In one of the books I recently picked up, namely the Socratic Dialogues by Plato, I came across Laches, wherein occurs this whole debate/conversation that revolves around the meaning of Bravery.
I haven’t read through it, yet; only the summary. But, I thought it would be interesting to contrast my own understanding of the term to that of Socrates, and the others.
Laches, a character in the philosopho-drama, describes Bravery as standing your ground and fighting, but then goes on to modify it so as to mean endurance. The main problems that the philosophers face are in the form of three contradictory propositions, at two different levels
a) Bravery is good
b) Endurance with foolishness is bad
c) Endurance with foolishness is bravery
a) Bravery is a part of goodness
b) Bravery is the knowledge of good and evil
c) The knowledge of good and evil is goodness.
The reason Laches’ contention fails, is because “standing and fighting” is only one kind of bravery. And, it is just as easy for a retreating army to be acting bravely (strategic retreat) as it is for someone completely unconnected with battle to act ‘bravely’.
Courage has always been an obsession of mine, which is to say that it has always fascinated me. As a child, this translated into a great deal of reckless acts taken up on dares; as an adult, well, let’s just say that you begin to realize that courage doesn’t require you to walk on edges and ledges anymore than it requires you to climb a flight of stairs in a dark and abandoned building. Strangely, Courage seems to ask for nothing more than the resolution to stay, in the face of something that frightens you.
I finally began reading The Game of Thrones recently, and I think the House of Stark sums up what I’m trying to say quite fairly. The conversation takes place on the 12th page of the book itself (for those of you afraid of spoilers) and it’s between a 7 year old boy, and his father, after they’ve just witnessed an execution:
“Robb says the man died bravely, but Jon says he was afraid.”
“What do you think?” his father asked.
Bran thought about it. “Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?”
“That is the only time a man can be brave..”
I think bravery, or courage, is the willingness of a man, or woman, to stand his ground, despite knowing that he may lose whatever it is he is willing to fight for, if not more.
In that sense, courage seems to be the purest form of worshiping hope, though it is possible for a man to be completely brave while being utterly hopeless.
You could say courage lies in doing the right thing, no matter how difficult; but it is possible to be brave while being wrong, such as in the case of a courageous bank robbery.
But, if it is at this level that courage must be understood, i.e. in the sense that Socrates wants it to be understood, which is a Universal sense, then Courage is a Code of Conduct that demands the most of men who wish to follow it, as compared to any of the other virtues, requiring each courageous person to practice this sense of courage in every waking aspect of their existence.
At another level, courage really comes into play when dealing with unavoidable circumstances. And, this explains the dichotomy with courage as bravery and courage as foolishness, for which we shall take the example of a young child;
If the child is riding his brand new bicycle, and a bus is headed towards you at full speed, but seems to have pressed it’s brakes, and is slowly screeching to a halt, it might be the brave thing to stand his ground, but it would definitely be the more foolish option, as compared to abandoning the cycle, and diving out of the way. On the other hand, consider that he does so dive out of the way. Then it would be courageous of him to tell his parents the truth as to what has happened (say, he took the cycle out without their permission).
So, one could say that courage lies in facing the consequences of your actions, and those of circumstances around you, with grace and dignity.
The steeper the degree of the odds being against you, the more courage it requires to stand your ground. Which is why I spoke of hope earlier. To be truly brave, I think it is as important to want to win as it is to be prepared to lose.
You fight hard because you hope to win. You endure because it doesn’t matter if you lose.
That could be bravery…