Finding Virtue: Courage

posted in: Philosophy | 0
AP Photo/Sergei Grits
AP Photo/Sergei Grits

Courage (or fortitude) is easy to admire, just as cowardice is easy to despise. Even in a morally reversed culture, bravery remains cherished, if misunderstood. The challenge for the Christian is to find it in the life of faith and not just on the battlefield.

What Courage Is Not

Because it is a virtue, courage must be a mean between two vices. On the one hand courage is not fear and the expectation of evil. The fearful or cowardly person allows his anticipation of consequences to shape his decisions. The coward is not guided by a rule or even toward a noble end. This might remind us of a certain servant who hid his talent because he knew his master “to be a hard man … so I was afraid” (Matthew 25:24-25). On the other hand courage is not an overconfident person who does not have a reasonable fear of consequences. “To fear some things is even right and noble, and it is base not to fear them” (Nic. Eth. III.6). Bravery is not the absent fear, but rather bridled fear. “The man, then, who faces and who fears the right things and from the right motive, in the right way and from the right time, and who feels confidence under the corresponding conditions, is brave” (Nic. Eth. III.7).

Courage should not be confused with necessity, as a man who faces danger to avoid a penalty or serves in the military by conscription.1 Neither is courage to be equated with experience, as when a man seems to face danger, but because of his mastery of a skill is actually never at risk. A trained soldier who battles an amateur does so without fear, but this comes from his expertise rather than his courage. It is easy to appear brave when you have an advantage. Nor is courage the same as passion, like a crazed person who charges into danger without rational consideration. Finally and in the same vein, ignorance is not courage. Courage is fully aware of danger and risk.

Finding a Word

So what shall we call this virtue between cowardice and overconfidence?

Aristotle calls this virtue “courage,” from andreia (ἀνδρεία). Though derived from a masculine concept (“act like a man”), to think of this word as equivalent to masculinity – or worse, machismo – would be a terrible misunderstanding. The term is applied to women without qualification, but for some reason English translations seem content to render these instances as “worthy” or “excellent” rather than “courageous.” Even the proverbial “model woman” is in fact called courageous (Γυναῖκα ἀνδρείαν, LXX), not vaguely virtuous (Proverbs 31:10). The idea of “manly” becomes the joke itself in many passages. Surely this is Clement’s intent: “Many women being strengthened through the grace of God have performed many manly (ἀνδρεία) deeds” (1 Clement 55:3). Likewise Paul intended courage, not gender dysphoria, when he instructed the whole church to “act like men” (1 Corinthians 16:13). Thus we may bicker about the sexist etymology of the word if we wish, but what is clear is that ancient writers had no apprehension about applying the virtue of courage to women.

There is a mild break in thought between Aristotle and the New Testament.2 The andreia term used by Aristotle is absent from the New Testament except for the one reference in 1 Corinthians mentioned above. While the Old Testament is happy to celebrate courage, the New Testament shifts toward courage in the form of “confidence,” from a variety of terms including tharreo (θαρρέω). Aristotle is unsure about this term. He struggles to find a word for the vice we call “overconfidence,” saying, “many states of character have no names” (Nic. Eth. III.7). Sometimes he uses confidence as a vice: “the man who exceeds in confidence about what really is terrible is rash.” At other times he associates confidence and courage favorably in contrast to the coward: “The coward is therefore a despondent person, being afraid of everything; but the courageous man is just the opposite, for confidence belongs to a hopeful temperament.”

What I think can be gleaned from this technical detail is that the New Testament writers might be having a bit of fun in explaining their sense of courage. Christian courage for all appearances looks like over-confidence. For Aristotle, a failure to fear death is fool-hearty: “Death is the most terrible of all things; for it is the end, and nothing is thought to be any longer either good or bad for the dead” (Nic. Eth. III.6). From the Greek point of view, the Christian did not adequately fear death, “what really is terrible.” A Roman could understand such courage in a soldier, but not in the martyrs, who “loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11). It seemed foolish, an appearance in which the Christian community reveled.

So we can confidently say,

“The Lord is my helper;
I will not fear;
what can man do to me?” (Heb 13:6)

Lives of Courage

Courage does not only describe the virtue of the martyrs. C.S. Lewis reminded us that every virtue requires courage in the face of opposition. Fear is virtue’s great enemy, as Uncle Screwtape explains:

Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.3

In Christian doctrine, there is nothing more courageous than the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount. Abstaining from retaliation (Matthew 5:38-42), loving enemies (5:43-48), and seeking first the kingdom of God (6:25-34) are all acts of moral courage rooted in trust in our Helper. Nothing is more courageous than an ordinary Christian life.

The Christian life is a life of courage because it is a life of love. Courage is love “bearing all things readily for the sake of the object beloved” (Augustine). Uncle Screwtape agrees and advises Wormwood: “To make a deep wound in his charity, you should therefore first defeat his courage.”4 Love requires a profound trust, whether in God or man. To walk unprotected into the embrace of love is the very measure of courage. How much more must be the courage of God to offer such love to us? Though the word is not employed, the cross is courage in its fullest.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:1–2)

Footnotes

  1. Aristotle calls this “citizen courage,” and admires it to a degree but adds: “one ought to be brave not under compulsion but because it is noble to be so” (Nic. Eth. III.8).
  2. There is even a larger breakdown when you reach Aquinas. For this reason, I have barely referenced Aquinas at all in this discussion of courage. Aquinas wants to skip back over the Christian sense of courage in favor of the purely Greek sense of courage in battle. Most of his text is him explaining disagreements with various Christian writers on the subject, all of whom I fear make more sense than Aquinas on this particular point.
  3. C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters.
  4. C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters.
Follow Benjamin Williams:

Pulpit Minister for Glenpool Church of Christ (Glenpool, OK); BS in Astrophysics from University of Oklahoma; MDiv in Ministry from Oklahoma Christian Graduate School of Theology

Latest posts from