Do you remember the last time when you showed courage?
Courage is often a measure of our self-esteem and will. Courage is what makes us individuals different from others. It shows in what we believe and the power of belief over our will. It is always "the difficult path." It could be an unconscious act of boldness, but before all it is the conscious decision of a person to act despite the danger. Thus, courage is always related to belief, will, and danger. There is no courage whitout risk. There is no heroism without stakes. We cannot speak about courage without thinking about losses and victories. Courage differs from imprudence or madness by its results. The courageous act saves lives, gives hope, it is a rare act of self-scrifice for the good of others. The criminal who steals, or lies for personal gain, or kills, who causes unhappiness to others with his reckless actions, is not a courageous person.
William Ian Miller, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and specialist of Icelandic sagas, medieval history, emotions, vices, and virtues, published recently The Mystery of Courage (Harvard University Press). In "Danger, Death, and... Dieting? ", an article that appeared in The In Character magazine, Miller makes a short resume of his book.
Courage was a great subject for the ancient Greeks, writes Miller. Athenians were proud that their courage is "natural" and "voluntary" in contrast with those of their enemies, the Spartans, who according to Pericles, were forced to be courageous through extensive training and painful discipline. Spartans, on the other hand, were prone to give a prize to the most courageous and prident of their warriors.
Courage lacking "prudence" was less esteemed among the Spartans. Evidence for this was Aristodemus, one of their warriors, who didn't receive the prize because of his rashly heroism in the battle of Plataea (479 BC). Miller says that courage was also "politics" for the ancient Greeks; there were standards of courage, for citizens and for warriors, that measured their level of heroism. Courage was so important for the Greeks that national self-esteem depended on it.
Courage is still used for political inspiration. Politicians and leaders all over the world call for courage; nations and groups pride themselves with the courage they show. "People still care intensely about courage- says Miller - and we're still trying to stack the deck in our own favor. Determining who has courage, what actions count, who gets the prize, is disputed now no less than in the Iliad. In our day we hear people praised for their courage for sticking to a diet, for giving up smoking, even for investing in a Silicon Valley start-up."
Courage is often discussed among the philosophers. Plato, for example, explained that courage is not only an act of resistence aginst fear and pain, it is also the ability to control your desires. For Plato, the Stoics, and the early Christians, courage was closely related to self-control. Describing the "courageous" Socrates in his Dialogues, Plato showed that the true philosopher is a courageous person. Socrates demonstrated that man should respect the law and should be ready to give his life for the truth. (Miller however says that some of the braver people he has met do not happen to be in humanities departments or law schools.)
Miller argues that the stricter view of courage gets its classical formulation from Aristotle, who makes courage a matter of risking life and limb in war for the polis. "The martial view is easily the dominant view, informing heroic literature and songs of triumph from Ur to Ugarit, to Judea and Nineveh, to the Germanic North. Indeed, it is pretty nearly a universal view of courage."
Miller finds two basic conceptions on courage: the courage as offence and the courage as defense. "The courage of offense was and remained the preserve of men and, by widespread ideology across a multitude of cultures, upper-class men. The courage of defense, though by obvious necessity and by definition, was no less at home on the battlefield than the courage of offense. Consider that a good portion of ancient and medieval warfare was siege warfare. More than anything it involved the ability to endure long, drawn-out suffering, pain, and hunger, and the constant importuning visions of eating your children, or being eaten by them."
Perhaps from the courage of defense comes the idolization of martyrdom. "The courage of defense, martyr-like fortitude, began to dominate on the battlefield," says Miller and gives us the examples of mechanized war, the trenches, the mud, cold, filth, and death that the soldiers had to endure.
There are many theories and tales about the courage, but as Abner Small, a Civil War veteran, wrote (cited by Miller): men were heroes or cowards "in spite of themselves."
Miller finishes his essay discussing moral courage. "Moral courage, he writes, is a rather recent development; the term does not appear in English until the nineteenth century. It took a largely pacified society for people to think to distinguish stand-up-in-meeting kind of courage - the courage of risking ridicule, humiliation, loss of employment, or social ostracism for speaking out against injustice, or of defying immoral or illegal orders from a superior - from plain old courage."
The thing that distinguishes moral courage from all other forms of courage, and this seems the most interesting point of Miller's ideas on the subject, is that it is usually a lonely courage. To fight injustice or overcome difficulties alone, without the support of heroic tales and examples, of sermons, public opinion and friends, needs a courage that only a few are capable of.