theory to justify itself. Indeed, whole philosophies of progress, creativity, or evolutionary advance have been constructed on this basis.
These contrasting attitudes, if crystallized into beliefs, would merely cancel each other out. One cannot be both fatalistic and opportunistic about time, at least not at the same time. Still, courageous timing must somehow include both, for each reading must be noted and reckoned with. The whole truth concerning time is not available to those who must be "birds of passage" living from one moment to the next. We can simulate it, to be sure. On the chancel screen in Chartres Cathedral a visitor may see one of those curiously complicated medieval clocks that tell not only the time of the day but the day of the week, the month of the year, the hours of sunrise and sunset, the phase of the moon, and the sign of the Zodiac -- a feat not quite duplicated by our digital timepieces today. Yet no mechanical device, however artful and accurate, can yield an overall idea of time-in-general. There is still a time to sow and a time to reap, a time to save and a time to spend, a time to mourn and a time to dance. Whereas the fatalist is tied mainly to the past and the opportunist is fascinated by the future, courageous common sense accepts the present as the only time that actually exists, whatever may be its signs and portents.
True, every present moment is heavy with the weight of past moments, recollected and refocused. Likewise, each present is formed partly by the lure of future urgency, moved and moving by a kind of forward motion of its own. Not every future is bright nor every past regrettable, and so instead of wandering in times that do not belong to us, the better part of wisdom -- and of courage --is to live in the present, the only time there actually is, with its mixed signals and the tension they provoke.
"Life is so daily," a friend used to sigh. The same truth can produce a smile, too. Since time is forever shaping itself into successive moments, a series of unique and unrepeatable presents, I have to take such readings and bearings as I can. They are bound to be provisional and partial simply because time is moving and I am moving with and through it. For discerning what the time is, a good rule of thumb is the Bibleís "in the time of prosperity, be joyful; in the time of adversity, consider." Since I live in a time between the times, one dying and the other being born, I cannot wait till all the evidence is in to make my rendezvous with temporality. I can however move ahead with the risky resolve of courage, trying to understand as best I can the meaning behind Shakespeareís "the readiness in all."
For our encouragement let it be said that every Now is really new, at any rate for persons who can do what they must and must do what they can to leave their signatures upon time with discriminating and decisive timing. Being creatures of time does not make us its hostages or heroes, any more than it makes time a treadmill or a turnpike. Is it a paradox, beyond belief, that the present, which seems so ephemeral, is the only real time? No, for every present moment, no matter how fleeting, constitutes the only viewpoint and standpoint from which decisive action can be taken. Perhaps it is providential that time is not all of one piece and does not last forever, but is singularly plural, presenting us with "now or never" choices and decisions. Not that we are able to hold back timeís flow, much less to manipulate its momentum to our advantage; nevertheless time bears on its face an indelible witness to humankindís capacity for producing change as well as suffering change. The question, then, is always whether beings like ourselves can act to make the best out of even the worst of times; and only courageous timing can give the answer.
Moving further across the courage-spectrum a brighter band shows up, which is indicated by the word choosing. Leon Blum, a French Socialist writer, reflected toward the end of his political career, "I have often thought morality may perhaps consist in the courage of making a choice." This is surely a lead worth following in our survey of the modes or types of courage.
How frequently today one hears talk about options and alternatives! These are the latest terms in what has long been called the problem of free will. They signify possible courses of action lying open to the chooser, who surveys the field and then selects from it what he or she is going to do. It all seems simple and direct enough. The picture here is that of moral agents choosing freely, taking full charge of the situation, acting decisively and effectively.
These much-used words are not as clear-cut as they sound, however. Their familiarity masks a certain ambiguity. Freedom of choice is not wide open but is limited by the very plurality of the options that may be envisaged. If I choose to be a butcher then I cannot be a baker and candlestickmaker too. If I marry Jane then Julia is excluded. So it comes down to the fact that I am free to choose only because I am forced to choose. I cannot have things both ways, and the actualizing of one option means annulling another option. No real choice exists without rejection, whether of mere postponement or deliberate avoidance.
A further cause of ambiguity in the vocabulary of alternatives and options arises from the fact that my choices are not as completely free as I would like to suppose, as they are partly determined by the kind of person I am, by what an earlier vocabulary called my heredity and my environment. Into every choice I make I carry habits and tendencies that make my choice mine and not anotherís. If I seem to be acting "out of character" that is probably due to the sense of narrowing restraint imposed upon my freedom. In other words, my freedom is determined by limits that make choosing both possible and necessary. And that is something of a problem, if not a mystery.
Again, free will or choice is qualified because some options are more workable or achievable than others, which is why we draw up "feasibility studies" and "priority charts." What are the chances that my choices may result in actions? So it is the better part of prudence (another ancient virtue lately in eclipse) to sort out the available alternatives according to norms of practical effectiveness, even though there are occasions when prudence ought to yield to courage. But of course practicability is not the only norm for selecting an option, and its exclusive use results in a confusion of ends with means, of the "why" with the "how" of an intended outcome. Cannily sizing up oneís chances of success should not be taken as essential to moral endeavor.
Freedom of will or choice is only the emptiest of phrases unless it signifies action that follows decision. In his landmark treatment of this whole subject Jonathan Edwards defined freedom of will as "power to choose and to do what is chosen." The point he made so thoroughly needs to be reemphasized: choosing is always choosing to do, to act in some specific way to remedy or improve some concrete situation. Real freedom means power to carry through from intention to action. Indeed, making a choice is itself an action ventured in view of further, future action. It is taken in freedom for the sake of greater freedom. Being free to choose, then, expresses choosing to be free.
Tidying up oneís misconceptions of freedom is all very well, and yet falls short of gaining a profoundly positive approach. One step in this direction comes when it is recognized that "freedom from" is not the same as "freedom for" (a truism, to be sure, but donít neglect the truth that lurks in truisms!). Independence of "outside" control is obviously a necessary part of freedom, but a lesser part. The person just released from prison is legally free, yet it remains to be seen whether this new status can support the burden of a greater, growing freedom. Healthy progress from childhood toward maturity involves removing parental discipline and peer-group pressure to a large extent, although getting rid of such constraining influences has value only as it frees the adult for new relationships and responsibilities that open up a future more productive and creative than the past.
After all, freedom is what freedom does and what it does can hardly be called "conditioning" or "behavior modification." Unlike rats in laboratory mazes, Homo sapiens possesses the power to choose and to do what is chosen. That this power belongs within a long evolutionary inheritance, extending all the way from self-preserving instinct to self-realizing intelligence, goes without saying. Truly human life does not merely repeat but reshapes the wider life process out of which it emerges. And by devising out of these materials what may be termed breakthroughs of becoming, human freedom brings into play the operation of courageous choosing.
In what does the courage of making a choice consist? Traditionally, it has been situated in the human will, thought to occupy a place midway between emotion and reason. These older ways of mapping selfhood viewed willing as neither feeling nor thinking but containing characteristics of both. Will, they asserted, has the energy associated with "passions" or "affections" while displaying also the vision proper to "mental" or "intellectual" comprehension. Recent psychology and philosophy has largely given up this rather hybrid term in favor of more objective language. Yet there are signs that will is coming back, as the sheer human fact of willing -- intending, choosing, purposing -- still has to be accounted for and not explained away. In Gordon Kaufmanís words, human nature is fundamentally agential, which may be said more colloquially by observing that persons are characteristically "up to something" rather than being only parrots or puppets controlled by nonhuman processes and structures. Neither chemistry nor genetics, it would seem, can provide the answer to Freudís wryly revealing question: "Why does the ego fall in love?"
The presence of real motives in the human psyche may be well disguised, but they will not go away. And one may choose not to choose, or be unwilling to take the consequences of a choice already made; but this in no way eliminates the phenomenon of will itself, or something quite akin to it. A politician may slough off charges of wrongdoing by admitting only an error of judgment, but his alibi is actually a limp avowal of accountability. Human deeds demand a human measure, even if new words must be found and used for old meanings.
"Planning" is an overworked word that extends the vocabulary of free choice or will in several directions at once. Often it carries a rather grandiose sense, especially when linked with "development." Large-scale projects involving huge changes made by powerful groups are called to mind. Here, however, let it mean any effort made to bridge the gap between a chosen outcome and the means of realizing it. Engineers and managers make planning their business, calculating in advance the conditions to be met if an intended result is to be reached. Blueprints and guidelines spell out these conditions for those at work on the project. Planning has a tendency of its own to become so technical and operational that its moral complications are easily forgotten. But that should not lead anyone to believe that such considerations are to be dispensed with, any more than one must blindly accept the current dogma that "bigger is better." Corporate enterprises are in fact as vulnerable to moral failure as the lonely choices made by private persons; there are risks (which planning tries to reduce) involved in all choosing. These risks engage the planners in a venture of mutual trust and common purpose. Technology has not yet rendered obsolete the claims of moral responsibility, nor is it likely to do so.
In a tantalizingly brief essay Karl Rahner writes that an engineer who knows in advance that his bridge will hold may have no need of courage, but the workers who execute his plan will need courage in order to span the distance from calculated success to its actual accomplishment, so long as the outcome remains uncertain. Such courage, Rahner observes, is more obviously technical and instrumental than it is radical or total, since in the latter case it would approach the character of all-out faith. Yet without such courage there would be no bridge at all.2
Courageous choosing is by no means a merely private act, and it does not become unfree simply by being compounded with other wills in planned, cooperative endeavor. No human self can be free of itself or by itself. Freedom is only sham and bogus if it is exercised in isolation from oneís fellows. The meshing of individual wills in common action yields perhaps the surest, most complete meaning of freedom. Which is to say, of course, that courage too is emphatically a social virtue, precisely because it centers in the will of persons who choose to act and be acted upon in the company of other persons, with all the precious yet risky possibilities that their choices help to bring about.
Let no one suppose that courage is the prerogative of busy, project-pushing types; it also finds ways of expressing itself in what activists refer to as the "ivory tower" of intellectual pursuits. Therefore a word or two about the intellectual forms of courage may be in order.
The widely accepted notion that intellectuals are indecisive, eccentric people who steer clear of responsible engagement with harsh reality will not stand. The stereotype is proved false by the fact that science has its martyrs no less than religion. How often in the past and present have novel inventions or discoveries been resented and resisted by heavy investors in the status quo! Serious seekers after truth in any field are likely to be suspected, if not silenced, by multitudes of their contemporaries. The Spinozas and Madame Curies of the modern world are but conspicuous examples of a whole intellectual martyrology. Rather than list names, however, let us take intelligence as we find it in familiar kinds of learning.
It is probably unfortunate that most recent research into the nature of intelligence has been school-oriented. Henry Adams spoke for many others when he declared bluntly that going to school had practically nothing to do with his own education. For all that, learning has been known to happen sometimes in libraries and classrooms under the guidance of teachers appointed for this purpose. If the paraphernalia of courses, assignments, and tests cannot guarantee this result, any more than giving grades and degrees, they have yet not been totally ineffective or irrelevant. Learning flourishes, to be sure, on spurts of curiosity, shifts of attention, moments when bare facts take on the luster of felt value for the learner. So, as John F. Kennedy said, to Thomas Jefferson knowledge was fuel to light the fires of his mind, not wood to be piled neatly in the woodbox.
Learning, if and when it does occur, is mind-kindling and ardent. It may even become lifelong, offering a continuous invitation to surprise. As information is stretched and strengthened by imagination, seasoned by the disciplines of patient study and open-minded inquiry, authentic learning happens. Actually, a learner is engaged in unlearning and relearning, as fresh clues are given and methods are refined; old explanations cease to satisfy and must be discarded or revised. The wonder is that learning should be kindled by the sort of education that may seem designed to stifle it at birth.
Courageous learning is Abraham Lincoln saying, "I shall study and get ready and someday my time will come." Reading Shakespeare and Blackstone had little to do with storekeeping or railsplitting; but the lonely hours of study did more than prepare Lincoln for a hoped-for opportunity; they actually helped to create the shape of his vocational future. "Rather than be idle," a college teacher said once, "I would take up a book and read." Study is to learning what practice is to performance. More than simple preparation for a future goal, it grasps and fashions that goal through an eager patience which is the very gist of intellectual courage.
It may sound paradoxical to say so, but learning promotes in any learner a spirit of inquiry that is both tenacious and tentative. "I donít know, letís see" can be taken as its constant motto. The idea that learning is only acquiring and amassing quantities of knowledge must be decisively rejected. Knowledge is really not quantitative, despite our well-intentioned efforts to divide it into "fields" for our exploring or exploiting. Hence it will not do to suppose that learning represents a kind of mastery over inert data by mental attack, as if education were no more than manipulation. Why is it that a beginning student in physics, for example, seems more sure of what he or she claims to know than the professor? It is because the professor has become far more aware of a greater range of problems to be solved as well as the possible sources of error in solving them.
The Middle Ages called this built-in tentativeness of intellectual inquiry a docta ignorantia or "learned ignorance," as when it was affirmed that "ignorance learned the hard way leads best to God." If in modern fashion we substitute "truth" for "God" this statement still hold good. Knowing what one does not know is a significant part of knowledge and a strong incentive for knowing more. Being aware that one may be mistaken, and willing to admit it, may indeed be rough on a learnerís pride, yet without such a tentative attitude all actual progress in learning and knowing becomes impossible.
As learning is a growing word, it signifies more than the acquisition of knowledge and leans toward wisdom. Cerebral changes can be monitored and charted with a fair degree of accuracy, but growth from limited parochial perspectives toward more humane and universal ones is less amenable to measurement. Such growth may prove painful, even traumatic, since it threatens earlier securities and certainties so-called. To sustain the shock of moving out of provincial into truly objective ways of thinking is bound to require courage. Intellectual courage may be less conspicuous than physical courage, and yet its demands and rewards may be greater, too. As knowing becomes nurtured and confirmed in being, as intelligence matures in understanding, the virtue of wisdom comes positively into play.
A life devoted to learning is far more strenuous than its detractors would have us believe. The learner must match his or her strength against ignorant inertia or willful error, whether they are lodged in the learnerís own self or in powerful institutions. In a society that is chiefly acquisitive and managerial, real learners must be something of an embattled minority. A serious searcher after truth will experience intellectual struggle and hardship, as John Donne in his "Third Satire" wrote:
On a huge hill, cragged and steep,
Most folk, when asked offhand to give a prime example of courage, would probably cite cases of daring. Climbing Annapurna Mountain in Nepal, capturing an enemy battery single-handed, blazing a new trail through unmapped wilderness, innoculating oneself with an untested serum -- exploits like these do give striking evidence of courage. They usually involve great personal risk and demonstrate beyond all doubt the boldness and originality of which humans are capable.
Why is it, then, that traditional ethics should have given such short shrift to daring as a form of courage? One likely reason is that daring exploits have a reckless, audacious quality that upsets the balance every virtue tries to maintain, throwing caution to the winds and forsaking the standards of prudence and patience. So Thomas Aquinas insisted that "fiery daring" is neither sin nor virtue but is actually an excess of courage -- courage out of bounds, gone wild, off-center, and beyond control. The same ground rules led Plato and Aristotle to exclude daring from the spectrum of courage. How else could ethical tradition deal with a case like Charles Péguy, the French poet, charging alone across no manís land in his brilliant Zouave uniform to certain death at German hands during the First World War?
Most of us, however, would prefer to see in Péguyís act an authentic if extreme evidence of human courage. For is there not in all truly courageous conduct, even in mere coping, an unmistakable boldness and spontaneity? Courage always exhibits daring in some sense or other. An occasional burst of unexpected bravado can always be expected where humans are concerned. Psychologists have a term for this: "inappropriate affect. " Laughing on the outside while crying on the inside is a good example. Unprecedented challenges call forth responses equally unprecedented. Daring is indeed a spur-of-the-moment kind of courage, impromptu and perhaps capricious, which seers and sages are not likely to recommend. Napoleon in exile, recalling his military experience, said that he had found courage a very rare commodity at two oíclock in the morning; he called it "improvised courage."
Although there is a hint of daring in almost every sort of courage, it should be clear that courage goes well beyond sheer daring. Daredevils can always draw crowds and enjoy short-lived popularity, whether they scale skyscraper walls or race cars around a speedway; but their feats are not to be confused with the courage of a politician who confesses publicly his wrongdoing or a labor leader who is sent to jail for protesting injustice to fellow workers. Then too, not all daring acts are truly courageous, even if they do share something of the true tone of all courage. Playing with fire or tilting at windmills may be only foolish and best forgotten. A failed rescue mission, for instance, is just that and no more, despite the commander-in-chiefís face-saving estimate of it as, of all things, "an incomplete success." Probably Aquinas was on the right track after all when he asserted that daring is not the essence of courage and should neither be condemned nor praised for itself alone.
Still, courage without a modicum of daring would be a poor, pedestrian thing indeed. All thoughtful interpretations recognize this. Bravery at two oíclock in the morning, or at two oíclock in the afternoon, holds in tension the contrasting traits of enduring and attacking courage. Courage to attack is brief, inspired by future danger and a strong hope that it may be overcome. Courage to endure is long-term, where danger is present and seems stronger than oneís own ability to meet it. Yet these forms of courage also have much in common with each other. Does not endurance, standing fast or holding ground, have a real gallantry, an élan of its own? Audacity and integrity, spontaneity and stubbornness, belong together in any inventory of the types and styles of human courage.
Courage, then, ranges as widely and deeply as our humanness itself. No condition or contingency can be imagined where it is inadmissible. This may be what Pascal had in mind when he wrote that "our very miseries prove our greatness." Only in weakness can we be made strong. Frail and vulnerable as we all are, courage must be the name of the game that consists in being and becoming human. From coping to daring, and all the way between, our life is dignified and fortified by the new face courage puts on everything.
1. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., n. d.), 59.
2. Karl Rahner, S.J., Meditations on Freedom and the Spirit, Crossroad Books (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), 15 16.
Viewed 61842 times.