It takes courage to challenge, and courage to implement, courage to speak, courage to act. Sometimes it’s courage not to act, courage to disobey, but always courage to do what’s right. Having the ‘courage of our convictions’ will mean that we do overcome our natural hesitancy, humility, risk aversion, and fear to express a moral challenge either in word or in action. Or to take the risk of implementing a good idea. Or to live with suffering, disability or loss. Or simply to ask someone we like to go out with us. Courage is the passion which implements what reason tells us is right.
A small minority of people who have no such hesitation are very vociferous in their challenges and so dominate the debate. Brazened people who know no fear, or people who are indifferent to consequences, speak out and take action, but theirs may not be the most capable or the most insightful contribution. The ‘silent majority’ are too timid, and their view is under-represented. Tyrants and dictators thrive on this cowardice – they eliminate or conscript the activists, and have nothing to fear from compliant people who lack the courage necessary to challenge and resist.
Tyranny does not have to be of cosmic proportions, as under Hitler, Stalin and co. It can be small and local. Even cosmic tyranny usually starts small and local. Tyrants seek power, enlist lackey support politically, and determinedly override all other interests in their pursuit of power. Opposing them takes great courage, especially when the social mood is in their favour. Tyrants are not always people, but can be movements or dominating points of view. They, or the tyrannical tendency, can be found in all walks of life. It takes courage to challenge the bully, the dominant paradigm, the received wisdom, the intellectual trend, the group psyche, the party line, the government whip, the article of faith.
This is courage in negative mode. Courage in positive mode is needed to implement projects. Here most people tend to be risk averse. We are often conditioned by a lazy and compliant social attitude which expects some anonymous ‘them’ to fix things in life, so that life is set up by others and requires little courageous action from us personally. ‘They’ could be the local council, a government department, or some business organisation. It’s easier to rely on such social organisations or to become the practised critic who takes care never to deliver themselves.
Courage is only a virtue when linked with another virtue. It takes courage to commit crime. It takes courage to indulge in extreme sports, which may be mean taking an unjustifiable risk. The line between being courageous and being the reckless daredevil is often very thin. It depends on the evaluation of risk, and this has to be agreed with others involved or affected by our actions. So being courageous is only good if it challenges what is wrong and implements what is good. Courage realises and implements the other virtues.
Like most virtues, courage comes at a price. Exercising courage may cost us our role, our income, our friends, or in extreme regimes, our lives. Courage overcomes fear of such outcomes. If more of us showed more courage, perhaps there would be less wrong done by those we would then challenge, and more good done by us ourselves.
André Comte-Sponville ‘A Short Treatise on the Great Virtues’, chapter 5 ‘Courage’
Vladimir Nabokov ‘Tyrants Destroyed’ in ‘Collected Stories’