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Meditation on Courage Title
by Arthur Paul Patterson

Courage as a virtue always presupposes some form of selflessness, altruism or generosity. Virtuous courage certainly does not rule out a certain insensitivity to fear or even relish for it. But it does not presuppose them. This kind of courage is not the absence of fear but the capacity to overcome it by a stronger and more generous will.

- Andre Comte-Sponville

I AM WRITING about the virtue of courage in the serene, muted environment of the Winnipeg Public Library. I write as the United States is waging war in Iraq. CNN invites me to watch it moment by gruesome moment. I am wondering how courage is understood and expressed in our world today. About a year ago, the question came up on ABC-TV’s Politically Incorrect . Bill Maher posed a query that I am sure he never envisioned would cause such a public kafuffle, the swift demise of his show, and loss of his job. All he did was ask about the nature of “courage” and suggest that it took more courage for Al Qaeda terrorists armed with box cutters to fly into the World Trade Center than it would for sophisticatedly equipped US pilots to lob bombs on Afghanistan targets from the security of their high flying jets, out of enemy range. I chuckled at the contrast between the low tech Taliban and high tech jet pilots and concluded that Bill had effectively fulfilled his role as the court jester goading us into consideration of the deeper mysteries of modern events. As Bill found out, his timing was off; America was in no mood to laugh.

Current events in Iraq pose the question about the nature of courage again. This time if the court sage rather than a comedian addressed the question it might be taken more seriously. Andre Comte Sponville is such a sage from the academic French court of the Sorbonne in Paris; hopefully that doesn't disqualify him on political grounds. wheelchair imageIn his book, A Small Treatise on Great Virtues, he suggests courage is the ability to overcome fear, to persist in the advancement of a moral value for the benefit of others. Any other sort of bravery is morally neutral at best. Courage is not the opposite of fear but a moral response required by fear. The greater the fear, the more integral the courage.

What kinds of people flew into the World Trade Center? What kinds of people are fighting in Iraq? Undoubtedly both have ideological or religious motives. Do these motives make their actions courageous? If the September 11th terrorists who piloted those planes into the WTC had absolutely no fear, Sponville says they would merely be showing a type of physiological courage, dependent on passion and suspension of fear through bravado. If their actions were done solely for the benefit of others with no thought of their own reward, that would be one thing. If they were acting to accrue spiritual rewards in the afterlife, or monetary rewards for their families, that is another.

Have you been watching soldier's stories on CNN lately? The younger guys are full of “spit and vinegar” jam-packed full of testosterone and gumption ready to liberate Iraq. They may be right or wrong about the war but the moral question has to do with whether they manifest the classical virtue of courage. If they had the best interests of the Iraqi people at the center of their motivation, the virtue of courage would be clearly evident. They would be willing to sacrifice their own lives for the freedom and quality of life of the people of Iraq. I wonder how many militarily-trained nineteen to twenty-three year olds are able to self transcend and adapt an indigenous Arab perspective on the Iraqi situation? I do not doubt that most of these young men and women are heading into the war full of good intentions and bravery; full of North American moral pull-out quotevalues that include fighting for one’s nation, liberating the oppressed, making the world safe for democracy, and ensuring that the war against terrorism proves victorious. Some are there because of machismo, the need to prove their own courage. Others might be there out of the reckless urge for adventure or simply the pure joy of kicking butt. These are the impressions I get from some of the interviews.
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