Our Courage in Danger

Boyd and Jill Smith Task Force on Virtues of a Free Society www.endangeredvirtuesessays.com

An EnDAnGERED VIRTUES ES SAy

Courage is the virtue that enables us to deal with danger; so it may seem strange to 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 enjoys having the odds against him, as this gives him a chance to exercise his virtue rather than having it lie dormant. For most people, courage is for emergencies we would rather not face, but the courageous few among us jump up eagerly when the tocsin sounds. Why should we worry if the virtue required for dealing with danger is itself in 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 hostile to it. Yet courage seems to be the least intellectual of the virtues, and as such the least affected by prevalent opinion. We all know intelligent people without much courage 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; so courage is above all controlling one’s fear of death, especially when there is great risk, when violent death is imminent, and when the stakes are high: courage is most shown in battle. In battle one can find courage on both sides. Yet despite grave differences in opinion between one side and another, fighters on both sides can recognize 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 every society, nation, and race, and in every time present and past, but also universally recognizable and honored in all places and times. The Spanish conquistador Bernal del Diaz was amazed, bewildered, and disgusted by the Aztec practice of human sacrifice, but he could see and appreciate the courage of Aztec warriors. In his journal, he describes an incident in which they mocked the lack of courage in the Spaniards, when the latter refused to fight, with gestures the Spaniards easily interpreted. Here two cultures, in opinion and belief almost totally alien to each

Harvey C. Mansfield

Our Courage in Danger

Hoover Institution

Stanford University

task force on virtues of a free society

by Harvey C. Mansfield

other, had in common their recognition and appreciation of courage, on the basis of which they actually communicated with each other. Underneath the universality of courage, and in some way causing it, is the naturalness of that virtue, by which I mean its closeness to untaught human nature. Courage seems close to temperament, closer than the other virtues. Evidence for that lies in the distinction between the few who seek it and the many who may be brought to display it, if with reluctance. Only a few seem to be naturally courageous in temper, though, to repeat, they are to be found in every time and place. The temper they display has been named thumos, and is best described in the political philosophy and biology of Plato and Aristotle. Thumos is a quality of the soul (one cannot call it a virtue) shared by humans with animals, who show it when they bristle at a perceived threat to themselves. Thumos is spirited defensiveness—in humans, an awareness or perception of being threatened or slighted in one’s own sense of self-importance. As opposed to other animals, humans couple their thumos with a reason that announces or justifies their anger. Only humans are capable of anger. Dogs may bark incessantly, but they never say why; we have to impute an intention to them, lending them our anger for the moment. It is here that courage seems to lose its imperviousness to opinion. The connection between 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 the most human-all-too-human, and on the other hand, our most rational and nobly human aspect, by means of which we express our devotion to something above ourselves. For courage is always in the service of something higher than itself; it defends, but it cannot itself constitute the end being defended. Courage serves and does not command. 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 they were ruling were actually directed by their women, as often happens to the most manly men. And he asks, what is the difference between the rule of men directed by women and the rule of women? Sparta was the opposite of what it thought it was.

Harvey C. Mansfield

Our Courage in Danger

2

Hoover Institution

Stanford University

Thus we see that although courage is always honored, it is not equally honored by every society. It was much more honored in Sparta than in a modern, commercial society like ours, where courage must cooperate with the spirit of gain and of bargaining. In America, we do fight wars, and thus need courageous citizens, but we prefer to trade and prosper in peace without becoming devoted to the passions of revenge and self-righteousness that are characteristic of thumos in its more sinister mode. Thumos represents the human reaction to a threat. But when the reaction is explained, the reasons given are usually partisan and sometimes offered in bad faith. Thumos represents the biased side of reason; also, however, the rational side of bias, for bias always has a biased reason to accompany it, providing cover for its nakedness. This quality illuminates the truth that we are composite creatures, animals with bodies, rational beings with souls. We cannot help giving preference to our bodies and giving reasons to satisfy our souls. Thumos is thus the raw material of courage. It supplies the temper in every human being’s animal nature that compels him to desire to defend himself. Every human being has it as a kind of immunity system for his self-importance—even babies and certainly women. (Women, like men, get angry, but are likely to express anger more indirectly and subtly than men.) But some few have much more of it, and this is the spontaneous, natural basis for the extra, superlative courage of the courageous few. Aristotle, however, insists that thumos by itself is merely animal spirit rather than courage, and he declares that those who fight not for the sake of what is noble and as reason dictates are good fighters 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 first impression that courage is a virtue because it is good in itself, regardless of the cause in which it is enlisted. This ambivalence reflects the nature of reason: when we say man is a rational being, that means man acts for a reason, any reason; but when we say someone is reasonable, we mean he has a good reason. Now we see the importance of opinion in relation to courage. Courage acts in behalf of an end that is good in the opinion of the courageous person; from his own 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 a bad cause.

Harvey C. Mansfield

Our Courage in Danger

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Stanford University

All the more must he think ill of someone else’s courage in a bad cause. From the standpoint of the virtuous person—that is, one who takes the side of virtue—there is no objective ground where one can speak indifferently of the courage of both sides in a battle. The only objective ground would be to have a good reason, if one can assume that good reasons have objective grounds. In our time, one opinion that endangers courage is the relativism that pervades the more educated and intellectual circles of our society. Anybody who has been to college learns that opinion while he or she is there. Indeed, most of those aspiring to an education hold that opinion before they arrive in college, believing it in advance so that they can minimize what they have to learn there. Relativism insists that good reasons have no objective grounds, and it endangers courage by depriving it of the rational basis one might have for exercising courage. If there is no good reason to die for your country, then why do it? Courage presupposes something for which it is reasonable to sacrifice one’s comfort or well-being or even life. Without that, courage is sapped, and individuals who disdain courage as irrational (because every human end is irrational) are weakened without it; they become willing to trade their freedom, an intangible good requiring belief in its truth or validity, for comfort in material well-being, which seems satisfying because it is immediate, attainable, and pleasurable. With that example, one sees that relativism is not a position with which one can rest satisfied; it tends to transform itself into materialism or hedonism. Apparently, human beings cannot remain in suspense, believing nothing is true; they do have to believe something. Materialism and hedonism claim that the only solid goods are bodily comfort and pleasure. Everything else is relative and elusive, a “value” rather than a virtue. A value results from the activity of valuing; it is a verbal noun, implying that a value (the noun) is what we value (the verb); a value is valued. Mere valuing is enough to confer value. But then if relativism is correct, nothing truly confers value; every so-called value is a delusion. When you think about it, nothing is gained by changing virtues to values, and something is lost if you come to believe that you are more, rather than less, sophisticated as a result. When liberalism began, in the seventeenth century, it adopted an attitude of skepticism with regard to human knowledge of non-human nature. But it still

Harvey C. Mansfield

Our Courage in Danger

4

Hoover Institution

Stanford University

believed that human nature was knowable and could serve us as a guide. For example, liberalism doubted that we could know whether the “good life” was really good, but asserted that self-preservation, or mere life, could be known and was good. This meant that although life was a solid, observable good, any conception of the good life for which one might sacrifice one’s own life was dubious. Early liberalism therefore had a problem with sustaining courage, because courage requires an opinion that the sacrifice of one’s life may be reasonable, hence that life under baseness or servitude is not a reasonable choice. The problem was typified in Thomas Hobbes’s sarcastic definition of a battle as a “running away on both sides.” But the early liberals dealt with this problem by seeking ways to justify courage in the service of freedom—for example, as the “sacred honor” that the signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged at the end of the document to explain why they risked the “right to life” they announced at its beginning. Gradually, however, and not surprisingly, skepticism as to our knowledge of nature overcame confidence in the knowledge of human nature, and liberalism slid into relativism, where it remains today, uncomfortable and restive with its own insights. It sometimes tries to defend relativism as the doctrine that makes for tolerance of those with whom we disagree: if nobody is right, and everyone agrees to that notion, all can co-exist in peace. But relativism is also known more menacingly as “nihilism,” the doctrine defined by Friedrich Nietzsche as the belief that “nothing is true, everything is permitted.” The “everything” permitted of course includes war, even incessant war. Relativism surely justifies fascism as well as liberalism, and even gives the nod to fascism. Why is that? Fascist values would seem to be preferable to liberal values because they result from more intense valuing than the weak “preferences” that are the best liberals can muster for themselves. When will decides rather than reason, a stronger will should justifiably prevail over a weaker one. Relativism thus endangers courage in two ways: by weakening it as in liberalism and by strengthening it beyond measure as in fascism. When courage is deprived of reason, it loses its raison d’être for sure, but it is also deprived of its restraint. To be reasonable, says Aristotle, a virtue must follow a mean between defect and excess, in the case of courage between cowardice and rashness. The latter may sometimes look like courage, and people will applaud as if it were; but the look is deceiving. Relativism is a dire threat to courage and so to our country and our lives. The way

Harvey C. Mansfield

Our Courage in Danger

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around it is not to try to deny the special character of our country and to apologize for our devotion to freedom and greatness in a vain attempt at impartiality. It is safer and more reasonable to begin from the universality of human virtue in order to come to understand the virtues we practice and hold dear. Other examples of opinions dangerous to courage exist—the hostility of radical feminism, the American love of material well-being, the specialization of professionals, the inordinate fear of insecurity—but this is the main one. Nothing in either reason or experience suggests that relativism should be benign. To adopt it, and even to toy with it, is to risk our security for the goal of toleration that we say in the same breath is groundless.

Harvey C. Mansfield

Our Courage in Danger

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Stanford University

Copyright © 2011 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University This publication is for educational and private, non-commercial use only. No part of this publication may be reprinted, reproduced, or transmitted in electronic, digital, mechanical, photostatic, recording, or other means without the written permission of the copyright holder. For permission to reprint, reproduce, or transmit, contact Ms. Tin Tin Wisniewski (tintinyw@stanford.edu) The preferred citation for this publication is Harvey C. Mansfield, “Our Courage in Danger (2011),” in Endangered Virtues, an online volume edited by Peter Berkowitz, http://www.endangeredvirtuesessays.com.

Harvey C. Mansfield

Our Courage in Danger

7

Hoover Institution

Stanford University

Boyd and Jill Smith Task Force on Virtues of a Free Society
The Virtues of a Free Society Task Force examines the evolution of America’s core values, how they are threatened, and what can be done to preserve them. The task force’s aims are to identify the enduring virtues and values on which liberty depends; chart the changes in how Americans have practiced virtues and values over the course of our nation’s history; assess the ability of contemporary associations and institutions—particularly schools, family, and religion—to sustain the necessary virtues; and discuss how society might nurture the virtues and values on which its liberty depends. The core membership of this task force includes Peter Berkowitz (cochair), David Brady (cochair), Gerard V. Bradley, James W. Ceaser, William Damon, Robert P. George, Tod Lindberg, Harvey C. Mansfield, Russell Muirhead, Clifford Orwin, and Diana Schaub.
Harvey C. Mansfield Harvey C. Mansfield is the Carol G. Simon Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard University, where he has taught for more than forty years. He has held Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, has been a fellow at the National Humanities Center, and in 2004 received the National Humanities Medal.

About the Author

For more information about this Hoover Institution Task Force please visit us online at www.hoover.org/taskforces/virtues.

Harvey C. Mansfield

Our Courage in Danger

Hoover Institution

Stanford University

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