The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #71: Valor

General Introduction
– Talking weather
– Listener feedback

The Roots of the Episode
– Who studies the Alamo?
– Davids Grubbs, Crockett, and Bowie
– Stories, not definitions

The Courage of Joshua
– Be strong and courageous
– His previous courage
– Courage as species of faith
– Obeying the law as precondition of courage
– Linguistic curiosity

Thomistic Valor
– How did Thomas adapt Aristotle?
– Fortitude, not manliness
– Martyrs over soldiers
– Daring vs. fortitude

Homeric Bravery
– Courage in the face of absurdity
– Courage as the highest virtue
– The greatest courage in the poem
– Is Achilles invincible?
– Crappy movies

Anglo-Saxon Bravery
– Tolkien weighs in
– The dreary ending
– Nathan complicates matters
– Lost cause-ism

Two Eras of Poetry
– Tennyson’s ambivalent skepticism
– The living dead become the dead dead
– Owen returns the ticket
– Dulce et decorum est pro amico mori

Other Examples
– Camus twists Thomas
– Crane twists Aristotle

Average Everdayness Courage
– The lessons of Joshua
– Spoiling Lord Jim
– Nathan dodges the question
– Platonic rather than Aristotelian courage
– Can courage be allegorized?

10 thoughts on “The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #71: Valor

  1. The forums seem to be dead lately, so I’ll post here.

    “If one’s sword is broken, he will strike with his hands. If his hands are cut off, he will press the enemy down with his shoulders. If his shoulders are cut away, he will bite through ten or fifteen enemy necks with his teeth. Courage is such a thing.” -Hagakure

    What a depressing episode! Your primary paragons of valor are those who fight in a hopeless cause, and the more meaningless the more courageous. Yeesh. I need a drink.

    Maybe the forums died heroically in an ultimately-futile struggle against the monsters of chaos, thereby earning a place of honor in Valhalla.

    Returning to the psychology of virtue, we shrinks seem to take a broader view of courage, defining it in terms of the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, either external or internal. So non-combat expressions of courage do count as legitimate courage rather than allegories of courage. For example, In his 1956 book “Profiles in Courage,” John F. Kennedy tells the stories of several US Senators who demonstrated political courage, choosing to do what they believed to be right rather than politically advantageous. For the benefit of the country, they risked their careers. One such Senator was Edmund G. Ross. Ross opposed the policies of President Andrew Johnson, and personally disliked him. However, when Congress passed the Tenure-of-Office Act (a move by the Legislature to usurp Executive power. The Act was later overturned as unconstitutional), then used Johnson’s violation of that Act to institute impeachment proceedings, Ross recognized it as a partisan attempt to undermine the authority of the President. Ross violated the instructions of his party and the popular will of his anti-Johnson constituents, and cast a vote of “not guilty” at Johnson’s trial. The President was acquitted by one vote. Because he had sworn “to do impartial justice,” Ross lost his office, was savaged by partisan newspapers, and faced threats, insults, physical assault, and near poverty. He lived out the remainder of his career in obscurity and ostracism. His courageous act reduced him to the status of a “nobody,” but in choosing that fate, he prevented the degeneration of the United States into a Congressional oligarchy. No sudden death or combat or epic stand against the gods, but courageous nonetheless.

    In addition, psychologist Salvatore Maddi has dedicated his career to a personality trait he calls “hardiness.” Hardiness is associated with better stress-resilience and coping, and Maddi defines it as a form of existential courage. A hardy person faces the anxiety of an unknowable future, commits to goals that provide a sense of purpose, and takes responsibility for rising to challenges.

    Y’all mention extreme sports and question whether or not that counts as courage. I deal with this in my martial arts book, and I argue that it in fact is courage. You have to face and overcome fear in order to successfully train and compete. For example, there is a particular move (shoulder throw) that is always frightening, no matter how many times I’ve been thrown (you are briefly airborne in that throw, and that moment of out-of-control-ness never fails to scare me). I’d say it counts as courage to keep coming back to be thrown again.

    Virtues grow through practice. Being courageous in small things adds up and increases the likelihood of a valorous response in higher-stakes situations.

    I have to wait a week for your podcast on patience? ARGH! I can’t wait that long to learn about patience! ARGH!

  2. To speak to the relevance of courage in our age, I think back to one of the objectives of courage from “The Republic” which is to preserve. I’ve always imagined courage in ways you guys are describing – war, faith, self-sacrifice – but never considered courage as a preservative.

    This strikes me as especially pertinent now, even as in “The Republic”, when some are ‘called’ to the preservation of properties/cities, and the others of us of culture and truth.

    Thanks for your discussions!

    warm regards,
    m

  3. Dang. I submitted a massive response, and the computer ate it. Stupid gluttonous computer.

    Short version: I disagree with y’all when it comes to non-combat forms of courage. I argue that any exercise of will to achieve goals in the face of obstacles counts as legitimate courage rather than an “allegory” of courage, whether the obstacles are death, pain, ostracism, career suicide, or the existential courage required to face uncertainty and still take responsibility for one’s choices.

  4. So, I have been listening for a while, commenting for the first time – I really sat up and took notice at the very end when the question of the Aristotelian concept of courage against a more Platonic idea came up. Unfortunately, in the specific situation, it has been forgotten that the Republic is not a suggestion for a society, but an extended analogy for the function of the proper human being. The idea of some members of society not possessing/instantiating courage would be, for Plato, one of that individual simply not being virtuous.
    That said, I think there is a very important idea at the root of this question, namely, why it is that Aristotle gets pride of place in contemporary discussions of virtue. I have been pushing for a more Platonic-oriented conception of specifically Christian virtue for a little over a year now, and I would very much like to encourage the questions “well, why Aristotle, anyway?”.
    I very much enjoyed the episode, as I do all others (some of which I have yet to enjoy, but hey, I am confident). Thanks for all your work, guys!

    Best Regards,
    Phil

  5. Ryan, we’ll see about making that DC Talk episode happen.

    Michael and Philip, thanks for the comments on my Platonic tangent at the end of the episode. To take them in turn, Michael, I definitely think you’ve got your finger on the main idea of andreia in Republic. And I think that there might indeed be moments when that sort of manliness comes to bear in “culture wars” as well as in wars involving spears and shields. The point I was trying to articulate was that, in the context of the community, even that concession might not necessarily lead to a state of affairs in which every citizen’s (or every teacher’s) role is to stand and fight. After all, the spirited part comes to ruin when not governed by reason.

    Phil, thank you as well. I’m inclined to read Republic both as psychological allegory and as paradigm for the polis (not blueprint, which is different). So when Socrates holds up as superior a Lacedaimonian model of professional soldiers rather than citizen-soldiers, I tend to take that preference fairly literally as well as allegorically. Therefore I’m inclined to wonder whether the more Athenian-minded Aristotle should not give way to the Platonic/Pauline imagination, in which some become soldiers (or martyrs), and that contribution to the community is good, and everyone else, so long as they play different roles as suits their gifts, also do good things. To be honest, the thought occurred to me as we were recording, so I’m still working through its implications. 🙂

    1. Nathan, thanks for your response. I think your idea is certainly on the right track. I especially think that in conceiving of community and community roles, the Pauline/Platonic paradigm might be more useful. So first a critique, then something constructive:

      I don’t think you can get away with calling it simply Platonic, because even if Republic (I can’t get italics?) is paradigmatic for community, the concept of virtue throughout the Platonic corpus leaves us with the problem that we can’t abstract one virtue (in this case, virtuous role) from all others. Specifically regarding courage, the Laches is the result of the inability to distinguish courage from wisdom, the same end that many of the Socratic dialogues on the nature of a given virtue get to (see also the Protagoras and the Charmides, off the top of my head). So the virtues seems to be exemplified or instantiated aspects of a whole, big-V Virtue.

      Now, the constructive aspect: if we move the locus of Virtue to God, we can tell a story about differing manners of participation, and get the same sort of Pauline account about differing members with different roles who are all a part of the same body (i.e. the eternal Trinitarian life of God). I opine that this idea is present, in a very proto-form, in Augustine’s Civitas Dei. There’s a lot of other good that comes from this move, as well as some perhaps uncomfortable conclusions – I would point you to some more modern work on this, but everyone in virtue ethics loves Aristotle and peer review is a slow process…

      So essentially, we need to make the same move that may of the Church Fathers did when appropriating ideas from Plato – take what is useful, and reinterpret that which contradicts with Christianity. Platonic philosophy is a useful tool, at least in my opinion, and it seems that folks like Irenaeus and Augustine (to name only two of many) are in agreement.

  6. As always, I come at this from someone that earns my pay from pop culture but I think that, in addition to WWI poets, the most paradigm shifting examination of courage in mechanized warfare is probably Catch-22.

    It makes the statement that, not only is bravery outdated in WWII (in particular with the relationship between bomber pilots and flak gunners) but it’s crazy.

    Youssarian comes to the (traditionally thought of as crazy) conclusion that everyone is trying to kill him but, in the particular situation of being a Bombardier in WWII, he’s right.

    If we are treating films as literary texts, I would also point out that Forrest Gump has a particular take on bravery being for “non-thinkers.”

    Don’t get me started on the relationship between Scooby and Scrappy Doo.

  7. It was terrific to hear the name of Wilfred Owen–fantastic poet. Responding to your podcast–terrific–I can recommend Paul Fussell’s book “The Great War and Modern Memory.” He explores literary, artistic and imaginative responses to WWI from some wonderful artists: Owen, Sassoon, Graves, Jones who all served in the trenches.

    Cheers!

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