Book 03
Chapter 06
In what we may see true courage to be shown.

Now we know that courage relates to feelings of fear and confidence. But there is more to courage than just that. We must take a closer look at courage, so that we do not make the mistake of calling something 'courageous' when it is not so.

What is fear? Some people have said fear is "expectation of evil", or a feeling that something bad is coming or will come. Now, it can happen that someone does something that seems like it is brave, because there was risk of something bad happening, but it turns out that the person never had any fear to overcome (and one cannot be brave when there is nothing to fear). And why should it be that they have no fear? Because they were not even aware that something bad could happen to them when they did the thing. For instance, imagine that someone goes out in the middle of the night while there is a blizzard, and it could happen that they get stuck with no one to help them, but they do not even think about that.

This lack of fear will often be a bad thing, even though one might think that since fear can be distressing, that it would be good not to have it. But courageous people want to have fear of the things which they ought to fear, fear to help them avoid bad things that they really should try to avoid (unless it is worth the risk). For instance, everyone ought to fear disgrace, including good and noble people; we ought to want to avoid that. But some people do not fear disgrace, and that is because they are shameless. Now, someone with no sense of shame might happen do something good that risks disgrace. For example, a commander may lead his troops off to try to plunder the enemy camp and get loot. Now suppose the enemy army were winning on the field, and this commander should be on the field helping, but instead he is going after loot. If his army loses, then he will be disgraced, and rightly so. This commander is greedy, not courageous. And yet the action he took could well be taken by someone that is modest and noble. How so? A courageous commander, as a strategic move, may try to quickly take the enemy camp with hopes that word of that will spread and create panic in the enemy army, and help his side to win. This is a risky move that may be done for the good of all, one where the outcome is in doubt, and so it may be called courageous. But, again, that same act, done without caring for anything else but personal gain should not at all be called courageous.

Generally speaking, virtuous people will fear anything that may come from them making a bad choice that causes something bad to happen. They will be aware of that danger and try to avoid it, but yet sometimes they will take risks, if they think it is worth it. Other things, which they no control over (i.e. things coming from misfortunes, such as an illness or disease, poverty, etc.) -- they will not fear these like ordinary people do, but rather in a such a way as one would expect from a person that is called brave and noble.

But still, not fearing poverty or disease does not make someone courageous only on account of that. Someone may show no concern about losing money, and yet when it comes to battle, they will show themselves to be cowardly. On the other hand, if a person is gentle with their spouse and their children, for fear of harming them by causing them distress, such a person should not be called cowardly for that.

OK, then, how can we know when to say someone is truly courageous? When they are brave when it is most important and most difficult to be so. This would seem to mean being brave in the face of death, because death is it for a person. Once a person crosses over the boundary from life to death, there is no longer any good or evil for them; death is the end.

And yet, what about death by drowning at sea or death by disease? It would seem that in such cases, there is nothing that one can do about such things. Well, if there is nothing anyone can do, then there is no way to be cowardly, since there is no avoiding the thing (people are called cowards because they avoid things they ought not to). So we should not apply the term courageous here.

Again, what makes for true courage? Let us try this: let us look at what things people are honored for as being courageous, and then consider why it makes sense that they should be so honored. People are mostly honored for their courage when they do worthy acts that are made even more worthy by the fact that they do them in the face of danger. Here we may think of the feats of Ajax in the Iliad, and particularly when he stands against Hector and the Trojans while the Greeks are driven back to their ships.

When it comes to drowning at sea, if we think again, we can see that sailors may be courageous in the face of death by taking actions to preserve their lives rather than losing their minds and drowning screaming. Here we may think of the part of the Odyssey where Odysseus must swim ashore the island of Phaeacia, and he is many times close to drowning, and yet he keeps himself alive by dint of his courage, as the poet (Homer) says:

"And now at last Odysseus would have perished, battered inhumanly, but he had the gift of self-possession from greyed-eyed Athena."

Finally, we note that the best examples of courage are ones where having it is what makes great deeds possible, and ones where death is noble. Here we may think of Hector making his last stand against Achilles. And the poet has Hector say:

"Let me not then die ingloriously and without a struggle, but let me first do some great thing that shall be told among men hereafter."

And now, while we have made good progress in understanding what courage is, let us keep going and look into it still further, that we might better appreciate it and strive to have it.

[Note: Sometimes the word 'courage' is used and sometimes the word 'brave' is used. What is the difference? Brave is used for withstanding the feeling of fear (and pain), for keeping oneself together, rather than going to pieces. Courage is used when action is taken in the face of danger. So courage is the word used for the virtue, because it relates to action, and virtue is about action. Brave is the word used whenever talking about keeping it together, because we do have a specific English word to use, and it is awkward to try to avoid using it. It is possible to be brave without being courageous. But is it possible to have courage without bravery? Read on, if you would know.]


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