Note: This column is based on an excerpt from “Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 2: The Great Ideas—A Syntopicon,” Vol. 1, Chapter 13: “Courage,” Mortimer J. Adler, Editor in Chief.

“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”

~ C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters”

As Russia’s dictator, Vladimir Putin, annexes the Crimea in Ukraine, not a shot has been fired. America and all of Europe stand mute for fear of angering a renewed Soviet empire ascending before the eyes of the world. Yet, why won’t they act against Russia’s hegemony and aggression? Europe and the U.N. are appeasing Putin because they are enslaved to Russia’s oil and gas, which is pumped through Ukraine and throughout Europe. Where are all the real men of courage today? Have they all been compromised by implicit or explicit threats by fascist powers? Who will pay the price to stand for truth despite the costs? Who will, who can look at overwhelming odds and the relentless pressures of society and say to himself, “Here I am, Lord, send me”?

From antiquity to modern times, the heroes of history, philosophy and poetry are often cruel, brutal, self-seeking, pitiless, extreme and unjust, but cowards they are not. They do not weaken or surrender. They do not despair in the midst of almost desperate odds. They have the power and determinations to triumph over whatever they fix their minds and wills to achieve. Their very acts of courage define them and place these men in the Pantheon of heroes.

This is where we get the Greek term “demigod,” for the very connotation of heroism exalts these legendary heroes nearly to the standing of the gods. In the Homeric age, men like Odysseus, Theseus, Perseus and Hercules as demigods struggle with the gods as they struggled with men. The two Homeric epics, the “Odyssey,” but particularly the “Iliad,” are filled with men who cannot be cowered or intimidated. For example, in Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” the now restless king of Ithaca, reminiscing over the years he spent in battle at Troy and the long, torturous expedition home, says to his companions:

Some work of noble note may yet be done
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods … and though
We are now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are:
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Courage is the quality above all others in the “Iliad,” which personifies the heroic figures of Achilles and Hector, Ajax, Patroclus and Diomedes, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Cunning – the expertise of Odysseus, that man of many schemes, and the subtleness in discourse of Nestor – is the only other value that seems to be similarly prized as courage. Yet the most elegant rhetoric is only the prologue to great actions, and but for the night mission of Odysseus and Diomedes into the Trojan camp (e.g., breaching the impregnable walls of Troy with the “Trojan Horse”), the legendary feats of the “Iliad” are improvisational deeds of skill – direct, not surreptitious.

Courage appears in many other forms also. The courage of the tragic hero, of Oedipus and Antigone, is accompanied with vigor of mind, not body. Strength of mind, perhaps above being lionhearted, is a particular human power. Fight vs. Flight – courage is not only conquering ones fear’s and preventing the body from fleeing regardless the pain or danger. It involves at minimum as much will to action, strengthening its resolutions and constantly disciplining the mind to determine the truth.

Regarding the sublime narrative of Antigone as recounted by Sophocles, I quoted Bard College President Edward Rothstein in my 2002 book, “The Inseparability of Law and Morality”:

The Greek tragedy [Antigone] tells of the ruler Creon forbidding the burial of a traitor, and of Antigone’s defiance of his order as she proclaims a higher law. … Antigone showed the issues of faith and allegiance … struggle between public law and religious tradition, between accommodation and absolution.

For Hegel, taking an opposing view, civic courage involves embracing dangers, even to the level of sacrifice for the state. Likewise, for him pure courage is entirely a civic virtue. “The intrinsic worth of courage as a disposition of the mind,” he writes, “is to be found in the genuine, absolute, final end, the sovereignty of the state. The work of courage is to actualize this final end, and the means to this end is the sacrifice of personal actuality.” However, Hegel concedes that courage “is multiform.” He argues that “the mettle of an animal or a brigand, courage for the sake of honor, the courage of a knight, for the sake of honor, these are not true forms of courage. The true courage of civilized nations is readiness for sacrifice in the service of the state, so that the individual counts as only one amongst many.” Hegel’s state-centric view of courage sounds like Marx, sounds like the progressives, sounds like the Democratic Socialist Party of today.

Christian apologist and scholar, C.S. Lewis, in “The Screwtape Letters,” wrote that, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Indeed this is reminiscent of the biblical story of Gideon in Judges 7 who was charged by God to fight 135,000 Midianites. Yet despite the overwhelming odds (God, who wanted no uncertainty in the mind of Israel who gave them the victory), cut down Gideon’s army from 22,000 to 10,000 to just 300 men. The difference between the 300 who went into battle vs. the 22,000 who were too afraid to fight was that the 300 were just as afraid as the 22,000, yet as C.S. Lewis wrote, “The form of every virtue at the testing point” compelled Gideon and the 300 into battle … compelled these heroes into a glorious history.

Gideon’s legendary valor brings to remembrance Tennyson’s immortal words on courage:

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

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