“Who could object to courage? It is celebrated in our greatest myths and
stories: Heracles braving his twelve labours; the Amazons inspiring fear in the
Greeks; Boudicca challenging the might of Rome; Joan of Arc facing the flames”.
The virtue is
praised in modern ceremonies and fine songs, from war memorials and national
anthems, to gospel songs and peace prizes. Everyone would say courage is a good
thing, one of the best when manifested in human life, self-evidently a quality
that all should have and some do.
We need it in the
small acts of life too, like on our first day at school; in the pivotal moments
of life, not least those of birth and death; and when facing the great
collective experiences of life, such as when natural calamity strikes or a
Is there anyone
who has argued that it is admirable to be cowardly or timorous or fainthearted?
(Well, the wit Samuel Johnson felt there was an upside to the fact that human
beings, left to themselves, tend towards timidity. ‘Were all brave … all would
be continually fighting; but being all cowards, we go on very well,’ Boswell
records him saying in his Life of Samuel Johnson.)
But there are
matters to tease out and problems to resolve, because if to celebrate courage
is commonplace, and to recognise our need of it obvious, to practise courage is
no mean skill.
remembering, first, that courage is cited across cultures in many different
times and places as fundamental in life. The idea is that without it, the life
you would lead is a half-life. ‘Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human
qualities because, as has been said, it is the quality which guarantees all
others,’ Winston Churchill reflected.
“He meant that if we have courage we will be better able to love, quest, commit,
invest; sacrifice, grieve, die”.
Symbols associated with fortitude and nerve also portray
its centrality. The palm of victory is a sign of the courage required to stay
the course, as celebrated in the motto of the British admiral of the Napoleonic
Wars, Horatio Nelson: “Let him bear the palm who has deserved it”. A ‘tower of
strength’ has the capacity to withstand the storm. The yoke is emblematic of
courage too because it suggests obedience to a greater cause or power,
particularly when one feels daunted by doubt and uncertainty. The broken column
is another symbol, representing a life cut short and the courage needed to face
bad luck without despair.
way of noting this primacy is to describe courage as a cardinal virtue.
‘Cardinal’ comes from the Latin, cardo, meaning hinge. A good life hangs on
courage, the description implies, because with it you will find an ability to
respond to life’s ups and downs with relative freedom and ease. ‘Happiness
depends on being free, and freedom depends on courage,’ Thucydides, the
Athenian historian and philosopher, averred. So what about the issues and
Feel the fear
Perhaps the number one mistake made when thinking about
courage, and wondering about how to be courageous, is brilliantly explored by
the character of the Cowardly Lion in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He is
supposedly the King of the Beasts. He certainly looks fearsome. He also acts
bullishly, ambushing Dorothy, Toto, Scarecrow and Tin Woodman on the yellow
brick road, and trying to bite Toto. But his growl is a mask. Dorothy slaps him
and he cowers. His shame wells up as it becomes clear he is not brave at all.
Or at least, that is what he thinks.
That courage is a more complex notion than he presumes
emerges as they continue on their journey: the lion repeatedly shows himself,
apparently, to be valiant. He leaps a chasm with his fellow travellers clinging
to his back. He fights the monsters that have the head of a tiger and the body
of a bear.
His agony is that
he is convinced he is merely showing bravado – a boldness intended to impress
or intimidate – that he fears is only skin deep.
“And so he cries: ‘What makes a king out of a slave? Courage! What makes
the flag on the mast to wave? Courage!”
What makes the
elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist, or the dusky dusk? What makes the
muskrat guard his musk? Courage! What makes the sphinx the seventh wonder?
Courage! What makes the dawn come up like thunder? Courage! What makes the
Hottentot so hot? What puts the “ape” in apricot? What have they got that I
ain’t got?’ The answer: courage. He cannot even scare himself, he sobs.
But when he encounters the wizard, he has a realisation.
His problem is not that he isn’t courageous. It’s that he had presumed the
courageous don’t feel fear. His nerve threatened to give out every time he
faced a new or difficult or unexpected situation because the minute he felt nervous
he jumped to the conclusion that he was terrified. What he learns is that the
courageous do feel fear. And yet they act, feeling the fear.
This is a deep
truth about courage that is easy to say and hard to practise. It is not an
absence of fear. Rather, fear is part of courage because fear is a measure of
how best to act courageously. This is to say that the self-help summary, ‘feel
the fear and do it anyway’, is not quite right. Fear may advise you not to do
something, for that may be the more courageous thing to do. The challenge is to
know the fear and not to ignore or master or fear it, but use it as a guide.
Taking a stand
might provide examples. Your family think you’re a fool for not eating meat.
Every time you go home, you fear a scene. Do you comply to make life easier or
stick to your guns and resist the pressure? Or, you’re at a party with illicit
drugs to hand. Fear tells you: no. The crowd jeers and insists. Do you comply
and join in, or decline and risk feeling alone?
Courage means you
will have all sorts of other difficult feelings too. Consider the diaries of
Anne Frank, the young woman who hid in Amsterdam from the Nazis for two years
before being found and dying in a concentration camp. They are compelling not
because she is straightforwardly brave in the face of the threat. In truth, her
feelings were far more complicated than that. But that’s the point: she is
brave because she explores the huge mix of reactions she had as she hid. A
panoply of uncomfortable experiences emerge in her writing, that do not hide
pain and hatred, but face and explore her joys and terrors:
‘I can use [writing] to develop myself and to express all that’s inside
me!’ Dealing with the ambivalence takes a deeper kind of courage from which
all might learn.
She confesses that those with whom she was imprisoned she
found selfish, foolish and insufferable. She wrote of her outright contempt for
her mother, later feeling ashamed at that, and then pushing further into her
turmoil to conclude that they shared mutual misunderstandings. She cultivated
an inner courage that helped develop the ability to tolerate herself and
others. That is why we think of her as an eminently brave and admirable woman:
look at the capacities she found, given what she faced!
Courage can save
us in different ways too. The life of aviator Charles Lindbergh, who won the
Orteig Prize in 1927 for the first New York to Paris flight, develops the
point. He was clearly a brave man, and also had the advantage, unlike Anne
Frank, of seeing the impact his courage had on others and so on the way he
would be remembered.
'I was astonished at the effect my successful landing in France had on
the nations of the world,'
he wrote in his
Autobiography of Values. ‘To me, it was like a match lighting a bonfire.’
But he had had to learn his courage as a child. In the
same book, he confesses that as a youngster he had been afraid of many things.
Learning, first, to drive then to fly had been the way he had ‘established an
inner attitude toward courage and fear.’ That inner attitude was what so
inspired others. You feel it when you meet or read about such folk.
‘All goes if courage goes,’ the author J. M. Barrie preached
on the same theme. So how can we develop this virtue, this capacity, this
“It’s worth recognising that there is strong evidence that nurture plays
a part in our initial capacity for courage.”
It comes from the
psychology known as attachment theory. This proposes that our early experience,
as infants, leads us to develop attachment styles – that is, basic patterns of
relating to others. They are not fixed. Therapy can shift unhelpful patterns.
But it is likely that everyone has an attachment style, particular to their
experience, which affects the way they engage with life.
When it comes to
practising courage, an individual is well equipped if they have what is known
as a secure attachment style. This means that, deep down, they feel safe and
confident about relating to others. You can spot secure attachment in young
children the next time you are in the park or out for a walk. A securely
attached child is the kind who runs ahead of its parents and, at a certain
distance, stops and looks back. Having checked, it then presses on ahead, sure
that its parents are nearby enough if danger threatens, but also sure that it
can venture out into the world by itself. That is, such a child shows the kind
of sensible courage that is neither foolhardy nor timid.
attachment styles may make courage a struggle. For example, an avoidant
attachment style can emerge if an infant develops the habit of avoiding
dependency. As an adult, they may appear self-sufficient, even rather
invulnerable. This can seem courageous, only the courage is bought at the price
of suppressing feelings – that is, not feeling the fear.
So it is a fragile, brittle courage that can easily slip into
is known as ambivalent and is a way of relating that is over-demanding. It
feels overbearing to others because of a profound need for security, intimacy
and approval. This attachment style would not be thought courageous but rather
would exhibit worry, anxiety and impetuousness. It does, though, take courage
to recognise and decide to change it.
So let us assume that we have a secure attachment, or at
least can access a good enough sense of security in life. That is not the end
of the story. Further training and a different kind of understanding can help
us to develop further.
here, we can turn back to the founding figure in the western study of the
virtues, the Greek philosopher and pupil of Plato, Aristotle. He argued that
all valuable human tendencies and habits – our virtues – are an appropriate
behaviour between two opposite extremes. It’s known as his doctrine of the
mean. For example, generosity is between profligacy and stinginess. The
generous person knows whether or not to give a wayfarer on the street the cash
requested – that is, they know how to be neither profligate nor stingy. They
may offer a coin with a smile. But they may sense that not giving gold might be
the virtuous thing to do, if the wayfarer looks likely to use it to do
themselves more damage. Then again, not giving someone money because you are
irritated by their presence – thinking that people need to learn to help
themselves – might be a sign of sheer miserliness. It all depends. This is
Aristotle’s point: virtues are not calculations, but living responses that
enable us to assess situations and to act well and wisely.
“When it comes to courage, the courageous person is one who makes a good
call in the face of presenting dangers, one that is neither timid nor reckless.
They also experience the appropriate degree of fear”
– one that helps
them face the challenge as opposed to being overwhelmed by it. Conversely, the
coward flees at the merest smell of risk, in a state of probably unwarranted
fright. And the foolhardy individual heads straight into the thick of it, in a
series of rash moves that benefits no-one and possibly endangers everyone.
To put it another
way: the doctrine of the mean isn’t just a theoretical definition. It acts as a
guide when training yourself in more virtuous habits and feelings. Was my
action mostly motivated by recklessness? Then it was not courageous. Did it
show too much timidity? That was not courage either. But if I got the balance
right, then I can conclude that I am positively nurturing a more courageous
He felt that courage is a capacity we can develop in an
analogous way to skills such as archery or pottery. We may possess lucky
predispositions due to upbringing or genes that can help us. But out of the raw
material of our lives, we can increase our ability with pluck or verve, just as
everyone can have a go at shooting an arrow and making a pot.
The point is that
even the most gifted bowman must put in the hours to hit the target
unfailingly, and the finest potter must have played with the clay and messed
about in the workshop before truly discovering how his materials work. Only
then can he or she create beautiful objects. We too must experiment in
courageous living to find out what that means.
Further, we must
be able to tolerate our failures, to not be put off when we find signs of our
weakness, as inevitably we will. The bowman will have missed the target
countless times before he’s reliably able to score bullseye. The potter will
have faced many collapsed and mucky heaps before he learnt the trick of turning
a well-formed shape. There is no finding out how to be courageous without
seizing the opportunities to be so and monitoring how we fair. It’s a question
of educating the heart as well as the mind. Being courageous is a felt
disposition as much as one gauged; it’s a trait that becomes ever more deeply
rooted in our character, rather than just something that happens there and
then. With that insight lies hope for us all.
The upshot is
that if you seek to be more courageous, it’s better to practise in modest and
trivial ways rather than wait for the big moment and keep your fingers crossed.
Over time, courage then becomes part of you.
“Perhaps this evening you might try a different food on the menu, rather
than choosing what you usually have. It’s a small but significantly courageous
act that repeated over time might make you into a noticeably different person”.
Or the next time
someone in the office irritates your colleagues, you might defend him or her
rather than standing back and disappearing into the crowd. Or maybe you will
take the opportunity to stand up for yourself when your annual review is due,
and not just sign off the reports that others prepare with a self-despairing
sigh. At home, perhaps you could knock on the door of a lonely neighbour, not
nervously hope someone else is looking out for them. And when you’re next
pondering the choice of a book or class or trip or task, do you give into the
sense of intimidation or break out of the comfortable and safe, and begin to
plough a different furrow? The road less travelled is a courageous path to
It’s a personal
training. And I’d be prepared to bet that such habits of building courage could
be found in most of the individuals we celebrate as brave, even when they say
that they were just doing their duty or behaving without much thought. That, in
a way, is the point. Courage had become part of them, as familiar as a habit.
It was there to serve them when the moment required it.
Take the courage
of Rosa Parks, the American black women who in 1955 refused to give up her seat
on the bus to a white person in racially segregated Alabama. She was arrested,
and the subsequent court case sparked a bus boycott that greatly inspired the
ongoing fight for rights. The point is that her bravery began long before the
fateful evening when she boarded the bus after a hard day’s work. For example,
in her autobiography, she describes how she was attracted to her husband,
Raymond Parks, in part because she had admired his courage from afar, when he
was working on behalf of minority communities. You might say that she had
cultivated a life in which she could practise and witness courage day by day,
and when the moment came, she was equipped to act.
It’s worth noting
too that there was a wise kind of courage in the decision of black leaders to
make something of her arrest, after it had happened. They realised that now was
a moment to fight, because a recent Supreme Court case suggested the mood was
shifting in their favour. In other words, they were not acting rashly out of
blind anger in supporting Parks – though they might have been forgiven for
doing so. They were being courageous, which included sensing that their protest
had a chance to effect real and lasting change if they were brave now. Which
they were, and it did.
Anne Frank. Charles Lindbergh. Rosa Parks. These are
inspiring, encouraging tales. But now we must consider a darker side to courage
and add another dimension to our thinking, one that arises out of a problem
with some of those who are brave.
The difficulty is
this: the bad can be brave. In fact, it’s often being brave that makes the
wicked so effective. Hitler might have had a deprived childhood. Stalin may
have been mad. Pol Pot could have been driven by fear to order unspeakable
atrocities. But these three leaders – full, no doubt, of lusts and hatreds and
rage – must also have been courageous, at times. It’s an unpalatable thought to
Or think of a
more subtle case, such as that of the Great Train Robbers. They grew into
something akin to folk legends, admired for their daring, their vigour, their
chutzpah. But they also stole money and injured a man badly enough to ruin his
life. Courageous or criminal? Bold men or brigands?
Or again, what
about the individuals whose acts have been exposed as contributing to, or being
symptomatic of, the financial excesses that led to the crash of 2008? Many
thought them brave and daring before. They would have been admired and envied
in equal measure. Captains of industry? Masters of the universe? Or
narcissistic fools? Perhaps heavy doses of both. So what does this complication
tell us about courage?
“Well, one way of understanding how the bad can be brave is by
considering the ways in which we human beings are group animals”.
We show loyalty to groups because we gain a sense of
belonging from groups. It might be family, or work, or nation. But you can tell
that you seek a sense of place from a group when you feel put out if the group
is criticised. Someone wonders whether your brother is spoilt, or your sister
is sensible, and you powerfully feel you want to defend them. Or your company
is critiqued and you feel annoyed. Or your country is questioned and you’re
experiencing what the psychologist Bert Hellinger called group conscience. We
are social animals, meaning not that we like to socialise, though we do, but
rather more deeply that our identity is tied up with the collective. Often
unwittingly, we will go to great lengths to defend our sense of belonging, or
conversely, resist doing things that the group conscience would disapprove of.
a psychologist after the Second World War in Germany. He was faced with the
tricky question many in his generation had to ask, namely how usually good
people ended up doing bad things in defence of the Nazis. He came to the
conclusion that many were swayed by a group conscience that not only meant they
failed to question the direction in which Germany was headed, but many times
joined in with the war effort – often, very bravely. They were courageous in
their group belonging because their sense of themselves was so tied up with it.
We should not
think that we would be much different. It is a doubly brave individual who
resists the group. Think of the bully. They play on group dynamics, ridiculing
one person in such a way that everyone else joins in – or at least, they don’t
protest. It’s part of the reason why standing up to bullies is so difficult,
especially if you’re not the one being bullied. Similarly, with whistleblowing.
You risk being ostracised even by those who don’t approve of the wrongdoing.
That’s the power of groups.
struggled with the issue too, throwing up a different set of insights.
“Can a virtue underpin evil, they have wondered?”
historian and philosopher, Voltaire, felt that courage could not be a virtue
after all, ‘but a quality shared by blackguards and great men alike’. Others
though have come to a different conclusion.
It is that virtues, to be called so and honoured as such,
must have an ethical dimension as well. Like intelligence, which we may admire,
a certain kind of mettle or audacity can deliver ill-gotten gains rather than
the good. It can serve evil, not noble ends. There is a difference, though.
Courage put to darker use shows itself up as selfish. The Great Train Robbers
were after money for themselves. The tyrannical leaders of the twentieth
century used courage to feed themselves adulation, power, hubris.
Conversely, a truly admirable courage serves
others. This is why courage, properly called, is closely linked to other
virtues such as justice, sacrifice, generosity, love. With such bravery,
despair becomes hope. True courage does not exploit, it is expansive of the
lives of others.
‘That which we respect about courage, then, and which has its culmination
in self-sacrifice is first of all the acceptance or incurring of risk without
writes the philosopher, André Comte-Sponville. ‘In other
words, a form, if not always of altruism, then at least of disinterestedness,
detachment, or a distancing from the self. That, in any case, is what we find
in courage that is morally worthy of respect.’ We might call it moral courage.
It’s a good place
to end because as we’ve been saying, courage is a quality associated with an
educated heart. It is called a cardinal virtue, one that grounds and empowers a
life lived well. It’s an ability that knows fear, how to feel it and respond
wisely. It’s a skill that can be developed, if we seize the many moments during
the course of the day when we might act in the slightly more courageous way.
And, we must add, it is an ethical virtue. Courage is best judged by values
that are good. Does it serve others? What is sacrificed? What is resisted? What
new vision is pursued?
‘Moral courage is
a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence,’ Robert Kennedy
concluded. Or perhaps, all we need to do is practise courage courageously a
little more often?