CHAPTER XIV — THE FULLNESS OF COURAGE
Much of human progress has been due to the long dreams of far-seeing men — translated into action by the non-dreamers — but for the most part men have concentrated much more on the present than on the future, there have always been more laborers than seers, more realists than idealists. In a way this was an inevitable corollary of the recognition of the fact that there is always considerable difficulty in the business of living humanly. At times men have exaggerated that difficulty to such a degree as to drive themselves to despair; but from the beginning men saw the fundamental necessity of facing life’s difficulty. They saw clearly the need of something within a man that would ward off the threat to the humanity of man’s life and actions, for they were keenly aware of the positive existence of such threats.
The oldest of the virtues: The word “fortitude” in antiquity
The depth of this universal conviction is seen from the fact that the particular virtue by which man wards off such threats — the virtue of fortitude or courage — has given its name to all the virtues. The Latin and Greek words for “virtue” also mean fortitude or strength; in fact, going a little deeper, we find that the word itself is sprung from the same root from which, in both Latin and Greek, we derive the word man. It would seem that there was a kind of identification of manhood with courage. When we push the etymological investigation a little further and discover that from these same roots came the words for robustness, virility and even the name of the god of war, there can be no doubt that the men of antiquity believed that humanity and strength were inescapably linked.
Double significance of the testimony of antiquity
In this sense the virtue of fortitude or courage is the oldest of the virtues. It was one of the virtues immediately recognized as such by all men; and that recognition hag left its permanent mark both upon the life of man and the human accounts of virtue. All this discussion of words and their roots is not merely academic; it is a testimony to two fundamental truths of human life, i.e., that courage is necessary for human life, human action and human responsibility, and that cowardice is a denial or an escape from humanity.
The great impediment to human living — cowardice
In other words, it has been clearly seen and frankly admitted by all, from the very beginning, that a man must make the conquest of fear before he can begin to live. He must sustain that conquest of fear as long as he hopes to continue to live humanly. For he is surrounded, indeed, penetrated with dangers; if he shrinks from those dangers, he is forever paralyzed. The dangers will not be dissolved by his cowardly attempts to escape them.
Even a poet cannot lie long on the bosom of mother nature. The picture of nature as a kindly mother and man as easily masterful are fictions of the French Encyclopedists concocted from the dreams by which they tried to escape the gutters of Paris. Nature is not the type of friend to be chosen for a stroll along a dark, quiet street; at least not until she has been searched for weapons. She is a constant threat to man. In winter he may freeze to death, in summer he may be felled by sunstroke; in the fall or spring wet weather may bring on pneumonia. Hail, snow, lightning, floods are not friendly gestures to man or his works; the wild beasts that inhabit the face of the earth are not rollicking pets, growling and grimacing to amuse man. Even in his own nature man will find what is perhaps the most serious of all threats: the threat of the foulness of degradation, of slavery, of despair if the animal side of his complex nature gets the upper hand.
Human life is no adventure for a coward; either cowardice must go or the humanity of man’s life must go. Because men have always rightly prized that by which they are men, their very humanity, courage has always been given recognition and honor from all men of all times. It is of the brave man that it is so constantly said: “There is a man.” We find it easy to understand this because it is easy for us to understand the great love we have for our own humanity. We cannot hate people because they too can love, can will, can understand, can fail; these are all distinctly human things that serve as bonds tying us closely to all our fellow-men. We may be jealous of a brave man, but we cannot hate his bravery: rather it is as entirely natural for us to give spontaneous expression to our respect for courage, so natural, indeed, that often anything remotely resembling true human courage has received the applause of men.
True and false courage
If we stand breathless and safe on a sidewalk watching a structural steel worker, forty stories up, stroll around on the beams of a skeleton building, or sit in a ringside seat and watch the professional boxer advance undaunted in the face of what, to us, would be serious danger, we are letting our applause trickle over the edge of the full glass to fall wasted. These men are not so much brave as experienced; these things are no longer dangerous for them. Certainly the cashier who laughs in the face of a bandit under the impression that it is all a joke is stupid not brave.
The mere facing of danger does not make a man brave. In a fit of anger a man may plunge headlong into danger; but he is nor brave, he is inhuman, he has allowed his passion to take control of his action. The attraction of money, the search for pleasure, the horror of pain, of disgrace may all cast a man in an heroic role for a moment. But it is only a role and only for a moment. When the footlights are out and the curtain is down, the appearance of courage is wiped off with the make-up; for none of these enable a man to face the task of living humanly. A false mustache does not fool nature. To face nature, the dangers that nature offers to human living, the threats that humanity itself offers to the life of man, it is necessary to have courage that is authentic.
And that authentic courage is the moral virtue which makes a man prompt to undergo the dangers and support the labors of human life according to the demands of human reason, not according to the demands of ignorance, passion, mistaken enthusiasm or a diabolic slavery. It is important that we insist on that note of reason in fortitude, the note fundamental to all virtue; for insistence on the reasonable control and regulation of courage accurately outlines the part of fortitude in human life.
After all, the perfection of man consists in the good of reason, in following the rule of reason; that is, his perfection consists in living humanly. The essential rectification of reason itself is accomplished by the intellectual virtues, particularly by the intellectual virtue of prudence; the establishment of reason’s order in the outside world of human things and human actions is the work of justice. There still remains the establishment of that order of reason in the inside world, the world within a man himself; and that is done by removing the impediments ordered to reason by the passions: first by the impediments offered by way of repulsion which are handled by fortitude; then the impediments offered by way of enticement or allurement, which are the proper material of temperance. The first takes care of the irascible or emergency appetite; the second, of the concupiscible or mild appetite.
The object of courage: Fear and daring
Fortitude, then, is a kind of bodyguard of reason. If its frowns do not scatter the threats to reason, it resorts to blows. Anything that might overthrow the sovereignty of reason by repelling a man from the road down which reason says he must go is a proper target for the thunderbolts of fortitude. That is, fortitude deals with the dangers and labors of human life; or, more strictly, with the passions of fear and daring aroused by these dangers and labors. For, after all, danger and labor do not necessarily drive a man from the road of reason; a man can get to love his labor or to relish danger and so find in the two no particular obstacle to reason’s sovereignty. It is when they are feared or when they arouse a reckless daring that there is talk of reason’s abdication; and it is then that fortitude must come to grips with reason’s enemies to insure the reasonable character of a man’s life.
Dangers of death
The work of fortitude or courage, then, is to limit fear and restrain daring. In fact, we can limit the principal object of fortitude by a simple appeal to experience. The man who can lift fifty pounds can lift five, the musician who can play Bach will hardly find great difficulty in the simple finger exercises of a beginner; so a man who can face the supreme dangers of life will hardly shrink from life’s petty threats. That is why fortitude’s primary object is to prepare man to face the greatest dangers of life; not that it sits back waiting for the supreme danger to show itself, but, equipped for the main force of the enemy, it makes short shift of his advance patrols. In a word, the object of courage is to prepare a man to face death, for death is the most terrible of all corporal evils, destroying as it does all corporal goods.
There is a great significance in the fact that if we are to be brave we must face death itself. For by this it is plain that, since death is the greatest thing we have to fear, our life is by no means a thing of terror; all that we have to fear is corporal perils. Considering the high goal and splendid possibilities of man, it is a petty thing that threatens human life, a mere corporal evil. Yet, because the corporal is an integral part of man’s very nature, even this danger is not a petty thing to a man.
However, it is not lack of fortitude that pulls the covers over our head at a loud peal of thunder or the stealthy tread of a burglar at night. It is not cowardice that snaps shut the unfinished detective story and sends a man scuttling off to bed when a window shade all unexpectedly runs up with a bang at midnight. These things can happen to the most idle of men; whereas Christian courage has its work cut out for it precisely in the pursuit of good; it strengthens man to face the dangers and impediments that may hold him back from the attainment of good.
Every virtue, as a good habit, drives on to its own particular good; in fact, every virtue is unsatisfied with any but the highest good in its own line. No virtue staggers through life in a middle-aged weariness whose illusion is disillusionment and to which compromise is a way of life; virtue is not to be satisfied with a partial or half-hearted control of reason in its own line. It insists upon a whole and complete subordination to the commands of reason. Fortitude is no exception; it trains its guns on the higher dangers that are connected with the pursuits of the higher good. In his attempt to express this thought and summarize the principal objects of Christian courage, St. Thomas hit upon a happy phrase. He says the object of fortitude is to enable a man to face death in a public or private war; that is, in defense of the high human good which is the common good, or in pursuit of the divine good of virtue.
Not that we need a bullet-proof vest for the practice of chastity; virtue does not hold out the same extreme and constant threat of death as is to be found in the attack of an infantry company on a machine-gun nest. Nevertheless, the practice of virtue is really a first-class war, a war that endures the length of a lifetime. Indeed, among a people hostile to Christian ideals, or in a time of positive persecution, the practice of virtue may involve greater and more constant risks than a private faces in a physical war. At any rate, fortitude is always necessary for a man because a man is always at war. There is no Maginot Line in which he can take his secure comfort. He is always engaged in his private, inner war of facing down the threats and labors which make up so much of his living and which, rightly handled, form the stepping-stones by which he climbs to divine heights.
In an almost infinite series just below the threat to the common good and to the divine good of virtue, are ranged the whole gamut of grave evils that make human life such an adventure and that threaten again and again to swamp the heart of a man with a tidal wave of fear. Precisely as difficulties, these evils are handled by the corresponding virtues. Thus abstinence from overindulgence in drink, with all the difficulty it involves, is taken care of by the virtue of temperance. But as sources of fear, these evils are the proper material of fortitude. Because a whisky bottle does not roar like a lion, let no one think the drunkard is not afraid of drink, terribly afraid; in his fight he needs much more than the help that temperance can give him, he needs the solid strength of courage. In a very real sense, courage plays its part in the practice of every virtue, for every virtue has its difficulty and every difficulty can be a source of fear to man.
The acts of courage: To sustain and attack
Of the two passions, fear and reckless daring, with which courage must deal, by far the most difficult is fear. It is much more fundamental, more vehement, more completely opposed to the whole vital motion of human life. Fortitude and reckless daring have something of the external resemblance of twins; the one is too boisterous, always looking for trouble, a bit of a swaggering tough, but it is a much simpler task to tone down the boisterousness than to stiffen up the collapsing backbone of a man stricken with fear. It is not nearly so laborious to let off steam as it is to build up. Consequently the principal and most difficult act of courage deals with the passion of fear. That principal and most difficult act is to stand firmly in the face of danger in spite of fear, to sustain the danger and difficulty. An actual attack on difficulties is really a much easier, a secondary act of fortitude.
This is hardly the common estimation of courage. The smashing attack of a cavalry charge has a stronger appeal to our imagination than a man’s dogged refusal to quit; yet if we look at the matter closely, we are forced to admit that we have been captivated by the vividness and swift movement of the dramatic rather than by the solid worth of courage. The truth of the matter is that it is much harder to stand up before an enemy who is admittedly stronger, to hold on knowing that defense is the limit of our powers, than it is to lash out in a joyous conviction of strength, ourselves becoming the attackers. The attacker, you see, has his difficulties still before him, they are future rather than imminent; and it is much more difficult to face present difficulties than future ones. It is more difficult, though far less dramatic, to cling to resistance in the face of a beating while the weary hours, days and years stagger on, than in one swift movement to smash against an enemy.
The joy and sorrow of the act of courage!
Perhaps some of the inaccurate estimates of courage are due, in some measure, to the semblance of defeat in merely sustaining danger. Undoubtedly there is an appearance of inferiority, of bruising physical defeat, of hopelessness where all we can do is just hold on; all of these things are, indeed, present in the act of courage which is sustaining, but we are blind indeed if we do not see, shining through these ragged garments, the beauty of the courage that refuses to relinquish the good. As a matter of fact, we do, and not infrequently, see through that fog of defeat to the splendor of the victory being won by courage, We do not think for a moment that the courage of a bully is to be compared to that of his much smaller victim who refuges to be bullied, though he cannot help being beaten; however inferior he may be in skill and strength, we refuse to admit that the prize-fighter who goes down again and again and refuses to stay down, refuses to admit defeat, is in any way inferior to that of his conqueror.
We may admire the fighter’s courage but we certainly do not envy his pains and aches when the fight is over and done with. There is always a sad side to the act of courage. There is physical pain involved; a tremendous sweep of the passion of sorrow; there is even spiritual sorrow in the will. In Christ’s long agony His body was racked from head to toe with physical pain; He Himself said that His soul was sorrowful even unto death; and at that last moment, sorrow invaded even His spiritual faculties and brought forth that desolate question: “Why hast Thou abandoned me?” Courage is not all a matter of parades, bright uniforms, applause for the returning heroes and modest disclaimers; it involves sorrow, sorrow in plenty. But it also has its joy.
The sustaining of labors and dangers will never rival a cigarette as an after-breakfast pleasure; it does not bring a physical pleasure that will cancel out its physical pain, nor does it offer a breakwater against the wave of sorrow which comes from the sense appetite. But it does bring a spiritual joy that more than cancels out the intellectual sorrow, the sorrow of the will. It brings a joy of manhood, even of supermanhood; the joy of acting for ends worthy of a man and even above men, i.e., for the ends of fortitude and of charity. Indeed, in the operation of the supernatural or infused virtue of courage, it has happened, not rarely, that this spiritual joy has been so great as to make a man insensible to all else, even to terrible physical pain. Many of the martyrs slipped through the door of death as a child slips through the door of sleep, with the quiet radiance of a smile, while their executioners were gripped by horror. It was Judas who despaired, not Christ; it was the Roman jailors who wept, not Cecilia; it was Thomas More who ascended the scaffold laughing and joking, not his executioner.
But this is extraordinary. Most of us must face our danger, our labors in the conviction that there will be pain and sorrow connected with them, pain and sorrow, perhaps, that will shake the very foundations of our soul. But whatever it be, that pain and sorrow is as nothing compared with the joy of following in the footsteps of a Master Who was neither a coward nor a fool; Who was, besides being God, also a man.
In the preceding volume, treating of the passions, we spoke of the man who, in a rush of thoughtless anger, flares up to a fighting fever and is willing to face any enemy; but then, just as quickly, he cools off, is willing, indeed, anxious to quit after the first blow has been struck. He has suddenly discovered that there are other angles to this business of fighting, angles not at all pleasant. Opposed to this type of fighter was the slow starter, the doggedly persevering man whose actions were ruled by reason; he has thought things out carefully before, has foreseen the danger and in spite of it, gone ahead. That is the difference between the passion of daring and the virtue of courage.
A norm of courage — emergencies
For fortitude or courage is a virtue, and like all the moral virtues it is ruled by reason. If given a choice it would prefer to have a little time to think and prepare for the dangers it is about to face. Yet an emergency, which gives no time for thought, is one of the best test of courage. Given time enough, even men without the virtue of courage might possibly fortify their souls against danger; but in the split second given for action in an emergency, our nature and that second nature we have built in through habit come instantly to the surface. A hero is not made on the instant that he leaps to rescue a child from an onrushing truck. He is made in the long, slow years before, while courage was being grafted on his very nature through the formation of habit.
The naturally timid man, who must have a wage increase to support his family, acts with deliberate fortitude when he paces the outer office and calls up all the reasons he has for anger and resentment at his present salary. When there is a little time to prepare, a brave man quite deliberately selects the tools for his action. If attack be called for, he will wield such an elusive instrument as moderate anger which, of its very nature, rises to attack an enemy. It may be he will have to go deeper and call on the passion of sorrow as a means of arousing anger, or, with true diplomacy, call in the quietly powerful force of desire to emphasize the good which defeat would have him surrender. He is not being cowardly; he is a strategist coolly making sure of his supplies and ammunition before launching an attack.
Instruments of courage: Tranquillity
For anger, sorrow and desire are helps for the lesser act of courage which is attack. No passion offers any help to the more difficult act of holding on in the face of fear and danger; that is a product of reason alone. To hold to good in spite of danger demands a tranquil soul, a calm willingness to face loss, even to seek loss rather than run; and no passion is a help to tranquillity. It is not by passion that a man weighs his chances and his choices; it is not by passion that his choice falls upon the goodness of his reason, his humanity, his God, a choice that turns an undaunted face to whatever loss, whatever pain, whatever sorrow may be necessary to hold on to the one thing that counts. No one has yet been able to give an answer to that one question of Christ: “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul, or what return shall a man make for his soul?” There is no answer. There is no choice for a brave man. His courage consists precisely in acknowledging that fact and refusing to tell himself there is a choice in spite of the unceasing flow of sophistries suggested by cowardice.
Difficulties and dangers are the air courage breathes, the food on which it is nourished. If we were to identify difficulty with virtue (a frequent enough mistake), then fortitude would stand at the top and charity at the bottom; for there is nothing more difficult than courage and nothing more joyous than charity. But difficulty is not the norm of excellence in virtue; rather, that norm is the good at which a particular virtue aims. On this ground fortitude must take a lower place. Its work is the humble work of a pre-cursor, preparing the way of other virtues, levelling the hills and filling the valleys; removing the impediments that hinder the smooth, swift action of other virtues.
The place of courage among the virtues
Of course fortitude is far beneath the divine virtues of faith, hope and charity whose object is God Himself. Even in the order of the moral virtues, fortitude ranks beneath prudence, which has the order of reason essentially, and justice, which produces that order in the external world. Fortitude has not the order of reason, nor does it produce that order in the world; rather, it protects or conserves it. It is a bodyguard of order. But because it does protect reason against the more serious threats, it ranks above temperance. Temperance, too, guards reason; not against fear and danger, but against the soft blandishments of pleasure.
Still we must not think that, because fortitude sits towards the end of the table, that it is not a member of the family of virtue but merely a faithful old slave, tolerated and loved in an aloofly superior fashion. It, too, is a cardinal virtue, along with prudence, justice and temperance; it, too, is a root virtue dealing with an outstanding material of human life, a virtue which has for its characteristic note an element which is absolutely universal in human living. Dangers and difficulties are not affairs that enter into only some few lives; nor is firmness a thing which can be missing from the life of any man. This is the solid foundation of antiquity’s judgment on the importance of courage; for courage must run through all of our lives, all of our acts.
The courage of martyrs: The nature of martyrdom
A more graphic appreciation of the importance of fortitude and its great power can be quickly had by a moment’s thought on its supreme act. As that highest act of courage is finished, the gates of heaven swing wide and a brave man, who has produced that supreme act, that singular testimony to Christian truth which we call martyrdom, in one step passes from earth to heaven. No martyr sneaks into heaven like a thief; there is no martyr who stumbles into heaven as though he had been hurled along by a hurricane of prayer. There is no hesitation or dallying along the way for the martyr, that he might shine up just a little more for a fitting entry into the city of God. Rather the martyr sweeps into heaven like a conqueror coming home. That is precisely what he is. He has lost his life in order to find it; he has made the difficult choice of death in preference to desertion of the faith or of virtue. He has conquered death like his Master; and often he has a penitent slipping into heaven in the wake of his royal welcome, for many a martyr has brought his executioner to heaven.
Every martyr goes straight to heaven. That is a tremendous effect to be produced by any virtue, in fact, the supreme effect of all the virtues. How can it be produced by this humble precursor of the virtues? The temperate man does not walk straight from death into life because he has refrained from taking enough drink to keep him from walking straight in any direction. The humble cannot slip by purgatory by waving their humility as a kind of passport. Nor does the penitent’s regret necessarily entitle him to an instant embrace by the King of glory. Christ Himself gave the answer to the difficulty when He said: “Greater love than this no man hath, that he give up his life for his friend.” That is the real secret. Courage has not worked alone in martyrdom but with the mighty impulse of charity, of friendship. Consequently it has carried far beyond the ordinary ends of courage to the end of charity, to God Himself.
The virtues behind martyrdom
A devil’s advocate has no case against a martyr. Such a man is certainly a man of virtue. He has stood firm in truth and justice, which is the very essence of virtue. He has held to the good of reason in its proper object, which is truth, and in its proper effects in the appetite of man, that is, justice or sanctity. He is a brave man, for he has stood against the great evil of death in a private war for the divine good of virtue. He is a man of faith, for he has witnessed to that faith even at the cost of his life; and he is a man of charity, for the norm of friendship is sacrifice and he has made the supreme sacrifice.
Perfection of the courage of martyrdom
The lukewarm religious who, in an attack of self-pity, sighs resignedly of the “living martyrdom” of religious life is babbling nonsense. Living martyrdom is as hopeless a contradiction as a self-pitying religious. A man must die to be a martyr; death is of the very essence of martyrdom, for martyrdom consists precisely in spurning all corporal goods to testify to the faith. After all, a man might give up his goods, his friends, suffer pain, all as a means to securing his life; or he might sincerely think himself willing to make the supreme sacrifice until he hears the whizz of the headsman’s swinging axe. Indeed, a man might actually be willing to make that sacrifice; but the fact is that he has not passed the supreme test until he has actually died. He cannot be a witness because his surrender of all for the truth of the faith is not evident to the world.
The virgin who dies in defense of her purity is a martyr; so also is the priest who loses his life by administering the sacraments during a plague. For while it is true that most of the canonized martyrs have died in persecutions of the faith, and so in defense of the faith strictly so called, many others have died for the faith in the sense of the Christian life. It is not merely the refusal to deny the faith in words, but also the refusal to deny it in acts that is the cause of martyrdom. The work of any virtue can be the cause of martyrdom if, as is always the case of a man in the state of grace, the work of that virtue is referred to God by charity.
Causes of martyrdom
The Catholic in Russia or Germany today who loses his life because he refuses to give up his Catholicity or any act demanded by that Catholicity, is truly a martyr; in fact he would be so even though the political authorities were acting against Christianity for purely political reasons. This man would die precisely because he was a Christian. Such men have voluntarily suffered death in the sense of preferring Catholicity to the preservation of their life.
The fact that a man is running full speed away from the enemies of the faith and is killed by a bullet in the back does not deny him the palm of martyrdom. In spite of his desperate effort to escape, the sacrifice of his life was a voluntary one; in fact, the reason for his very flight was his staunch refusal to give up the faith. However we cannot make a martyr out of the man who is killed in his sleep or of the drunkard who is garroted as he lies in the gutter. Neither of these men were capable of sacrifice. The Holy Innocents are the solitary exception; they were martyrs although they were incapable of a voluntary acceptance of death by their own wills.
Socrates, dying for truth, or a criminal who could save himself by a lie but refuses to, could not claim a martyr’s crown. They might be called martyrs of natural virtue; but certainly they are not martyrs of Christ, nor have they a claim to martyrdom’s reward. The same is true of the Christian who values his faith highly, so highly that he does undergo death rather than apostatize; but not highly enough to surrender the concubine with whom he has lived for years. There is something fine about this unswerving firmness of the human will; but not that supernatural fineness that gives a man in an instant the splendid beauty that could come to him only through a long period of suffering in purgatory. There is something fine about these things because there is something brave about them. These men have been courageous with a natural courage; but natural courage does not win us the supernatural rewards of heaven, precisely because it is only natural.
A soldier who dies in defense of his country, that is, in the practice of the virtue of observance, might well be a martyr; but he is not evidently so, for it is not evident that the practice of this particular virtue was referred to God. The Crusaders against Islam were certainly fighting for the faith, though their efforts were much more concentrated on shedding other men’s blood for Christ rather than their own. In view of the dangers and difficulties they deliberately faced, we cannot deny that they were brave men; many thousands of them undoubtedly were martyrs, but it is also quite possible that many, many other thousands were not.
However, martyrs are found not only in arenas, armies, persecutions; they are to be readily found in much less publicized activities. An obvious example of our own day is that of the Christian mother who will not countenance the destruction of her unborn child as a means of preserving her own life. Or, again, there is the Catholic wife who refuses, in defense of justice and purity, to stoop to perversions of nature, even though such things might ward off a serious threat to her life.
An American magazine recently published the results of a scientific canvass of American women as to their attitude towards birth control and their reasons for their attitude. Among reasons offered in defense of the practice were economic considerations, the fear of giving birth to defectives, the desire to give better education to their children, the refusal to have children until they could be better taken care of, and so on. The significant thing about this list of causes is that it contains no mention of personal fear — the fear of pain, of loss of beauty, of death. The reasons not alleged are even more significant than those that are given.
The breakdown of courage: Cowardice
They give a modern picture of a very old thing. The martyr stood in the arena before thousands and his courage left the bitterest of his enemies in a kind of awe. The coward hides his cowardice and leaves even himself ashamed. The brave man is a conqueror; the coward is conquered by fear. The coward slinks away, without engaging in battle, to a defeat that robs him of a chance to lead a human life; he capitulates before the obstacles that must be removed before the march of life can get under way. Moreover, he knows he has been defeated. He knows that the contempt of men for his cowardice is but a vague hint compared to the roar of disapproval that must come from his inner self. He is in perpetual hiding, even perpetual hiding from himself.
Fearlessness and its causes
It is not, of course, wrong to feel fear. A good ghost story should cause goose flesh and shivers; a mysterious noise at night might well make our knees knock and our teeth chatter. There are things that should be feared, things like snakes, broken legs and tornadoes; but we should fear those things reasonably, not suffering damnation in an attempt to escape snakes. For if, feeling fear as every man does, we allow that fear to take command of our action, then we are cowards.
If we have no fear at all, something is lacking in us. We may be freaks. We may be too thick-headed to appreciate the danger, so stupidly puffed up as to think nothing can hurt us, or so devoid of love that we do not care what is taken from us. In any case we are not more human, but distinctly less so for our fearlessness. We have no cause for pride or boasting; rather, we have something to be ashamed of, something that must, at all costs, be kept from the children.
Only a superficial examination can mistake rash boldness for bravely. There is as much difference between the recklessly daring and brave men as there is between the brave and the cowardly. Both the coward and the reckless one have allowed reason to crumble before the onslaught of passion; one makes a man run away, while the other makes a man rush to attack. But both prevent a man from being human here and now. Both have cut off human living at one of its starting points.
Progressive need of courage: for human life and for Catholic life
Summing up this chapter, we can say that it takes courage to be human. It takes even more courage to be Catholic. And it takes still more courage to reach those sublime heights of Catholicism which are called sanctity. Or, to put it another way, courage is necessary for the practice of virtue. As a man becomes more and more virtuous he faces more and more difficulties and so needs more and more courage. Man needs courage to face human life, for human life cannot be lived without virtue, without good habits, without reason being in command. By Catholic life a man steps above the limits of mere humanity; he must not only be human now, thoroughly human, he must be divinely human; his ends are no longer the ends of mere man but the ends of God. Courage, in a word, is not a momentary stop at the important way stations of life’s beginning and its end; it is a virtue that is progressively more necessary as life advances, as life becomes more full, more successful.
The tragedy of fearlessness
The tragedy of fearlessness lies in its inability to see the necessity for any courage because of an inability to see any difficulties, any dangers, anything that needs to be feared. The fearless man is really a little worse off than the coward. The coward, at least, realizes the need of courage along with his realization of his own lack of it; the fearless man not only lacks courage, he does not realize his deficiency, and would not trouble his head about it if he did.
The course of cowardice: Factual cowardice
Fortitude, then, is progressively more necessary as we approach the heights of human life. There is progress in cowardice, too, but it is a burrowing into the depths rather than a scaling of heights. Its first stage might be called factual cowardice, the cowardice involved in fear, sin, irresponsibility, but coupled with the admission that all of these things are wrong, irrational. It is the cowardice of the Catholic succumbing to sin, but admitting that he is committing a sin.
Factual and philosophic cowardice
The next step down may take some considerable time for it involves a denial that fear, sin, irresponsibility, are wrong, irrational, cowardly. Sometimes this is merely a case of rationalization, of excusing ourselves even to ourselves; though we never quite succeed in completely convincing even ourselves. In our own day another step has been taken to a philosophical denial of the principles that make these things wrong, of the principles that make courage itself necessary; and that means, ultimately, a denial of the principles that make human life possible.
It is no longer a shock to hear the spiritual character of man’s soul denied; his free will and his consequent possibility of sin are constant subject matter for denials, as also are eternal life, eternal rewards, eternal punishment. Plumbing still deeper into individual life, the significance and responsibility of human action itself is called into question; it is made an animal act or a mechanical reaction, but is not allowed to remain the action of a human being. Finally the individual human life itself is embroiled in a mass movement of some kind or another, that robs it of any importance, of any significance, of any hope.
We can actually trace those steps of cowardice historically. The pre-Reformation abuses were evidences of factual cowardice; next came the Reformation denial of theological truths and the modern denial of philosophical truths; the third and final step was taken in the modern mass ideology that has completely swallowed the individual.
The moderns and the martyrs
These steps of cowardice are so many stages in man’s flight from his humanity. Actually the coward can never escape. Both the moderns and the martyrs are in the same arena of human life; and the modern coward has no more chance to escape from human life than the martyr had to escape from the lions. The obvious difference between human life and the lions of the arena is that the lions would devour the martyrs whether they ran or not, whereas human life devours only those who attempt to run from it. There is an odd paradox here: we cannot run away from human life because we are human, and yet, precisely in attempting to run away from human life we cease to be human, we become cowards. The martyrs were much more careful of the supreme act of fortitude. They were the supremely brave men of our race; they continue to be a graphic statement of the human need to face issues, even when those issues are roaring lions.