The Virtue of Courage, by Mortimer J. Adler

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Courage is a much-praised virtue, but just what it is is not too clear. We usually associate it with fearlessness, but isn’t it inhuman and abnormal to be without fear? And we usually think of the man of action when we think of courage — of the soldier, the big-game hunter, the mountain climber, the race-track driver. But isn’t there such a thing as moral courage, which is far superior to physical daring and recklessness? What is courage?

Another name for courage is fortitude. As the word “fortitude” suggests, courage consists in having the strength to hold fast against danger, pain, and stress.

We sometimes distinguish between physical and moral courage, according to the character of the pain or stress under which the individual does not yield. Men who risk bodily injury or death in war or in peacetime exhibit physical courage. Moral courage is shown by men who uphold religious or political convictions that result in social ostracism or personal unpleasantness for them.

Courage need not be obvious. It is manifested by scientists, artists, and scholars who accomplish their work only by unflagging patience and perseverance. It is found in the everyday life of ordinary men who carry on against odds and fulfill their duties, no matter what the temptation to despair and surrender.

This everyday hero is no more apparent to the naked eye than Kierkegaard’s Knight of Infinite Faith, who looks like a tax collector and dresses like a bourgeois. The present-day knight may wear a fedora, have a paunch, and reside in the suburbs. The late Charles Peguy said that the true adventurers of the twentieth century are the fathers of families.

Courage should not be confused with recklessness or fool hardiness. Nor should it be confused with fearlessness. To be courageous is to have the strength to overcome fear. A man without fear may “appear” to act courageously, but he does not “really” have the virtue of courage. There is no virtue in doing what comes naturally, without effort. Courage involves conquering fear. It involves a respect for hardships and dangers together with an unflinching will to endure them for a good cause. Drunks who rush thoughtlessly into danger are not courageous.

Many great thinkers regard the courageous man as one who succeeds in avoiding the equally wrong extremes of foolhardiness and cowardice. Aristotle points our that courage consists in having the right amount of fear, neither too much nor too little. It calls for a sound judgment about risks or perils, or, as Epictetus says, a combination of confidence and caution. And Spinoza remarks that “flight at the proper time, just as well as fighting, is to be reckoned as showing strength of mind,” that is, courage. The same virtue that moves a man to avoid danger in one case impels him to meet it in another.

The great moralists who discuss courage never treat it as a virtue in isolation from other virtues. In their view, courage is found only in men who are also temperate, just, and prudent or wise. Their reason for this is that taking risks or bearing hardships must be done for the right purpose. They would not call a gangster a courageous man simply because he takes calculated risks or remains cool in the face of danger. Since he is overcoming his fears to achieve an evil, not a good, result, he exhibits not courage but a counterfeit of it.

The man who acts courageously is one who faces dangers and endures hardships because he rightly values certain things as more important than others. His courage is not mere brute strength nor disdain for his skin and his comfort. While he values his life, an unbroken body, and peace, he places a higher value on other goods, such as the welfare of his country or his family, his moral integrity, or the ideals to which he is devoted.

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