Friday, May 24, 2002


Yesterday I wrote of my fears. In trying to write about virtues, I have chosen to highlight them by pointing out my own failings and sinfulness. In much the same way as the Screwtape Letters highlight virtue by showing the devil how to attack it, my own inadequacies I hope may find resonance with you, and help you find your own way out of the things with which all of us struggle. In most cases such limited virtues as I possess will take care of themselves, if I am mindful of my vices.

Fear, however, is not a vice, even though it lies in opposition to Courage. And so in this instance, I must write a little more directly about Courage, my own and others’. I hope you will forgive what might become an exercise in Pride if I am not extremely careful.

I did some digging this morning on Thomas Aquinas’ take on Courage. (An excellent summary of the Thomistic view can be found here.) Aquinas is the bedrock of any modern theology of Virtue, so any direct discussion of a Virtue must start with him.

For Aquinas, the four “Cardinal” Virutes (that is, the “hinges” of behavior) are Justice, Prudence, Courage and Temperance. The three “Theological” Virtues are Faith, Hope and Charity. Courage has four parts to it: magnanimity, generosity, patience and perseverance. Note that none of these parts directly have anything to do with fear as such.

Fear is an emotion, and though Thomas and other philosophers have felt that emotions can be moderated by habit, few besides the Stoics felt they could be mastered entirely. (Let the Philosopher-flames begin!) What could be mastered was one’s behavior in the face of an emotion, especially when one had somewhat limited that emotion.

So Fear can be moderated by Courage. For Aquinas, magnanimity means sharing or even forgoing the honor that comes from a great deed. Generosity means bearing the financial cost so that the deed might come to pass. Patience keeps the goal in mind, the true Good of the deed, no matter the delays. Perseverance is the continued effort even when Patience is at its ebb.

CS Lewis summarizes Courage in the Screwtape Letters: “Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

So I have confessed my fears to you. But because those fears are not necessarily in opposition to Courage—indeed are the opportunity for it—I need now to tell you a little of Courage. You may choose to infer from this that I do these things, and you may be right (though not in all cases). Please excuse any Pride in myself that creeps in here. Sometimes Humility means allowing oneself to be an example against one’s wishes.

In the face of fear of Terrorism, Patience and Perseverance are perhaps the strongest aspect of courage for the ordinary citizen. Getting out of bed each morning, going to work, playing with my child. So much of the Cross we are asked to bear in life involves simply what Woody Allen joked about, showing up.

It was hideously overdone in October, the way everything seemed to be about “…or the terrorists will have won!” But that marketing ploy, cynical as it was in many cases (“Buy her a diamond anniversary band, or the terrorists win!”), worked and resonated precisely because it was about courage.

In one sense, the marketers were entirely right. Though we have an obligation to live in the present, and not the future, we nevertheless do have a duty to plan for the future, to expect the future. It’s the great balancing act, between living in the here and now and doing sensible things about what might happen, without giving in to anxiety. Courage helps us balance. And so, for someone for whom buying a car in October caused all kinds of worry about whether to bother, because we might all be dead in a week, buying the car is in fact an act of Courage. It really does defy the terrorists. In fact, a major capital investment like an automobile is inevitably an act or patience and perseverance for most of us, who finance our cars over 4 or 5 years, and who then commit to arranging our lives around making those payments.

Don’t overdo it, of course. Owning a car is not inherently virtuous, however patient or persevering your planning for it is. It can be, or it can be sinful. It all depends on the circumstances.

Generosity we saw in droves: my job involves raising money, and my organization saw a marked decrease in giving in the weeks after 9/11. The reason of course was that our regular supporters were giving their money to the Red Cross and others to help the victims and the families. Others, my wife and I among them, saw the dropoff that worthy groups were experiencing, and made larger gifts to organizations we didn’t usually support, or support as generously. Food pantries and homeless shelters seemed particularly hard hit.

Bravery in the battlefield or NYPD/FDNY sense is not really something most of us have an opportunity for. But fear can take root in such a way that even acts that objectively have no greater risk today than September 10 can require actual physical courage to undertake. My commute requires me to drive sometimes on several obvious targets, bridges and tunnels whose loss would have significant economic and human cost. Sometimes my job requires me to travel to the juiciest targets in the nation. Other people live and work there every day. It’s not the Courage of running into a burning building, but the small courage of saying, “target or not, today you cannot make my fears confound me.”

Resolving every morning not “to live this day as if it were my last,” but to live it as it comes to me each moment, is the Courage that banishes fear of tomorrow. Government leaders, soldiers, policemen, have a duty to plan for the things that really make me anxious. I have a duty to give them the tools, support, and encouragement to do so. My Courage in that case comes not from stupidly promising myself that “all is well” when plainly it is very much not well. Instead it comes from acknowledging that it is not well, but I must limit my worries to what I can do, and then do them well enough that I do not worry.

A priest recommended to me at the end of a Confession (a long litany of things I did wrong simply to avoid loss of Control) that I start each day by turning control over to God. “It’s just you and me today, Lord,” he suggested. “Help me get through it as best I can. Show me what you want.” This doesn’t mean God is going to keep the rain away from me. It means He provided someone to invent raincoats, and helps me remember to put one on.

Courage is measured in deeds, and great deeds inspire small Courage. That is, few of us ever have the opportunity to do a heroic thing, but it takes Courage to do many small things, and memories of heroism to remind us of that. Small children who fight mock battles do not, it seems to me, learn violence from that so much as they practice heroism. Every childhood battlefield of my memory had one side who were clearly the “good guys” or “bad guys.” There were a few kids who always wanted to be the bad guys, but most fought over the right to wear the white hats. And nearly every battle culminated with a white hat charging an imaginary machine gun nest and, with his last breath, throwing a grenade at the enemy. Great arguments often ensued as to the effectiveness of the grenade, but everyone understood intuitively that the charge, if well executed, was to be applauded.

Aquinas understood Virtues to be a sort of habit. The habits of heroism that children learn on the playground (at least before Zero Tolerance made such battles unacceptable) are the habits that keep fear in check. My fears can upset my stomach. They can wake me at 3 am, or keep me from falling asleep in the first place. They can make me check on my sleeping son “one last time,” or cause me to blink away tears for the dead. But they cannot keep me from driving to work, or traveling where I must, or even saving a few dollars for retirement or my son’s college education. There may be machine gunners right after the next exit ramp, but by God I will toss my grenade into them if it kills me.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home