Musings on courage and cowardice, part 1
But perhaps I overstated. I did not mean to accuse myself of being a coward, I was bemoaning what I felt was a momentary lapse of courage.
The nature of courage is such that a brave man is always aware that his courage could desert him at any moment.
I have been called comrade, by men whose courage has been tested in the fire. They honor me beyond my capacity to say. If I am capable of courage, it is due in large part to the desire to be worthy of the honor.
As the Arab proverb has it, "The courage of your friends gives you strength."
In my article Steven Vincent: A Profile in Courage http://www.theatlasphere.com/columns/070920-browne-steven-vincent.php I mentioned that I have known many heroes.
This is hard to say, but I know a fair number of cowards as well, and I fear they are growing more common.
Perhaps I am being too harsh - and then again, perhaps I have been too charitable for too long. It is a terrible thing to accuse any man of cowardice. It wasn't that long ago that society considered it perfectly justified to invite the accuser to accompany one to a place from which only one would return.
I would much rather call it something like, "excessive fearfulness." It does seem to occur on a continuum from chronic anxiety to full-blown cowardice.
But then again, perhaps I'm just indulging in a euphemism to avoid thinking about an uncomfortable subject. Which would be a prime example of what I'm talking about!
What's odd and alarming is, these days I see the phenomenon largely among young men. That's not natural, the natural state of young men is idiot recklessness, not cowardice.
The conclusion I am forced into, is that their cowardice is learned not inborn.
Why this might be so, I'll deal with later. For now, I'll talk about what I think cowardice is, and perhaps more importantly, what it isn't.
- Cowardice is not fear of death.
Fear of death is normal, natural and healthy response to danger that evolution equipped us with to help us avoid it.
Cowardice is fear of death more than anything else.
Philsopher Ayn Rand was once asked (in the Playboy interview), if there was anything or anyone she'd die for.
The question was a good one. Why would someone espousing a philosophy of egoism, who denied the existence of an afterlife, be willing to give up the only life she believed there is?
Rand didn't much care to deal with the question, and only addressed it twice in her works (that I'm aware of), but she did say that a man might die for people he loved, if the prospect of living with the knowledge he failed to act to save them, would make the rest of his life not worth living.
This is why armies strive to forge groups of men into bands of brothers. This is the truth behind the old adage, "The brave taste of death but once."
- Cowardice is not necessarily running from danger.
Recognizing danger and running from it in time, can be a sign of clear-eyed intellectual courage.
Who is the coward, the one who recognizes danger and runs? Or the one who denies there is any danger, until it is too late to run?
A professional military man will tell you, the highest command skill is to lead a retreat in good order. Without courage and a clear head, a retreat too easily becomes a rout.
What are some signs and symptoms of cowardice?
- Dogmatic certainty.
What do Marxism and religious fundamentalism have in common? I am scarsely the first to notice that Marxism and any brand of odious religious dogmatism you care to name, are all T.O.E.s - Theory of Everything. A single model that explains literally everything and leaves no room for uncertainty or ambiguity.
And here is the paradox, a coward might very well fear the shattering of his world-model more than death.
Though what usually happens in the rare instance a dogmatist is forced to give up his model, is he frantically grasps after another which he holds to with equal or greater certainty.
Every known scientific theory notes phenomena not explained by it. The difference between science and pseudo-science may be, pseudo science is an organized system of answers. Science is a method of generating meaningful questions.
- Moral relativism.
Having to make difficult ethical judgements exposes one to the possibility of being wrong, of having to deal with moral ambiguities, and worse - of having to choose a side and be prepared to fight for it.
Eric Hoffer noted, "Rudeness is the weak man's imitation of strength."
Reflexive rudeness towards people who disagree with their cherished illusions about how the world works. Because the reality of how the world works - or mere uncertainty about how is works, is terrifying.
In an earlier time, men were conscious that rude behavior could earn them a challenge to a duel with weapons. Even in more civilized times, men continued to fight with their fists over slights and insults.
Now the internet gives anonymity and enough distance between people - and the capability of insulting anyone with impunity. The law has also grown far more harsh in its treatment of men who engage in "mutual combat." Which in practice means punishing the winner.
We see, and experience the results daily.
- Idealizing or excusing brutality.
Hoffer also noted the weak like to hint at their capacity for evil. I think it's the weakling's version of hairy-chested macho.
What are the Che and Castro lovers saying? Could it be, "I approve of this, fear me"?
- Victim blaming and identification with the aggressor.
Why are Israel condemned and Palestinian suicide-murderers idealized in some circles? Why was the U.S. condemned and the Soviet Union idealized? Multiply examples as you will.
Because one side believes in the right to say whatever you like about them - and the other would kill you for it.
Why do smart prosecutors try to keep women off juries in rape cases?
Because a significant number of women want to blame the victim, to distance themselves from the possibility that it could happen to them.
- Hostility towards self-defense.
Anyone who has ever had to defend themselves with physical force has probably experienced this. There are certain people who consider you to be a bad person, and condemn what you did, no matter what the circumstances.
I think the example of a man defending himself is a reproach to them.
A coward can not love unreservadly, with a whole heart. Love is granting another the power to hurt you terribly, and a surrender of "hostages to fortune."
Steven Pressfield put the words in the mouth of the Spartan Dienikes, in his novel 'Gates of Fire.'
At the pass of Thermopylae, Dienikes found the answer to the question which had obsessed him all his life. What is the opposite of fear?
He knew it was not vainglory, and that courage was the result of something else.
Before he died at the Hot Gates, the answer was shown to him, "The opposite of fear, is love."
G.K. Chesterton put it, "The true soldier fights, not because he hates what is before him, but because he loves what is behind him."
P.S. See here: http://www.independent.ie/opinion/columnists/kevin-myers/writing-what-i-should-have-written-so-many-years-ago-1437779.html
for the story of an Irish journalist's mea culpa for his time of cowardice decades ago - and the courage he is showing now.