Courage

by William J. Bennett

“We become brave by doing brave acts,” observed Aristotle. Dispositions of character, virtues and vices, are progressively fixed in us through practice. Thus, the Greek philosopher explained, “by being habituated to despise things that are terrible and to stand our ground against them we become brave, and it is when we have become so that we shall be most able to stand our ground against them.”

Standing ground against threatening things is not to be confused with fearlessness, however. Being afraid is a perfectly appropriate emotion when confronted with fearful things.

The great American novelist Herman Melville makes the Aristotelian point beautifully in a telling passage in Moby-Dick, where Starbuck, the chief mate of the Pequod, first addresses the crew.

Melville writes, “ ‘I will have no man in my boat,’ said Starbuck, ‘who is not afraid of a whale.’ By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.”

The brave person is not one who is never afraid. That is rather the description of a rash or reckless person, someone who may be more harm than help in an emergency. It is hard to “educate” such a person on the spot. The coward, on the other hand, the one who characteristically lacks confidence and is disposed to be overly fearful, may yet be susceptible to the encouragement of example.

The infectious nature of strikingly courageous behavior on the part of one person can inspire — and also in part can shame — a whole group. That was one key to the kind of courage inspired by Horatius at the bridge in ancient Rome, and by Henry V at Agincourt.

It was one key to the kind of courage displayed by those who silently suffered abuse when they joined ranks with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., in acts of nonviolent protest directed at rousing the public conscience against injustice.

Another key to their success, of course, was reason: practical reason delivered with the kind of eloquence that is informed by a real command of one’s cultural heritage and that steels the will to take intelligent action.

The mere inclination to do the right thing is not in itself enough. We have to know what the right thing to do is. We need wisdom — often the wisdom of a wise leader — to give our courage determinate form, to give it intelligent direction. And we need the will, the motivating power that inspiring leaders can sometimes help us discover within ourselves even when we are unable to find it readily on our own.
If Aristotle is right, then courage is a settled disposition to feel appropriate degrees of fear and confidence in challenging situations (what is “appropriate” varying a good deal with the particular circumstances).

It is also a settled disposition to stand one’s ground, to advance or to retreat as wisdom dictates. Before such dispositions become settled, however, they need to be established in the first place. And that means practice, which in turn means facing fears and taking stands in advance of any settled disposition to do so: acting bravely when we don’t really feel brave.

Fear of the dark is almost universal among young children, and it provides relatively safe opportunities for first lessons in courage. In families, older siblings are greatly assisted in cultivating their own dispositions in this respect by putting up a brave front before their younger brothers or sisters. “You see? There’s really nothing to be afraid of.”

This is excellent practice, and a fine place to begin. Occasions for being brave on behalf of others — for standing by them in challenging circumstances — are occasions for becoming brave ourselves; that is, for learning how to handle our own confidence and fear, for figuring out the right thing to do, and for mustering the will to do it.

This article is excerpted from The Book of Virtues (Simon & Schuster, 1993).

Previous | Next