The other virtues, such as prudence, temperance and mercy, these are all nice when life is easy. But it becomes almost impossible to stay prudent, calm and merciful in a difficult situation for an extended period of time. In much the same manner, courage only exists in a very difficult situation. It is not a virtue by itself, but rather the practice of all virtues at the point of testing. Where prudence by itself cannot stand, courage takes its place. It is easy to keep the virtues when things are going well, but as Winston Churchill once said, ‘It’s when you are afraid that it is hardest to choose the harder right over the easier wrong.’ Pontius Pilate was very merciful to Christ, the Bible tells us, until it became risky.
Courage has one anathema, one great enemy that ruins it. If courage is the great virtue, there is one great sin. A few classes on theology and philosophy would answer that quite quickly. It is pride, the greatest sin. Sin, in a modern definition of the word, is the act that violates ambiguous moral principles. Being ambiguous never served any purpose, so a more proper definition of sin is the act of violating God’s will, that then violates the relationship of a person to the Almighty God.
The Greeks understood it early on, calling it hubris. Some people claim that they are proud of being rich, or clever, or good looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or more clever, or better looking than others. Although, one could argue that pride has this sneaky sort of way to sneak up on someone because there are some good things about pride: pride in your school, pride in your children, pride that your country is doing a good job not bowing to terrorists, or pride in yourself for being yourself. What’s wrong with pride?
The problem of pride is the oversaturation of it. If everyone everywhere had the same amount of wealth, the same amount of cleverness and the same amount of beauty, then there would be nothing to be proud about. The pleasure that comes with pride is comparing yourself to someone else, because you feel yourself to be above them, to be superior.
Hubris did not die out with the Greeks, because the stories tell us how the Greek gods never got tired of bringing down the proud foolish mortals who forgot their place. And the Bible tells us that pride always comes before a fall. A fair warning, and even today, we see many people who soar into the heights of greatness and fame, only to lose everything because they were not content, they had to be higher than their peers way up there. Our culture today is pretty full of itself, wouldn’t you agree?
What does all this have to do with courage? See, in my experience, which admittedly is far from being broad and complete, the proud, boastful and arrogant people are often the ones who are actually afraid and insecure. They feel as though by proclaiming something to everyone, it would make it true. This sort of thing has as much effect as a madman scribbling ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell on the rising and setting of the sun. In contrast, the courageous people are the ones who are actually humble. They never draw more attention to themselves than they have to. They know what they are capable of, and yet they never rely on bragging about it.
See, in our secular age, a lot of people have very little sense of sin, of the essential sinfulness of man and thus see no need to turn to a higher power for redemption. But a lot of them, despite all their achievements, just feel empty. They’re all too busy looking at their peers and the ones below them. They aspire to rise higher than the others. For them, it’s all about me.
What ever happened to the principle of the greater good?
Pride gets in the way of actual courage. To give up your pride and find courage, you need to feel your own vulnerability, then turn to a force that is greater than yourself. C.S. Lewis put it nicely, ‘A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.’
Pride makes us defensive and cynical, ready to cover over our fears with a veneer of sarcasm. Pride stops you from turning to God, the one person in the whole universe who could actually help you. I know this is getting circular and all, but we live in the world so focused on the self, that we never turn around to face our insecurities. To rise above our pride and ourselves to submit ourselves to someone higher? That takes a certain amount of courage. And I’ve already told you where to find such courage if there is none in you.