On Courage

cslwsAs Russia’s dictator Vladimir Putin annexes the Crimea in Ukraine and now plans troop movements to eastern Ukraine, not a shot has been fired. America and all of Europe stands mute or its petty bureaucrats like Secretary John Kerry pontificate empty rhetoric for fear of angering a renewed Soviet empire ascending before the eyes of the world, yet why won’t world powers act against Russia’s naked hegemony and aggression? Europe, NATO, and the U.N. are appeasing Putin because their member states are enslaved to Russia’s oil and gas monopoly which is pumped from Ukraine throughout Europe—push against Putin’s fascism and the lights go out all over Europe. Like America, Europe is adverse to self-sustaining energy production in their own countries through fracking, the Keystone pipeline, nuclear power, oil refineries, and other means of domestic energy exploration due to propaganda and lobbying efforts from the radical global environmental movement.

Where are all the real men of courage today? Have they all been compromised by implicit or explicit threats from fascist powers?  Who will pay the price to stand for truth despite the costs? Who will, who can look at overwhelming odds and the relentless pressures of society and say to himself, “Here I am Lord, send me.”

From antiquity to modern times, the heroes of history, philosophy, poetry are often cruel, brutal, self-seeking, pitiless, extreme, and unjust, but cowards they are not. They do not weaken or surrender. They do not despair even in the midst of desperate odds. They have the power and determinism to triumph over whatever they set their minds and wills to achieve. Their very acts of courage define them and place these men in the Pantheon of heroes.

This is where we get the Greek term ‘demigod’ for the very connotation of heroism exalts these legendary heroes nearly to the standing of the gods. In the Homeric age this is indeed the condition where men like Odysseus, Theseus, Perseus, and Hercules as demigods struggled with the gods as they struggled with men. The two Homeric epics, Odyssey, but particularly the Iliad, are filled with men who cannot be cowered or intimidated. For example, in Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses, the now restless King of Ithaca reminisces over the years he spent in battle at Troy and his long, torturous expedition home, says to his companions,

Some work of noble note may yet be done                                                          

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods …and though                                          

We are now that strength which in old days                                                                

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are:                                                   

One equal temper of heroic hearts,                                                                                        

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will                                              

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Courage is the quality above all others in the Iliad, which personifies the heroic figures of Achilles and Hector, Ajax, Patroclus, and Diomedes, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Cunning—the expertise of Odysseus, that man of many schemes, and the subtleness in discourse of Nestor, is the only other value which seems to be similarly prized as courage, and made the subject of competition, honor and duty. Yet the most elegant rhetoric is only the prologue to great actions, and but for the night mission of Odysseus and Diomedes into the Trojan camp (e.g., breaching the impregnable walls of Troy with the famed “Trojan Horse”), the legendary feats of the Iliad are improvisational deeds of skill—direct, aggressive, bold, not surreptitious.

Of the unlimited passions possessed by heroes fear is among the primary. When they are called fearless, it is only in an ironic sense for little frightens them or causes their countenance to become dispirited. Like with all men fear robs them of courage, likewise anger, with all its physical dynamism, nonetheless the courageous are fearless only in the sense that they refuse to allow their fear to impede their will to action. Their courage is commensurate to the danger sensed or identified, in order to achieve that duty to be done as though the fear of failure, pain, or death never existed.

Yet valiant men regularly speak of courage as the equal of fearlessness and identify the coward like one who is transfixed by fear. An ambush, Indomeneus claims in the Iliad, will show “who is cowardly and who is brave; the coward will change color at every touch and turn; he is full of fears, and keeps shifting his weight first on one knee and then on the other; his heart beats fast as he thinks of death, and one can hear the chattering of his teeth.” The courageous man, conquering fear, will seem to be fearless.

From antiquity to modern times courage defines men of action, men in war, established not merely in the heroes of the siege Troy, but in the proponents of numerous other battles—Leonidas at Thermopylae, Aeneas and Turnus enjoined in singular combat, the victors in Plutarch, the warrior-nobility in Shakespeare, the enlightened Prince Andrew and young Rostov in War and Peace. The manner of courage that combines physical power, with feats of strength; and, as indicated by the Latin-root of “fortitude,” meaning courage, it is a reservoir of civic, ethical, or religious strength to endure exploits even when the spirit is willing but the flesh is too weak to endure to the end. Courage of this manner is a virtue in the chief sense of the Latin word virtus—meaning manliness, the spirit, or fortitude of spirit, the prerequisites to be a Man.

Courage appears in many other forms also. The courage of the tragic hero, of Oedipus and Antigone, is accompanied with vigor of mind, not body. Strength of mind, perhaps above being lion-hearted, is a particular human power. Fight vs. Flight—Courage is not only conquering ones fears and in preventing the body from flight regardless the pain or danger. It involves at minimum as much will to action, strengthening its resolutions, and constantly disciplining the mind to determine and confronting the truth.

Regarding the sublime narrative of Antigone as recounted by Sophocles, I quoted Bard College president Edward Rothstein in my 2002 book, The Inseparability of Law and Morality:

The Greek tragedy [Antigone] tells of the ruler Creon forbidding the burial of a traitor, and of Antigone’s defiance of his order as she proclaims a higher law… Antigone showed the issues of faith and allegiance … struggle between public law and religious tradition, between accommodation and absolution.

The heroine Antigone chose to disobey the tyrannical rule of King Creon for the divine faith of natural law—the transcendent ideas which have descended to humanity down through the ages—that law is not merely a set of principles and standards created by humans, but rather part of an objective moral order, existing in the universe and accessible to human reason. Indeed, this is the “Higher law” or “Natural law” of the Bible, of the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, America’s Founding Fathers, the European States up to the French Revolution (1789-99) where secular humanism led directly to the anti-church, anti-clergy and anti-Christian genocide throughout France. Seventy years later the evolution atheism of Darwin began to be universally embraced by leftist intellectuals, humanists, socialists, liberals, progressives, and radicals of every ilk and taught as the successor ideals of the Age of Enlightenment which would systematically replace the “dead religion” of Christianity. Beginning in France, then all over Europe and in modern times throughout the world, State worship and evolution atheism would be the twin demons the Left used to deconstruct the formerly Judeo-Christian worldview, thus breaching the previously unshakable moral foundations of Western civilization which were extant for over 3,000 years

For Hegel, taking an opposing view, civic courage involves embracing dangers, even to the level of sacrifice for the State. Likewise, for him pure courage is entirely a civic virtue. “The intrinsic worth of courage as a disposition of the mind,” he writes, “is to be found in the genuine, absolute, final end, the sovereignty of the state. The work of courage is to actualize this final end, and the means to this end is the sacrifice of personal actuality.” However Hegel concedes that courage “is multiform,” he argues that “the mettle of an animal or a brigand, courage for the sake of honor, the courage of a knight, for the sake of honor, these are not true forms of courage. The true courage of civilized nations is readiness for sacrifice in the service of the state, so that the individual counts as only one amongst many.” Hegel’s State-centric view of courage sounds like Marx, sounds like the progressives, sounds like the Democrat Socialist Party of today.

In the writings of Plato and Aristotle we find that they often condemn the constitutions of Crete and Sparta for their incessant warmongering; for deifying war as the noble end and highest aspiration of the state, while praising courage is only a measure, above “the whole of virtue.” Courage must be united with the other virtues to make a man good, not only as a citizen but as a man. “Justice, temperance, and wisdom,” says the Athenian Stranger in Plato’s Laws, “when united with courage are better than courage only.”

Moreover, courage in battle is not the be all and end all of courage. Although Plato recognizes the necessity for it, Plato believes that a wise statesman or what he calls in his Republic a “philosopher-king” would place it in its correct place, if men are to be educated to be good citizens, not purely good “auxiliaries” or soldiers. Plato argues that it would be foolish for a senator or a wise legislator to order “peace for the sake of war, and not war for the sake of peace.” Therefore, the Athenian Stranger advocates that a wider understanding of courage than the form the Cretans and Spartans seem to favor, not merely in overt warfare, but in the undertakings of peace—in the struggle to follow the good life and construct a good society.

Nonetheless, through the ages the form of courage which the philosophers, poets, and historians exalt has been the heroism of men who fight off fear and willingly jeopardize their lives for their fellow men, for their country—the courage of the citizen doing his duty, or, what is still more remarkable, of the soldier opposing the enemy despite the odds against him. This circumstance among others is one cause why numerous writers, from the Greeks to Hegel, have established a moral incentive in war: or, like William James, have looked for its moral equivalent. On this point they are connected not only by those who see only deprivation in war, but also by the numerous expressions of the understanding that peace can have its heroes also.

Christian apologist and scholar, C.S. Lewis, in his Screwtape Letters wrote that, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Indeed this is reminiscent of the biblical story of Gideon in Judges 7 who was charged by God to fight 135,000 Midianites, yet despite the overwhelming odds (God, who wanted no uncertainty in Israel as to who gave them the victory) cut down Gideon’s army from 32,000 to 10,000 to just 300 men. The difference between the 300 who went into battle vs. the 32,000 who were too afraid to fight was that the 300 were just as afraid as the 32,000, yet as C.S. Lewis wrote, “The form of every virtue at the testing point” compelled Gideon and the 300 into battle… into the triumph of the ages.

Gideon’s legendary valor brings to remembrance Tennyson’s immortal words on courage,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will                                              

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

*N.B.: This article is based in part on an excerpt from Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 2: The Great Ideas—A Syntopicon, Vol. 1, Chp. 13: Courage, Mortimer J. Adler, Editor in Chief

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