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    Courage

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    How about this for a topic? I'm sure plenty of people here would have interesting things to say -- more so than I would have. But I'll say a bit to get the ball rolling.

    These are random thoughts -- I haven't planned this. I just started typing.


    First, it seemed to me that courage was an interesting and important virtue. Secondly, that there was a connection with anthropology, something which kind of waits in the wings here even if it doesn't always get on the stage. I mean: this virtue had a very high status in some small-scale societies. Specially, one thinks of some North American Indian societies, particularly those of the Plains Indians. I recall that one American anthropologist -- Lowie, I think -- remarked that behaviour in Plains Indian warfare could often be understood in terms of tribesmen juggling with (a) status and (b) fear. No one wants to die (well, not most people); nevertheless -- and, in fact, because of this -- people who will risk their lives arouse admiration. So men would expose themselves to danger sufficiently to be admired but, for the most part, no more. Interesting to note that in these societies while you could, as it were, get points for killing (including killing women, though fewer for that, since killing the ladies is less dangerous), you got more by "counting coup" -- touching an enemy with a stick, since that's more dangerous. Image:



    Sitting Bull counting coup on an armed man -- here he seems to be touching him with a bow


    The point here was the risk taken -- demonstration of courage.


    More general comments -- I've heard it said that while most of the virtues might "fall out of fashion" -- so that people at times might not understand or admire them -- courage is so obviously admirable that it will always be highly valued. I can't remember where I heard that. I think it might have been said by the Scottish statesman/author (and ex-Governor General of Canada) John Buchan. But I may be mistaken.

    But I'm not sure whether that's true. Sometimes it seems to me that people in modern, peaceful, post-industrial societies so value their quiet lives that they look askance at a virtue that, to them, seems "militaristic". I think C. S. Lewis may have thought that, since he comments in his remarkable essay The Abolition of Man on those who think that:

    It
    ... comfort and security, as known to a suburban street in peace-time, are the ultimate values: those things which can alone produce or spiritualize comfort and security are mocked. Man lives by bread alone, and the ultimate source of bread is the baker's van: peace matters more than honour and can be preserved by jeering at colonels and reading newspapers.
    http://www.amazon.com/Abolition-Man-.../dp/1609421477


    If some think like that, that is a very modern thing, though. Lewis, of course, was a Christian, but courage was, if anything, even more highly valued in the Classical civilisations. See, for example, John Casey's book Pagan Virtue: An Essay in Ethics

    Pagan Virtue: An Essay in Ethics (Clarendon Paperbacks): John Casey: 9780198240037: Amazon.com: Books


    Interestingly, the four "cardinal" (main) virtues in Aristotle are Prudence, Justice, temperance, and Fortitude. And here Aristotle is not so much inventing some view of his own, as analysing what the society he lived in believed in -- giving articulate form to its mores. These terms have drifted over time, since the usual English equivalents to the Greek words were chosen. "Prudence" might, nowadays, be better termed "practical wisdom"; "temperance" replaced with "moderation" (since nowadays temperance is sometimes used to mean avoidance of alcohol); "fortitude" should perhaps be more generally rendered as "courage", although standing firm under trial does cover a lot of what was meant.

    To switch gear again -- one could also take a somewhat Nietzschean view of these matters, too. That's to say, the Aristotelian view could be bent in that direction. One could point to Aristotle's interest in biology and say that the Aristotelian concept of living in accordance with "Nature" (always a difficult and treacherous term in philosophic thought) here is to be understood in terms of an organism's flourishing. Nietzsche did, in fact, (at least at some times) see himself as reasserting Pagan values as over against Christian values. This could be seen, as Casey points out, as plumping for a morality that is based around honour (and hence, at root, pride) as opposed to one that is based around love. These are interesting arguments, although Nietzsche's interpretation of the Pagan morality is very extreme, and others have thought that there is a fair degree of overlap, to put it no higher than that, between Pagan and Christian moralities. (Aquinas, of course, seems to have happily run them together, seeing no essential tension there at all.)

    Some women might also feel that the values that Nietzsche seems to prefer are also more "masculine" virtues, and thus that, important as they may be, a society that was based upon them would be rather one-sided.

    To return specifically to courage -- another saying of C. S. Lewis occurs to me:



    Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.
    Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point. - C. S. Lewis at BrainyQuote

    That's an interesting thought. It suggest that, whatever we might like to think, courage really is central. If I'm just, or honest, or truthful, or kind only for as long as it is safe for me to be so, then I'm really none of these things when "the testing point" is reached.
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    I have some lengthy thoughts on this topic, but gotta run right now. Spoiler alert: courage is vital. But it might not mean what you think it means.

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    Courage is the complement of fear. A man who is fearless cannot be courageous. - Robert Heinlein

    I like this one. Courage is being afraid (for good reason) of doing something and then doing it anyway.

    Quote Originally Posted by Lewis View Post
    To switch gear again -- one could also take a somewhat Nietzschean view of these matters, too. That's to say, the Aristotelian view could be bent in that direction. One could point to Aristotle's interest in biology and say that the Aristotelian concept of living in accordance with "Nature" (always a difficult and treacherous term in philosophic thought) here is to be understood in terms of an organism's flourishing. Nietzsche did, in fact, (at least at some times) see himself as reasserting Pagan values as over against Christian values. This could be seen, as Casey points out, as plumping for a morality that is based around honour (and hence, at root, pride) as opposed to one that is based around love. These are interesting arguments, although Nietzsche's interpretation of the Pagan morality is very extreme, and others have thought that there is a fair degree of overlap, to put it no higher than that, between Pagan and Christian moralities. (Aquinas, of course, seems to have happily run them together, seeing no essential tension there at all.)
    Give me the morality based on Love any day of the week.
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    Commenting to bookmark this thread. Good work to OP for starting it; some good reads in here.

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    There may be individual case exceptions, but my intuition is that I'd rather be fearless than brave. The former implies, at least to me, a greater degree of serenity and mental equanimity, which lends itself to better and more rational decision-making. If you're being incredibly courageous, this means that you're acting in the face of pants-shitting fear, so the stress/adrenaline/emotional turmoil may inadvertently screw up your actions or thought processes.

    There's also the interesting phenomena that courage seems to evolve into fearlessness, with enough practice. I'm thinking specifically of certain high-risk professions like law enforcement, firefighting or various military occupations. Maybe the first time a rookie recruit enters an armed conflict situation or a burning building he has to rely on raw courage to make it through, but after the 10th time? The 50th? By then he has established protocols drilled into his head, his responses to different dangers are ingrained, and he knows the risk/reward ratio of every action he could take practically by instinct. The veteran isn't as courageous (i.e. acting in the face of fear) as the rookie because he doesn't need to be; the veteran has more fearlessness. And I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing.

    I suppose this has certain implications for notions of "heroism" too, in that arguments could be made regarding whether someone courageous is "more heroic" than someone fearless, even if both performed the same actions.

    And generally speaking, most of the things in everyday life that people are purportedly afraid of aren't worth fearing at all (the recent ebola panic, especially amongst denizens of first world countries like America, is a good example of an overblown emotional reaction to rather comparatively minimal risk). I actually wonder whether anything can or should be "worth fearing" in a meaningful sense. Obviously there are outcomes we wish to avoid, and we should take the proper steps to avoid them, but it's not clear that being afraid of such outcomes is particularly helpful past a certain point (i.e., the minimal point at which we are motivated to try to avoid the negative outcome). And of course we can't completely control our immediate emotional reactions to certain stimuli (like being suddenly threatened at gunpoint, or whatever), but I would think that in most cases the optimal response in such danger situations can be more easily reached by consciously cultivating fearlessness, rather than consciously cultivating courageousness, if that makes any sense. One should try to minimize fear, not maximize one's ability to act in the face of fear, though I suppose the former somewhat requires the latter, so the lines are a bit blurred and it's not totally clear-cut.

    On that note, maybe what I'm getting at (just thinking out loud here) is that the chief value of courage is that it allows us to develop fearlessness, which is the greater asset. The cowardly rookie will never make it to veteran status, but the courageous one will.
    Last edited by Nightly Orange; 11-22-2014 at 01:28 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Nightly Orange View Post
    There may be individual case exceptions, but my intuition is that I'd rather be fearless than brave. The former implies, at least to me, a greater degree of serenity and mental equanimity, which lends itself to better and more rational decision-making. If you're being incredibly courageous, this means that you're acting in the face of pants-shitting fear, so the stress/adrenaline/emotional turmoil may inadvertently screw up your actions or thought processes.

    There's also the interesting phenomena that courage seems to evolve into fearlessness, with enough practice. I'm thinking specifically of certain high-risk professions like law enforcement, firefighting or various military occupations. Maybe the first time a rookie recruit enters an armed conflict situation or a burning building he has to rely on raw courage to make it through, but after the 10th time? The 50th? By then he has established protocols drilled into his head, his responses to different dangers are ingrained, and he knows the risk/reward ratio of every action he could take practically by instinct. The veteran isn't as courageous (i.e. acting in the face of fear) as the rookie because he doesn't need to be; the veteran has more fearlessness. And I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing.

    I suppose this has certain implications for notions of "heroism" too, in that arguments could be made regarding whether someone courageous is "more heroic" than someone fearless, even if both performed the same actions.

    And generally speaking, most of the things in everyday life that people are purportedly afraid of aren't worth fearing at all (the recent ebola panic, especially amongst denizens of first world countries like America, is a good example of an overblown emotional reaction to rather comparatively minimal risk). I actually wonder whether anything can or should be "worth fearing" in a meaningful sense. Obviously there are outcomes we wish to avoid, and we should take the proper steps to avoid them, but it's not clear that being afraid of such outcomes is particularly helpful past a certain point (i.e., the minimal point at which we are motivated to try to avoid the negative outcome). And of course we can't completely control our immediate emotional reactions to certain stimuli (like being suddenly threatened at gunpoint, or whatever), but I would think that in most cases the optimal response in such danger situations can be more easily reached by consciously cultivating fearlessness, rather than consciously cultivating courageousness, if that makes any sense. One should try to minimize fear, not maximize one's ability to act in the face of fear, though I suppose the former somewhat requires the latter, so the lines are a bit blurred and it's not totally clear-cut.

    On that note, maybe what I'm getting at (just thinking out loud here) is that the chief value of courage is that it allows us to develop fearlessness, which is the greater asset. The cowardly rookie will never make it to veteran status, but the courageous one will.
    Thinking out loud here as well, but I disagree with a lot of this. Fear of death is an asset, in my opinion. Did you ever watch the Dark Knight Rises? Spoilers! Bruce Wayne is trapped in a pit/prison. The only way to reach the surface and escape is to climb ledges along the walls. He always ties a safety rope to himself in case he falls but never reaches the top.

    Blind Prisoner: You do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak.
    Bruce Wayne: Why?
    Blind Prisoner: How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death.
    Bruce Wayne: I do fear death. I fear dying in here, while my city burns, and there's no one there to save it.
    Blind Prisoner: Then make the climb.
    Bruce Wayne: How?
    Blind Prisoner: As the child did. Without the rope. Then fear will find you again.

    The prisoner told him that climbing without the safety rope was the only way to succeed. His death would be certain if he failed, and that fear of death gave him enough extra motivation to escape and protect Gotham.

    Also, I'm not sure if it's possible to be truly without fear in a life or death situation like a gunfight or rescuing someone from a burning building, no matter how many times someone has already done it. That's just how we're programmed. However, training (streamlining the decision-making and having good muscle memory) is key.
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    "Heroes may not be braver than anyone else. They're just braver 5 minutes longer."
    Ronald Reagan

    "The Bible just said ‘Thou shalt not kill’, then told hundreds of stories of people killing each other and becoming heroes, like David with Goliath."
    John Marsden

    Some interesting quotes here:
    http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/heroes
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jefferson1775 View Post
    Thinking out loud here as well, but I disagree with a lot of this. Fear of death is an asset, in my opinion. Did you ever watch the Dark Knight Rises? Spoilers! Bruce Wayne is trapped in a pit/prison. The only way to reach the surface and escape is to climb ledges along the walls. He always ties a safety rope to himself in case he falls but never reaches the top.
    Completely unforeseen situations requiring some kind of extreme physical performance might be one area where I'd be willing to concede that courage could be more useful than fearlessness, since the extra strength and reaction speed from adrenaline can't be easily duplicated.

    It may have been somewhat unclear from my previous post, but I do think fear/courage is useful, albeit only to a certain point ("the minimal point at which we are motivated to try to avoid the negative outcome"). For instance, you mentioned the fear of death as a useful asset, which I agree with. However, I don't think being more courageous in the face of this fear is necessarily beneficial; you only need to be courageous enough to act, at which point fearlessness is more useful. Consider guy #1, who's so afraid of death that he has nightmares about it every night, and has to steel himself to drive to work every morning for fear of dying in a car accident, and is generally an anxious wreck. He's very motivated to avoid death and does all he can to mitigate his risk--drives carefully, eats healthfully, exercises regularly, invests in cryonics, etc. Then there's guy #2, who's only a little afraid of death, but likes the idea of living longer and so does exactly all the same things as guy #1. Guy #1 is more courageous because he's more fearful (he's braver for being able to make the same rational decisions as guy #2, despite being under much more pressure), but his excessive courage neither improves his quality of life nor gives him better odds of survival compared to the more fearless guy #2.

    Now if you have to win a deathmatch with a bear that attacked you out of nowhere or need to jump out of subterranean prison like Bruce Wayne, then sure, being more afraid is (biochemically speaking) more beneficial. But this kind of situation represents an extreme outlier, in my opinion. In most everyday situations and life in general, simply not being as afraid of stuff is way more helpful. Scenarios like whether you should start your own business, the danger of contracting ebola, whether your girlfriend is cheating on you, if that group of teenagers is going to try and mug you as you head to your car, the risk of getting cancer from your cell phone, the danger of dying in an airplane crash, whether you should invest a few grand in Apple stock, etc., don't really benefit from an excess of fear and corresponding courage. It's better to be able to dispassionately weigh your priorities and the risks you're willing to tolerate, and then just act accordingly.

    I don't mean to argue that courage isn't good, just that often fearlessness can be better, in terms of achieving the desired outcome, all other factors being constant (such as the intelligence and rationality of the person in question).

    Quote Originally Posted by Jefferson1775 View Post
    Also, I'm not sure if it's possible to be truly without fear in a life or death situation like a gunfight or rescuing someone from a burning building, no matter how many times someone has already done it. That's just how we're programmed. However, training (streamlining the decision-making and having good muscle memory) is key.
    I agree that complete fearlessness is probably impossible, especially in super high-tension situations (I mentioned the veteran having less courage and more fearlessness, rather than no courage and complete fearlessness, for this reason). Nevertheless, I still believe it's the more useful ideal to strive for.

    You bring up a good point that training is essential though. I think proper training can substitute for a lot of benefits provided by fear/courage in unexpected and physically demanding situations. You hear stories about 110-lb mothers who were able to lift cars off of a trapped child, due to their incredible fear and adrenaline surge. But if that same mother had been just a tiny bit afraid that someday her kid might get trapped under a car, she would go to the gym and lift regularly, and when the day came that her kid got trapped under a car, she would be comparatively fearless and have a much smaller adrenaline surge, but be able to deadlift that vehicle off her child anyway. And as a bonus, due to not panicking, she'd probably lift it from a point of greater mechanical advantage than the first mother, and additionally, not end up in traction for the next month due to overstraining herself.

    So maybe the example is somewhat contrived but even in the case of car-lifting, bear attacks or escaping from prison like Bruce Wayne, sometimes fearlessness can be better.

    Quote Originally Posted by Misabi View Post
    "The Bible just said ‘Thou shalt not kill’, then told hundreds of stories of people killing each other and becoming heroes, like David with Goliath."
    John Marsden
    The really funny part is that God himself kills people in the Bible. Though I think this may be a case of Old Testament vs New Testament discord, since the two are really quite different in many ways.
    Last edited by Nightly Orange; 11-22-2014 at 04:05 PM.

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    My modern Bible translation says "You must not murder." Killing and murdering have very different connotations in both meaning and legality.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Paysan View Post
    My modern Bible translation says "You must not murder." Killing and murdering have very different connotations in both meaning and legality.
    Yeah, that's what my old army chaplain used to tell us to explain why it was fine for us to kill in battle. It was state sanctioned, so it wasn't murder. Always smacked of religious hypocrisy to me.
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