“And they went into the forest, together, afraid.”
Article title: [person] does [thing] that is somehow self-expressive or represents a viewpoint that the target audience feels is repressed. Comments section: “He/she is so brave.” Outside (our) reaction: that’s not brave at all! In fact, within that person’s in-group, it’s the normal thing to do…
Pause. Reflect. Repeat the mantra: if you’re reading it, it’s for you. We know how this mechanism works. Hatred, division, weakness, easy sales target, all nice and neatly oiled. However, that’s only part of the picture. What’s the other part? Simple: what’s the thing we’re talking about most without ever knowing what is? X may or may not be Y, but before we can determine that, don’t we need to know about Y? Isn’t it ass-backwards to leave the critical piece of the puzzle as implicit data while grinding the substance of the qualia into so much statistics?
This is the common misdirection. I’m not the first to notice it. I didn’t even figure it out myself. (I didn’t even get the trick from Alone, and a lot of my contemporary-oriented tricks come from Alone.) So, let’s ask the awkward question. What’s courage?
In the present day, the usage is pretty clear: “courageous” maps precisely to “socially admirable.” This is clear from the fact that we never call suicide bombers courageous. They put everything on the line for their beliefs. Isn’t that at least somehow brave? Not even slightly. They don’t occupy the same sphere. I don’t suggest you try asking random people that one, because they will apply that map in their head and take one short logical step to what you must think. Something something free speech don’t be afraid of the haters, but since when has stirring up a hornet’s nest been brave? Let’s not be dumb for the sake of fitting the wasp-rousers’ courage.
What about before that? In the World Wars and the nationalistic phase before them, it seems to match nicely with “fighting for the right side in battle.” It’s pretty obvious how that came to pass: when you’re playing ballistic killstick tag, you only see the casualties on your end and the killcount on the other. Your boys get fragged equals brave men falling in battle, their boys get fragged equals more [slur]s mopped up. The Army Corps of Engineers is a misnomer; war’s nothing but engineering once serious munitions get involved. (Just wait until it’s a computer science problem, oh, it already is.)
And before that? In developed feudal societies, courage is adherence to a strict code of class-based action, something like chivalry. Consider samurai honor and following one’s lord to the death, or the French knights throwing their lives away at Crecy and Agincourt. The knights are courageous, but what about the pikemen or longbowmen standing their ground knowing that if their position is overrun that every last one of them is going to die? The right side, always the right side.
And earlier? In early feudal, pre-feudal societies, courage is…it’s what heroes have, isn’t it? It often looks like stupidity, reckless ignorance of the situation, except for how they know they can win, at which point it becomes ruthless massacre. Is Odysseus brave for taking on all the suitors at once, or is he less brave for making sure they had no weapons first? Is Beowulf brave for taking on Grendel, even if he knew he was strong enough to tear the monster apart? Is courage foolhardiness, or is it bloodlust?
Wait. Consider the scenarios being offered: “Because the hero didn’t know he could succeed, he was foolhardy. Because the hero did know he could succeed, he was vicious.” The gender is deliberate. What do we see here? “Because,” the word of the narrative. So what, then, is the actuality? The hero tried; the hero succeeded. What differentiates that from any other situation? “The hero was courageous.” But that’s just wound us back around to the original question.
It’s not that outlandish to suggest courage is a state of mind. In fact, I’ve been playing some games with words in order to get us this far. Rather than the obvious everyday definition, I’ve brought us to the technical qualifications. I’ve listed the reality of what happens in lieu of the quality of what happens. The quality, though, is what we’re after, not the politics of who gets called courageous, hence the progression back into myth and legend and antiquity… thus, courage is what heroes have.
So what do heroes have? “The hero was courageous.” What does that indicate? Plato, in the voice and under the title of Laches: “It is a kind of endurance of the soul.” Socrates trips him up by insisting that courage is a virtue, and virtues must be universally good, and thus only endurance of the soul with the wisdom of good and evil must be true courage. (Also notable: “I still think I know what courage is, but I can’t understand how it has escaped me just now so that I can’t pin it down in words and say what it is.” Remember this well.) And then when Nicias tries to take on that same claim, where wisdom of good and evil must be courage, Socrates rebuffs it: “Then the thing you are now talking about, Nicias, would not be a part of virtue but rather virtue entire.” This isn’t trickery with words; this is pointing at the heart of the problem. Ever thought people might be right to say that the evil can’t be courageous? Or: what could possibly be wrong with calling evil folk virtuous? (And is to deny their virtues just blind monism?)
But there is still that hook. What do heroes have? “A kind of endurance of the soul.” The soul, not the mind. So what is it like to be a hero? Consider a few situations for yourself.
You’re a soldier, in ancient or medieval times, of some sort or another. You’re in a small band. One night, you and your fellows get ambushed. You wake up in confusion. There’s light and noise. What do you do?
You’re a mounted lancer. It’s come time for battle. You ride out, take your place in the line, and lower your weapon. In front of you is a bristling wall of pikes. In a moment you’ll hear the call to charge. What do you feel?
Danger looms. Some can be saved, if only some are sacrificed. You can do it. You will die. Are you willing?
That is: can you imagine what is needed in order to risk yourself to violence, to the unknown? Are you capable of that? Are you capable of leaving your fate to – randomness? It’s not a mistake that Dungeons and Dragons resolves combat with dice. What would your mind have to be like in order to accept that? As far as I can imagine, adrenaline, numbing fear, and a certain kind of resolve. The adrenaline and numbing fear happen to the coward who runs as well, though, so all that’s left… “a kind of endurance of the soul,” right?
I’ll level: I haven’t been in that many massively violent situations. I don’t have a history of fighting and war. That’s precisely why this matters to me as it does. This is something that society escapes with its greater worship of the Leviathan (how appropriately Lovecraftian), and it makes me wonder what it is we lose from it. (Also in my memory: the utterly craven nature of the peasants in Seven Samurai. Something about that sticks with me.) Is it possible to have “endurance of the soul” without intense violence? I certainly hope, but then it needs to be sought out.
So what isn’t it? It can’t be a kind of logic or reason. Reason, the if-then, gets us the confusion of the idiot and the savage, and does that because reason and narrative are post-facto reimagining of what happened into a coherent structure. But an emotional state doesn’t solve it either – emotions are also after-the-fact, but in this case categorizations. One reaches back through the series of events to what must have been the premise – I must have laughed because that was funny, I must have cried because I was sad. This doesn’t speak to the actuality either, just how we learned to associate emotion with action, likely in kindergarten.
If courage is knowledge, it can never be an overcoming, because it’s simply what is known. If courage is emotion, it can never be principled, because it’s simply what is perceived. So what’s left for it? Something in-between? There aren’t any good words for that.
But let me try anyway. There is something there for courage, a state required that transcends any knowledge of or emotion over the situation and yet binds them both together. It’s not simply the knowledge of what should or should not be endured, nor the feeling of endurance itself, but the aesthetic of principled endurance. There are other kinds of endurance, like unprincipled endurance – consider the reckless endurance of someone who refuses to see the danger in front of them. They deny their fear and persist onwards, but it’s madness rather than courage. (Think of young men who end up fighting to the death not because they want to but because they don’t know how not to.) There’s also reasoned endurance, where one knows that what comes out of the endurance is what is to be hoped for, and this is better called faith for what will come and faith in one’s own resilience. (Faith is even easier.to imagine: perhaps enduring through a vaccination or a blood draw counts as faith for you. However, this should be placed distinct from religious faith and epistemic faith, which are each of distinct kinds.)
The aesthetic of principled endurance – the experience, form, and nature of enduring something for the sake of the reason to endure it. It encapsulates the primordial phenomenon and logic of the situation alike, forming the recognition of courage and the ability of courage at the same time. There is no such thing as a pure logic or pure emotion for principled endurance- logic requires the fundamental commitment to the principles, and emotion can’t capture the therefore of the principle. What’s there, underneath, has a character that escapes our current language of description, and likely always will, for language is determined and the aesthetic is what determines it.
Laches likely did know exactly what courage was, because he’d grown familiar with it over the course of many battles and a long life. He’d learned to call on it when he needed to. But of course he couldn’t put it into words, because the relationship with courage needed to command it has nothing to do with explicit logic. He simply hadn’t learned well enough how to say it. So the question becomes: how can that which defies explication be taught and learned and studied?
Well, that’s what this piece of therapy is about.
Laches, by Plato: a rather delightful dialogue. Worth keeping in mind that “courage,” as I’ve used it, is about andreia, “manliness,” rather than anything coming from our word “courage” (etymologically from Latin’s “cor,” or “heart”), and that Plato’s writing is anything but being treatises. Read only if you enjoy working at problems.
Watership Down, by Richard Adams. It’s just a lovely book about rabbits.