5 Puzzles About Courage

In preparation for a fall course I am teaching at Kaos Pilots entitled “Time to Get Tough,” I am reading William Ian Miller’s interesting book The Mystery of Courage. In the “Introduction,” Miller writes, “The core of courage’s ancient tale is attack and defense against the Other, other men to be exact. The core is about the fear of violent death, pain, and mutilation…” (12). Yet throughout the book, he takes a skeptical view, arguing that courage may not admit of a definition and that there may be no single disposition attachable to courage. Courage is a mystery, he might say, because while we can pick out paradigm cases we don’t know what inner quality makes courage what it is.

To see some sense of the mystery, I offer some puzzles inspired by Miller.

1.) Does courage have to do with risking death or with seeking death? If it has to do with risking death, then daredevils may be our paragons of courage, and yet we balk at the thought of people risking their lives for no apparent reason. However, if courage is about seeking death, then how is such a suicidal act not, as is often said, cowardly–the easy way out? Or is seeking one’s death actually, at least depending on circumstances, that which requires great courage?

2.) Does it make any difference to courage whether one has knowledge? Suppose someone is very skilled, knows what to do in the situation at hand, and therefore knows what he must endure. Suppose another is not very skilled, does not know what to do, and therefore does not know what (or how much) he will endure. Who is courageous–the first man or the second? For the first man has the capacities to get through and, for him, it may be no hard thing to do so, which is not to say that the situation is without its risks. About the second man, however, no such thing can be said. If both make it through, who would garner our praise?

3.) Sometimes it is said that courage is “wise endurance” (Laches). But surely not everything is to be endured (say, a wife being abused, a boxer getting pummeled in the face). But that may be where wisdom comes in, no? But then we would need to know when not to endure, and wouldn’t that too be courage? If so, then courage would be the wisdom governing endurance, attack, and retreat. But how is that not just wisdom pure and simple?

4.) Is courage fearlessness or the overcoming of fear? If it is fearlessness, then that might be owing to a quirk of nature or it may be owing to lack of knowledge. Are we going to say that a young boy who doesn’t know the dangers associated with using toxic chemicals is courageous? Wouldn’t we more likely say that he is foolhardy? However, if courage has to do with the overcoming of fear, then are we going to rule out those who seem to act instinctively and intuitively? Some heroes do not report to having felt fear or much of anything as they ran to saving the child from the burning building. They just acted without having to overcome fear. Indeed, there was no deliberation at all. Are they therefore not acting courageously?

5.) To be admirable, must courage be scarce or could it be plentiful? Though we want everyone to be courageous, if it were plentiful, wouldn’t it lose the quality that gives rise to our admiration? We exhort everyone to be courageous yet we can admit only the few and select to be courageous. Isn’t that counterintuitive?