Monday, April 04, 2011

A Recurring Theme

It has come to my attention that a certain thematic thread is running through much of my commentary on matters both political and Christian - that of courage, and its all-too-present opposite, cowardice. In the face of so many threats - economic, social, cultural, political, military - we find ourselves, as a nation and as Christian churches, in the position of striking out against a host of foes, many of which don't actually exist, and some of which would be overcome easily enough if we did not succumb to fear. I find it more than a little amusing, even in the midst of such dire circumstances, that we as a people might well need to remember that nothing is accomplished out of a sense of dread.

I shall turn to courage as a theological theme in a moment, but I would be remiss if I didn't note that, 300 years before the birth of Christ, Aristotle dealt specifically with this subject in the Nichomachean Ethics.
Now the brave man is as dauntless as man may be. Therefore, while he will fear even the things that are not beyond human strength, he will face them as he might and as the rule direct, for horour's sake; for this is the end of virtue. But it is possible to fear these more, or less, and again to fear things that are not terrible as if they were. Of the faults that are committed one consists in fearing what one should not, another in fearing as we should not, another in fearing when we should not, and so on; and so too with respect to the things that inspire confidence. The man, then, who faces and who fears the right things and from the right motive, in the right way and at the right time, and who feels confidence under the corresponding conditions, is brave; for the brave man feels and acts according to the merits of the case and in whatever way the rule directs. Now the end of every activity is conformity to the corresponding state of character. This is true, therefore, of the brave man a well as of others. But courage is noble. Therefore the end also is noble; for each thing is defined by its end. Therefore it is for a noble end that the brave man endure and acts as courage directs.(1115b, 11-24)

As we have said, then, courage is a mean with respect to things that inspire confidence or fear, in the circumstances that have been states; and it chooses or endures things because it is noble to do so, or because it is base not to do so.(1116a, 10-13, both passages translated by Richard McKeon)
The whole structure of Aristotle's approach to the virtues is summed up in this description of courage: that virtue is the result of a rational calculation; that virtue is finding the mean, using a set of rules, with the understanding of the proper end of each virtue; that this is accomplished through discipline and practice (what St. Thomas would call a habitus); that the most exemplary dramatization of courage is martial courage.

Despite the intervening 2000 years of Christian discussion, aided no doubt by the return via the Muslims after the Crusades of so much pagan literature, and the rediscovery of non-Christian virtues as equally compelling human ends, this approach, not only to courage, but to the rest of the virtues, exists largely intact. Indeed, utilitarianism is nothing more or less than measuring the costs and benefits of certain actions, and acting appropriately. Rawls' notions of justice as fairness and its implications for society are little more than understanding what the ends of justice are - provided we pretend we are acting as if we did not already exist in a society where the scales were out of balance - and acting accordingly. Aristotle's ideas concerning virtuous action, the rational calculation according to a set of rules prior to acting, and that courage, among the rest of the virtues, is nothing more or less than an action that falls somewhere between rank cowardice and foolhardiness (rushing in where angels fear to tread) should be familiar enough precisely because it is the way most of us consider how we are to act virtuously.

I would submit, however, that St. Thomas, when discussing the virtues in the Summa, erred when he excluded not just courage, but the rest of the pagan virtues from what he termed "theological virtues". He limited these to those imparted by grace and named by St. Paul at the end of 1 Corinthians 13 - faith, hope, and love. All the virtues discussed by Aristotle - magnanimity, temperance, prudence, courage - are also ways of being both fully human as well as acting in accord with the grace of God.

Courage, along with justice, is arguably a sub-theme of so much of both Testaments. The Psalms are filled both with pleas for assistance in the face of fear, and admonitions not to fear because of the omnipresence of God. The eighth chapter of St. Paul's letter to the Romans is nothing more or less than a long note of encouragement in the face of persecution and doubt, rooted in the reality that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the real fight, the real struggle, is over, and we are to live and act as those who know that nothing in this world can really destroy us.

We are living in difficult times, to be sure. Threats seem to press in on all sides, a never-ending stream of attacks on our sense of personal and social equanimity. In the face of these, we are experiencing what is, in essence, a national panic attack. While certainly understandable, understanding is never condoning (a point most conservatives seem not to comprehend; for instance, I can understand why some young Muslim men might see in martyrdom through mass murder an attractive alternative given a multitude of social and political circumstances, but this understanding certainly does not mean I condone such behavior, or find it reprehensible). That there are some politicians who would exploit these fears for their own rise to power is a reality that is always with us. It seems these voices exist, for example, in my own denomination of The United Methodist Church. By and large, however, fear and its exploitation are easy enough to spot, and, regardless of ideological or theological bent or preference, the best antidote is the recurring words of Scripture: "Fear not."

I have already written a bit on this theme before, and I am quite sure it will crop up again. This general, sketchy survey is meant as a way of underlining an important point. If we are ever to get beyond our current historical moment, to rise above the economic doldrums and our collective sense of foreboding, we each and all need to buck up, face our fears head on without flinching, and refuse to listen to the voices that insist we need to cower and let others do our living for us, make decisions for us, make of all the vicissitudes of the moment monsters that are more strong than any weapon we can fashion.

Virtual Tin Cup

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