The Batflu has driven us all batty, with talk of many things most of us never expected we’d have to think about. But amid all the talk of safety and suffering, lives vs. livelihoods, deaths from the pathogen and deaths from isolation, there’s been one term strangely absent, except when it comes to our heroic healthcare workers: courage.
The absence is strange because the virtue of courage is precisely what is supposed to kick in, for everyone, at a moment like this when we’re all on the frontlines. Since we’ve lost touch with the virtue tradition and even with the simple wisdom that used to guide everyday life, we don’t much give something like courage – the need to “man (or woman) up” – a thought anymore.
Instead, we’ve been busy trying to create a world where everyone is “safe” and no one has to face anything “offensive.” And where institutions – or someone else, in any case – will someday arrange things so that no one will ever have to be personally courageous again.
This is the purest delusion and – sad to say – even widespread fear of death seems not to have brought many people back to reality. There’s an old Latin saying: mors certa, hora incerta (“Death is certain, the hour uncertain”). We know that it will all someday, perhaps even today, come to an end. Most people spend their lives trying to ignore or deny the fact. Still, every day brings uncertainties and dangers – that demand courage.
Ernest Hemingway, in his early period, i.e., shortly after he became a Catholic and was infatuated by “all things medieval,” said that courage is “grace under pressure.” He left it at that. So it’s impossible to say whether he meant “grace” in a substantial Catholic sense or, as sometimes appears in his work, grace as a kind of macho pose.
But he had it basically right. Courage doesn’t mean that we don’t feel fear of a real threat or that we simply ignore it. That would be stupidity. Courage means seeing the threat, feeling appropriate fear, and still doing the right thing.
Doing the right thing isn’t self-evident. It takes another virtue – prudence – also notably absent from our virus conversations and daily lives. (If you want a quick introduction to the virtues, from Aristotle to Augustine to Aquinas, and beyond, treat yourself to Josef Pieper’s classic: The Four Cardinal Virtues.) Prudence – real prudence – is not timidity but a direct facing of reality, and making as good judgments as we can about what to do, without being deflected by fear or pleasure.
John Lennon sang of Dear Prudence, a timid lady, who should “come out to play.” Real prudence makes room for play, but more importantly comes out to take charge of the crucial decisions, especially the ones for which there are no scientific or strictly logical answers, which means a lot of human life.
As you may have noticed during the debates – more like fistfights – about what to do now that the virus is receding somewhat, we rarely hear about the weighing of evidence that constitutes prudence. Answers simply clash.
You may say that we can’t go out of our homes for the next 12-18 months until there’s a vaccine to protect us. That’s one prudential judgment, but not a very realistic one (and therefore not very prudent) since the peoples of the world – however patient they’ve been up to this point – simply won’t wait that long to try to live more normal lives.
You can say, to the contrary, that the data we have now shows that the risks to any of us are really quite low – something we didn’t know a month or two ago. Back then, leaders in America and elsewhere had to make decisions about how to protect people without being able to wait for more scientific data – which still remains quite uncertain.
That’s where prudence comes in; it doesn’t give us false certainties. Indeed, it takes into account that such decisions have to be made amid multiple contingencies, which can change and can force us to change a chosen course.
Prudence also makes us aware that much of the time we’re weighing tradeoffs. And often have to act in partial ignorance. And, therefore, that we should be a bit indulgent towards others who, equally uncertain, may make different choices than we do.
Instead, of prudence, however, as usual, what we’re getting is partisanship. Either the whole country ought to remain locked down. Or opened up. The prudent path of allowing experiments and seeing how they work out – and reacting where they do or don’t work – has very few practitioners.
But prudence in thought and courage in action are what we’re called to, even when we’re not facing viruses. Which means always forming ourselves as virtuous people.
Courage, to be clear, shouldn’t be confused with the ridiculous modern notion of “believing in yourself.” Anyone who believes in himself is a fool, and perhaps in the most literal sense of the words, a damned fool. How many people have tortured themselves into borderline neuroses trying this contortionist’s trick of convincing themselves to “believe in” a fallible and fallen human creature.
St. Augustine, who had probably seen some of the stuffed-shirt pagan philosophers who thought themselves upright and were proud of their own virtue, transposed the four cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, justice, courage) brilliantly – as he did with virtually everything he touched – into the Christian key of ordered loves:
For these four virtues (would that all felt their influence in their minds as they have their names in their mouths!), I should have no hesitation in defining them: that temperance is love giving itself entirely to that which is loved; fortitude [courage] is love readily bearing all things for the sake of the loved object; justice is love serving only the loved object, and therefore ruling rightly; prudence is love distinguishing with sagacity between what hinders it and what helps it. (De moribus ecclesiae, Chap. xv)
Good words, for bad times.
*Image: Courage, Anxiety, and Despair: Watching the Battle by James Sant, c. 1850 [private collection]