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Our Courage in Danger, by Harvey C. Mansfield

Our Courage in Danger, by Harvey C. Mansfield

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Published by Hoover Institution
Courage is the virtue that enables us to deal with danger, and today courage itself is in danger from certain opinions hostile to it, especially relativism. Courage presupposes something for which it is reasonable to sacrifice one’s comfort or well-being or even life. It is endangered when it is weakened by relativism in today's liberalism--and when it is strengthened beyond measure as in fascism. Neither reason nor experience suggests that relativism should be treated as benign.
Courage is the virtue that enables us to deal with danger, and today courage itself is in danger from certain opinions hostile to it, especially relativism. Courage presupposes something for which it is reasonable to sacrifice one’s comfort or well-being or even life. It is endangered when it is weakened by relativism in today's liberalism--and when it is strengthened beyond measure as in fascism. Neither reason nor experience suggests that relativism should be treated as benign.

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Published by: Hoover Institution on Jul 14, 2011
Copyright:Attribution No Derivatives

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   t  a  s   k   f  o  r  c  e   o  n   v   i  r   t  u  e  s  o   f  a    f  r  e  e   s  o  c   i  e   t  y
Harvey C. Mansfeld 
 
 
Our Courage in Danger 
Hoover Institution
Stanford University
by Harvey C. ManseldBoyd and Jill Smith Task Force on Virtues of a Free Society
www.endangeredvirtuesessays.com 
A EDAGERED VIRTUES ESSA
Our Courage in Danger
Courage is the virtue that enables us to deal with danger; so it may seem strangeto complain, as if on behalf of courage, that it is in danger. Courage loves danger,even thrives on it—and it does not complain. The courageous person rather enjoyshaving the odds against him, as this gives him a chance to exercise his virtue ratherthan having it lie dormant. For most people, courage is for emergencies we wouldrather not face, but the courageous few among us jump up eagerly when the tocsinsounds. Why should we worry if the virtue required for dealing with danger is itselfin danger? Courage, it would seem, is safe in the hands of the courageous.Moreover, the danger to courage, we shall see, comes from certain opinions hostileto it. Yet courage seems to be the least intellectual of the virtues, and as such theleast affected by prevalent opinion. We all know intelligent people without muchcourage and not-so-intelligent people who are very capable of courage. Courage,Aristotle says, has to do with pains and fears, the greatest of which is death; socourage is above all controlling one’s fear of death, especially when there is greatrisk, when violent death is imminent, and when the stakes are high: courage is mostshown in battle. In battle one can nd courage on both sides. Yet despite gravedifferences in opinion between one side and another, ghters on both sides canrecognize cowardice among their own soldiers and courage among the enemy’s.Thus courage seems to be not only ubiquitous, as it is to be found in everysociety, nation, and race, and in every time present and past, but also universallyrecognizable and honored in all places and times. The Spanish conquistadorBernal del Diaz was amazed, bewildered, and disgusted by the Aztec practice ofhuman sacrice, but he could see and appreciate the courage of Aztec warriors. Inhis journal, he describes an incident in which they mocked the lack of courage inthe Spaniards, when the latter refused to ght, with gestures the Spaniards easilyinterpreted. Here two cultures, in opinion and belief almost totally alien to each
 
Harvey C. Mansfeld 
 
 
Our Courage in Danger 
 
2
Hoover Institution
Stanford University
other, had in common their recognition and appreciation of courage, on the basis ofwhich they actually communicated with each other.Underneath the universality of courage, and in some way causing it, is thenaturalness of that virtue, by which I mean its closeness to untaught human nature.Courage seems close to temperament, closer than the other virtues. Evidence forthat lies in the distinction between the few who seek it and the many who may bebrought to display it, if with reluctance. Only a few seem to be naturally courageousin temper, though, to repeat, they are to be found in every time and place. Thetemper they display has been named
thumos
, and is best described in the politicalphilosophy and biology of Plato and Aristotle.
Thumos
is a quality of the soul (onecannot call it a virtue) shared by humans with animals, who show it when theybristle at a perceived threat to themselves.
Thumos
is spirited defensiveness—in humans, an awareness or perception of beingthreatened or slighted in one’s own sense of self-importance. As opposed to otheranimals, humans couple their
thumos
with a reason that announces or justies theiranger. Only humans are capable of anger. Dogs may bark incessantly, but they neversay why; we have to impute an intention to them, lending them our anger for themoment.It is here that courage seems to lose its imperviousness to opinion. The connectionbetween
thumos
and reason is between, on the one hand, the most self-serving,assertive, and aggressive part of ourselves, together with the least rational and themost human-all-too-human, and on the other hand, our most rational and noblyhuman aspect, by means of which we express our devotion to something aboveourselves.For courage is always in the service of something higher than itself; it defends, butit cannot itself constitute the end being defended. Courage serves and does notcommand. Sometimes it may
try 
to command, as in the ancient military democracy(or aristocracy) of Sparta, in which courage was the virtue the rulers most prized.But that did not work. Aristotle relates that the Spartan men who believed theywere ruling were actually directed by their women, as often happens to the mostmanly men. And he asks, what is the difference between the rule of men directed bywomen and the rule of women? Sparta was the opposite of what it thought it was.
 
Harvey C. Mansfeld 
 
 
Our Courage in Danger 
 
3
Hoover Institution
Stanford University
Thus we see that although courage is always honored, it is not equally honored byevery society. It was much more honored in Sparta than in a modern, commercialsociety like ours, where courage must cooperate with the spirit of gain and ofbargaining. In America, we do ght wars, and thus need courageous citizens, butwe prefer to trade and prosper in peace without becoming devoted to the passionsof revenge and self-righteousness that are characteristic of
thumos
in its moresinister mode.
Thumos
represents the human reaction to a threat. But when the reaction isexplained, the reasons given are usually partisan and sometimes offered in badfaith.
Thumos
represents the biased side of reason; also, however, the rational sideof bias, for bias always has a biased reason to accompany it, providing cover forits nakedness. This quality illuminates the truth that we are composite creatures,animals with bodies, rational beings with souls. We cannot help giving preference toour bodies and giving reasons to satisfy our souls.
Thumos
is thus the raw material of courage. It supplies the temper in every humanbeing’s animal nature that compels him to desire to defend himself. Every humanbeing has it as a kind of immunity system for his self-importance—even babies andcertainly women. (Women, like men, get angry, but are likely to express anger moreindirectly and subtly than men.) But some few have much more of it, and this is thespontaneous, natural basis for the extra, superlative courage of the courageous few.Aristotle, however, insists that
thumos
by itself is merely animal spirit rather thancourage, and he declares that those who ght not for the sake of what is noble andas reason dictates are good ghters but not courageous men. With this reasoning,he points toward the conclusion that only the truly good are truly courageous,which runs contrary to the rst impression that courage is a virtue because itis good in itself, regardless of the cause in which it is enlisted. This ambivalencereects the nature of reason: when we say man is a rational being, that means manacts for a reason, any reason; but when we say someone is reasonable, we mean hehas a good reason.Now we see the importance of opinion in relation to courage. Courage acts inbehalf of an end that is good in the
opinion
of the courageous person; from hisown standpoint, however, he thinks he has a good or true opinion. In his view,there would be something incomplete about his own courage if he were acting in abad cause.

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