Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Some Thoughts on Courage

Dr. Helen Smith recently asked us all to offer some thoughts about courage. Clearly, it is a primary civic virtue, but do we really know what it is or why it matters? And why does it always seem to be defined in terms that make it more a masculine than a feminine virtue? Link here.

Unsurprisingly, much of the best thinking about courage comes to us from Aristotle. So I will follow his thought through much of this post. For those who are interested, the relevant texts are his Magna Moralia, Eudemian Ethics: Books I, II, and VIII (Clarendon Aristotle Series) (Bks.1, 2 & 8), and Nicomachean Ethics.

Aristotle believed that courage involved confidence in the face of danger. Anyone who is confident, he wrote, in circumstances where other people would be afraid is brave or courageous.

Given that courage is a civic virtue, Aristotle declared that it must be exercised rationally and freely. Someone who does not understand that there is danger is not being courageous; he is being foolhardy. And someone who gets carried away by passion and commits actions that would otherwise be called courageous does not represent the embodiment of virtue. You cannot be courageous if you do not know what you are doing.

As was his wont, Aristotle defined courage as something that exists somewhere between cowardly and foolhardy. In our terms, courage exists somewhere between trigger-happy and gun-shy.

The key to being courageous is knowing when, where, and how to put it into action.

There is no courage in picking a fight for no good reason with someone who is of no importance. And there is no courage in refusing to face any and all dangers. Shying away from any action that would endanger you is not courageous.

To be courageous, you need to know whether the specific situation requires an act of courage, and whether you are the one to perform it. And then, of course, you need to perform it.

Courage exists in action, not in feeling or thought. You may feel that you are extremely courageous but if, when the time for action comes, you do not act courageously, you will have failed the test.

As Dr. Helen points out, the crux of the issue is the connection between courage and masculinity. Is courage just an outmoded stereotype that forces men to conform to society's idea of manly behavior? Or are we at fault, as Dr. Helen suggests, for teaching men to be cowards?

If you look at these issues through the lens of evolutionary psychology, they become more clear. Since men are very often stronger than women and children, they have been called upon to protect and defend those weaker than they.

When men want to show themselves to be suitable mates, they try to prove their courage, their willingness to risk life and limb, their ability to face extreme danger... in order to show that they can protect women and children.

Again following Darwin, reproductively speaking, men are the more expendable sex. By what must be considered an insidious patriarchal plot, women's lives are considered to be more valuable than men's. A woman's contribution to reproductive success far exceeds a man's, thus a man has the liberty to hunt and fight, to be away from home for extended periods of time, while a mother does not.

For men wounds are badges of courage. For women they are signs of vulnerability.

If this is true-- and we have no real reason to think it is not-- then boys are more prone to fight, to struggle, to compete, and to take unnecessary risks to impress girls. As everyone knows this starts at a young age, in the schoolyard.

And as everyone also knows, girls find the boys who win fights to be more attractive. Unless, of course, they are bullies who pick on those who are weak. The greater the strength disparity the less the courage involved.

By definition, a bully is not going to be a reliable protector. His impulse to hurt the weak speaks ill of his capacity for courage.

When children are involved, the courage often involves a strong dose of posturing. Given that boys do not have very many adult responsibilities the chances for them to demonstrate courage are limited.

Yet, when grown men indulge in the same posturing, we do not see them as courageous, but as pretenders.

Sometimes, in their politically correct deliria, today's schools decide that vigorous competitive activity, especially the kind that boys love, must be outlawed because it promotes the wrong kinds of stereotypes.

Evidently, these efforts to stifle boys' nature leads these same boys to displace their impulse onto video games, violent sports, and even gang activity.

Some might say that boys have a violent streak, an aggressive impulse that leads them to want to hurt others. I would prefer to say that they are developing their civic character, their courage, by trying it out in different situations.

Can girls and women be courageous? Of course, they can. But even today, when women have many more opportunities to exhibit courage in the workplace, there is still no real sense in our culture that girls should engage in violent sports and vigorous struggles as a means to proving their suitability as mates.

But, what happens in the culture when women are encouraged to learn martial arts... as a means of protecting themselves? What is left of the man's role of protector if women declare themselves fully capable of fending for themselves?

In my view, this image of the new female warrior who does not need a man, but who can defend herself and her children, is illusory. It is a convenient fiction for the politically correct crowd, but far more easy to portray in fiction than to live out in the world.

Unfortunately, some segments of our culture promote this intellectual deformity. Then they are shocked to discover that women do not really find these newly feminized men all that attractive after all. Pity to those men who accept these ideas unthinkingly and fail to develop their capacity for courage. Link here.

[A warm welcome to those of you who have gotten to this post via Instapundit or Dr. Helen. My thanks to Prof. Glenn Reynolds and Dr. Helen Smith for linking it.] 


Earth Girl said...

We were going through our parents' papers after their death and were sharing passages from Dad's letters to Mom, his fiance, written while he was in Europe in WWII. In one letter, Dad wrote that they would need courage to start a new life. His 4-year-old great-granddaughter looked up from her play with a look of awe and whispered "courage."

Two things struck me. 1. The greatest generation did have courage to marry and start a family after living through the depression and the war. Dad implied that it was more courageous than fighting in a war. 2. Even a young child understood the value of courage.

Richard said...

Fortitude is the classical virtue that moderates the passions of fearless and daring

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Dr. Scheiderman
RE: Sorry Doc....

....but Aristotle is dead wrong on this....

Aristotle believed that courage involved confidence in the face of danger. -- Aristotle as cited by Dr. Scheiderman

Why do I say this? Because confidence comes in many forms. Including the confidence of a man wielding a .45 cal ACP in the face of a man threatening him with a 'banahna'.

Courage is better described as I put it from a citation from decades ago on Dr. Helen's site....

Courage is knowing you're going to be severely beaten. But going ahead anyway.

If the men at the Alamo had the courage as described by Aristotle, Texas would STILL BE Mexican territory.

Confidence helps, but courage is the sort of thing that a man lays down his life for a friend about.

Hope that helps....


[Greater love hath no man than this.....]

P.S. I think you're intelligent enough to understand the inference.....

P.P.S. Safari on the iPad doesn't like your picture image for 'word verification'. I had to come up to my regular work station to respond to this item.

You might want to consider going to a REAL blogging operating system.

M. Report said...

Courage=Bravery=overcoming fear
The _motive_ for courage is all
that distinguishes the mercenary
from the patriot, or the politico
from the statesman.

The intensity and the duration
of the courageous behavior also
make a difference; The impulsive
physical courage of a man in battle
versus the enduring quiet courage
of a woman giving birth.

Jim said...

Mr. Schniderman's post is a very worthwhile read.

That being said, I think that Bill Whittle's essay "Courage" is to me, the most eloquent missive ever written on this topic.

Sadly, it is now contained only within the pages of his book "Silent America".

I can but hope that he will once again, at least for the life of Mr. & Mrs. Reynolds' posts on the subject remain current, repost the essay on his site:

(which will be redirected to the PJM update of that URL.

Regardless, it is good that we all examine ourselves in relation to Stuart's post.

Sunk New Dawn
Galveston, TX

David said...

This ties into Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's works "On Killing", "On Combat", and his series of seminars about "The Bulletproof Mind" for soldiers and law enforcement and prevention of PTSD.

David, San Antonio, Texas

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks so much for the comments. Courage is an important topic; it applies in many situations. And Dr. Helen was right to suggest that we need to think more seriously about what it is.

I wanted to add a word about Chuck Pelto's comment. As I understand Aristotle, courage involves being confident when faced with a situation where someone else would feel afraid.

Clearly, no one would feel afraid of the man brandishing a banana... so the confidence would not, under the definition, count as courage.

At the same time most people would have been paralyzed with fear if they were defending the Alamo, so the men who stood strong and confident in face of the onslaught would certainly count as courageous.

I think that the emphasis on confidence involves being focused and being able to perform under pressure and when facing frightfully bad odds.

I hope that clarifies things.

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman
RE: Sorry, Again, Doc....

As I understand Aristotle, courage involves being confident when faced with a situation where someone else would feel afraid. -- Scheiderman, paraphrasing Aristotle

....but, I don't know about YOU, but any time I'M 'attacked' or 'attacking'. That includes someone armed with nothing more than a 'banahna'. Or just their bare hands. The adrenalin kicks-in and I'm rather 'agitated'. Whether or not it's 'fear' I have a hard time recognizing. However, the last incident, where the fellow had 40 pounds and several inches of height and reach on me, I think I was sort of 'grinning' as he attempted to get to me. Fortunately for everyone he was blocked by people with better cognitive skills than he was demonstrating.

Rather, it was the courage to tell the follow-on 'Law Enforcement' people that showed up that I would not relent in my activities to record the monthly general meeting of the group that I was a paying member of, at which point they threatened arrest.

There, I lapsed in 'courage'. But not because of a lack of valor. Rather, because the people who had said they'd stand by me in such an instance, had somehow 'disappeared'.

So...what's to be learned from this?

Probably something about a concept of 'social courage'. It's a group-think thing. And if society refuses to teach either (1) principles and (2) standing by them, we're in 'deep kimchi'.


[May you live in 'interesting' times. -- Ancient Chinese curse]

P.S. Three guesses.....

Robyn said...

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