A Defense of Boasting

We now have a very low estimation of boasters. They are loud-mouthed, arrogant, sometimes self-deceiving, and, while boasting especially, very inconsiderate of others. Such a level of self-importance disgusts us, the non-boasters.

We have the presumption that those who are properly confident have no need to speak of themselves, let alone to sing their own praises. I can’t help but feel that this is on the whole true: confidence in oneself often functions as the quiet background against which one can easily act and speak about all other things but oneself. Confidence reveals itself without speaking itself, without needing to speak of anything but everything else.

But now let me ask why we are revolted by boasters and why boasting ended up falling out of favor. The start of an explanation of our disgust and boasting’s illegitimacy would be to claim that honor societies have disappeared. Beowulf’s boasting in Beowulf and Achilles’s in The Iliad are the means by which they made their claims to glory and through which they roused their spirits to fight. For boasting puffs up the victor–this speaks to the claim about glory–and it also encourages us to overcome our fears of pain, disgrace, and death. The scene is battle, and the life is that of the warrior. Fear is the great enemy, and thus boasting often a fine friend. With the end of honor culture comes the end of the need for boasting–or so we have come to believe.

Continue reading “A Defense of Boasting”

In Praise of Rashness

In The Mysteries of Courage, the legal scholar William Ian Miller invites us to take a second look at rashness. Might rashness be worthy of praise, if only praise in halves?

In the endnotes, Miller references Urmson’s essay on Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean. On this view, cowardice is identified with excessive caution or timidity, courage (the mean) with caution or confidence, and rashness with fearlessness or insensibility. But, as Miller observes, courage isn’t really “equidistant” (if I may put it that way) between cowardice and rashness. If anything, rashness is quite close to courage, timidity being far away. But how can rashness exist in such close proximity to courage?

Miller defines rashness as an “irrational embarkation on a new course of action” (155). We can easily get behind the thought that in times calling for toughness we may need to embark on a new course of action. Indeed, the cowardly person may grant as much but–alas–just pussyfoot around things, never getting around to taking off. So far, so good, we might think. But what about the irrational part in rashness? What makes rashness so irrational?

This doesn’t seem that hard to see, at least not on first acquaintance. The rash person acts without haste or delay and without prior thought. But surely, we might reply, there are plenty of swift actions that are not, for all that, rash. Moreover, there are many actions–take habits–that do not require prior thought. Clearly, we must reply, rashness must be put in the context where there is danger or risk. The conditional matters: when it’s the case that there is danger or considerable risk, to act rashly is to embark on a course of action without delay or prior thought. 

All right, we might say, we know what rashness is, but what is so interesting about rashness anyway? I think it’s that

(a) our time has for too long urged upon us the thought that we must “create safe spaces,” that we must become comfortable and seek comforts,

(b) we have (think “helicopter parents”) inculcated in young persons the vices of softness and timidity (they seem incapable of withstanding much pressure or of surging forth),

(c) we can expect that the coming time will quite possibly be very, very rough, and

(d) rash persons are good at pushing the envelope, going forth, at pressing on.

Hence, let us praise rashness up to a point. A Platonic image will aid us when it comes to the education of the rash person: one who is headstrong can always be tamed so that he can grasp the nature of courage and can become courageous himself, yet the timid man will be too overcome with fear to be able to trained to become courageous. This tracks my own experience in my philosophy practice. Time and again, when the going gets tough, the rash, bold, and daring remain–indeed, expand into the danger–while the timid and overly cautious flee without a word. You will never hear from them again.

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?

Continue reading “5 Puzzles About Courage”

William James on “The Moral Equivalent of War”

William James, a committed pacifist, lived through the Civil War and the Spanish-American War and died during the run-up to World War I. In an incredible essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” first delivered as a talk at Stanford and later published in 1910, the year of his death, James observes that though everyone would prefer to have the peace issuing forth after the Civil War almost no one would want to eradicate from the human record the bloodiest war to have taken place on American soil, a war pitting brother against brother. Reviewing the history of war in an impressionistic sort of way, James allows himself to be entangled in the knot: war is terrible, cruelty and bloodshed are unconscionable, but what virtues it celebrates are excellent, and life without war is, it seems, impoverished and denigrated. Indeed, the socialists, of whom James is one, do not see what could arise were war to be a thing of the past: softness and squeamishness, the desire for pleasures and comforts, universal inferiority, a lack of vitality. It is not as if war has since disappeared from the lives of many in the developed world, but the ennobling virtues of war surely have, and with such a loss has come the emergence of softness. We have become soft period. What was alluded to has become a reality: “A permanently successful peace-economy cannot be a simple pleasure-economy,” James writes a hundred years ago, and yet it has.

James’s insightful approach is to take seriously the militaristic point of view, entering into it and seeing out of it. He writes approvingly, “Militarism is the great preserver of our ideals of hardihood, and human life with no use for hardihood would be contemptible.” War, he notes, makes men harder, tougher, and it makes a people more cohesive, the bonds uniting them stronger. What is more, so far in human history, the martial virtues and attitudes–courage, ambition, contempt of death, vitality, and intensity among them–have been manifested in war and nowhere else, and he writes that, for military apologists, “No ordeal is comparable to its winnowings.” War tests those involved, showing–and this is no cliche–what men are truly made of.

James’s philosophical problem can now be set forth:

1.) The martial virtues are worth affirming in their own right.

2.) Yet the arena in which the material virtues have historically been affirmed–that is, war–is ugly and horrible.

3.) Life without the martial virtues is “flat degeneration” or, as I would say, “softness.”

Continue reading “William James on “The Moral Equivalent of War””