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A bromide

September 24, 2017

I’ve been reading AC Grayling’s book of essays (originally Guardian columns) The Meaning of Things, and came across the following: “courage can only be felt by those who are afraid”. This is of course a venerable bromide, which has been around for decades; I first remember coming across it in an Enid Blyton story when I was about nine. Like all bromides, it’s always delivered as if it is a profound and original thought.

I don’t mean to suggest that it is altogether untrue. We do admire those who conquer their fears, and act as they think they must while quaking inside. That’s courage, I don’t dispute it. But don’t we also admire people who are fearless – daredevils, who brave danger with confidence and style, who exhibit grace under pressure, as Hemingway put it? That is courage too; of a different kind, but still to be admired.

It’s interesting that other virtues aren’t viewed in this way. No one says “generosity can only be felt by those who are miserly”; or “loyalty can only be felt by those who have an urge to betray”; or “kindness can only be felt those who have to overcome impulses of cruelty”.

Actually, Immanuel Kant did view morality in this way. He thought actions were only truly virtuous when duty overcame inclination. For this reason he thought that men, when altruistic, were more virtuous than altruistic women, because he thought women were naturally soft and nice and kind, while men had to strive to conquer their selfishness.

But I don’t agree with Kant, and I don’t agree with AC Grayling either. I think virtues, including courage, are admirable when they go with the grain of a person’s natural inclinations, as well as when they go against.

Discuss.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

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3 Comments
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    Thank you for the thumbnail sketch of Kant! Could you do Descartes next?
    Presumably this particular thought is due to more people identifying with timid or cautious individuals. Watching Bear Grylls hurl himself off cliffs or eat raw snakes doesn’t inspire me to think “I could do that”. Nor would watching someone do it after being terrified but at least I’d feel some empathy.

  2. Emma permalink

    Completely agree with you.

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