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Friday, September 21, 2018

Courage–Has It Been Devalued In A Less Honorable Age?

Plato in The Republic stated that courage is the ‘preservation of the belief that has been inculcated by the law through education about what things and sorts of things are to be feared’. Ideas of courage as perseverance also are seen in Laches, explained by Plato as the ability to persevere through all emotions, such as suffering, pleasure, and fear.

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In classical Rome courage formed part of the universal virtue of Virtus. Cicero  says that ‘virtue  may be defined as a habit of mind in harmony with reason and the order of nature. It has four parts: wisdom, justice, courage, temperance.

St. Thomas Aquinas was perhaps the most eloquent on the subject of courage, to which he referred as ‘fortitude’; and according to him, ‘among the cardinal virtues, prudence ranks first, justice second, fortitude third, temperance fourth, and after these the other virtues.’  Aquinas described fortitude’s general and special nature:

The term "fortitude" can be taken in two ways. First, as simply denoting a certain firmness of mind, and in this sense it is a general virtue, or rather a condition of every virtue, since it is requisite for every virtue to act firmly and immovably.  Secondly that fortitude denotes the firmness to bear and withstand those things wherein it is most difficult to be firm, namely in certain grave dangers.  Fortitude is the deliberate facing of dangers and bearing of toils.

Aquinas went on to say that fortitude or courage was primarily about endurance, not attack:

Fortitude is more concerned to allay fear, than to moderate daring." For it is more difficult to allay fear than to moderate daring, since the danger which is the object of daring and fear, tends by its very nature to check daring to increase fear. Now to attack belongs to fortitude in so far as the latter moderates daring, whereas to endure follows the repression of fear. Therefore the principal act of fortitude is endurance, that is to stand immovable in the midst of dangers rather than to attack them.

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The Tao contends that courage is derived from love, or more specifically loving causes the ability to be brave. "One of courage, with audacity, will die. One of courage, but gentle, spares death. From these two kinds of courage arise harm and benefit.”

Aquinas perhaps said it best when the described courage as the strength of will which is the foundation for all other virtues.  It is difficult to maintain the principles of the other virtues – prudence, justice, and temperance – without fortitude.  Aquinas understood that all virtues are difficult to maintain in a largely amoral, indifferent, and venal society.  Cato the Elder in his diptychs – principles of right action – cited honesty, compassion, respect, discipline, and fairness as those virtues to be embraced by the future leaders of Rome; and like Aquinas knew that it would take intelligence, wisdom, and especially fortitude to maintain them.

Perhaps most importantly Aquinas stated that fortitude is the virtue that enables the removal of any obstacle that keeps the will from following reason and argued that courage is a virtue which can only be exemplified with the presence of the Christian virtues: faith, hope, and mercy. In order to understand true courage in Christianity it takes someone who displays the virtues of faith, hope, and mercy

In other words courage is a state of being rather than a particular act.  While our popular notion of courage – risking one’s life for others or dying for one’s principle – is certainly valid, it misses the essential point of personal integrity.  A courageous man, according to Aquinas, can be expected to act virtuously on all occasions and in all situations.  Such a man can be trusted, relied upon, and respected.  Individual acts of courage, as important as they may be, mean less if they are one-off moments and more if they are part of character.

For Aquinas individual acts of fortitude or courage were indeed valid, but like the Tao which taught that the wrong kind of courage – that done with ‘audacity’ always ends badly, Aquinas insisted that courage was more a matter of endurance and resolve.  Like the Tao Aquinas stated that fortitude was a virtue only when done with temperance, patience, and resolve results in rewards.

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Hobbes added another dimension – survival – but in so doing echoed the sentiments of classical philosophers.  Acts of individual courage were only valid or noteworthy if they were done to protect and preserve.  Society as a whole depended on the courage to fight invaders, in whatever form they might appear.

Classical and 19th century thinking meet here – dying at the stake for one’s faith or fighting the the enemy at the gates at all costs are acts of defensive courage. Neither Aquinas nor Hobbes mention individual bravery as an end in itself, so it must be inferred. 

What to make, then, of the soldier on a mission a bombing mission who faces enemy fire but continues to his target?  He has been trained to follow order and to carry out his mission at all costs.  Enemy fire is expected if not certain.  Continuing despite the likelihood of being shot down, killed, or captured is a matter of duty and responsibility, not courage in any classical sense.  Enlisting to carry out such missions may be an act of patriotism, legacy, or personal ambition; but since such enlistment implies danger and high risk of death, flying missions per se cannot be considered an act of courage.  He may be rewarded for ‘valor’ but not courage.

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The distinction is important for ‘valor’ does not imply any inherent value such as Aquinas or others have suggested.  It is simply performing extremely well under dangerous and life-threatening situations.  The soldier who storms the machinegun nest to save his comrades is acting valorously since camaraderie, brotherhood, esprit de corps, and unity are the values inculcated as part of military training.   Only a few act valorously in an expression of these principles, and they are acknowledged and rewarded.

Today courage and valor are conflated – they are one and the same thing and most often thought of in terms of battlefield heroics.  But the classical sense of courage is largely lost.  A person of moral principle can be expected to be criticized and attacked by those who have accepted and adopted a more fluid, relativistic notion of right behavior.  According to this philosophy absolute, a priori values do not exist.  Values are only temporal constructs which evolve out of a cultural and social context and can only be considered and judged as such.  There are too many limiting factors influencing individual decisions to judge simply.  One might have very good and valid reasons for hiding the truth, ignoring dishonesty, or taking advantage of others.  In a highly competitive society where advantage and privilege are not guaranteed but distributed unequally, ‘value’, ‘principle’, and ‘morality’ must only be relative.

In fact the man of courage acting to maintain despite attack what Cicero named as cardinal virtues (wisdom, justice, and temperance), what Cato the Elder taught young Romans about honor and compassion; and what religious traditions have endorsed in their holiest of texts is put upon rather than rewarded.  When values become relative, so does courage; and when relativity rules, courage disappears.

In today’s current environment of ‘identity’, anything goes.  What courage does it take to discredit an honorable man nominated for high public office for possible mistakes made as an adolescent for the sake of political gain? How does deception in the name of security serve any long-term purpose? When government lies are discovered, the essential core of the democracy is eroded.  Nations are no different from individuals, and the precepts of Aquinas, Cicero, and Cato are no less valid.  It takes courage to be honest and trustworthy with the citizens who have given trust are involved. 

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Violence in many communities is fueled by an erosion of such classical fortitude.  Machismo, street creds, and personal ambition pass for courage – standing up to threats, intimidation, or territorial claims; and aggressively moving to neutralize enemy and opposition.

Politicians are not expected to tell the truth, to be honest about their intentions, and to act appropriately and consistent with their office.  Lying, distortion, and manipulation of the truth is expected; and the rules of engagement are to win at any cost regardless of the more systemic consequences.  Courage is defined as one deceitful politician standing up to another.

It is perhaps too much to hope for a return to let alone a reconsideration of Aquinas; but one should never be indifferent.

Every judgement of conscience, be it right or wrong, be it about things evil in themselves or morally indifferent, is obligatory, in such wise that he who acts against his conscience always sins.

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