The True Image of Courage [Guest Blog]

Author’s Note: For the sake of this article, the words courage, bravery and fortitude are used interchangeably.

Out of all of the four Cardinal Virtues, courage is certainly the sexiest in appearance. Who does not want to face down grave threats with composure and panache? We enjoy movies that display on screen heroic deeds, often accompanied by epic soundtracks that raise up a swell of emotions within us. What if I told you that these moving images have distorted our culture’s view of courage though?

This distortion is twofold, both equally dangerous manifestations. To begin, the nature of the silver screen has a negative effect on our attitude towards fortitude by making it appear that the sole thing necessary for bravery is a deed or action. This is not necessarily Hollywood’s fault; it’s hard to show the inner thoughts and convictions while still remaining captivating. 

This claim requires a bit of a definition of fortitude. If we are to believe Aristotle that virtue is found in the mean between excesses (his “golden mean”), then fortitude or bravery must also be defined in such a way. Therefore, it is simply not enough to say that courage is something that one either has or has not; it is instead a measure or degree we must seek. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, therefore defines the virtue courage as the mean between rashness and foolish fearlessness on one hand and cowardice on the other. 

In order for courage to be a virtue and something commendable, however, it requires the continued pursuit of this mean. One singular action is not sufficient. Fortitude must be practiced so that it is stamped on one’s character. In many ways, you could say that we are changing the default setting of our soul and spirit to something more praiseworthy. Continual habituation towards brave thoughts and actions will also make it easier to be brave in the future.

This is where our first false image of courage begins to come into play. Aristotle notes some errors in what is dubbed bravery (or courage or fortitude). In particular, he calls out five of these “false-positives”: 

  1. Citizens conscripted to do their duty in service of their polis who only fight driven by fear of legal repercussions. 
  2. Those with experience or skills that aid them in particular situations rather than being guided by their inner convictions or in order to do something good (this raises an interesting question – would you call an indestructible superhero such as Superman brave? I would argue no because of this.)
  3. Spirited people who are blind to the obvious risks involved.
  4. Hopeful people who are overconfident due to past experiences. This is because their mettle may not have truly been tested and thus their cockiness can prove to be a liability should things not turn out as they have previously unfolded.
  5. Others who are overconfident due to ignorance. 

It is clear then that an action alone does not make a man brave; it takes both the right action AND the right reasoning and means in order to truly be a courageous man. Or, to summarize a refrain from Aristotle, bravery (like any virtue) is doing the right things in the right way for the right purpose.

Films are often unable to adequately depict the second and third parts of that formula. It would undoubtedly sully its reputation as the sexy characteristic which I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, for explosions sell many more tickets than internal monologues do. In any case, very few films are able to adequately portray the true depth of fortitude (Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge being two of the few exceptions). With box offices dominated by impenetrable superheroes and plots so thin that you know the hero is in no way threatened, the real danger is that the constant bombardment of false fortitude causes us to overshoot in our own attempts at courage and become either the rash or foolhardy type.

This is not the only false image of courage which we are intentionally exposed to. This second manifestation, which finds its home in many forms of media from movies to books to journalism has the potential to discourage someone from even undertaking the journey in the first place. This view is that courageous men and women do not experience fear whatsoever.

This is an erroneous thought for a few reasons. To begin with, only a miniscule amount of the human race has ever been born fearless. I would further argue alongside others that such a state, should it come “naturally” to someone is not a benefit but rather a sign of sickness. For fear is natural to humans in that it spurs us on to survival and can discourage us from making rash decisions. Thus, fear is something that we all must cope with.

Next, it could be argued that the purpose of becoming courageous is to eliminate this fear which comes naturally. I would also argue that this is false. On one hand, were we to eliminate fear completely, we would end up in a state like those that are ill, creating an artificial deficiency that would hinder our growth in other areas. On the other hand, it would create a dreadfully boring life. I don’t think it is correct to describe fear as pain or even a lack of pleasure. Fear is simply a normal stimulus, implanted in us by God, for survival. Since it is natural to all men and is neither a pain nor a pleasure, I cannot argue that it is neither good nor bad. What is good or bad is how we allow this to control us. 

This brings me to the last point, which touches on the purpose of virtue altogether. Virtue and living a good life in general is not about smoothing out our normal passions, nor is it about eliminating them; it is instead about transforming them into something good, something higher. We do not try to eliminate lust, but seek instead to channel it into love. We do not try to eliminate greed, but seek instead to channel it into generosity and simplicity. Vice is not the absence of good deeds, but rather a distortion and misalignment of them.

So it is with courage. Our goal is not to eliminate fear but to be able to overcome that passion and channel that energy into some heroic, noble goal. Fortitude is not something achieved in a single moment but a virtue we must cultivate, watering the garden of our hearts with patience and perseverance. I encourage all of you to make the choice to undertake this journey, starting today. Do not be swayed by pretty pictures that captivate but are shallow. Throw off this modern courage, that false bravery, and let yourself seek the true one which will enable you to become much nobler men and women. 

About The Vital Masculinity Project

Our goal is to restore classical masculinity by encouraging men to pursue virtue and brotherhood. While there are many competing voices on manliness today, most have forgotten this foundation of character while instead focusing on externals. We strive to provide practical steps for all men to begin their journey to becoming virtuous. Visit our Journal for reflections virtue and manliness or check out our podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or any of your other favorite podcast providers to listen to rich conversations about them.

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