Courage Without Calculation

“But learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die.” — Seneca, On the Shortness of Life.

Courage is the virtue found between the extremes of recklessness and cowardice. Virtue, in Aristotle’s view, could be achieved through reflection, discipline, and practice. Since it did not come naturally to us, it would have to be applied, and that could only come through deliberate conditioning of ourselves. Virtue through habit would become our second nature.

How does one practice courage in this society? Not many of us are called upon to rescue our lambs from a lion nor are we required to go up against a Goliath. Some might argue that it takes a type of courage to navigate rush hour in an American metropolis, but we know that is a limited type of courage, if courage it is. Mostly, it requires steady nerves and a willingness to regard fellow drivers as both weary travelers (to be given the benefit of the doubt) and latent killers, as oblivious as clams to others in their proximity while they chatter on their cell phones. 

But there is a more obvious type of courage which we have seen recently, and as an example of virtue in the classical sense it is without parallel. In the Aurora, Colorado killings several young men reacted instantly to the sight and sound of gunfire by shielding others with their bodies. At least one was ex-military, a young National Guardsman who had served in Iraq and was thinking of signing up for another tour. He saved the life of his girlfriend by throwing her to the floor and covering her with his body. When the shooting stopped and she tried to get up she discovered he had taken a bullet for her. 

Action like that is heroic but not unexpected from a soldier. If anything, it is a testimony to the power of military training that some people react to gunfire by protecting others before saving themselves. That certainly does not diminish his actions in our eyes, in fact, it only reinforces belief that virtue can be trained into a person.

But what is even more remarkable is that several other people—civilians all—did the same thing in those first chaotic minutes. They stood up for girlfriends, children, and others, reacting instinctively without hesitation. This suggests that courage and selflessness were so deeply engrained in them that they did not have to agonize over the decision. It was second nature to them. 

As more details emerge over the next few months other stories of heroism and courage will no doubt come to light. Without knowing these people it’s probably not fair to make generalizations about their actions in hopes of predicting a trend. A lot of things could have played into those instantaneous reactions, but it’s heartening to know that the person next to you in a crowded public space might be a hero-in-waiting.

We often define heroes as people who have done extraordinary acts, like the 9/11 police and firemen who ran into the Twin Towers to rescue people while everyone else was desperately scrambling to get out. Or we think of them as achieving something against great odds, like winning a gold medal at the Olympics. 

But as Carol S. Pearson notes in her book, The Hero Within, these kinds of heroism are rare. “The first is a necessity born out of extreme conditions; the second results from exceptional talent combined with favorable conditions and great effort.” Pearson respects these actions but widens the field to include ordinary people who are called to a heroic journey. They are not generally called upon to handle everything thrown at them: “Rather, it is doing your own part, however humble that might be . . . . It merely requires absolute fidelity to your own authentic path.”

I’ve always believed that we catch a glimpse of our true nature when we’re startled out of the ordinary. Without a chance to duck behind a pretense or put on a game-face we simply react from the inside to the ‘slings and arrows’ of the outside world. It’s easy to see the call of duty as the bolt that shot the Aurora people into action. Immanuel Kant, whose deontological ethics have had a profound effect on philosophy since the Enlightenment, believed that the right action in any ethical dilemma is that which springs from the will, not from calculating the benefits or losses. If they’d stopped to do a cost-benefit analysis as the bullets thudded into bodies around them even more people would have died. 

There is courage that knows the odds and goes forward anyway, such as the soldier advancing into enemy fire. There is courage that simply stays the course when it would be so easy and so comforting to drop the whole thing. And there is the courage that becomes part of our moral DNA, ready in an instant to do the right thing no matter what. At various times in our lives we may need all of them.

If we follow Aristotle’s thinking in these lines, we understand that courage of any sort doesn’t come naturally to us. The wires have been strung but the switch hasn’t been thrown. Or as Jesus put it to his drowsy disciples shortly before his arrest: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

The Stoic philosopher Seneca exhorts us to learn how to live before we die. Instead of complaining that life is too short, he says, we need to stop squandering our time. If we could have a tally of the years that remain to us, how carefully we would use them! Could there be a more cheerful retort to moral laziness than this? “Life is long if you know how to use it.” 

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