What is courage?

I’ve been thinking a lot about courage lately (previous post about courage). Often we define courage as feeling the fear but acting anyway. What troubles me about this approach is that it defines courage as something that only exists in opposition to something else.

One of the things I like about virtues is the idea of cultivating them, but if courage only exists in relation to fear, then you can only cultivate it by having things you are afraid of. You can only measure it in terms of that – so the person who develops courage so far that they overcome fear doesn’t really count as courageous any more. 

I’m interested in the idea of courage as an innate quality, not a reaction. It struck me that this would require the courage to be for something, rather than coming up in opposition to fearful experiences. What things are we invested in such that the idea of them gives us courage? It takes courage to act, to make changes, to stand up for things. It’s perhaps not so much about overcoming fear as overcoming apathy and disbelief. The courage of your convictions is a rejection of the idea that you can’t make a difference, or that the struggle itself is futile. It can take courage to try and to strive – not because the action is fearful, but because it takes a certain kind of boldness to assert meaning in this way in face of an often uncaring universe.

Thanks to some helpful facebook prompts, I’ve been thinking about lions and oak trees in relation to courage. Neither of these really suggests overcoming fear to me. They do however suggest ways of standing in your own power, with a kind of poise and awareness that makes action possible. 

I’m considering the idea that fear isn’t the opposite of courage – often fear and courage exist alongside each other. Apathy and defeatedness are the opposites of courage. It is apathy and a feeling of defeat and futility that stops people from acting – fear is often a spur to acting and creates necessity. Courage is the quality that keeps a person moving when it seems like all is lost, or the problem is too big to take on. Thus whether or not you are afraid may not be the best measure of whether or not you are courageous.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

7 responses to “What is courage?

  • alainafae

    I agree that courage is often constellated with but is not defined exclusively by fear. Fear at its core is intended to keep you alive on a dangerous planet, so one aspect of having courage is perhaps having right relationship with fear, saying to the fear “I see you and the job you’re trying to do. Thank you for your input, but I am choosing a different way this time” rather than denunciation of or opposition to fear.
    Perhaps courage could be thought of as an acceptance of what power we do possess to do what we understand to be right and then choosing to wield it (which could also mean conscious inaction, depending on the situation). That formulation would also seem to fit with your contrast to apathy & defeatedness.

  • lornasmithers

    Really interesting thoughts here. I studied virtue ethics at college but have never really thought about the cultivationof virtues in my life (and I do like the word cultivate with its connotations of growing and nurturing), whether I… possess any?… that’s probably the wrong word… what they mean? Yeah, fear can be a spur, but also as debilitating as apathy and defeatedness too. Is courage always linked to action or can it be linked to non-action on the right places and times too? Lots to think about!

  • lornasmithers

    Random additional thought – I could easily provide a long list of my flaws and my ‘sins’ but not my virtues and am not sure what that means. I’m guessing you’ve felt that way?

  • Ana Daksina

    A useful model might be a contrast between expansion and contraction, or between courage and “playing small.”

    It takes courage to succeed at anything whatsoever, because all those unwilling to do so find their easier option in hating you. Just walking down the street smiling, in our culture, is sufficient to produce a good bit of resentment.

    Each of us will also face situations in this life when we must either consent to be an active or passive participant in harmful falsehood, or refuse that participation, whatever the price we must pay to do so.

    These are opportunities to cultivate and display courage which are universal ~ and no less important than the more spectacular examples.

    A wonderful testament to this day to day courage is found in Edgar Guest’s poem of the same name, beginning:

    “This is courage, to remain
    Brave and patient under pain…”

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