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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The reductio adsurdum of being successful

The reductio ad absurdum (the reduction to absurdity) of the desire for philosophical inquiry is that an individual or organization

  • happens to be financially secure;
  • has achieved success according to general consensus;
  • has kept decent relations with others;
  • has been socially responsible;

but yet is still unsatisfied. The reductio is that this conception of a good life has been brought into reality but still something significant is missing. How could this be? The stance is one of puzzlement, of bewilderment, of considerable confusion, with no ‘technical solution’ already tried–no small modification or simple tweaking or little refinement–doing any good.

How can this not be enough and why is nothing working? And how can it be that all past approaches have been exhausted? What, indeed, is the question? There is a sense of mystery that cannot be denied and only through philosophical inquiry can clarity be found.

A Gothic afternoon

For two days, the morning fog has blanketed the hillside rising above the cabin. It is, she is right, a bony, smoky shade. We were standing at the lookout when she said the last. We had hiked up a red clay path on a Gothic afternoon–gray sky, abandoned ruins, blasted trees–only to stop at the edge of the cliff to sit and look abroad and point.

The fog was fast moving. Rising from an unseen source, it billowed and furled and rolled across the scene. When we first arrived, it framed a Dutch village immediately before us yet far off, framed the village, that is, while also keeping it hidden. Soon, the sun had changed things, opening up the view, casting light on the blasted trees and verdant fields, revealing to us the welcoming clouds. All around us–behind, below, far off–the trees had grown up to face the sun. They angled toward sunlight, grew into permanent bends, yearned for more.

Did we yearn for more? I do not think so.

A hiker came up us with determined step. “Cloudy,” she said, looked around, and then proceeded to leave. I wondered what she came for.

Bernini’s Pluto and Proserpina: Beauty, death, and eros

The image you are looking at was not taken by a camera. Nor were the fingers pressed into the underside of the woman’s thigh. Nor the index finger–his left index finger–hooked onto her lower rib, marking it. Nor the veins on her butt beginning at the the top of her hip. Nor was the birthmark around the back of her knee, almost touched by her calf. Her left breast and the horizontal scars visible across the back of her left arm are not real either. Her shoulder, flexed, hints at strain.

The scene is dominated by hands and fingers. The thumb, knuckles, and wrist of his left hand all seem certain. His right hand, climbing up and around, is much hungrier, the little finger nearly angry. If his intentions are clear, however, hers are less so. Is she fighting him? Is she into him? Is she grabbing him with even more ferocity? Or shall we conclude all or none?

You are looking at a sculpture. More precisely, an image of a sculpture. It is true: I cannot believe it either.

The woman who sent me the image had come to Rome and, upon beholding these figures, had fallen down on her knees and cried. How could one not, she asked.

The mystery of the pigeons, the tranquility of the birdsong

How many pigeons are there? I lose count every time.

Each pigeon and every pigeon formation come, all come, as a surprise. I look and the formation has changed. Or I turn away, return, and–am I disappointed or reassured?–they have not changed. Or they have. My eye goes back to the places where they were, only my eye has to wander around before it finds, memory being imperfect and time ungenerous, and what it–that is, my eye–finds may be just off the left, to the right, or gone. I adjust my eye. Do I long to be near them, my pigeons?

Set within the tree and against the brick buildings–stucco and sepia and red–and especially when the sky is overcast as it is today, I have trouble picking them out, my pigeons. As I write, I have to turn my head to the right and up to see them, supposing they are where I left them. Will they leave me? Is this my question? Will nothing settled last? I feel sorry, or think I do, when they are gone. And, yes, when I look over and cannot immediately place them, I am saddened. Saddened or just a bit frightened. Or wistful.

I saw one, just now, flutter up, struggling, onto a low branch, the white undersides of its wings pulling it out before my eye. Do the white undersides flap solely in order to draw my eye and draw me out?

I do not know whether it is the allure of my study in tweets, for those who follow my tweets, or whether it is the mystery of life, or whether the asymmetry of the design. How jarring it all is. I do not know whether it is separation. For you look at familiar things, don’t you?, just long enough anyway, and soon you lose count. You look at a woman, a very beautiful one, then at her beautiful nape, and soon she becomes strange.

The truth is, I seem not to understand the once mine pigeons, and I do not know why. I want to understand them, at least I think I do, want to reach my hand out and find the right words in which we can both speak with each other, want to pull them closer to my window and look long and see them truly. Or do I want them to remain friends aloof, steadied solely by my gaze and fixed amid the tree? Or perhaps to sit there and cajole my eye when I turn from work? Or to be fooled a bit, played with without consequence, without harm, cause, or consequence? Could it be that their strangeness–which pains and delights me at once because their  nature is not as anthropomorphic as dogs but more so than fish–sustains, long after I would like, the allure? Ars longa, in short?

All this time, I have not forgotten the birdsong hanging softly into my left ear. You may have, but I have not. The birdsong occurs always, near always, sometimes, daily anyway, around the corner from my armchair, the melody from birds unseen, unidentified, but no matter because that is of no concern to me. I seem to have no desire to know from whence the birdsong comes, only to feel the notes against my ear during the lazy afternoons of winter. Why the mystery of the pigeons and why the tranquility of the birdsong I cannot say.

What I can say: beyond my window off to the right, pigeons unsettling my eye. Beyond my window off to the left, birdsong settling my ear.