Three faces of courage

Recently, a woman asked whether being told to “grow a pair” was evidence of misogyny, since it assumes that the only way to be courageous is to be masculine. I responded with some nonsense about the Laches and ᾳνδρειᾳ, stubborn manliness, which is the Greek word for courage. Still, it’s an interesting question: in the fervor of feminist theorizing, the debates about jingoism and patriotism in Vietnam and Iraq, and the flap regarding Bill Maher’s comment that suicide bombers are not cowards, we seem to have become confused as to what we mean when we say ‘courage.’

I stand by the Laches in one respect: the only courage we can identify that’s worthy of the name is a courage that is indistinguishable from the whole of virtue, which requires the guidance of wisdom and refers us away from military feats of daring. It seems to me that there is nothing essentially manly about this sort of courage. “Sacking up” is like having the “courage of your convictions”: it advocates strength and testosterone instead of insight and resolution. ᾳνδρειᾳ is a weak substitute for the riskiness of doubt, uncertainty, and the philosophical life.

Which brings me to the second ‘face’ of courage, Linda Rabieh‘s Plato and the Virtue of Courage. Her book was recently reviewed by The Weekly Standard, which turns her work into an indictment of contemporary liberalism (which it is in part) while ignoring the turn away from militancy. In the Republic, courage is necessary in order to strive for justice. However, heroics and political courage won’t get you all the way to philosophy, and that is indubitably where Rabieh wishes to lead us. Instead, the concerns of wisdom and prudence eventually turn the soul away from bellicose honors and incomplete notions of justice until the courageous individual begins to face up to the challenges of metaphysics: to discern the One and the Good.

This calls for the Laches again, especially Plato’s claim that courage, tempered by wisdom, requires us to face both the past and present in addition to the fears and hopes we hold of the future. Thus, there is something in courage that requires us to face experience and memory in a different manner than we are accustomed to. I think of this third ‘face’ of courage as its onto-theological face, or perhaps simply its existential one: Paul Tillich called it The Courage to Be. This is the bravery that allows the philosopher to confront the challenges of inquiry: fear of death, fear of meaninglessness, and fear of condemnation. The philosopher must forgo the comforts of an afterlife, the at-home-ness of received wisdom, and innocence in the face accusations of corruption leveled by the many. To be thus confronted by non-being, emptiness, and guilt requires a more complete courage than the solider or the statesman. It requires resolution in the face of anxiety.

That’s what’s missing in my favorite passage from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. One character (the American) asks the narrator why he left a woman he loved: “I was terrified of losing her. I thought I saw her changing–I don’t know if she really was, but I couldn’t bear the uncertainty any longer. I ran towards the finish just like a coward runs towards the enemy and wins a medal. I wanted to get death over.” I’ve always found that passage unbelievably moving: my partner quoted it to me in a moment when I needed to be reminded of the varieties of cowardice. Now, it serves as a warning of the dissembling of ostensibly brave men, and the courage to be found in the everyday commitment to our choices and our present.

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