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A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

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Friday, April 1, 2011

Contra pusillanimitatem saeculorum

There is a scene in the movie Of God and Men, in which an official of the crypto-fascist Algerian government blames the then-current Islamist terrorism on, you guessed it, France.  None of this would be happening, he said, had it not been for colonialism.  I don't know if this is a true recounting of the meeting - for the movie is about actual events - or if the movie makers simply added a gratuitous "so there!" against wicked colonialism.  That is not our point today.  Nor are we determined to point out that Algeria prior to the French period was nothing to write home about either, it being a center for the Barbary pirates. 

No, it is the "anthropology" of the comment that drew our attention.  The official clearly saw the unrest as something that had been done to his countrymen, rather than something his countrymen were doing. 

"It will never be known," wrote Charles Péguy in 1910, in Notre Patrie, "what acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of not looking sufficiently progressive."  The sentiment has only become more pervasive since then.  And by this, we mean not merely the fear of artists for the approval of the intellectuals, but the triumph of fear itself.  Gone are the days when an inspirational leader could say that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.  Fear has won.  

"In the very age when men lived longest and were most secure in their lives," wrote Walker Percy, "poets and artists were saying that men were most afraid."  In the safest and healthiest milieu in history, people tremble over minuscule probabilities and unlikely concatenations.  Indeed, people are often afraid to hear someone speak in contradiction to their own cherished beliefs and will storm the podium or seek legal redress to muzzle them.

There is a certain sense in which courage is the prime virtue.  (And curiously, while I already had this essay half-composed off-line, and was about to mention it at dinner in a Chinese restaurant, I found exactly that wisdom in a freaking fortune cookie!) 

A human substance is a union of mind and body.  These are not two substances somehow coexisting in the same volume, but rather the form and matter of a single substance, a human being.  (This is no more mysterious than the union of sphere and rubber that make a basketball.  No one talks about "the sphere-basketball problem.")  To be strong, a human must exercise both body and mind.  Hence, the old expression, Mens sana in corpore sano, as the one thing Juvenal said men should pray for.  We will leave aside the exercises to perfect the body.  Judging from what we see, those have not been too heartily engaged in, and I am the worst offender.  We do talk about the sphere-Flynn problem.  But what of the mental strengths? 

Virtue comes from the Latin word for "strength," and there are strengths of mind as well as of body.  They are seven such virtues: three of the intellect, three of the will, and one which joins them, shown schematically here:


Now we could make an argument for which one comes first.  Since the intellect is prior to the will, it would seem that the intellectual virtues: (understanding of principles→knowledge of subject→wisdom as regards finality) ought to be first.  But there are other ways.  Temperance deals with unbridled desire and so it deals with the passion we know most forcefully.  And prudence comes first in order of causality. 

But all virtues are ways in which we take command of our own acts.  Liberty of mind, wrote Gilson, presupposes mastery over all the passions; and the passion that most disturbs the judgment of reason is fear.  Since courage is the virtue by which we confront the fearful and see the outcome as dependent on our actions, as Chastek puts it, it is through courage that we most come to command our acts; and so courage can be seen as the virtue par excellance and the "gateway virtue" to the others.  It fortifies the will to pursue the good which reason has proposed to it in spite of difficulties and dangers. 

The Romans had a saying: Virtuus in media stet: Strength stands in the middle.  A virtue is something then that stands between an excess and a deficit.  You've heard the expression "too much of a good thing."  A former pastor was fond of saying, "Light is the proper object of the eye; but too much light destroys our sight."  In the same manner, the virtue of courage should not be confused with the excess of bravado.  A man may be foolhardy without being courageous.  Similarly, courage should not be confused with Stoic indifference to the fearful, with the confidence born of long practice (as an old soldier in battle), or with throwing oneself into danger in a fit of anger or despair (a different sort of indifference than the Stoic's).  One may expose oneself to risk out of vainglory, for money, to avoid shame, or for the thrill.  All of these may result in actions that are materially indistinguishable from a courageous act, but they are not courage.  (They also show why materialism cannot explain such things.  The same atoms are in the same motions in each case.)  Courage is to expose oneself to danger (and not solely to physical danger) "in order to obey the dictates of reason."

Recall that Aristo-Thomism held to the primacy of reason, not the triumph of the will. 

The deficit of courage is of course terror.  On the battlefield, the foolhardy and the timid alike will die; and the same may be said metaphorically of non-battlefield courage.  Or else, all human act may be said to take place on a battlefield of sorts.  "He who would save his life, the same shall lose it" can be seen in this (as Chesterton remarked) for the timid man, afraid of risks, will die on the battlefield, while the one who risks his life may come out safe. 

"May."  To see oneself as the commander of one's actions is no guarantee of success.  But courage would be no virtue if success were guaranteed.  No one needs strength if there is no heavy lifting in prospect. 

Which takes us back to the Algerian official in the movie and to the artists noted by Péguy.  Both saw their acts as controlled by external circumstances: French colonialism or the approval of the intellectuals.  In addition, Lukacs noted, the bourgeois consumers of art were afraid to appear "not up to date," a fear peculiar to the Modern Ages.  (Modernis means "today.")  They became dependent on artisitc opinion rather than on their own taste.  ("Even bad taste," wrote Lukacs, "is better than no taste at all.")  And so people anxiously scan the best seller lists or the Top Ten so that they can read, see, or listen to that which everyone else is reading, seeing, or listening to. 

Children cannot be courageous, Chastek wrote, because they see everything fearful as something for their parents to take away.  (Now and then one encounters heroic children in the news, but newsworthy precisely because of their rarity.)  For those SFers interested in the future, the extended adolescence of today's boy-men, still reading comics, still playing games well into their twenties, bodes ill for the future of courage -- and hence of risk-taking and associated behaviors.  The children give us a clue to the vice to which courage is opposed. 

It is not terror.  It is no vice to be scared, afraid, terrified.  The courageous man is often afraid.  But it matters less that a man is afraid than how that man deals with his fears.  Even if the circumstances do overwhelm him, perhaps especially if those circumstances overwhelm him, he remains focused on what he can do to overcome them.  Courage is not about success; it is about how one faces the possibility of failure. 


The contrary to courage is sloth.  This is often called laziness, but it might more properly be termed comfort.  Virtue requires that sooner or later we relate to evil and the fear of failure as something that is up to us to conquer. One of the chief impediments to courage, and therefore to all virtue, is the desire for the comfort and ease we remember in childhood. The fundamental choice of our moral life is therefore between courage- the virtuous response to fear- and the comfort that consists in avoiding this sort of self determination in the face of fear.  -- James Chastek 

The case for sloth [he continues] is extremely persuasive and convincing. After all, why should we let people stand face to face with fearful things?  Isn’t the whole purpose of a society to remove fearful and difficult things as much as possible?  How can rulers just stand by and do nothing when their citizens are confronted with fearful and difficult circumstances? What if they fail! The voice of sloth argues, not without force, that courage  is nothing other than what a person is stuck having to do because of the laziness and inaction of our superiors- and even the inaction and indifference of God himself. If God isn’t going to come sweeping down and snatch us out of every fearful and terrible circumstance, then we will find a benevolent leader who will!

But that is the case with all vices.  They sound so seductively reasonable.  The search for Leaders did not turn out so well in the 1930s, but notice how we chronically refer to chief executives as our "leaders" today.  Perhaps the next Caesar will be the Messiah. 

The modern welfare state from a lack of courage.  A courageous man welcomes help when it is needed.  Courageous does not mean stupid.  But there is a difference between accepting assistance in one's struggle and not struggling at all, but waiting for someone else to do something.  It is possible to be uncharitable about this.  There will always be those who are genuinely dependent for one reason or another, and it is genuinely a good to help those in need.  I say again, it is not a matter of helping or accepting help, but of the frame of mind in which it is done.  Courage is not about the physical acts but about the moral strength of the actor. 

I remember driving through North Philadelphia on my way to tutor kids in reading when I was in college.  And in one of the windows in a draggled and run-down apartment building I saw a flowerpot and bright curtains.  Something about the sight resonated.  Here was someone still in command of his acts.  (Or hers.  Do we need to mention that men come in two flavors?)  It was, in its small way, an act of courage.  Or at least so it seemed to me.   

But in the Late Modern Ages, such courage is becoming more rare, and sloth more common.  Too many people want to be comfortable.  This includes comfortable in their thoughts.  Perhaps (and I say only perhaps) the decline in reading "difficult" books stems from the fact that such books often challenge one's intellectual comfort.  Much easier to hang on Facebook and collect like-minded virtual "friends."  Much easier to visit internet echo chambers, where the same cliches are repeated back and forth until they begin to sound like facts. 

Well, that is enough babbling for today.  It is possible to misunderstand.  Facebook is not evil per se, only per accidens.  (Though it may be inimical to thoughts of more than a hundred or so characters.)  There is nothing especially wicked about hammers, either.  You may use it to build a Habitat for Humanity or you may use it to bash someone's skull in. 

References

James Chastek, "The primacy of courage," (JustThomism)
G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Chesterton's Works on the Web)
Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (repr. U.Notre Dame, 1994)
John Lukacs, The Passing of the Modern Age, (Harper, 1970)
Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle, (Paragon, 1975)

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for this very appropriate article, Mr. Flynn. I think reading it has given me some reinforcement in my own battles with my own fear.

    And because I let my intense fear stop me before, I would like to say I bought Up Jim River about a month ago on the strength of my affection for Eifelheim and In the Country of the Blind--in spite of some ambivalence toward a couple of your other works--and when I finally got the chance to read it I consumed it in that single sitting, and I loved it.

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  2. Thank you, Mr. Moons; or may I call you Bronze? FWIW, UJR picks up where THE JANUARY DANCER leaves off, but you needn't have read the Dancer to "get" the River. For some odd reason, the paperback of Dancer got scheduled *after the pb of River. Go figure.

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