Volume I, #6
COURAGE: WOUNDS & WINGS
An Exercise: Intimations of Apprehension
The intellectual framework of the virtues “was one of the great discoveries in the history of man’s self understanding,” says Josef Pieper. Regardless of how we feel about this statement, for one reason and another it is obvious virtues are not in fashion. Why this is the case, or ever was the case, is not really our “business” here. Yet, despite current tastes and fashions, words like courage, prudence, and hope still roll from plenty of today’s tongues. They take a variety of forms in our imagination and elicit a range of emotional responses. The words themselves even grace billboards and bumper stickers, in addition to the numerous “inspiration” posters on cinderblock classroom walls. Talking Heads of all stripes, often opinion makers dressed as journalists, regularly tell us what things like “courage” are and what they’re not. It seems we can’t avoid them—these long traveling, slightly worn in and out words signifying virtues.
Partly out of necessity, we put vast ideas into small words and store them in our interior projector with an image or few. To give a limited simile, it’s like pouring water from a Great Lake or your local Ocean into a plastic sandwich bag, or into several of them. The lunch bag is easy to hold, offers manageable “bite-size” clarity, (may even hold a goldfish), and can travel time without much feeling for the inconvenient pulls of the moon. Like many things, the little bags easily grow familiar. They are easy to leave alone on a shelf, or in the back of a refrigerator or, worse, a freezer. With time and comfort‘s help, we can revere and confuse the bag for the thing itself. We can zealously demand that the separate plastic bags is the way to carry the big water, and that seeing through the bags, even if discolored with film, is the way to see the water. We can lose sight that the water is fluid and should perhaps be seen and searched in fluid ways in addition to more static ways. We can forget it is part of a rippling relational whole. And even though, especially because, its vastness, its mysteries, its hidden life and sources, can’t be captured by the rational eye, perhaps, may be, the water is best apprehended, and in quiet understood, with receptive contemplation.
Let’s spill some water and check out this word called courage. We don’t aim to change the name in itself, who are we to do such things? But we certainly wish to ponder, question, and freshen up clusters of words and cohorts of images surrounding the name. Let’s see where the water runs and wander after it, comfortable with the fact it rarely flows in a straight line. Even if at most we catch a trickle or stream, let’s try to glimpse or at least sense where it sinks, where it pools, and where it springs.
Not that we’re afraid, (perhaps we should be), we have to be honest. We’ll need a guide: a thinker and a lover of wisdom who has traveled long shores, who has dared the deep and caught nothing and something, and who, even if for a fleeting beautiful moment, has touched and beheld sources. Josef Pieper will be our torchbearer, a fine German Virgil for shaded or tangled paths. Let’s embark.
Pieper doesn’t wait to challenge our images and paradigms of courage: toughness, fiery anger, grit, killing bad guys. He begins with an emphasis on vulnerability.
“Fortitude (courage) presumes vulnerability; without vulnerability there is no possibility of fortitude.” (Four Cardinal Virtues)
Vulnerability: let’s pursue that. We know without going too far that vulnerability and courage necessarily involve love and fear—few things can make a brave person quake, sweat, fall, and stammer like love.
“For fear and love depend upon each other: a person who does not love, does not fear either...” (FCV)
And (dating myself) some of us know few persons can sketch like ideas in such a far out and right on way as Gary Larson:
The Far Side
Of course plenty of insightful souls, like Larson, who do not qualify as “philosophers”, have pondered such things. In folk tales, we find giants with no heart. They come forth like a solitary granite mountain, invulnerable. In the famous Nordic story, aptly titled The Giant With No Heart in His Body, such a giant emerges and ends a large wedding feast before it can begin. As several potential brides and grooms discover, a look from his hard unloving eyes can turn a person to stone.
But his invulnerability and power are ultimately revealed as an illusion. With the help of a number of unlikely creatures, and a string of sacrifices along the way, his heart gets discovered and is broken. The spell and the giant are destroyed. (Perhaps, we can imagine, he is mercifully brought down to creature size.) Drawing from such traditions, Rowling brilliantly employs like ideas and motifs with her terrible Voldemort. His compartmentalized heart is discovered, the illusion is broken, and he is ultimately seen more truthfully as a whimpering infant.
Returning to our guide, Pieper states that both primary aspects of courage—attacking what is destructive and enduring what can’t ultimately be controlled or attacked—rest on a disposition and attitude willing to receive wounds, on vulnerability. However, he states that steadfastness and patience are at the foundation of courage. This is not because they’re better than anger or attacking (both are vital), but because enduring difficulties of varying degrees without losing hope or sight of victory is what life most often demands. “Endurance is more of the essence of fortitude than attack…” and “endurance…is the ultimately decisive test of actual fortitude.” (FCV)
This should cause at least a few questions. Doesn’t courage imply always attacking or fighting back? Is that understanding premised on an illusion that nothing is stronger than us? Is courage so especially necessary because there are things or forces or situations that simply are stronger than us? Doesn’t this emphasis on endurance and the truth that things are stronger than us, imply losing and defeat? Is losing a potential path to victory?
Does courage require good perception and judgment (prudence): knowing what battles to fight, what paths to take, when to strike, and when to wait?
What about every day life and challenges? With little reflection most of us can remember and imagine numerous occasions of avoiding vulnerability: the missed tackle; the silence when we could have spoken up; the reluctance to go for something difficult, such as when we wanted to swing by, like Larson’s Tarzan, and greet beautiful Jane but didn’t, or we did and our rehearsed rhetoric turned out like rubble. (I presume there is a “we” in that last one).
A little scratching here may turn this trickle into a pool and something into which we really don’t and do want to gaze. What about our preemptive strikes against healthy vulnerability in such ways as staying feverishly “busy” so as not to feel occasional longing or need? What about “ordering” our lives and our children’s lives to ever be in full throttle and on a tight, narrow path for safe “success”, negating time and experiences off the linear track? What about grasping security, “control”, in various forms that leave us rigid and obsessive? What about “systems” we create in business, in schools, perhaps even in our homes to excessively avoid “vulnerability”, and the human factor?
If we may push a little further: what about other proactive ways of excessive “security”, such as to “strike first” or “suspect first” or think “the worst”? (Such approaches necessarily limit perception and often ironically make happen what is feared, or at least make what is feared “appear” to happen in the tainted eyes of the suspecter).
What about when we get “burned”? When we get tired of feeling vulnerable and choose to ride strong currents of anger or liberation from demanding loves? (such experiences and ideas are at play in a Rosie Thomas song entitled, “Wedding Day”—featured on the website )
Going further into these issues and their repercussions, Pieper shines light on courage and discoveries by the social sciences:
To the modern science of psychology, we owe the insight that the lack of
courage to accept injury and the incapability of self- sacrifice belong to the
deepest sources of psychic illness. All neuroses seem to have as a common
symptom an egocentric anxiety, a tense and self-centered concern for
security, the inability to “let go”; in short, that kind of love for one’s own life
that leads straight to the loss of life.
We could fill books with these “whens” and “what abouts” (and they’d never be hip enough to end up on a kindle, and probably shouldn’t—they’d be quite disheartening). However it’s worth digging a little and glimpsing our subtle ways of avoiding vulnerability and sidestepping demands (and peace and joys) of fuller being.
“The paradox of courage is that a man must be a little careless of his life even in order to keep it.” ~ G.K. Chesterton
Following a dark River Thames, we step into a paper raft: Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons. It’s quiet on the water, ahead: the gray Tower of London. The day is clear, yet we sense death clouds circling. Hesitant, we are emboldened as we catch sight of the beautiful daughter of Thomas, Margaret, disappearing into the stone building. Clumsily we follow, clambering up the steps without notice (we’re invisible after all). We approach the cell, inside is Margaret, her husband William Roper, Alice More and Thomas. As we shuffle in against the wall, we behold Thomas and catch the conversation:
From “The Giant With No Heart In His Body”, illustrated by Kay Nielson
(check out the book with his wonderful illustrations featured on the site)
With our talk of courage and vulnerability, we have to be careful not to give fear a bad name. As we know from experience, fear is necessary, even good. It helps to protect life. Catching sight of a grizzly bear in the wild is beautiful and a cause of wonder. Indeed, the response of wonder is a natural reaction and a sign of a tuned, healthy soul, as wise thinkers like C.S. Lewis have said. No doubt it is the most noble sentiment to be felt in the situation. But needless to say the bear should also spring fear—perhaps a flood of fear if it sets on its four paws, clenches its teeth and trembles its lips while making sounds that most healthy (fast) creatures would take for a signal to run!
The emotion of fear, something like an interior wind (or a rush of water), is checked and harnessed by the motion of courage. Courage holds fear in a healthy tension. It does not destroy or eliminate fear. Fear and courage enable the powers of perception and judgment to work correctly, and, in this case, (hopefully) quickly. To will oneself to have “no fear” is simply a willed illusion, a dangerous illusion that blinds perception of reality.
Let’s return to our guide. Even if we’re a little comfortable with vulnerability, and relationships (God help us!), Pieper goes a step further and asserts that courage is rooted in the willingness to die. That’s right.
This willingness is not based upon a lack of care for life or for good things. It is not simply a rash, bold, daredevil spirit that wants to “just do it” without any care for the possibility of success. Nor is it based on an enlightened nihilism, a “liberation” rooted in an understanding and vision that all things are ultimately meaningless. (This idea and images of “liberated nihilism” are more prevalent than we likely notice).
We see numerous images of a type of noble, stoic, “liberated” nihilism in various forms, including in the beautifully crafted works of Hemingway, such as Farewell to Arms. Less artistic but still powerful (and enjoyable), we also see this kind of modern “hero” in the disconnected keen-eyed loner Clint Eastwood, as he saunters along his spaghetti western windblown landscapes for a “fistful of dollars” and “a few dollars more.” (It is interesting that this heroic image is firmly countered by Eastwood’s more recent films, including American Sniper and Gran Torino).
Presented in a more comic form, we find such characters center stage in Flannery O’Connor’s Good Country People: a “Bible salesman” who names himself Manley Pointer, and an “intellectual” who names herself Hulga (not with aesthetic intention, well, actually with aesthetic intention—with the ugliest name she could imagine to offend her mother).
Pieper argues: “The brave man suffers injury not for its own sake, but rather as a means to preserve or to acquire a deeper more essential intactness.” (FCV) A brave person seeks to keep something, himself, “intact”, alive. Even in the most crushing and dire situations—which many of us likely could not handle, or at least should not presume we could handle—the courageous person holds onto hope, onto meaning. (Here perhaps we hear the song by Mumford & Sons; certainly the heroic Victor Frankl is relevant).
Endurance and even the “willingness to die” must rest on a hope of victory: For to be brave means not only to suffer injury and death in the struggle for the realization of the good, but also to hope for victory. Without this hope, fortitude is impossible. (FCV)
Now, in speaking more clearly of hope, especially in this context of ultimate fortitude and death, we are crossing a river, “the river”. Topics of receptivity and gift are in the path. The supernatural virtue of hope, for Pieper, is one of gift and premised on a disposition of receptivity. (I guess we should expect that vulnerability is close to receptivity.) Of course in thinking of receptivity, we also think of things like silent receptive perception, and receptivity to the "encouraging" gifts of love--especially to affirmation and friendship. Can someone really have courage without having been loved, affirmed first?
To stretch us further, Pieper speaks of “mystical fortitude”, a type and degree of fortitude premised, like hope, on gift from supernatural sources. And it is premised with hope for ultimate transcendent fulfillment. But let’s pause here and pursue another path. Let’s tiptoe and slip away from our guide.
You want me to swear to the Act of Succession?
"God more regards the thoughts of the heart than the words of the mouth." Or so you've always told me.
Then say the words of the oath and in your heart think otherwise.
What is an oath then but words we say to God?
That's very neat.
Do you mean it isn't true?
No, it's true.
Then it's a poor argument to call it "neat," Meg. When a man takes an oath, Meg, he's holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. (He cups his hands) And if he opens his fingers then—he needn't hope to find himself again. Some men aren't capable of this, but I'd be loathe to think your father one of them.
In any State that was half good, you would be raised up high, not here, for what you've done already. It's not your fault the State's three-quarters bad. Then if you elect to suffer for it, you elect yourself a hero.
That's very neat. But look now . . . If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly. And we'd live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes. But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and have to choose, to be human at all . . . why then perhaps we must stand fast a little—even at the risk of being heroes.
(Emotionally) But in reason! Haven't you done as much as God can reasonably want?
Well . . . finally . . . it isn't a matter of reason; finally it's a matter of love.
~ This would be a “neat” and poetic time to leave. However, before we leave him too solitary and stoic in his courage, as we should expect, his wife has some things to say. More has been given homemade custard: ~
Yes. (He eats a morsel) You still make superlative custard, Alice.
That's a nice dress you have on.
It's my cooking dress.
It's very nice anyway. Nice color.
(Turns. Quietly) By God, you think very little of me.
(Mounting bitterness) I know I'm a fool. But I'm no such fool as at this time to be lamenting for my dresses! Or to relish complimenting on my custard!
(Regarding her with frozen attention. He nods once or twice) I am well rebuked. (He holds out his hands)
No! (She remains where she is, glaring at him)
(He is in great fear of her) I am faint when I think of the worst that they may do to me. But worse than that would be to go with you not understanding why I go.
(Just hanging on to his self-possession) Alice, if you can tell me that you understand, I think I can make a good death, if I have to.
Your death's no "good" to me!
Alice, you must tell me that you understand!
I don't! (She throws it straight at his head) I don't believe this had to happen.
(His face is drawn) If you say that, Alice, I don't see how I'm to face it.
It's the truth!
(Gasping) You're an honest woman.
Much good may it do me! I'll tell you what I'm afraid of: that when you've gone, I shall hate you for it.
(Turns from her, his face working) Well, you mustn't, Alice, that's all. (Swiftly she crosses the stage to him; he turns and they clasp each other fiercely) You mustn't, you--
(Covers his mouth with her hand) S-s-sh . . . As for understanding, I understand you're the best man that I ever met or am likely to; and if you go—well, God knows why I suppose—though as God's my witness God's kept deadly quiet about it! And if anyone wants my opinion of the King and his Council they've only to ask for it!
Why, it's a lion I married! A lion! A lion! (He breaks away from her, his face shining) Say what you may—this custard's very good. It's very, very good.
~ After nights and some days, we are on our way to the event on Tower Hill. We hasten after Margaret as she rushes to her father. Their last departing: ~
Father! (She runs to him in the center spot and flings herself upon him) Father! Father, Father, Father, Father!
Margaret's Final Farewell to More (Tyburn Convent, London)
Have patience, Margaret, and trouble not thyself. Death comes for us all…You have long known the secrets of my heart.
~ Bolt takes us to the scaffold at Tower Hill… ~
(gets to head of stairs by the Headsman, he turns to Headsman) Friend, be not afraid of your office. You send me to God.
(Envious rather than waspish) You're very sure of that, Sir Thomas.
(Takes off his hat, revealing the gray disordered hair) He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him.
(Kneeling. Immediately is heard a harsh roar o f kettledrums. There is total blackout at head of the stairs, while the drums roar. Then the drums cease)
(Bangs the trap down, in the darkness) Behold the head—of a traitor! (The lights come up)
For now: enough questions, enough words, it is best left beheld.
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