This post is part of the Chivalric Virtues series. For the series introduction, go here
And at length we come to the virtue of Courage, the virtue I intended to examine first when I started this series. Perhaps the paramount virtue of knighthood and the one most readily associated with masculinity, it’s symbolised in my Mediæval planetary scheme by Mars, of course. As I seem to be following the Mediæval Ptolemaic planetary order from lowest to highest, it comes fifth in order.
Courage is readily associated with battle and conflict (thus its association with Mars), and we are quick to recognise the quality of virtue of the soldier who puts themselves in harm’s way on behalf of their nation. Valour in arms is only one type of courage, however, and though it exemplifies much of this hard virtue, it is not the totality of it.
Valour in arms is largely physical courage: the courage to face physical danger. Other sorts of courage have a more moral nature: the courage to take an unpopular stand for what’s right. Indeed, in British politics a decision that will be unpopular enough to lose you an election is euphemistically referred to as a “courageous” one. The courage to face an unpalatable truth rather than seeking refuge in a pleasant lie. The courage to open up and be vulnerable rather than erecting walls up to the sky.
Courage is not fearlessness. Though we sometimes get that idea, true courage is acceptance of the risk, because either the cause or the gain is worthwhile.
A large part of courage is risk. Courage is a virtue that isn’t on display a lot until it’s needed. But in a time of danger or risk, it’s the person of courage who rises to the challenge. They may be shaking in their boots, but the mark of true courage is not fearlessness but acting rightly despite felt fear.
Courage doesn’t have to prove anything. If you’re feeling a need to prove how brave or how fearless you are, what you’re dealing with is bravado, not courage.
Bravado is the sort of false courage that takes stupid risks for no good reason. Bravado makes a big show of fearlessness, but when it comes to the crunch they’ll bow to social pressure. It always has something to prove, always has a need to go one better. Bravado will not only jump the shark, but do a triple backflip.
Courage doesn’t need to show off. Mars’ metal iron isn’t something you normally employ for decorative purposes the way you would gold or silver. But iron has a strength and hardness to it that gold and silver lack utterly.
Fascinatingly, Mars’ Greek counterpart Ares was portrayed as a coward. In some ways it seems almost absurd to make one’s war god cowardly, but sich were the ancient Greeks. Perhaps it’s a reminder that what we often consider the forge for the development of courage – the field of battle – can sometimes produce not a courageous warrior but a swaggering bully.
The field of battle favours the physically strong, but physical strength and skill are not courage. Courage may supply the will and fortitude to gain the strength and skill in arms, but courage is first and foremost a moral quality. Our English word is derived from the Old French corage, itself related to the Latin word cor, meaning “heart”. Courage, then, is a quality of heart, not of flesh. It’s ultimately sacrificial; putting itself in harm’s way for a cause, a loved one, a belief. It’s no accident that in Dante’s cosmos the Heaven of Mars was the sphere of martyrs.
We may need to step back here and define what we mean by “martyrdom”. The word’s got a bit of a bad reputation through the actions of Islamic “martyrs” who are willing to blow themselves up in order to take those they consider their enemies with them. Christian martyrdom will have none of that. The bright company of Christian martyrs are those who have courageously faced persecution and death. Who have preached the Good News about Jesus Christ in the face of hardship and sword. Who have been imprisoned, tortured and executed because they will not give up their faith, who go to meet their Saviour with a song of praise on their lips.
All that they have in common with Islamic “martyrs” is a willingness to die if necessary.
It requires a whole different level of courage to look into the eyes of a persecutor and refuse to deny Jesus, knowing that they will kill you unless you do, than to march to the battle line with weapons in hand and enter the firefight. This is not to minimise the courage of those who do, but to say that sometimes there’s no glory in courage. Just doing the hard thing that’s needed.
In the sci-fi TV series Babylon 5, there was an exchange in which one of the characters quotes from the Scripture: “‘Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for his brother’. Not for glory. Not for armies, not for empires. For one person. In the dark, where no-one will see.”
This is the essence of true courage, and how we distinguish it from bravado. What do you do in the dark, where no-one can see.
It’s one thing to do the right thing where everyone can see you and heap praise on you for your actions. It’s quite another to make a stand all alone in the night. In that circumstance, when it all comes down to your own choice, is when you find out what’s really in your heart.
Fear, I suspect, for most of us, even with the Biblical command to Joshua: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous…”
Great. Now I’m still terrified and I feel guilty about it.
But that’s not the point. God is the One who spoke the universe into being. He’s the One who commanded Peter to walk on the water. His commands carry with them the ability to obey. Think about it. He said to the light “Be”, and it was. Is it really too much to believe that at His “Be strong and courageous”, that strength and courage were birthed into the heart of Joshua?
This is how it works. If we trust Him, and do what’s right, He supplies what we need. Even courage.