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?

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Aristotle on Toughness

We have become soft and it’s time to get tough. Aristotle says that “it is softness to fly from what is troublesome” and so the coward does. But then most of us are flying from what is troublesome. Can we even recall what courage is?

Aristotle:

The coward, the rash man, and the brave man, then, are concerned with the same objects but are differently disposed toward them; for the first two exceed and fall short, while the third holds the middle, which is the right, position; and rash men are precipitate, and wish for dangers beforehand but draw back when they are in them, while brave men are excited in the moment of action, but collected beforehand.

All three men are concerned with the fearful and the excellent (kalon), yet the rash man rushes headlong into something without having knowledge of what is to be feared whereas the coward is full of fear and reacts accordingly. What Aristotle observes is that both the coward and the rash man draw back, ultimately.

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The eager volunteer

Think back to a time early in your schooling. Recall the moment (maybe it was in third grade or sixth) when your teacher asked for a volunteer. One boy’s hand shoots up into the air–that boy, you think–and the teacher, looking at him, quips, ‘But I haven’t even told you yet what you’re volunteering for?’ ‘I don’t care,’ he replies, his hand still kept up. ‘I’ll do it.’

This is the boy, the one who volunteers for something he’s never done before before knowing what it is or whether he can do it, that you want to be friends with. Or become yourself.

The overly eager boy is primed to become properly courageous later on in life. He can learn temperance and deliberateness with time and through formative experience. Whereas the young boy who begins in timidity will grow into a frightened, embittered man, clawing and clutching for what lies near.

Facing up to life

We had fallen for the lure. A day before the Vernal Equinox, there were plenty of inklings of spring. The robins, even before this, had grown plump and plentiful and were everywhere seeking and pulling plump worms clean from the earth. The Pileated Woodpeckers were bashing their heads against the locust trees and, in the next instant, tearing down the mountainside like some blood-crazed kamikazes. Even the lowdown rabid dogs scarcely bellowed but were resting their convulsing lungs.

But by Sunday, the forecast had changed and, with it, our resolve. Who knows how many inches have fallen since and how hard the bracing wind has blown? Who knows how long the power will stay on before it flickers on and finally off? Who knows whether our wood will last, our ready supply of candles and gallons of water be enough?

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O brave woman

At 5:47 a.m., the rim of the sky wore a pinkish hue. It was fuchsia. At 7:46 p.m. last night, the stain glass of the bell tower was lit all in fuchsia. I awoke early, recalling the cool steps of the courtyard, awoke, curled up like a fetus, and thought of you.

O brave woman, know that pain has an element of blank.

And now the trees in the courtyard and all the trees of the world jostle lightly with the wind. Will you look with me? And now the light is picked up by my eastern wall. Look, look here with me, but look. It alights on a photo of the lake. In the foreground, the water is so dark blue as to be black, black, and black while in the background the light is sublime, the aura of moving dust, the intimation of radiant being.

O my brave woman, know that we are here.