What is Courage?

Let’s start at the beginning, with Plato’s dialogue Laches (taken from Online Literature)

Laches: “he is a man of courage who does not run away, but remains at his post and fights against the enemy;”

Laches: “courage is a sort of endurance of the soul”

Nicias: “courage is the knowledge of that which inspires fear or confidence in war”

Nicias: “thoughtful courage is a quality possessed by very few, but that rashness and boldness, and fearlessness, which has no forethought”

Socrates: “the terrible and the hopeful are the things which do or do not create fear, and fear is not of the present, nor of the past, but is of future and expected evil.”

A man is courageous who stands and fights the enemy, but if he is not in possession of the facts of the situation then he is merely rash or ignorant. Now if he has full knowledge of the past, present and future then he is all the virtues, not just one (courage, justice, wisdom and temperance form the four virtues), and by this rather unsatisfactory argument Socrates dismisses the definition they arrive at in the dialogue. But it’s not a bad definition. The enemy is easily seen as military, but the same applies to physical pain, the desire for a cigarette or the anticipation of a difficult event.

This question arose at our monthly meeting of West London Humanists and Secularists where we focused principally on physical danger with an interesting speech by Major Ben Aumônier, of the Royal Logistics Corps – Explosive Ordinance Disposal who recently came back from Afghanistan. He talked of not being willing to send his men where he hadn’t been and owing it to them to go himself.

He spoke of precautions taken when preparing to defuse a bomb and how all the training and experience helped protect him. He said he didn’t feel particularly courageous and how he and his men would not do something if the felt the situation was too dangerous. He sounded as if it were all a matter of minimising risk. I wondered whether it is really that simple.

Clearly, knowledge is important to combat fear. The more you understand a situation, the more easily you can identify the risks and hazards, how best to avoid them, and whether the desired goal is worth the potential negative outcome.

We tried to define courage; how does it differ from inner strength and what is the difference. We talked about accidental courage, which is not truly courage as you’re not aware of the risk you are taking as Socrates points out.There are also those people who seem never to get scared because they genuinely believe they are invulnerable. Are they courageous or just stupid?

We spoke of the difference between moral and physical courage.

Physical courage is almost easy to define. It’s putting your body, and sometimes your mind, at risk of damage. People who do this on a regular basis are not just the military, but fire-fighters, nurses in A&E, mountaineers, astronauts, spies, participants in dangerous sports and these are just the obvious ones. They put themselves in danger either for some greater good (to save someone’s life) or as a personal challenge, to be the first/best.

As a society we are somewhat biased as to the types of courage we recognise and celebrate. We recognise gallantry (which can be defined as courage) and we reward it with medals, notably the Victoria Cross  in the face of the enemy or the George Cross not in the face of the enemy. Other examples of physical courage can be found by looking at rescues by the RNLI or Mountain Rescue who put themselves at risk to save others. These are commended by the media, the public, by almost everyone. Physical courage is easier to see and maybe easier to weigh up in terms of lives saved and risks taken.

To me though, moral courage is far harder to define and yet so more worthy. One person said that finding the strength to get up in the morning does not constitute moral courage. I beg to differ. If you’ve never read the article that spawned the word and hashtag #spoonie then read this moving account of what it is like to live with a debilitating disease, For some of us, the daily struggle to simply get through the day can require immense moral as well as physical courage.The simple decision to not give up on life when it’s not good can require courage. Part of the current lack of attention paid to mental health is because the immense courage it takes to try and deal with  mental health problems goes unacknowledged, unrecognised and plain ignored.

Standing up to your fears, in the knowledge of the pain that can cause you, whether physical or mental is courage. Refusing to acknowledge, let alone deal with your fears is not. Being courageous when no one else may even notice is even harder.

WLHS meets once a month for formal discussion and once a month for pub talk. See the WLHS website for further details, guests welcome.

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear. (Mark Twain)