Cardinal Virtues: Courage

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In the case of Sir Roger Scruton and his framed interview, which led to his dismissal, the politicians and journalists should have to pay a price for their cowardice and their lack of integrity. This is the virtue of courage writ large; people who are truly brave will always take a risk, but we have constructed a society where cowardice is rewarded instead.

“courage is the first of human qualities…because it guarantees all the others.”  –  W. Churchill

Third on the list of the Cardinal virtues is courage, typically expounded as fortitude, something which encompasses resilience, patience, endurance, toughness and strength. There is no shortage of cultures which have promoted courage as a vital quality, those that don’t may not even survive. But in the Classical and Christian contexts, courage is understood in the Aristotelian sense as a middle course between cowardice and recklessness. An excess of courage is not a virtue, neither is a deficit. A reckless person may have a lot of courage, but they have a poor relationship with fear. Fear, and the correct relation to fear thus allows courage to flourish. This doesn’t require a person to be a fighter or a soldier to display courage. Fortitude and endurance is the ability to withstand pressure and bear it without compromising the other virtues; justice, temperance and prudence require fortitude to be implemented.

For Christians fortitude is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Thomas Aquinas defines courage as the action which removes obstacles that prevent our will from following reason. We may know what the right thing to do is, but sometimes it takes courage to overcome our pride, our weakness, our fear. Christ himself, despite often being portrayed as an effeminate character, displays the ultimate courage in allowing his own torture and crucifixion. His agony in the Gardens of Gethsemane begging his Father to protect him from what is to come shows his human condition, the terror and the courage to overcome and endure. We will never be tested in this manner, but our courage is tested nonetheless.

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Cultivating the virtue of being courageous in your actions and beliefs is vital, but it must be separated from the acts of ‘false courage’ which currently populate our society. Its very easy to be labelled as brave despite the fact that there is no real opposition to your beliefs. When celebrities in the Western world are adored for ‘coming out’ as ‘genderqueer’ or similar fashionable identities, we should recognise this as mere posturing. Campaigning for the right to remove your headscarf as an Iranian woman is true bravery. Courage comes with a cost. The erudite and grumpy philosopher Nassim Taleb has written about having ‘skin in the game’ as the mechanism for preventing social damage done by frauds and economists. His basic point is that, to act in a manner that could potentially harm others, such as forecasting share value or pressuring for military intervention, one should have ‘skin in the game’ and suffer a consequence should one be wrong. We live in a age where judgement, opinion, speculation, aggression, can be meted out without penalty.

In the case of Sir Roger Scruton and his framed interview, which led to his dismissal, the politicians and journalists should have to pay a price for their cowardice and their lack of integrity. This is the virtue of courage writ large; people who are truly brave will always take a risk, but we have constructed a society where cowardice is rewarded instead. We are human, we will fail often, but we should aspire to the Good, to the Truth, to the Beautiful. Courage in our convictions, fortitude under pressure, patience with our opponents, this is our inheritance from our religious and moral tradition and no amount of fashionable posing should be able to bury it.

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