Courage – Mark Vernon

Courage – Mark Vernon 

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Introduction – Courage

“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 national disaster.

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.

It’s worth 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 witt 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.

The philosophical 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 problems?

  1. 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 stave? Courage! What makes the ftag 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 att that’s inside me!’ Dealing with the ambivalence takes a deeper kind of courage from which att 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.

2. Nurturing courage

‘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 skill?

“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.

More nervous 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 panic.

Another pattern 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.

3. Courage training

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.

For insights 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 character.

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 smart 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 take.

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.

4. Moral courage

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 swallow.

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 apologetic.

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.

Hellinger became 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.

Philosophers have struggled with the issue too, throwing up a different set of insights.

“Can a virtue underpin evil, they have wondered?”

The French 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 att the acceptance or incurring of risk. without selfish motivation,’

writes the philosopher, Andre 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?

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