Wednesday, August 31, 2016


Courage is one of the commonest words in the language. The quality which it denotes is the object of more general admiration and ambition than any other. It is a virtue which is at once common and honourable in the highest degree, and it produces results so broad and striking, that every one considers himself, and, in some points of view, has a right to consider himself, entitled to form an opinion as to its existence and extent. It seems as if it were from personal experience that the distinction is continually drawn between moral and physical courage, to the advantage of the former. The distinction is interesting, not only in relation to the subject to which it refers, but also because it affords a curious and almost a solitary, specimen of the kind of contributions which mere casual observation can make to the examination of mental qualities. The distinction is usually drawn in some such terms as these. Physical courage is readiness to expose oneself to the chance of physical pain or death, and arises principally from the nature of the bodily constitution. Moral courage is readiness to expose oneself to suffering or inconvenience which does not affect the body. It arises from firmness of moral principle, and is independent of the physical constitution. The courage of a soldier in battle is usually taken as the illustration of the one—the courage of a religious man who incurs ridicule by the profession of his belief is the standing example of the other.

It would not be easy to cite any other instance in which an analytical remark on a moral quality has become a commonplace, and it would be still more difficult to cite any attempt to analyze a moral quality which is more entirely unsatisfactory. The distinction between moral and physical courage is, in fact, a distinction without a difference. It does not describe two separate qualities, but only two manifestations of the same quality, which are not only not inconsistent with, but can be hardly said to be independent of, each other. Nothing is more easy than to put cases which show that there are many forms of courage to which this distinction has no application. If a soldier risks his life in storming a battery, that, it is said, is physical courage. If a man risks infamy for the sake of friendship or religious principle, that is moral courage. Suppose a man risks his life—as in the case of persecution— for religious principle, is that moral or physical courage? If it is called moral courage, then moral courage may be shown in encountering the risk of physical pain. If it is called physical courage, then physical courage may be independent of the bodily constitution. Most persons would probably accept the first branch of the alternative, and admit that moral courage may be shown in encountering the risk of physical pain; and this is certainly the most plausible view of the case, for no doubt there would seem to be a contrast between the state of mind of the martyr and of the soldier, which does not appear on comparing the martyr in person with the martyr in prospects and reputation. If, however, it is admitted that moral courage may be shown in encountering physical risk, what is the distinction between that form of moral courage and physical courage?

The soldier storming the breach is the standard example of physical courage. Its specific characteristic must, therefore, be always present in such an act. The last case referred to shows that the presence of the risk of bodily pain is not that characteristic, for that is present in the action of the martyr. It must, therefore, be looked for elsewhere. It may be said to lie in the intense tumultuous excitement which bodily conflict or the immediate prospect of it produces in many minds. The courage of a soldier on such occasions is often compared to that of a fierce wild beast, which rushes in unreflecting fury on its antagonist. This view, however, is refuted by several observations. In the first place, tumultuous excitement of feeling is by no means confined to scenes of bodily conflict. It frequently exists in what are looked upon as the special theatres of moral courage, such as parliaments, courts of law, and all assemblies in which the public business of life is transacted. Suppose, for example, a man is party to an action on which his character depends, and that in the course of the trial he becomes vehemently excited and roused by the imputations cast upon him. Suppose, lastly, that he has it in his power, by taking or directing his counsel to take up, a certain line of conduct—for example, by producing or suppressing certain evidence—to destroy his antagonist's case at the imminent risk of utterly ruining his own character for ever, and that unjustly. Would the adoption of that course be an act of moral or of physical courage? Almost any one would call it moral courage, yet here are present all the elements the presence of which must be relied upon to prove that it is an act of physical courage to storm a breach. There is the same tumultuous excitement, the same fierce animosity, the same fixing of the mind on the destruction of an antagonist to the neglect of all consequences to self, in the one case as in the other; and, it may be added, there is the same brevity in the act. The question is asked and the determination is taken in as short a time, and with as little opportunity for reflection or hesitation, as is afforded by the rush from the trenches to the wall.

This, however, is not all. It occasionally happens not only that tumultuous excitement is present where bodily risk is absent, but that imminent bodily risk produces no excitement. If a regiment were ordered to storm a breach, and did storm it, the probability is, that every man in the line would approach it with different feelings. In some—though probably their number would be small—savage and frantic excitement would overpower every other feeling. There would probably be a few who would be in a state of abject terror, and who would advance only under the stings of shame and conscience, or the pressure of discipline. In the others, these and many other feelings would be mixed up in every conceivable variety of proportion. Excitement, fear, a sense of duty, emulation, ambition, possibly even curiosity, would all have their places, and each would in its turn give the prevailing colour to their minds for a longer or shorter interval according to circumstances. Ought, then, the storming of the breach to he described as an act of physical courage in some, of moral courage in others, and of a mixture of physical and moral courage in almost all the members of the regiment? It would perhaps be necessary so to describe it if a classification so inconvenient and unreasonable had to be maintained; but the real conclusion from these instances is, that the classification itself is baseless, and proceeds upon no principle at all. To say that courage is either moral or physical is like saying that professions are either active or speculative—a remark which is not quite unmeaning, but which would be altogether wide of its mark if it were intended to show what is the special characteristic of professions and what is the principle on which they ought to be classified.

If any one wished to give a really instructive account of courage, or of any other moral quality, he would have to take the matter up in a manner altogether different A few hints upon the subject may be given here, but a complete examination of it is impracticable. The most general notion which can be formed of courage is, that it is that mental quality which prompts men to do, or that mental habit which consists in doing, that which, for any reason, they have determined to do, notwithstanding the certainty or the probability that consequences which the person acting dislikes or wishes to avoid will be incurred in doing it. Hence, courage requires three things—a course of conduct determined on, certain or probable consequences of an unwelcome kind, and perseverance in spite of them. Much might be said upon each of these three heads in illustration of the different forms which courage may assume, and by way of comparison of their respective importance, their frequency, and the title which they convey to respect and approbation—each of which considerations is independent of the others, for it may well be that the commonest kind of courage is most important, and that the rarest is the least respectable. But this is an immense subject. It will be sufficient at present to make a single observation upon the second branch of it.

It is essential to courage that the act determined on should be attended by certain or probable consequences of an unwelcome kind. Now there are two senses in which a consequence may be unwelcome. It may be unwelcome to a particular person, or it may be unwelcome to so large a proportion of mankind as to be generally reputed to be unwelcome, without specific proof that it is so in a given case. Thus it might give A exquisite pain to meet B in the street, and he might show the highest courage in running the risk of such a meeting; but it would be necessary to show that this was so. The mere statement of the fact would not prove that any danger at all had been encountered. On the other hand, the bare statement that A had voluntarily risked the loss or mutilation of his limbs would gain for him the reputation of having done a brave thing. Hence, a particular set of actions involving what are generally viewed as unpleasant consequences come to be specially distinguished as "brave," but these consequences are not in fact unpleasant in the same degree to all persons at all times, or even to the same persons at all times. This introduces a curious question— "How far is sensibility an element of courage?" Some men mind physical pain much more than others, and there can be no doubt that if ten people had to submit to the same surgical operation, each would have to make a mental effort of a different degree of intensity for the purpose. Suppose that the efforts were measured by the numbers 1, 2, 3, up to 10, and that all submitted to the operation, would No. 10 have shown ten times as much courage as No. 1; or would not the fact that he had ten times as great a dislike to pain be in itself a deduction from his courage? Suppose, again, that the first eight submitted to the operation, and that the two last did not, but that each made an effort to submit equal to 8 (the necessary efforts in their cases being equal to 9 and 10 respectively), would they have shown more courage than No. 7, or not? or would they have shown as much as No. 8, who did submit when they did not? Such questions resolve themselves ultimately into the question, What are the limits of human personality? How far is a man to be identified with his own body, and how far can its defects be said to be his? The common use of language takes no notice of the difficulty. A man with vigorous health, strong nerves, and great indifference to pain is called brave; and no one has a right to say that the word is improperly used; for the habitual use of this, as of all words, determines its meaning. The conclusion seems to be that language, especially in reference to the mental constitution, is popular and unscientific; and that, though it furnishes materials for speculation, it can never furnish either moral or scientific conclusions.

Saturday Review, September 8, 1860.

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