Courage

Tonight I am reading some psychology text and it is mentioned that virtues are actions and happiness is a feeling and not to confuse the two.

This reminds me of Aristotle and I had to stop for a moment and get some thoughts out before continuing my tea-fueled reading.

It is common to hear someone say (and I have said is on many an occasion myself) that to be fearful and still do something, is the height of courage. In reading and thinking on Aristotle, I’ve come to believe that he took the opposite stance.

The virtuous person feels good in doing virtuous actions. Some people do them because they have a strong will, though they aren’t jazzed in doing it. They lack virtue, even though they are doing the actions. This is easy to understand in many examples, the person who gives a gift to someone, but who is thinking “I wasted money doing this”.

Take out the language and put in values of X and Y we see the formula that Aristotle laid out… that a virtuous person does something and feels pleasure in doing it.

Now, the same holds for the notion of courage. If a person is stands up and speaks zer mind, surrounded by antagonists, the courageous person will feel good in saying something, in acting with virtue. The person who does not feel this, though standing up for beliefs anyway, is not at heart a courageous person.

And I find that I have need to remind myself of the Golden Mean, the Middle Way, and a concept that many people have correctly said as nothing in excess (half true) but then misunderstand when they advocate for some numerically middle ground between extremes.

Golden-Mean

If a person must stand against several, it is natural to feel a sense of fear or anxiety or something, however brief. Our brains are wonderful at throwing a universe of ideas into the mix, most of which never stick to anything. For example, driving a car beside a cliff and the thought of “drive over the cliff” enters the mind. This is an absurd thought and it passes without consequence, never sticking to anything in the perception. So too the fleeting sense of anxiety in the mind of a courageous person, it comes and goes without any further ado because the person is filled with virtue.

An important part in this equation, in the balance for which we seek to find, is that of rational thought. Without this we are doomed. Allow me to illustrate. Suppose a person were to never act against the transgressions of others? It is relatively easy to see how this person is a coward. Yet in talking with people, the opposite is true, that a person who always acts against transgressions is not viewed as rash. It might be conceded that they can be a jerk, but never that they are not courageous. Herein lies part of the misunderstanding, we are confusing the action with the emotional feeling and back to the action.

It has been the case that I’ve been faced against one or more people and have felt afraid. It has also been the case that I’ve been in far greater danger and have gleefully entered into the fray. Without counting Iraq, I can count several instances where I have moved toward the sound of chaos. Shots fired, cries for help, harassing strangers, smell of fire, auto accidents, and more, I’ve moved forward. Truth be told, many times I’ve run dark streets (I’m a marathoner and train a lot) and I’ve asked the Universe that if there was a mugging, raping, shooting, theft, assault, to please let me have the good fortune to come upon it so that I might act upon it. My rational thought approaches a situation and weighs different values and questions. The mere feeling of desiring to go forward and fight someone is not courageous. Perhaps I’ve interpreted the situation wrongly and will now do harm to someone by mistake. Suppose I interpret everything around me as transgressing against me. Such we have the actions of many veterans I’ve worked with (and myself) where they are always eager to go into a fight. This, again, is not courage but instead is rash. Seeing things correctly (as correctly as we can) take wisdom, and wisdom is developed over time, with experience and thoughtful approach to each situation as it is. That is why Aristotle says:

Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.

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Another example. Recall the movie 300 where the Persian army is on the beach below and some of the Greeks feel despair while looking down on so many, whereas the Spartans were laughing and grinning. Both groups fought in the battle, both groups did the actions required (the miser giving the obligatory gift), yet only one group was joyous in their actions… the Spartans. The first group thought of the ensuing pain, the second thought of the glory and honor afforded to them. This is a central point raised in some discussions on heroic societies and the role of honor in that it enables the warrior to willingly, gleefully, move forward into battle… it helps to build courage.

Thus the person who trembles, but gets up anyway to declare an unpopular (but needed opinion) is not courageous. What can be said of them is that they have power of will. They didn’t want to rise up and speak, they didn’t want to cause undue attention to themselves, but they recognized something compelling them to do so (whether it is rules, strategy, politics, or other).

This is an unpopular position today, because everywhere you look there are definitions that say only the person afraid can show courage. It is in texts on military combat and PTSD, on communication books, on social justice commentary, and more. Again, I’ve used this phrase many times in my own trainings, to which I now recant.

This is not to say that the person of will is to be condemned because they do not have courage. Funny how many people take that meaning when discussing the virtue of courage but not with other virtues. Courage is connected to our sense of self mastery and we have deeply personal reflections on the term. If the person displays force of will and is able to act without courage, the doing so is necessary to develop courage. The first punches and stings from being tested hurt, yet we soon realize that the fear of pain is often worse than the pain itself. Through training, over time, and with growing experience and rational thought, courage can be developed, as can the other virtues.

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