The Virtue of Courage

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“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”   -The Talmud


In a previous epoch of life, I was blessed enough to have been a high school teacher.  Every year, I made sure to have one class period devoted, not to our academic curriculum, but to a conversation concerning virtue; specifically, the virtue of courage. My students were almost exclusively Native American, most of them members of the Lakota Sioux Nation. The Lakota have a set of traditional virtues, which were posted in my classroom and around the school. One of the most important of these was courage, and I was always very curious to know what exactly that meant to these 16 and 17 year olds. In fact, I wasn’t sure that I could really even define the word myself. When I was in high school as a student in their position, we read a portion of Aristotle’s Ethics in which the philosopher discusses this notion of courage:

“There are five kinds of courage, so named for a certain similarity; for they all face the same things but not for the same reasons. One is political courage, due to the sense of shame. Another is military, due to experience and knowledge, not (as Socrates said) of what is fearful but of the resources one has to meet what is fearful. The third kind is due to inexperience and ignorance: it is that of children and madmen which makes the latter face whatever comes and the former take hold of snakes. Another kind is due to hope, which makes those who have often been fortunate face dangers – and also those who are drunk, for wine makes them optimistic. Another kind is due to irrational feeling – for instance, love or rage; for a man in love is over-confident rather than cowardly and faces many dangers…similar is the action of anger or rage, for rage puts a man out of his wits. That is why wild boars are thought to be courageous though they are not really so; for they behave as such when beside themselves, but at other times are unpredictable like over-confident men. Nevertheless, the courage due to rage is above all natural (for rage is invincible – and that is why children are excellent fighters), but political courage is the effect of custom. But in truth, none of these is courage…”

How maddening. Our Greek sage has helped us only so far as he has furthered the process of elimination. Courage is not confidence; it is not battle-lust or madness; it is not absence of fear due to naiveté; it is not the irrational discounting of real danger. What in the world, then, is it?

After years of discussion with my students, the elders of the Reservation, my peers, and a long look into my own life experience, I find that the definition of courage I have come to embrace is something perhaps rather surprising. In the words of cowboy actor John Wayne, “courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.” For those unfamiliar with the idiom, “saddling up” refers literally to placing a saddle on one’s horse, and metaphorically to taking action or readying oneself for work. By this definition, not only is courage not the absence of fear; fear is, in fact, a prerequisite for courage. In other words, there is no courage without fear; if one were not afraid, what need would there be for courage?

I can think of no better example of the civic and political courage I am advocating for than the protest movement currently underway in Hong Kong. Facing the full political, military, and cultural might of the world’s most populous country, common citizens are standing shoulder to shoulder in the streets, physically fighting for their lives and safety for the sake of autonomy, justice, and freedom. The People’s Republic of China is the consummate modern authoritarian state, and has a long and consistent track record of violent human rights abuses against those who dare dissent from the official line. Staring down militarized police units, with a clear understanding of what they will face if taken prisoner by the Chinese government, the people of Hong Kong must certainly feel fear. However, they have responded bravely, facing the fear and placing themselves in harm’s way to resist the encroachment of an authoritarian power. The same can be said of other notable figures and movements; Malala Yousafzai, the Bangladeshi students protesting government corruption last year, the Civil Rights leaders of the 1960s, the French Resistance during World War II – all of these fully understood the real dangers and long odds they faced, and displayed amazing courage by choosing to saddle up anyway.

In our most recent publication, Shuddhashar magazine focused on the concerning development of rising global authoritarianism. The editorial note quoted from Martha Nussbaum’s Monarchy of Fear, highlighting the way in which fear can be magnified by authoritarian leaders into gaining power and manipulating a populace. Nussbaum provides a powerful historical example of resistance to this fear-mongering by referencing civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr’s emphasis on hope, characterizing hope as “the inverse of fear.” Perhaps this is so; however, even in my most hopeful moments, I find that I am still afraid. I have no doubt that many of the activists in Dr. King’s movement were afraid, too; after all, they faced the prospects of police brutality, incarceration, and even lynching. It was not, then, that their hope caused them to cease being afraid. I posit instead that fear is unlikely to ever be extinguished fully, and I would even go further by saying that I should not wish it to be. Instead, I believe that what we lack is not hope, but courage. This courage is borne and bolstered by hope, certainly, but it is not hope alone which empowers us to face threats to our freedom and values.

In Scandinavian myth, the end of the world was believed to be a violent affair. Called Ragnarok, the last days of civilization were prophesized to be defined by a battle between the gods of Asgard and the inhuman giants and their monstrous allies. It was thought that the spirits of slain warriors would join the Asgardians in a desperate struggle to defend the world from this threat, and that gods and humans alike would fight valiantly and desperately. This is, of course, not a particularly uncommon strain of myth – many cultures have warrior-heroes in their legends and stories. What strikes me, though, about this story of Ragnarok is that, unlike in other mythologies, when the final battle comes and the great clash of good and evil finally concludes – the gods, and the humans, lose. According to this tale, the chief of the gods, Odin, will be swallowed by the hellish wolf Fenrir; the other heroes of Asgard will be killed by their archrivals; and the world will be set aflame. Even if one interprets this myth as being part of a broader, cyclical story, in which the good of the world is reborn and renewed after the destruction, the fact remains that those who fought in the great battle would not survive to see this restoration. To me, this reveals an even more challenging idea: courage, in this kind of worldview, meant facing not just the fear of an uncertain outcome, but in fact the certainty of death and defeat, and still choosing to stand against it. This conception, in contrast to Nussbaum’s interpretation and Dr. King’s exhortations, has no hope – and yet there is courage even here.

Perhaps this outlook is bleak, or nihilistic. Nevertheless, I find it compelling. I am drawn to something about the idea of choosing to stand up and take action, regardless of whether the outcome is certain or the situation winnable. This discussion of hope and courage is deeply personal to me; I have, like many others, been paying attention to current events both far and near. It is one thing to see that this nation or that nation is under a dictatorial or authoritarian regime; it is quite another to see that they were placed there enthusiastically by citizens who one might have hoped would know better. It is one thing to have a powerful adversary whom I can challenge directly and against whom I can rally others; it is another to find that my adversary has found support in my own friends and family. Hong Kong is under siege; Yemen and Somalia remain torn apart; political systems in Britain and the United States are fraying; climate change continues to accelerate at a terrifying and destructive pace. These are tough enough to handle, but I find the small acts of disappointment to be far more difficult to manage. This, too, requires courage. In her fantasy book The Mad Ship, author Robin Hobb provides a final exposition on this word:

“Everyone thinks that courage is about facing death without flinching. But almost anyone can do that. Almost anyone can hold their breath and not scream for as long as it takes to die.

True courage is about facing life without flinching. I don’t mean the times when the right path is hard, but glorious at the end. I’m talking about enduring the boredom, the messiness, and the inconvenience of doing what is right.”

I continue to ponder the movement of forces far beyond my control as an individual. I feel the anxiety of changing political and economic conditions, I worry about the physical state of the world which I will leave to my children, and I feel the mundane pressures of paying bills and providing for my family. Perhaps I will win my battles – perhaps I shall not. Nevertheless, I shall persist, and I will continue to allow my hope in the future and my faith in others to renew my courage so that we can, together, face the challenges to come.



Phil Stewart is a historian and educator based out of Texas, USA. He is an advocate of free speech and human rights, especially in marginalized communities.


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