Revisiting the Virtue of Courage in the Age of the Great UnReason

Remembering Aristotle.

The Great UnReason of 2020 is upon us.

That America is in the midst of a great pandemic of unreasonable or irrational fear is deniable only to those who have succumbed to it.

To be clear, fear, in itself, is natural, and is deserving of neither praise nor blame. Considered in itself, it is a morally-neutral emotion.  However, as those who have thought about the matter from over the centuries and millennia know all too well, there is all of the difference in the world between fear that is reasonable and that which is unreasonable.

Aristotle’s analysis of fear and courage remains unsurpassed to this day.  The man who Saint Thomas Aquinas would, some 15 centuries later, refer to as “The Philosopher,” noted that virtue, i.e. excellence of moral character, tends to be the mean between the emotional extremes of “excess” and “deficiency.” 

So, for example, when a person habitually experiences an excess of, say, fear, he suffers from the vice, the moral weakness, of cowardice. When, on the other hand, a person habitually experiences a deficiency of fear, he suffers from the vice of recklessness. 

Both extremes are unreasonable or irrational.  Both express corruption of character.

It is only when a person, as a matter of habit, experiences a reasonable amount of fear that the person can be said to possess the virtue, the moral excellence, of courage.

It is only the courageous person who knows what to fear, when to fear it, and the extent to which he should fear it.

Courage is not the absence of fear.  It requires the presence of fear.  The fear, though, must be reasonable.

Hence, he who fears and endures the things he ought to, for the right purpose, as he ought to and at the time he ought to, as well as the one who dares accordingly, is a courageous man; for the courageous man feels and acts in as much as merit requires and reason prescribes.

Elaborating, Aristotle notes that errors in action occur “because we are afraid of what we ought not [be afraid],” or because we don’t fear “as we ought to,” “at the time we ought to, or the like.”

The courageous person is to be distinguished from the rash person, who suffers from a deficiency of fear, and the coward, who is burdened with an excess supply of it.

What Aristotle has to say about “the rash man” is particularly instructive, for all too often, most of us succumb to the lie that the trash talker, the “tough guy,” the bully, etc. has “balls,” as we say.  We tend to confuse machismo, recklessness, with bravery.  Aristotle reminds us that the two are actually in fundamentally different leagues, recklessness being a character defect, a vice, and courage being a character strength, a virtue.

On the other hand, he who exceeds in confidence about terrible things is rash. And the rash man seems also to be arrogant and someone who pretends to be brave. The attitude, then, which the courageous man demonstrates in matters terrible, the same attitude the rash man wishes to appear as of his own; therefore, he imitates him as far as he can.  This is why most of them are cowardly; for, while they display confidence where they can, they cannot stand what is terrible.

Notice the paradox here.  The rash man, Aristotle informs us, ultimately is a coward of a certain sort.  He doesn’t have that which bravery necessarily requires: a reasonable supply of fear.

In his own way, Colonel Al Ridenhour, USMC, the founder of the combat art Warrior Flow and my own Senior-Master Instructor, makes essentially this very point to his students when he tirelessly tells them: “Just because a person is evil or tough, doesn’t mean that he’s brave.”

As for the cowardly person, however, Aristotle’s characterization is as follows:

Again, he who exceeds in fear is a coward; for both what he ought not [fear] and as he ought not [fear], and all the like follow on him. He is also deficient in confidence; but he is more apparent in situations involving pain.  The coward, then, is a despairing person; for he fears everything.

It is insightful that Aristotle here observes the link, one that Christians would one day underscore, between cowardice—the fearing of “everything”—and despair.  Conversely, then, and as he says, the courageous person “is the reverse; for confidence is a trait belonging to a hopeful person.”

Aristotle summarizes his analysis:

The coward and the rash man, therefore, as well as the courageous man are concerned with the same things, but they are differently disposed towards them; for the two former exceed and fall short, while the latter is moderate and as he ought to.  Furthermore, the rash are reckless, and ready before danger but flee when it comes, while the courageous are keen at the time of action and quite before.

Aristotle’s examination of courage is not without its critics.  Still, no honest discussion of this virtue can neglect it.  I bring it up here because The Great UnReason of 2020, the mass hysteria over COVID-19, occasions as glaringly as any event ever could exhibitions of the very vices to which Aristotle drew our attention so many centuries ago:

Those who have rushed to indefinitely suspend civilization as we have known it in the name of preventing people from contracting a virus from which, it seems likely, as high as 99.6%-99.9% of those who contract it recover, a virus the majority of whom (50%-80%) it infects are never even sick enough to realize they had it, are at once reckless and cowardly.

At the very least, they are behaving recklessly and cowardly.

They are reckless inasmuch as they have rushed to appropriate measures that promise to adversely impact various dimensions of the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans, and billions of more human beings from around the planet who will inevitably be harmed by the oppressive decrees of governors and other authorities in America.  For argument’s sake, we’ll assume that they didn’t have ulterior (ideological, political, and economic) motives but that they just didn’t slow down long enough in order to anticipate the ruinous consequences of their courses of action.

Those, the masses, who have eagerly acquiesced in these life-denying commands for the sake of preventing themselves from the possibility of getting sick act cowardly, for their fear is wildly out of all proportion to its object, a virus that poses a potentially lethal threat only to those for whom countless otherwise non-fatal viruses and infections of multiple sorts are potentially fatal, i.e. the elderly and immunocompromised.

Yet even here, most of those in this demographic recover from it, and a whopping 60% or so of people over 70 years of age who test positive for COVID-19 are asymptomatic.    

The fear that motivates the comprehensive negating of our way of life is wildly irrational.

This is why it is all too rational to refer to this period in our history as The Great UnReason.

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