“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
What is courage? When you think about this fundamental stoic value what appears on your mind? Is it an attitude? Is it a tool? Is it maybe a disposition of the mind?
First, let’s get a feeling of what courage is .
Rosa Louise McCauley better known as Rosa Parks, became a key part of the civil movement in the US because she was brave enough to sit in the white people section, she denied the unglamorous insults given to her telling her to move back to the black section. She ended in jail, but this small action gained her the nickname of “The first lady of the civil rights movement”. A great act of courage that suites just perfectly to what Henry David Thoreau in Civil disobedience said: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man (woman) is also a prison.”
The great Scipio, Publius Cornelius Scipio. A young roman consul that at the young age of 26 commanded two roman legions and against all odds conquered Cartago Nova (now the city of Cartagena) a mighty and fortified city at the time. What’s more impressive still is that he took control of the city with the two famous cursed legions. Legions that fled from the battle of Cannae and in doing so lost their honor. Scipio took them and gave them the opportunity to regain their honor by fighting and so they did by conquering Cartago Nova.
Later in Africa, he defeated the mighty Hannibal and gained the nickname “Africanus”. At such a young age he had the burden of defending the great Roman Empire against one of the most cunning and undefeatable roman enemies.
The two examples just mentioned exemplified the most admirable types of courage. A type of courage that sacrifices itself for the benefit of the group but there is also bravery in the dark side as well.
The movie Scarface, famously depicts Tony Montana as a bloody killer, you can definitely say he had another kind of courage, commonly called balls of steel.
Jack Donovan argues in his book The way of men that courage or bravery is kinetic, it requires movement, it is a sort of force. You can certainly be very powerful physically, but if you don’t have the will to face something, you are not brave.
From the examples just mentioned, we can infer that courage need some sort of risk or danger to exist. The might of and act of courage is directly correlated with the level of danger or risk one must encounter.
Rosa faced jail, Publius faced the defeat of the Roman Empire and Tony is facing literally torture or death.
I believe we all know that state of mind, during those moments the mind goes quiet, the idea of not achieving something cease to matter, we are just ready and in “go”mode.
When I was younger and I got into fights, I got scared.
I remember rationalizing my fear saying to myself or my father when he asked, that I wasn’t afraid of the fight itself. I thought that if I just could assure myself victory, I would be fearless.
But that exactly there is the problem. The fact that you can lose is what gives you the opportunity to act with courage. If everything were assured, courage would not be needed.
Just as with this example, so is everything in life. We can prepare ourselves, sure, but at the end of the day, courage is making the decision to do anything in spite of the consequences.
The feeling of courage is majestic, it’s mighty.
The stoics know very well what this means, the power to be courageous is a decision that springs always from within. Courage is also one of the cardinal virtues of stoicism, it’s just a fundamental virtue to live.
I believe now we have a better understanding of what courage is don’t you think? But, what about the dark side of courage? What differentiates them?
Jack Donovan argues that there are two types of courage. The first type is higher courage, this is the type of courage that will sacrifice himself for the group, you can say it is the most noble.
The second type is lower courage. This is the type of courage that is more personal and used in everyday life. This is the courage that will give us the push to assert our interests.
Everyone wants to be good, but being good all the time will not take you very far in life as it is perfectly natural to have personal interests and ambitions. This is the type of courage that Tony Montana used to get what he wanted.
I know, that is a pathological level, but as with everything in life, there needs to be a balance between the higher and the lower.
Another way to understand courage is with the word “game”.
Sam Sheridan wrote in his book A fighter’s heart the concept of gameness which is: “the eagerness to get into the fight, the berserker rage, and then the absolute commitment to the fight in the face of pain, of disfigurement, until death.”
In dogfighting the dogs start to fight and when one of them seems to starts losing, they take them back outside the “scratch lines” if a dog returns voluntarily to the fight, that dogs is said to have game.
Having game or courage is a personal decision.
Marcus Aurelius obviously had game, I mean, he had to wage war against the barbarians most of his life, but he also had that higher courage that protected the whole Roman Empire.
Just imagine what Marcus Aurelius went through, this is why he is one of the mayor authorities in stoicism, he had to practice stoicism, literally everyday and in battle.
Courage, a magnificent virtue that is available to all but attained by the few.
Want to read some more: Stoicism and power
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