A Brief Sketch on Courage

Dr. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, PhD

An Ongoing Series of Sketches from the Contributors of Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, co-edited by Michael W. Austin and R. Douglas Geivett (Eerdmans, 2012). More info can be found at www.beinggoodnews.com.

Using the thought of Thomas Aquinas, this chapter on courage explores similarities and differences between heroic or ‘action-adventure’ models of courage and the virtue of courage as exemplified in the person of Jesus Christ.

Courage is the virtue concerned with standing firm against fear for the sake of some good that we love. When faced with danger, we typically react with a “fight” or “flight” response—reactions Aquinas calls “daring” and “fear.” If we lack sufficient daring and give in to fear, we can fall prey to the vice of cowardice. For example, in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, character Peter Pettigrew is a coward because he betrays his best friends to save his own skin. While it is right and good to value our own lives, the courageous person recognizes that this is neither the greatest nor the only good. Peter’s case shows us that courage is necessary for a flourishing life, even if that life involves risk, difficulty, and self-sacrifice. He stays alive, to be sure, only to live on as a morally deformed person whose relationships of love have been destroyed by fear.

Courage requires training the passions of fear and daring to serve the good. This virtue mobilizes daring to attack what threatens (aggression) and moderates fears that might otherwise prompt us to give way under threat (endurance). Thus it can be expressed in two ways. Courageous aggression is called for when we are strong enough to overcome. Courageous endurance, by contrast, is needed when we stand in a position of weakness: either we cannot overcome the threat with force or our own power, as the aggressive person does, or we cannot escape without betraying the good to which we must remain faithful.  In these cases, endurance is the only means of holding firmly to the good we love. To picture the paradigmatic act of endurance, Aquinas offers us the example of the Christian martyr, whose sacrifice imitates (in part) the courageous sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The martyr endures even the greatest threat (death) for the sake of her greatest love (God).  Thus her love for God must be stronger even than her fear of death. Her courage is grounded in power of love, not her own physical strength or ability to overcome evil. As Augustine says, “Courage is love enduring all things for the sake of the Beloved.”

Fictional characters illustrate the different expressions of courage and its opposing vices. The heroes of American action-adventure films typically valorize courageous aggression. The independent and self-sufficient protagonist typically relies on his own strength in order to safeguard what’s good. But the shadow side of this model of courage is a temptation to an idolatrous kind of self-confidence, in which we deny our dependence on God’s power and trust our own power instead, and in which we forget that love is the type of power God wielded in the face of ultimate evil. The United States’ unprecedented military, technological, and economic power, and its cultural value of autonomy make us more vulnerable to this temptation than we might suspect. In the Harry Potter books, heroes like James, Sirius, and Harry himself engage in many noble acts of courageous aggression, while Voldemort illustrates the dark side of human power taken to its furthest extreme. Voldemort loves only himself and his own life; therefore he fears death above all else. His resulting prideful quest is to conquer death and become invulnerable by maximizing his own power—in a word, by becoming God-like.
In the climax of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry and his mother Lily show us a contrary picture of Christlikeness, a picture of courageous love for another whose power is even stronger than the fear of death. In a fictional echo of the cross, Harry pursues the way of self-giving love, not the way of selfishly wielded supernatural power: he puts away his wand (symbolizing his own power) and lays down his life for his friends (John 15: 13). His mother’s love sustains him and his friends surround him—a picture of the communion of the saints. His vulnerability stands in stark contrast with Voldemort’s quest for invulnerability; Harry is a mere teenager, and his mother is an unarmed woman. Their courage is born of their love for others; they stand firm even in death, faithful to that good. As such, they offer us a picture of courage as endurance, and a model of Christian love for God.

Rather than unreflectively endorsing a restricted masculine ideal of human physical strength and ingenuity, or encouraging us toward an idolatrous reliance on human power, the Christian conception of courage reminds us of the power of love, a power made possible, even made perfect, in weakness.

Future issues, inquiries, and projects:

How do the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love transform our understanding and practice of the other moral virtues?

How can we develop of practices and communities of practice that encourage conceptions of distinctively Christian virtues, even when this is counter-cultural?

How is courageous endurance a more inclusive model than heroic aggression, from a feminist perspective? Are there also dangers here: for example, how should morally appropriate cases of self-sacrifice be distinguished from unhealthy and abusive models, especially within church culture?