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Saturday, November 11, 2017

Veterans Day–A Reflection On The Lost Virtue Of Courage

Courage is an overused word, especially when used in the same breath as facing enemy fire, yet ‘courageous’ gestures – speaking frankly of cancer, going on record against an unpopular political leader, standing up for free speech on a politically locked-down campus – are universally applauded.

In Ancient Rome when Cato the Elder taught the future leaders of the Empire, courage was one of the features of education.  Not only were these young men taught the mechanics of governance and the strategies of war, but of the foundational principles of Roman civilization – honor, respect, compassion, discipline, and courage.  The courage to stand up for Rome, with one’s comrades in battle, with the people whom they rule, and with the gods.

Image result for images cato the elder

Courage was revered as a central, ineluctable trait of character.  Courage meant dignity, self-control, conviction, honor, and responsibility. 

Cato himself was a man of severe rectitude who lived the virtues he preached. His stern morality in office as well as in his private life became proverbial. His early life was spent on his father's farm near Reate, in the Sabine country. Here he acquired early in life those qualities of simplicity, frugality, strict honesty, austerity, and patriotism for which he was regarded by later generations as the embodiment of the old Roman virtues.

Virtus was a specific virtue in Ancient Rome. It carried connotations of valor, manliness, excellence, courage, character, and worth and was thus a frequently stated virtue of Roman emperors.  Even more importantly it was personified as a deity—Virtus.

Image result for image virtus roman god

There was no disaggregation of virtue according to Cato. While its many attributes were often referred to separately, virtue was a complete, moral entity within which component parts complemented, validated, and strengthened each other.  A man of courage was a man of honor.  There could be no courage without honor.  There could be no excellence without character.  Valor was only recognized as a moral action, never foolhardy bravery.  ‘Courage has no value unless it is accompanied by justice’.

Within this moral framework, very little in modern society passes for true courage.  Speaking frankly about one’s illness is confessional and therapeutic and may alert others to prevention, cure, and life expectancy; but it is serves no moral purpose. 

Speaking out against illicit or illegal behavior takes conviction, but it is often motivated by resentment, jealousy, and anger. Turkish soap operas are filled with characters who would like nothing more than to expose the wrongdoings of the wealthy only to avenge a life of servitude and forced obsequiousness.  Women and men who speak out against sexual ‘abuse’ may be as motivated by personal retribution, strengthened political and social credentials as moral conviction.  Most importantly, they suffer no consequences for making allegations.

It took courage to march for civil rights when attacks by police, dogs, water cannons, and bullets were certain.  Marchers acted out of moral principle, a concern for justice and human rights, and faced the inevitable consequences.  It takes little courage to march for a sentiment, solidarity, and statement.  Street protests against ‘racism’ and ‘white supremacy’ have no specific purpose and protesters face no real consequences. 

Image result for image civil rights marchers dogs water cannons sixties

The story of Jeffrey Wigand, a scientist at a major tobacco company, was told in the movie The Insider. Wigand risked his family, his livelihood, his standing in the community, and the respect of colleagues and friends by exposing the criminal duplicity of Big Tobacco.  He was pursued, threatened, and viciously and persistently attacked in an attempt to prevent his testimony.   Wigand had courage in the Roman sense.  He was motivated by honor, justice, responsibility, and morality and he faced certain harm.

Image result for images jeffrey wigand

Especially now since whistle-blowers are protected by federal law, exposing wrongdoers has devolved into a much more self-centered exercise of personal vendetta, and momentary fame.

Similarly it takes no courage to confront an employer with charges of racism when the law, corporate complaisance, and the general office zeitgeist is one of summary justice not due process.

The Catholic Church has venerated martyrs since its early days.  New Christians who defended their faith faced almost certain torture and death.  Spanish Christians who refused to admit heresy were put on the rack and drawn and quartered by the Inquisition.  Martyrdom, although viewed more circumspectly through the secular lens of Roman virtu (martyrdom was essentially a matter between the martyr and his God), has always been considered a courageous act.  If one is willing to die for one’s principles and in so doing strengthen the faith of others and extend the appeal and reach of Christianity, one is by nature courageous.

Image result for images saint martyr pierced by arrows

What is considered courageous now is a far cry from martyrdom.

All of which returns the discussion to courage in battle.  True to classical Roman tradition Plutarch said that ‘Courage consists not in hazarding without fear, but being resolutely minded in a just cause’.    

William Tecumseh Sherman, on the other hand, said that ‘courage is a perfect sensibility of the measure of danger, and a mental willingness to endure it’, a far simpler, even mechanistic view than Plutarch or Cato. 

The truth lies somewhere closer to Plutarch.  In WWI did the thousands of men who followed their officers out of the trenches, across no-man’s land, and into the withering fire of the enemy act courageously? Or the thousands of Confederate troops marching against the overpowering armies of Grant?  Or the GIs who landed at Normandy into German gunfire and almost certain death?

Image result for images normandy landing

Or is courage restricted to those soldiers who risked and gave their lives selflessly for others with no personal gain?  Falling on a grenade to save the platoon? Charging a gun emplacement in the hopes of neutralizing it and saving comrades?

A volunteer recruit knows that he will go Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan where his risks of dying are great.  Possible death is part of his contract.  When he does die from an enemy bullet, did he die courageously?  Is he a hero?

Risking death has always been a male preference.  It is self-assuring, an expression of strength and virility. There can be no greater validation of masculinity that returning home from combat.   So, in Cato’s view at least, risking one’s life for personal reasons has no value.

What about the rest of us? The satisfied millions who want no part of physical or moral courage.  We do not want to sign up for war, expose wrongdoers, go to the barricades for a just cause, or defy authority on principle.  The cost is simply too great.  The consequences not worth the investment.

Are we, then, cowards by omission? Do we in our complacency encourage its spread and promote an ethos of acceptance and moral indifference?

Aside from Roman moral judgment and considerations of military valor, are we who are afraid to test our physical mettle also cowards?  Alpinists, race-car drivers, and solo round-the-world sailors say that facing death and surmounting it is the most exhilarating, life-affirming act there is. 

Image result for images solo mountain climber everest

However one may like to deconstruct the concept of courage, facing the enemy is not inconsequential.  Regardless of how a soldier landed in the line of fire – personal vindication, issues of validation and self-worth, patriotism, or honor – facing possible, probable, or certain death is an act above and beyond what most of us are capable of.

Whether it is high moral courage, bravery, or simply doing one’s duty, it is to be respected and at least acknowledged on this, Veterans Day.

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