Not being overwhelmed by fear, but looking on fearful situations calmly and remaining steadfast in the practice of the other virtues.

a.k.a. bravery, andreia/ἀνδρεία

Complementary virtues

Brené Brown has some popular self-help books (& TED talks) on the subject of vulnerability/fear and courage.

Courage is often considered in the context of physical threats, but there’s also moral courage (“the quality of mind and spirit that enables one to face up to ethical challenges firmly and confidently, without flinching or retreating” as one book defined it). Is that a part of this virtue or is it a distinct virtue with a different path towards acquiring and strengthening it?

Schopenhauer considered courage a variety of endurance, saying that it amounts to enduring present dangers in order to avoid greater future dangers. (Aphorisms)

Courage seems like it may involve a couple of different sorts of skill: 1) the ability to keep a cool head, make good decisions, and perform well in frightening circumstances; 2) not being so averse to anticipatory fear that you avoid frightening situations when you would be better off facing them.

Fear is something like nausea, in that it is an unpleasantness that accompanies a threat to one’s well-being. It’s a way of telling you that you’ve made a misstep somewhere that has put you at risk and that you should be more averse in the future to taking such missteps. As with nausea, you can overlearn from fear (e.g. because you got sick once eating spoiled shrimp now you can’t stand seafood at all; because as a child you fell from a slide now you have an overwhelming fear of heights) and it’s a challenge to undo this.

Contrasting vices

  • Courage is often counterfeited by taking on the external trappings (braggadocio). “How many cowards, whose hearts are all as false / as stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins / the beards of Hercules and frowning Mars, / who inward searched, have livers white as milk; / and these assume but valour’s excrement / to render them redoubted.” (Merchant of Venice)
  • In Aristotle’s "golden mean" theory, courage was the virtue between the opposing vices of cowardice and rashness.

Virtues possibly in tension

How to acquire or strengthen it

People sometimes seek out frightening situations (rollercoasters, horror movies). Perhaps this is a way of inoculating yourself against panic in frightening situations through overexposure?

Notes and links

Mentioned elsewhere

Inspirational quotes:

  • “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” / “One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.” ― Maya Angelou
  • “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” ―C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
  • “People glorify all sorts of bravery except the bravery they might show on behalf of their nearest neighbors.” —George Eliot (Middlemarch)
  • “It is under the greatest adversity that there exists the greatest potential for doing good, both for oneself and others.” ―Dalai Lama XIV
  • “Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles; Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances. Courage breeds creativity; Cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it. Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience ask the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.” —MLK, Jr.