Book 03
Chapter 08
The truly courageous will choose to face danger for what is noble.

So, we have talked about the virtue of courage, and how bravery is a part of what makes for courage. But these words are used in many different places, and in some of those places the thing talked about is not actually the virtue, but something else that seems like it is.

Well, if we want to hit on what is right, we must learn to pick out true courage and true bravery from what is false. People often use a word because they want to talk about something that seems (to them) like it is the same as all the other things that the word is used for. For instance, children begin by calling all men 'Father' and all women 'Mother', and later learn to use the words correctly. Only we have no one around to correct us about courage, and so we must look into it for ourselves and check whether the word is used rightly or wrongly. The more right we are in how we use words like 'courage' and 'bravery', the better we understand what they mean, and if we understand them better, then we can better know how to make such virtue be in ourselves.

So now let us go over five different places or ways in which the terms 'courage' and 'bravery' are used, and see which of them is for what is truly virtuous, and what we can learn from it.

(1) First is the courage of the citizen-soldier. These people face dangers because the law commands them to, and if they do not, then they will be penalized, and people will talk bad about them. But if they do face the dangers and endure the hardships, then they may win honor and glory.

Consider well that, in the wide world, the bravest persons seem to come from among those peoples that give the most honor for brave actions and dishonor for cowardly actions. We can think here of the heroes in the Iliad, think of the words of Hector and those of Diomedes. Hector says: "First will Polydamas be to call me out [on this] in front of everyone." And he is telling himself this in order to talk himself out of running away from Achilles (who everyone knows to be the greatest warrior). Diomedes says: "One day Hector will be out there among the Trojans and cry out before everyone 'Oh how afraid was that son of Tydeus! And how he fled from my face!'" Here Diomedes is thinking about how he will lose face if he does not step up against Hector. In both cases, the heroes do talk themselves into facing danger, because they prize their honor.

So we can see here how the heroes do have the virtue of courage; the reason why they avoid vice is because of the pain they would feel at being dishonored. This is what they are thinking of, and it helps them to bring up their courage. A coward would either not think of such things or they would not care enough about the dishonor for it to make them rather want to do the brave and dangerous thing.

OK, now compare this to people who are forced to face danger, but not because they fear dishonor, but rather because they fear their masters more than their foes. As Hector says to such persons: "But if I find anyone cowering far away from the fighting, vainly will such a one hope to escape from the dogs." (Meaning he would kill them like a deserter and feed their body to the dogs.) Or those who beat people if they try to retreat or put a moat behind them or burn their ships. In all these cases, people have no choice but to face the danger. But where this is no choice, there can be no virtue. Virtue always involves choice.

(2) Second is the courage that comes from experience. Indeed, Socrates used to say that courage is knowledge. You can see it in mercenaries when they are in battles. They know from experience what is really dangerous, as opposed to what is alarming, but not actually dangerous. Yet when something alarming happens, the inexperienced soldiers see that the mercenaries are not concerned, and the inexperienced think it is because the mercenaries are very brave, when in reality the mercenaries do not care because they know there is no danger. But still, the inexperienced mistakenly call that bravery. Mercenaries also seem all the more courageous when they fight against nervous opponents. They are like trained athletes against amateurs. But just because someone is a trained athlete, that does not make them a champion or even a good sportsman. Mercenaries turn cowardly when great dangers or hardships are put on them. Mercenaries are the first to flee, while the citizen-soldiers stand their ground and will die for their country.

(3) Next, let us consider people who face dangers when they are in the heat of passion. Is it right to call these people courageous? They do the same acts, but unless they make a choice to do them for the sake of good, then we cannot say that they are truly courageous (again, virtue always involves choice).

We can see that wild beasts (such as lions and wild boars) will suddenly charge against men and dogs when they have been cornered, which seems like a brave thing, and yet beasts do not commit acts of virtue.

Fine, but what of the heroes in the Iliad? Homer describes of one that he "put strength into his passion", and another that he "aroused his spirit and passion", and "hard he breathed panting", and "his blood boiled". All these expressions are about heroes stirring up and feeling passion as they go out to do brave deeds. Are the heroes virtuous here or are they more like wild beasts? They are virtuous; they choose to act for the sake of honor and country, and these are good things.

Note also that their passions are stirred up by the heroes themselves, by their force of will, because they choose to do so. And they choose to do so because they know that from their passions they can get the strength they need to carry off their deeds of valor. These heroes use their passions as a means to a noble end. So, clearly, the heroes do act with courage.

Now, people suffer pain when they burn under an offense that they have taken; they long to get revenge, and to be relieved of the pain they feel, and that desire for revenge drives them to do risky things in order to satisfy it. Now, are such people to be called courageous? No, when they do not truly act for the sake of honor and as one would expect, then they are not courageous, but pugnacious. Someone that is always spoiling for a fight and tries to get angry on purpose over little things is not virtuous, and is not truly brave. Often you will see such a one try to take offense from someone, but then when they see the other is willing to fight them, they will just as soon drop it and back away. From this you can see the difference between true courage and acting tough.

(4) Sanguine people are not brave, though they seem like it. Here we mean people that are confident because they have often won. This is confidence for foolish reasons. These people have a confidence like drunks do, who fancy themselves to be the best and unconquerable. But when things do not go well for these people, you can quickly see how different they are from those with real courage. Those with real courage undertake what is terrible, because it is noble to do so, and disgraceful not to. Also, those with real courage can be seen when there is something that comes up that nobody is ready for. They are less disturbed than normal people. But this difference is not so easily seen when everyone knows what is going to happen in advance and can figure out what to do beforehand. But character is seen most in how people handle surprises.

(5) There are also those who attempt brave things and do not even know what it is that they are getting themselves into. We cannot say these people are acting with the virtue of courage. If you are courageous then you choose to face dangers or endure hardships for the sake of something good. These people are not choosing to face dangers, because they do not even know that the dangers exist.

Now, by this point, it should be clear that while there many ways in which someone may appear to be brave and courageous, the truly brave and courageous have the character of one that faces danger and endures hardships by their own choice and for sake of what is noble and worthy.


« index »

« subscribe »

« home »