in: Character, Manly Lessons

• Last updated: June 3, 2021

Manvotional: The Cardinal Virtues — Courage

From The Cardinal Virtues, 1902
By William De Witt Hyde


If man were merely a mind, wisdom to see particular desires in the light of their permanent consequences to self, and justice to weigh the interests of self to the impartial scales of a due regard for the interests of others, would together sum up all virtue. Knowledge, in these two forms, would be virtue, as Socrates taught.

We feel, however, as well as know. Nature, for purposes of her own, has placed the premium of pleasure on the exercise of function, and attached the penalty of pain to both privation of such exercise on the one hand, and over-exertion on the other. Nature, too, has adjusted the scale of intensity of pleasures and pains to her own ends; placing the keenest rewards and the severest penalties on those appetites which, like nutrition and reproduction, are most essential to the survival of the individual and the race; thus enforcing by her rough process of natural selection a crude wisdom and justice of her own. Moreover, these premiums and penalties were adjusted to the needs of the race at a stage of evolution when scanty and precarious food supply and a high death rate, due to the combined inroads of war, famine, and pestilence, rendered nutrition and reproduction of vastly more relative urgency, in comparison with other interests, than they are to-day.

Pleasure and pain, therefore, though reliable guides in the life of an animal struggling for existence, are not reliable guides for men in times of artificial plenty and elaborate civilization. To follow the strongest appetites, to seek the intensest pleasures and shun the sharpest pains, is simply to revert to a lower stage of evolution, and live the life of a beast. Hence that combat of the moral nature with the cosmic process to which Mr. Huxley recently recalled our attention; or rather, that combat of man with himself which Paul and Augustine, Plato and Hegel, have more profoundly expressed. This fact that Nature’s premiums and penalties are distributed on an entirely different principle from that which wisdom and justice mark out for the civilized man renders it necessary for wisdom and justice to summon to their aid two subordinate virtues — courage and temperance: courage to endure the pains which the pursuit of wisdom and justice involves; temperance to cut off the pleasures which are inconsistent with the ends which wisdom and justice set before us.

The wide, permanent ends at which justice and wisdom aim often involve what is in itself, and for the present, disagreeable and painful. The acquisition of a competence involves hard work, when Nature calls for rest; the solution of a problem requires us to be wide awake, when Nature urges sleep; the advocacy of a reform involves unpopularity, when Nature suggests the advantages of having the good opinion of our fellows; the life of the country calls for the death of the soldier, when Nature bids him cling to life by running away.

Now, since we are not ascetics, we must admit that per se pleasure is preferable to pain. If it were a question between rest and work when weary, between sleep and waking when tired out, between popularity and unpopularity, between life and death, every sensible man would choose the first alternatives as a matter of course. Wisdom and justice, however, see the present and partial pain as part of a wider personal and social good, and order that the pain be endured. True courage, therefore, is simply the executor of the orders of wisdom and justice. The wise and just man, who knows what he wants, and is bound to get it at all costs, is the only man who can be truly brave. For the strength of one’s courage is simply the strength of the wise and just aims which he holds. All bravery not thus rooted and grounded in the vision of some larger end to be gained is mere bravado and bluster.

Of the many applications of courage, two of the simplest will suffice for illustration: the courage of space, to take the pains to keep things in order; and the courage of time, to be punctual, or even ahead of the hour, when a hard task has to be done.

Even if our life is a small, sheltered one, even if we have only our house or rooms to look after, things tend to get out of order, to pile themselves up in heaps, to get out of our reach and into each other’s way. To leave things in this chaos is both unwise and unjust; for it will trouble us in the future, and trouble the people who have to live with us. Yet it costs pain and effort to attack this chaos and subject it to order. Endurance of pain, in the name of wisdom and justice, to secure order for our own future comfort and the comfort of our family and friends, is courage. On the other hand, to leave things lying in confusion around us; to let alien forces come into our domain and encamp there in insolent defiance of ourselves and our friends, is a shameful confession that things are stronger than we. To be thus conquered by dead material things is as ignominious a defeat as can come to a man. The man who can be conquered by things is a coward in the strict ethical sense of the term; that is, he lacks the strength of will to bear the incidental pains which his personal and social interests put upon him.

The courage of time is punctuality. When there is a hard piece of work to be done, it is pleasanter far to sit at ease for the present, and put off the work. “The thousand nothings of the hour” claim our attention. The coward yields to “their stupefying power,” and the great task remains forever undone. The brave man brushes these conflicting claims into the background, stops his ears until the sirens’ voices are silent, stamps on his feelings as though they were snakes in his path, and does the thing now which ever after he will rejoice to have done. In these crowded modern days, the only man who “finds time” for great things is the man who takes it by violence from the thousands of petty, local temporary claims, and makes it serve the ends of wisdom and justice.

There are three places where one may draw the line for getting a piece of work done. One man draws it habitually a few minutes or hours or days after it is due. He is always in distress, and a nuisance to everybody else. There is no dignity in a life that is as perpetually behind its appointments as a tail is in the rear of a dog.

It is very risky — ethically speaking, it is cowardly — to draw the line at the exact date when the work is due; for then one is at the mercy of any accident or interruption that may overtake him at the end of his allotted time. If he is sick or a friend dies, or unforeseen complications arise, he is as bad off as the man who deliberately planned to be late, and almost as much to blame. For a man who leaves the possibility of accident and interruption out of account, and stakes the welfare of himself and of others on such miscalculation, is neither wise nor just; he is reckless rather than brave. Even if accidents do not come, he is walking on the perilous edge all the time; his work is done in a fever of haste and anxiety, injurious alike to the quality of the work and the health of the worker.

The man who puts the courage of punctuality into his work will draw the line for finishing a piece of work a safe period inside the time when it is actually due. If one forms the habit and sticks to it, it is no harder to have work done ten days, or at least one day, ahead of time than to finish it at the last allowable minute. Then, if anything happens, it does no harm. This habit will save literary workers an incalculable amount of anxiety and worry. And it is the wear and tear of worry and hurry, not the amount of calm, quiet work, that kills such men before their time.

I am aware that orderliness and punctuality are not usually regarded as forms of courage. But the essential element of all courage is in them — the power to face a disagreeable present in the interest of desirable permanent ends. They are far more important in modern life than the courage to face bears or bullets. They underlie the more spectacular forms of courage. The man who cannot reduce to order the things that are lying passively about him, and endure the petty pains incidental to doing hard things before the sheer lapse of time forces him to action, is not the man who will be calm and composed when angry mobs are howling about him, or who will go steadily on his way when greed and corruption, hypocrisy and hate, are arrayed to resist him. For whether in the quiet of a study and the routine of an office, or in the turmoil of a riot or a strike, true courage is the ready and steadfast acceptance of whatever pains are incidental to securing the personal and public ends that are at stake.

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