Physical courage is in many ways a cheap, tawdry thing. It is as common as pennies. It can shine brightly in even the most primitive and brutal of savages. And millions of people have died meaninglessly because of it.
Cicero wrote of this kind of courage: "That kind of courage, which is conspicuous in danger and enterprise, if devoid of justice, is absolutely undeserving of the name of valor. It should rather be considered as a brutal fierceness outraging every principle of humanity."
The worst meat grinder of a battle with which I am familiar is Stalingrad during World War II. I don’t think it’s possible to imagine the carnage in which an estimated one million to two million people died. As the old saying so cynically tells us, the death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million men is a statistic.
Were the soldiers brave on both the German and Russian sides? Certainly? Did any good come from such bravery? None. Such bravery was a detriment – and that word is an understatement – to both sides.
To what end did this bravery lead? Horrendous mass slaughter, followed by totalitarian rule over Russia and Eastern Europe for more than 50 years. And more soldiers died in that one battle than all of the U.S.’s wars combined.
In the War between the States, one quarter of the military-age men in the South were killed. The loss of officers – the most intelligent – was appalling. All of them were brave men – and to what end? The South lost, and still has not completely recovered, 150 years later.
There are some unpleasant truths about physical courage. Much of the time it’s used for vain causes. How many wars have been completely unnecessary? Nearly all of them. Maybe even all of them.
Another unpleasant truth about physical courage is that with it the opponent, the “enemy,” is made less than human, reduced to the status of a thing. Most of the time, they’re considered to be evil, to be insane, homicidal maniacs.
There is another, better, kind of courage – moral courage. This kind of courage allows the possessor to be empathic. Moral courage allows one to walk in another’s shoes, to see things from their point of view.
Unfortunately, the greater the physical courage, generally the less there is of moral courage. A person with moral courage can be physically brave, but how many people with great physical courage have the ability for moral courage? Not many, I’d wager.
Courage does not exist in and of itself. It is one of the Four Cardinal Virtues, and as such is connected to the other three – Justice, Temperance and Prudence. Courage must be based on justice. Indeed, the real purpose of courage is to remove obstacles to justice. And to know what justice is, you have to have prudence and temperance.
Prudence is defined as recta ratio agilbilium - right reason about things to be done. Those “things to be done” have to conform to reality. That “reality” I define as realizing everyone and everything are connected; that people are humans with wants and desires of their own, and that wholeness and health are better than unnecessary violence, than murder, than theft, than envy, hubris, gluttony, greed and lust.
Someone who is prudent understands both the good and bad laws that govern people and things, but chooses to live by the good laws. They understand the Four Cardinal Virtues (seven, actually, if you include faith, hope and charity) but also the Seven Deadly Sins.
Justice is giving to each person what is due to him and Temperance as that which is opposed to “the inclinations of nature when they are like a beast that is not ruled by reason.” And “reason” I define as understanding the connections that led to the understanding of laws that govern reality.
Physical courage has to be connected to moral courage. Physical courage by itself is nothing but a danger. Only when physical courage is connected to moral courage, and to justice, temperance and prudence, only then will it produce good things.
One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed, now that I look back upon it, is that the fairy tales I was told as a child, and the novels I read as a teen, had as exemplars of virtue, people who possessed both physical and moral courage. Physical courage in and of itself meant nothing. Much of the time those who had it could be led around by their noses.
Physical courage is an instinct, an animal thing. Dogs and other beasts have it; dogs will in fact die protecting their owners. Moral courage, on the other hand, is a human thing, and in fact is one of the things that make us human.