The mystery of courage

A scholar of bravery talks about the virtue that's hard to find and impossible to define and why it kept John McCain from being elected.

Topics: Author Interviews, National security, Books,

At some point in our lives, most of us ask ourselves whether courage consists of fearlessness or of persevering in spite of our fears, but it’s not often that we think any harder or deeper about what Samuel Johnson called “the greatest of all virtues; because unless a man has that virtue, he has no security for preserving any other.” In the wake of his well-received “The Anatomy of Disgust,” William Ian Miller, a professor of law at the University of Michigan, had planned to take up the topic of cowardice. Instead, he found himself intrigued and baffled by the opposite of that vice. In Miller’s new book, “The Mystery of Courage,” he explains that bravery is much harder to define than we might think.

Does it take more courage to launch a bold attack or to maintain a stout defense? Is courage the result of passion or reason? Is moral courage superior to physical courage or vice versa? And has our contemporary life, often shielded from danger and the immediate threat of war, lost some of its grandeur and resonance because courage — whatever that may be — is seldom demanded of us? It’s impossible to read Miller’s book without jumping from these larger philosophical questions to the even more difficult personal ones, questions that explore the limits of our own fortitude. Miller visited the Salon offices recently to talk about his book and the often unsettling conundrums it raises.

You didn’t start out planning to write about courage.

No, I planned on writing about cowardice, the little, daily interactions that you walk away from feeling somehow diminished or demoralized because you didn’t stand up, or somebody trod on you or dissed you. You know for sure that you’ve been a coward when you engage in fantasies of revenge. You’ll lie awake or spend the next two hours wishing misery on the person.

I started out with this idea and thought, well, of course you’ve got to know what courage is. Before you can write about the vice, you’ve got to look at the corresponding virtue. There’s the standard philosophical literature and, oh, I’ll check out the soldiers’ memoirs. Well, it turns out, courage is maybe the only virtue that’s more interesting than its corresponding vice. It just generates better stories. It’s no accident that at least until the rise of the novel, almost all of the stories we tell have courage as the main theme. So courage just ended up taking over.

Now cowardice doesn’t disappear because it’s always the thing you’ve got to overcome. I’m aware of hundreds, thousands of times in my life when I felt like a coward or felt scared, or stayed away from places that I would otherwise have gone to if I were tougher or more courageous, or just cooler. I thought, Are there any times when I felt courageous, is there actually an inner state that would correspond with the feeling of courage or courageous acts? I couldn’t think of any. So I thought, Oh, my God! Am I that craven? I ended up an academic, and that might be the proof of the pudding.

But then I thought, Maybe not, maybe I can think of times when people thought I did something that was at least reckless, if not courageous. I’d find out what people who were manifestly courageous thought about, examine their inner states to see if there’s some kind of agreement as to what feelings were involved, if they actually knew they were being courageous.

It turns out that, no, there’s no agreed-upon inner state. Sometimes people just blank: “It had to be done, somebody yelled ‘Medic!’ I ran to help the guy.” Most of the time, though, they’re just confused. There’s too much noise. There are no thoughts at all. They’re engaged in automatic behaviors. For others, the internal state was simply terror, fear — the exact same internal state that the coward has. So many of the medal-winning performances, performances that are honored, the person ends up feeling like he faked it. Like he basically hoodwinked everybody else.

When we haven’t thought much about courage, it doesn’t seem mysterious, as it didn’t to you. It’s only when you try to put your finger on it that it keeps shifting.

I take the phrase from the title from a Civil War soldier’s memoir. He worried because he couldn’t predict in his unit, from one battle to the next, from one moment to the next, who would be courageous and who would run. Some days the guy who was noble in the battle before would turn tail in the next. The little schlemiel would turn out to be the big hero that day. He could never predict with confidence who it would be.

Other people say the mystery is even more profound than that. Even when you look at the actions, the deeds, you can’t be sure if the deed is manifestly courageous. They’ll tell the story of cowards — they turn up frequently in war memoirs — the kind of guy who when the order comes to attack, he says, “No, I’m not gonna.” Absolutely defiant: “I’m not going to get my ass shot off for this.” And of course, the other guys know he’s scared, because they’re scared too, but he made a decision — he ain’t going to go forward. And they’ll beat him, they’ll ridicule him, they’ll threaten him in every way. He’ll just say, “You can do what you want with me, you can take me and shoot me in front of the firing squad. I ain’t going to go.” And these other guys will sit there and say, “Man, what balls!” There’s a proverbial utterance: “Many more would be cowards if they only had courage enough.”

It seems that courage is both a way of behaving and the emotional state that goes with it. People can’t even agree on which emotional state constitutes courage when a certain act is performed. One of the examples that you start with is the soldier who is called the Good Coward because every time he’s actually at that moment of battle, he runs away. But yet …

He shows up for the next one.

He keeps coming back to his platoon, and they take him back. And there’s a certain kind of respect they have …

Well, they end up respecting him. At first, they think he’s just a straight-out coward. But he shows up again, and starts the next battle. And he actually exposes himself to genuine risk. He doesn’t start running. The way they make the distinction is that a true coward would have found a way to be back in Cincinnati or St. Louis on hospital detail. He got to the front, he made himself show up at the front lines — and then he doesn’t run until the guy next to him stops a bullet. But he shows up again. And they know he’s just struggling. It’s harder for him to do that than it is for them to go forward. And they start to give him all kinds of credit for that.

He’s still a coward. He’s just a good coward. So they’re willing to make these gradations in the types of cowardice. It’s not just about internal mental states. It’s not just that he’s facing fears. It’s that he actually exposes himself also to considerable risk. It makes a difference that the guy next to him stopped a bullet. That bullet, he could have stopped it, before he turns and runs.

Nowadays, in spite of the absence of war in most privileged people’s lives, we’ll still talk about actions being courageous or brave, even though those acts are not happening on a battlefield, and don’t involve risk of life and limb. What does courage mean in contemporary American life?

There’s a certain anxiety that courage isn’t much demanded of those of us in a certain class. I mean, if you grow up in the mean streets, you’re in war. So let’s say, middle-class to upper-middle-class American life: It’s a basically pacified existence. Well, we start thrill-seeking like crazy. We engage in behaviors that are a kind of practice courage. Bungee jumping, sky diving, whitewater rafting. But we still sense that it’s circumscribed.

There’s also moral courage. The stand-up-in-the-meeting kind of courage. That raises all kinds of difficult issues. In the world I live in, it seems that people congratulate themselves on being courageous for voting no on a manifestly weak tenure file.

The whole term “moral courage” doesn’t even come into the English lexicon until the 19th century. Up until then it’s undifferentiated courage. It’s never very removed from the physical sense. I would argue that even moral courage, the ability to stand up against certain kinds of injustices, cannot be divorced from physical courage. Because what kind of moral courage would there be if when somebody took up an unpopular cause, and somebody else said, “Sit down or I’ll kick the crap out of you,” the first person said, “OK, I’ll sit down”? There’s no moral courage there, right?

One of the great observations you make in the book is that people are called courageous today simply for sticking to a diet. Or for being an entrepreneur.

See, courage is a virtue we still care about so much! I think we would most like to think of ourselves as courageous over any other virtue. Right at the core of courage, right at the start, in the earliest discussions of it is a competition over what’s the most perfect form of it. On the battlefield it’s a question of whether it’s in the attack, in the ability to charge — or the ability to stand firm while being charged. The offense never loses its connotations of the battlefield. It’s a quick, short burst of paradigmatic masculine energy, not called upon very often, but you have to muster all of yourself to do it.

Eventually, defense starts to free itself from the battlefield. It just becomes the ability to take crap. The ability to stand there and endure. So endurance starts to grow out of the defensive side of courage and that expands courage to a big, big domain. You can get off the battlefield, include women — who are much better at it than men.

You mean at endurance?

At endurance, at taking it. And Christianity latches onto that. It becomes their patient poverty, their virtues of patient sufferance and martyrdom. But the metaphors of martyrdom, even as they’re being roasted, spitted, grilled, they imagine as offensive courage. They’re attacking the devil.

But in fact, martyrdom, the whole Christianization of courage, turns it into fortitude. It’s the ability to just take shit.

That’s another surprising thing you write about. We think, This person is courageous. But as you observe, courage is an exhaustible resource within a given individual, especially in battle. People can perform grandly but not perpetually so.

Aristotle says that courage is a disposition: Once you acquire it, you’re just courageous, and you’ll be courageous in all the settings that demand courage. Well, in terms of Greek warfare, you march out in the spring and you meet the other side, and the battle would last for an hour, two hours. Then you went home for the rest of the year. But in the last years of the Civil War, or in World War I, and on some places on the Western Front, the battle lasted four years. Everybody cracked up. Nobody could keep their sanity. Those who didn’t lose their sanity were psychotic to begin with. Nobody anticipated that courage would be demanded at this level of intensity every day. Of course, they changed the metaphors then. All of a sudden the metaphor that moves in to describe courage is one of a bank account. You don’t make deposits to it, you just make withdrawals, and eventually go bankrupt.

Another thing they figured out is that you don’t have courage in the face of all the kinds of risks and dangers. Some people were great taking shell fire, some people couldn’t bear it. Some could take rifle fire, others couldn’t bear it. There’s a very specific disposition for every kind of risk.

It seems to me, having never faced any of these threats, that it would be easier to face combat because there is a possibility of victory. It’s somewhat random: You might get it and you might not. As opposed to what a person faces as a martyr, knowing you were going to die. So that seems braver to me because there is no hope involved at all, except the faith that a martyr might have of life after death.

OK, so let’s look at that. The soldier might reply, “Hey, I might not die in this battle, I might win this battle. But one battle doesn’t win the war. I might have to muster up the will to do this the next day, or another month from now.” The martyr says, “I’ve got one performance. And then I’m home free.” You only have to be a martyr once, although that’s one hell of a hard performance to give.

Another interesting question is, the role of rage. There’s almost a kind of connoisseurship, as you mentioned before, where philosophers try to figure out what is the perfect form of courage. They usually disdain the blind rage of the berserker.

Looks pretty good to me. I wouldn’t mind it.

If you’re the person he’s defending, you might want that more than you’d want the tortured, reasoned, self-conscious courage that is author Tim O’Brien’s ideal. There are many things that look like courage, but then somebody comes along and says, “Well, that doesn’t really count as much as this other form.”

So much is at stake in how it gets defined. The philosophers always say, “No, no, no,” to the guys who might also be Saturday night brawlers, to the guys who might be berserkers: “Oh, no, no, no, that’s too vulgar and unseemly. What we think courage is about is the exact proper reasoning about risk in relation to effort.” And that’s because they desperately want to save courage for themselves: “Oh, we philosophers, very good at applying reason to these circumstances. Let’s put reason at the core of courage.” My God, no! Most of the times courage is demanded in emergency situations where you just have to act. Act! You have to do things, not think about things. You have to do things!

So whoever’s defining courage tends to define it as a quality that they can imagine mustering.

I don’t want to dismiss their views as silly; they’re not. Keeping a cool head, and being able to think under duress is also a very remarkable thing. It’s just not the only thing. They define it so that the generals and the officers manifest courage. What about the poor schmoes that are simply told to charge?

I have to admit, though, when I turn on my television set and I see ads with a lot of obnoxious guys bungee jumping and driving their four-wheel SUVs …

You just want that cord to break so bad, don’t you?

Yes, and they congratulate themselves for their courage. But I feel contempt for them. I feel that that’s a lie.

We rank those kinds of behaviors. Some we allot more virtue than others. Do you feel the same contempt for the person who actually climbs up Mount Everest? Do you give them a little more credit? Yeah, you do, don’t you?

Yes, I do, because it seems like more of a risk to me.

I think it’s all symbolic. I think we give all kinds of credit to people who go up, and not to the people who come down. It’s just too easy. Gravity does it all for you.

If you were to come to me before I read this book and ask me to think of an example of courage, in fact, soldiering wouldn’t even be the first thing to come to my mind. The first thing I would think of would be standing up to the Nazis. That, to me, has become, in contemporary life, our ideal of courage.

I have this part in the book about Lorenzo, the Italian mason who helps Primo Levi when Levi is in the concentration camp. He takes risks to give Primo extra food every day through the fence, and I ask: Is Lorenzo courageous or is he just good? Maybe the courage just comes along for the ride. It seems a natural manifestation of his goodness that he’s helping this other man. I’ve struggled to deal with what this is in relation to courage.

Take the case of a soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his buddies. The person who dies on a grenade like that does it absolutely as a reflex. Nobody expects anybody to have to do it. It’s not cowardly not to fall on the grenade.

There’s no shame in not doing it. So there isn’t a negative motivation.

So it can’t be fear of shame that would motivate you to fall on a grenade. So what is it? Well, it’s that “greater love hath no man,” I guess. It’s just a sacrifice for these people you’ve lived with or these people you’re in the presence of. It occurs almost instantaneously, and maybe love’s the way to talk about that rather than courage. Maybe love’s the virtue that Lorenzo has. Of course love doesn’t mean much if it isn’t going to take certain risks on behalf of the beloved.

That may be one reason I don’t think the bungee jumper or the Everest climber is really all that brave. I mean, I guess they are, but they don’t have a good reason for what they do.

You’re very Aristotelian in this. You want courage to be in pursuit of noble goals. I would say the bungee jumper, the Everest climber is just practicing.

It’s just for its own sake. To me it feels degraded, in a way, because they’re exercising nerve simply for the sake of exercising it.

This is another problem. The mountain climber, I think, has to be respected in a certain way. How are you going to ever have any sense of confidence that a person will help someone in need under a Nazi menace if that person has never done anything to get themselves ready for that kind of thing?

In fact, I do believe that you can’t ever know who the courageous will be. I’m with your guy who says that when the moment of truth comes, when someone has to be brave or make a sacrifice, or simply act in a way that changes things, they just do it. And it’s fundamentally mysterious why or how.

You know, the studies on those people who helped Jews say that the single most important thing that generated the helpful response was simply being asked. In other words, they were too embarrassed to say no. I mean, “Take me in, take me in, they’re going to kill me!” And what are you going to do, say no? But if you had to actually motivate yourself to do the positive thing, you were much less likely to do it. It is the inability to turn someone down in that kind of emergency.

You could say that’s shame, or you could say that’s embarrassment, or you could say that being asked reminded them of their own humanity and then they couldn’t not respond to that.

About practicing for virtue. Tim O’Brien — he writes very beautifully on these issues — describes a time in fourth grade, when some little girl who was dying and had her head shaved was in his class. She wore a scarf, and he adored this girl. Some bully kid, probably just a dumb little boy, decides to tease her about the scarf and pulls it off. And she bursts into tears because she’s bald. O’Brien just stood there and watched. He wanted to intervene and protect her but he didn’t do it. And he now, of course years later, is still mortified that he didn’t do it. And he says, “Maybe standing up in fourth grade would have done me some good later on for Vietnam, when a little practice at being courageous would have helped me quite a bit.”

But one of the things that you do observe is that while physical courage seems to be something that can be depleted over time, moral courage actually does seem to increase the more it’s exercised. The more someone stands up for what’s right in the face of disapproval or threats …

The easier it gets the next time. Whereas World War I proved that physical courage just drains after too many demands are made on it. One way to distinguish moral courage from physical courage is that it needs its daily constitutional. Although the risk you run with moral courage is simply being ill-mannered and not knowing when to just lump it.

Now, let me ask you this. Let’s turn the tables here. You want to give the Everest people a hard time because the goal that they’re striving for is, ultimately, trivial. What about the soldier who’s fighting in a stupid war. Now, the poor soldier’s there for no good reason. All the poor guys who fought in the Vietnam War, or a German soldier during World War II, the same moral demands are being made on him as are being made on the person he’s opposing. Even though the war’s stupid. And we’ll still call it courage, courage it is.

Yes, but he’s still in a war. It’s not recreation. He’s responding to the call of his group, whether it’s a tribe, or a clan, or a nation, or whatever. And that’s a sense of duty. I don’t envy anyone who’s in the situation of feeling a sense of duty to their nation and at the same time mistrusting the people who are making the decisions whether there should be a war or not. But that seems really different than doing it for the sake of amusement.

Would you prefer a culture in which we eliminate absolutely all risks? In the university town I live in, appalling things take place. A group of parents mobilized and went over to the school after a snowstorm, and leveled the snow banks the plows had thrown up because they were 10 feet high and of course that’s kid heaven, right? They dismantled them because it was too risky for the kids. Well, to me, that world — not only does it destroy childhood, but it destroys any possibility for greatness at all.

Which brings us to the presidential campaign. In the last debate, Al Gore mentioned his service in Vietnam four times. On the most obvious level that’s a way of pointing out the lack of same on the part of George W. Bush. However, Al Gore was a journalist and not a soldier. Nevertheless, he did go to Vietnam, and George W. Bush didn’t even manage to get that far.

He made sure he didn’t get that far.

But we’re also talking about an election that began with a candidate who many people felt very idealistic about, John McCain, who has an indisputable record of courage. I’m wondering, how important do you think physical courage is in who we want as a leader?

Don’t you think the whole McCain phenomenon was at least partly a desire to still pay homage to that virtue? As a last-ditch effort before we gave ourselves up to the Gores and Bushes, people who it’s simply hard to feel good about, either one of them.

Nevertheless, his courage still wasn’t enough to elect McCain. Maybe we love this virtue, but how deep is our love?

Don’t you think that the popular vote — if it wasn’t mediated, if it was a straight-out popular vote without the party faithful rigging it, without all the Bush money — McCain would win hands down right now if you threw him into the race?

I feel that we believe that at some level the office doesn’t matter that much anymore. The country just runs itself. It’s so rich that we’ll let one group do its little skimming of the profits and hand it out to its buddies. It only matters who’s in there if we’re in a serious war situation, and that isn’t going to happen anymore with the demise of the Soviet Union. So we just don’t think it really matters. Except for the distribution of the spoils.

But in our mythopoeic heart of hearts, what we really want from our leader is a John McCain. And yet somehow we don’t wind up with that person.

Because the people who didn’t want John McCain weren’t the People. The People wanted John McCain. I think that the problem was his virtue.

You mean his courage was actually a liability.

That’s the reason they called him a loose cannon. The Republicans were scared of him because they didn’t think they could control him. He’s maverick in every sense of the word. And he’s courageous. Which is just what you don’t want if you’re one of the people who wants to basically have this little cipher there that you own a couple of shares in, and can tell him what to do. And, you don’t want McCain because he’s unreliable in that sense. Why is he unreliable? Not because he lacks virtue, but because he has it.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site,

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