To Practise Courage

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” — Anais Nin

Courage, we learned last week, is a word growing in use. Yet, unlike what many tales claim, courage is not just a characteristic of the outwardly brave. Courage comes from the word heart, it sits where our feelings and emotions are. And courage is a skill we can all learn through practice.

While threats to humanity seem to increase wherever we turn – from nuclear war, to Artificial Intelligence, to climate change – what passes for courage, often loud and visible, is actually mere recklessness.

So what can we understand by courage?

For most Asian and Western philosophers there are two forms of courage: first, outward courage, most often exemplified by acts of bravery on a battlefield. And second, inner courage, which can be seen as perseverance, the act of demonstrating composure and tranquillity in any situation, or not giving in to despair. 

While it may be tempting to equate one with active and the other with passive, that would be too simplistic. Both are important, at different times, and both require composure. Both relate to how we deal with fear and what actions we choose in a given situation. In the words of Lao Tzu: “[a] man with outward courage dares to die; a man with inner courage dares to live.” 

Aristotle believed courage was the most important virtue, and the one which, when lacking, other virtues could not exist, including justice. This means that courage can only be true when it is directed to a just cause. Justice directs courage, and it empowers it. 

So courage is not simply rebelling against authority. While rebellion is usually a cry for freedom, its claim may not be towards a just cause, and we may rebel without considering the consequences of our actions or understanding our responsibilities. In short, rebellion is more adolescent in nature. 

Another ingredient essential to the demonstration of courage is temperance: self-restraint and moderation. For Aristotle, courage was found in the balance between excess, which would be recklessness, and deficiency, which would be cowardice. Temperance helps us find balance between the two, and that is where courage is.

The other crucial element to courage, according to Plato (and others), is wisdom. Wisdom helps us discern between appropriate and inappropriate action, in any situation. It guides us to agree on the right action.

Susan Sontag spoke about moral courage, because she believed that there was such a thing as amoral courage. She noted that acting with courage was often isolating because those who usually stand up for what is right are those who refuse to conform, the so-called outliers. And courageous people will stand up for their principles, regardless of success.

“The likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice does not exempt you from acting in what you sincerely and reflectively hold to be the best interests of your community,” she said. 

So how can we cultivate courage? 

However small acts of resistance may be, we should not underestimate their cumulative effect, Sontag pointed out. Courage inspires communities, she said, and courage is contagious.

Think, for example, of Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, or Greta Thunberg who started her Friday school strike, to name just a few simple, yet outstanding examples of courage. 

Having role models increases people’s likelihood of performing courageous acts, however small these may be. And believing in something greater than oneself is what helps many face their fears. As we often hear, courage is not the absence of fear, but our ability to act regardless of our fears. 

In The Courage to Create, Rollo May, says the opposite of courage is not cowardice, but conformity. Conformity is where most people find comfort. Stepping out of our comfort zone takes courage and that is something we can all do through everyday small acts.

Finally, for May, everything emerges from our imagination, but we need creative courage to liberate ourselves from conformity, “whereas moral courage is the righting of wrongs, creative courage, in contrast, is the discovering of new forms, new symbols, new patterns on which a new society can be built,” he wrote.

Words, Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes


Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu.

Martial Virtues, Lessons in Wisdom, Courage, and Compassion from the World’s Greatest Warriors
, Charles Hackney.

At the Same Time, Essays and Speeches,
Susan Sontag.

The Courage to Create
, Rollo May.

Further Reading

Restoring the Kinship Worldview: Indigenous Voices Introduce 28 Precepts for Rebalancing Life on Planet Earth, Wahinkpe Topa (Four Arrows) and Darcia Narvaez, PhD.

‘Uncertainty: Taking Risks,’ The New Philosopher 36, July 2022.

Consolations, The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words
, David Whyte.

The Art of Loving
, Eric Fromm.

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