Andrea Petersen, Aristotle, Carmen McLean, gender, Harvey Mansfield, Headspace, John Dunne, John Wayne, Pali suttas, Reinhold Niebuhr, Reshma Saujani, Śāntideva, Siddhattha Gotama (Buddha), Sober Heretic (blogger)
Courage figures prominently in many lists of the virtues. It is a key example for Aristotle of how virtue is a mean: the courageous person is neither cowardly nor rash, but finds an appropriate middle ground. It is among the three key virtues summed up by the Serenity Prayer, in nearly all of its versions. Yet in the 21st century we can be a little suspicious of it. A blogger called the Sober Heretic thinks the Serenity Prayer is wrong to emphasize courage:
The fact that I need courage to change says a lot about what the prayer thinks change is. What does a person normally need courage for? Marching into battle. Jumping out of an airplane. Giving a speech. Facing a life-threatening disease. Courage is necessary when you’re fighting something: an enemy soldier, a virulent pathogen, your own fear. The need for courage says that change is fundamentally combative.
The claim is an interesting one, and I think there is an important point made in it. Śāntideva says “I am at war with the mental afflictions (kleśas)”, and regularly uses explicit metaphors of combat to describe one’s relationship with them. For him it is a battle, a struggle. But the Sober Heretic points out a problem with this approach:
treating unwanted traits as adversaries is the worst possible way to change them. Battling them just energizes and entrenches them, making them harder to dislodge or modify. This insight is huge! For me, the only way to change bad habits or errant ways of thinking is to focus on them with compassionate awareness.
On this much I think the Sober Heretic is right. Modern mindfulness meditation practices like Headspace emphasize a point very much like this: fighting our kleśas, in practice, often makes them worse. Psychologically, we are better able to deal with them through a nonjudgemental awareness and observation that lets them simply pass away. And as John Dunne noted, while such a nonjudgemental, noncombative approach is a departure from classical Indian Buddhists like Śāntideva, it has plenty of other precedents in premodern Asian Buddhist tradition.
But I think it is a step too far to say that courage is not needed in such cases – because I don’t think courage is something fundamentally combative. In half of the examples that the Heretic lists above (jumping, speaking), the only thing one could actually be said to be fighting is one’s own fear. And nothing in their examples or in the concept of courage says that the way one must deal with one’s fear is by fighting it!
A quote famously attributed to John Wayne (I can’t find a source) says that “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” On that conception of courage, one isn’t fighting the fear; one is simply acting in a way that does not allow the fear to rule oneself. The Serenity Prayer’s first line is a reminder that there are cases where we can change something but do not – and frequently our reason for not doing so is or involves fear. Not always, perhaps, but very often. Courage is required for us to change the things we can, in the face of our feeling afraid.
For a little while I thought Wayne’s quote was at some remove from Buddhism, because Buddhist teaching is so psychologically oriented: for Buddhists we need to get rid of (or at least reduce) bad mental states, like anger or harmful fear, not merely to act well while the states continue unabated. But I have changed my mind on that, because it turns out that Wayne’s advice is actually a helpful way to get rid of fear! Modern psychologists have found that effective ways of dealing with anxiety (so closely related to fear) involve “saddling up anyway”, facing the objects of anxiety, in techniques such as exposure therapy, the SPACE treatment, and Ronald Rapee’s program which he explicitly calls BRAVE. Most strikingly, the Buddha in the Pali suttas practises a form of exposure therapy on himself! He says in the Bhayabherava (Fear and Terror) Sutta:
I stayed in the sort of places that are awe-inspiring and make your hair stand on end, such as park-shrines, forest-shrines, & tree-shrines. And while I was staying there a wild animal would come, or a peacock would make a twig fall, or wind would rustle the fallen leaves. The thought would occur to me: ‘Is this that fear & terror coming?’ Then the thought occurred to me: ‘Why do I just keep waiting for fear?
What if I, in whatever state I’m in when fear & terror come to me, were to subdue that fear & terror in that very state?’ So when fear & terror came to me while I was walking back & forth, I would not stand or sit or lie down. I would keep walking back & forth until I had subdued that fear & terror. When fear & terror came to me while I was standing, I would not walk or sit or lie down. I would keep standing until I had subdued that fear & terror. When fear & terror came to me while I was sitting, I would not lie down or stand up or walk. I would keep sitting until I had subdued that fear & terror. When fear & terror came to me while I was lying down, I would not sit up or stand or walk. I would keep lying down until I had subdued that fear & terror. (Majjhima Nikāya I.20-1)
There is a metaphor of combat – subdual – here, which is not in the contemporary psychology. But it seems to me that there is a fundamental agreement among the Buddha, the psychologists, and Wayne: fear is a major problem for us, and the way to address it is by “saddling up” and exposing ourselves to it.
Wayne, of course, is known as an icon of rugged masculinity, and combat considered a masculine activity. So I wonder whether gender is another reason moderns are reluctant to embrace courage: it seems too macho. Aristotle uses the word andreia for courage, which can also mean “manliness”, and this is not coincidental: he thinks men are supposed to be more courageous than women. In Politics III.4 he says “A man would be thought cowardly if his courage were only the same as that of a courageous woman…” Courage seems a central part of what Harvey Mansfield advocated under the rubric of “manliness”.
But I don’t think that Mansfield (let alone Aristotle) ever made a convincing case why courage should be limited to men, or found in men more than in women. Indeed, I think we are now seeing good evidence for the opposite: in the English-speaking world at least, courage is even more important for women than for men, because too often girls are unfortunately taught to lack it! Penn psychiatry professor Carmen McLean says
There’s an assumption that boys should be courageous and they should overcome their fears and face their fears. With girls, we are a little bit more accommodating, and we permit this sort of reluctance or avoidance of situations. You are teaching the girl, “If I feel a little bit nervous, this means I should not do something.” A boy learns, “If I feel this way, I should act anyway.” He learns, “I can do it, and my anxiety goes down.” He feels more confident and has more efficacy. A little girl doesn’t learn that lesson.
Andrea Petersen (whose first name derives from Aristotle’s word for masculine courage) cites McLean’s comment in her memoir on anxiety. Petersen then notes: “It is as if boys are engaged in continual exposure therapy. Perhaps this inoculates them from future anxiety disorders.” (80) For, indeed, McLean’s research notes, “anxiety disorders are not only more prevalent but also more disabling in women than in men.” Reshma Saujani, the CEO of Girls Who Code, argues that women can claim their rightful voices more effectively by being “brave, not perfect“, refusing to “play it safe”. Among the many things patriarchy has so far hurtfully denied women, it seems, is courage itself.
Seth Zuihō Segall said:
Agreed. I am writing a book on the concept on virtue. In it I have this to say about courage: “It is courage that allows us to act on our convictions and to speak up regarding our ideas, beliefs, concerns, and grievances even when doing so entails some risk. This is the courage that allows one to take a stand, show oneself, and stick up for oneself. It’s the courage that allows one to be frank and honest, even when being honest risks losing someone’s esteem. It’s the courage that allows us to present our ideas and beliefs, even when they may prove unpopular or be rejected. It’s the courage that allows us to try something novel, even though we may fail. If we don’t push back against the fears that inhibit us from being ourselves, showing ourselves, standing up for ourselves, or venturing onto novel territory, our lives shrink—we shrink—eventually taking up less and less space in the world, restricting our powers, and retarding our growth. This is a recipe for ill-being. What makes things worse, is not only do we get less out of life than we might, but that we also shrink in terms of self-esteem. It is hard to take pride in oneself when one shrinks at every shadow.”
I am often surprised Buddhism pays so little attention to the virtues of courage and justice, just as I am surprised that Aristotle pays so little attention to compassion. I guess no one tradition has a monopoly on truth…
Amod Lele said:
Seth, let me know if you’d like me to read chapters of your book! (Also, are you familiar with André Comte-Sponville’s Small Treatise on the Great Virtues? One of the more interesting modern takes I’ve seen so far.)
It doesn’t surprise me that traditional Buddhism says relatively little in praise of justice, and Aristotle of compassion. I think he does pay significant attention to compassion in the Rhetoric; it’s just that (contra Nussbaum) it is not at all clear that it’s a virtue. But both of those fit into a larger world picture: one that withdraws from worldly institutions and one that does not see others’ suffering as meriting one’s own, respectively. (On courage, see Donna’s comment below; I think it is often placed with kṣānti.)
I found this post to be a really rich reflection on courage, a subject I haven’t studied in a scholarly way. One question I am asking myself after reading this post is: What is the relationship between development of courage and development of knowledge and rationality? Is lack of courage a kind of ignorance and irrationality, so that gaining courage is gaining (or transforming) knowledge and rationality, or is lack of courage more like low levels of cortisol or testosterone? (I mention testosterone because I’ve been hearing about it from right-wingers recently in a way that is both gendered and politicized: see Sam Wolfson’s “Looking for Mr T: the politicisation of testosterone” in The Guardian, 28 July 2019.)
I don’t know what the research literature says, but my unlearned guess is that courage is about transforming knowledge, not about hormones. In Michael Basseches and Michael Mascolo’s book Psychotherapy as a Developmental Process (Routledge, 2009), even systematic desensitization (graduated exposure therapy) is a kind of developmental transformation of a person’s memory, cognition, and behavior: “the development of more adequate knowledge”. What “more adequate knowledge” means will be different for different people, since people have different forms of ignorance, but it seems obvious that men and women and the differently gendered all need to develop more adequate knowledge.
It’s not helpful to teach some people, such as girls, to think about fear in a way that puts them at a disadvantage, essentially withholding from them an adequate knowledge of fear. At the same time, it’s not helpful to teach some people to ignore their emotions, as Carmen McLean illustrated in the case of boys, which is another way of withholding an adequate knowledge of fear. Emotions are information: We need adequate knowledge of how to work with that information, neither ignoring it nor making automatic inferences from it. And I think working with that information could include using it instrumentally when there is a good rationale for doing so, as in Śāntideva’s “war against the mental afflictions”.
Thich Nhat Hanh, in Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm (Harper, 2012), said that the greatest gift is the gift of fearlessness: “We live in fear of many things—of our past, of death, of losing our ‘self’ or identity. These eight exercises, together with the first eight breathing exercises, bring us the insight that enables us to touch the ultimate dimension of reality and free ourselves from fear. When we are able to share our way of being and our insight with others, we offer them the greatest gift there is, the gift of nonfear.” It seems clear to me that Thich Nhat Hanh’s “gift of fearlessness” is also a gift of knowledge.
Amod Lele said:
It’s a pretty safe bet that any attempt to reduce as complex a mental or behavioural phenomenon as courage to a single biological factor, like testosterone, is going to end up silly at best and dangerous at worst. On the other hand, I don’t subscribe to the Platonic view that lack of virtue is necessarily a matter of ignorance per se; often the good that we would, we do not. The reasons we don’t have to do with our biology, in a complex way – but then so does our rationality itself.
I agree there is often something wrong with ignoring emotion, and that that is something boys are often taught to do. (In my post long ago on traditional masculinity I pointed to Slash’s autobiography as an example, where instead of dealing with his fears and angers he turns to heroin). But the key question to me is: how can we actually reduce our negative emotions? Repressing anger seems to be a very bad way of reducing it. But the interesting point about the John Wayne quote is that, in both the Bhayabherava and experimental psychological evidence, “saddling up anyway” seems to work as a way of reducing fear. I don’t see that as ignoring it per se; rather as continuing to act in the face of it. Much as in modern mindfulness meditation, one learns to perceive emotions, notice them and acknowledge them – in order to leave them aside, to go back to whatever else one was doing, such as breathing. What McLean says we do with boys seems to be in line with that approach: feel your fear, but overcome it to act anyway.
Regarding “I don’t subscribe to the Platonic view that lack of virtue is necessarily a matter of ignorance per se”: I’m not a Platonist either, so perhaps it would help if I clarify that by knowledge (ignorance) I mean a very general category that includes many kinds and complexity. It includes (non)skill, (in)competence, (in)ability, (lack of) know-how, insofar as they are cognitive, where “cognition” is very broadly conceived. I’m not talking about only theoretical knowledge.
In the kind of problem that you mention, “the good that we would, we do not”: I see this, broadly speaking, as an issue of ignorance, insofar as the cause is cognitive (and not external—I imagine that I could find myself in situations where I would act unvirtuously due to causes that are overwhelmingly environmental or situational, but if I’m honest with myself I have to admit I generally never find myself in those situations). For example, perhaps someone has conflicting knowledge (knowledge of reasons to do the good, and knowledge of reasons not to do the good) but she doesn’t know that there is a conflict because part of what is known is not currently being consciously considered (implicit knowledge), and/or she doesn’t know how to skillfully address the conflict. If she acts unvirtuously as a result, then her lack of virtue is a matter of ignorance.
I agree with everything else you say up to the last two sentences; I would quite strongly disagree with your last two sentences if you are saying that acknowledging and then leaving emotions aside is the only way of working with emotions (even just in the context of courage). Here a general taxonomy of different ways of working with emotions is helpful. There is at least one such taxonomy in Tibetan Buddhism that I mentioned in my second comment on your post “Nussbaum’s revised view of anger”. An example of a modern taxonomy is from psychologist Les Greenberg: awareness, expression, regulation, reflection, and transformation (from his writings on emotion-focused therapy, but with some interesting parallels with Tibetan Buddhism, I think).
Also, it’s important to consider that people’s experience of emotion arises in conjunction with their implicit knowledge, which Greenberg calls “emotion schemes”: much of therapy is often about changing the implicit knowledge. That’s an important part of the development of more adequate knowledge: unlearning what we know that isn’t so.
Whether one subscribes to one or many ways of working with emotions, one still has to know how to work with emotions, which can be learned through trial and error, guided practice, modeling, and through what modern psychologists call psychoeducation. Buddhist written teachings about emotions could be considered a kind of ancient psychoeducation.
Amod Lele said:
No, not saying acknowledging emotions and leaving aside is the only way to deal with them, even in the context of courage. It does seem to me that in that particular context it is probably the most helpful way to address them, but as in other contexts, there are lots of different interventions we can fruitfully undertake to fix our troubled minds.
We may be talking about more than one definition of courage: one is short-term symptom relief for fear and cowardice (“fake it till you make it”, “feel the fear and do it anyway”); the other is fearlessness that is a quality of a deeply transformed mind. Or they could be called different degrees of development of courage: superficial and deep. Śāntideva’s “war against the mental afflictions”, for example, strikes me as a superficial approach. Earlier on the path, we need more symptom relief because there is more fear because we are more ignorant.
Amod Lele said:
The crucial point for me is that the short-term symptom relief contributes to a deeply transformed mind. That’s why I made the point in the post that I had originally thought John Wayne’s approach was at far removed from Buddhism – but changed my mind. It could be the case that “saddling up anyway” just papers over the problem of the fear that remains in one’s heart and mind, but it appears that it actually isn’t; acting despite fear in the short term itself serves to reduce and lessen the fear in the long term.
Yes. When that technique works to reduce fear over the long term, it’s because by acting one learns from the consequences of one’s actions and thereby transforms one’s implicit knowledge. If one doesn’t act, or if one acts without absorbing the implications of the consequences for what one knows, then one doesn’t learn, and one’s knowledge doesn’t develop.
I was consulting Dr. Google last night and found a text that may illuminate the “Aristotle versus Plato on virtue” allusion that came up in the previous comments. The book description for Lorraine Smith Pangle’s Reason and Character: The Moral Foundations of Aristotelian Political Philosophy (University of Chicago Press, 2020) says, in part:
“Pangle shows how Aristotle’s arguments for virtue as the core of happiness and for reason as the guide to virtue emerge in dialectical response to Socrates’s paradoxical claim that virtue is knowledge and vice is ignorance, and as part of a politically complex project of giving guidance to lawgivers and ordinary citizens while offering spurs to deep theoretical reflection. Against Socrates, Aristotle insists that both virtue and vice are voluntary and that individuals are responsible for their characters, a stance that lends itself to vigorous defense of moral responsibility. At the same time, Pangle shows, Aristotle elucidates the importance of unchosen concerns in shaping all that we do and the presence of some form of ignorance or subtle confusions in all moral failings. Thus the gap between his position and that of Socrates comes on close inspection to be much smaller than first appears, and his true teaching on the role of reason in shaping moral existence far more complex.”
It sounds like Pangle argues for a key role for knowledge in Aristotle’s account of virtue. Pangle also wrote an article on Aristotelian courage a few years before that could be interesting in comparison with her book: “The anatomy of courage in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics”, The Review of Politics, 80(4), 2018, 569–590.
Donna Brown said:
Good post. I think in Buddhism, ‘courage’ might fall under kshanti/khama/bzod-pa, since courage is a factor in being able to patiently endure difficulties or wrongs. The linking idea might be ‘fortitude,’ which some people use as a translation for these terms. Fortitude requires courage; courage is like the backbone that reinforces our strength to endure and overcome.
Amod Lele said:
I think this is right, yes. For a while I thought it might be vīrya, because of the macho connotation, but Śāntideva’s instructions there are different, urging people to develop more fear, of death and its consequences for future lives; it has more to do with perseverance, effort. Fear isn’t at the centre of what kṣānti responds to, but I think it’s one of the things.