'A' Level Essay: "Is courage necessarily a virtue?"

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles; Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances.” Courage is innate, and can be found in all of us, whether or not we choose to display it. It can even be said to occasionally be an instinctive effort – a response in the face of danger. However, from the deduction that courage is a natural human trait, courage can be mad too, as it is exacted by those who engage in moments of folly or suppressed lunacy. Cynics assert that when courage is exacted by a self-centred person or a madman, the effects of these courageous acts may vary greatly, with a tendency to be negative. How then can courage be completely viewed as a virtue? Virtues by definition are amorphous good things, blessings unto society and humanity as a whole. Personally, I believe that courage is most virtuous when it is combined with knowledge, wisdom and opinion. Hence, I agree that courage is a virtue only when we choose to do good, especially when it is most difficult.

Positively, courage can be a virtue in the form of physical courage, whereby it is a response to external threats. It can be a proactive choice or decision undertaken for the preservation of one’s rights and way of life. Definitely, courage in this sense presents advantageous situations, such as the physical bravery shown during wartime. For example, during World War II, a French resistance group, the ‘Marquis’, rose in the midst of ceaseless warfare and provided shelter and sanctuary to the British pilots who were shot down over France by the aggressive German Air Force, the Luftwaffe. In the ravages of war, the members of ‘Marquis’ took a convicted stance against Hitler’s threat of worldwide domination, refusing to subvert themselves to the Germans’ machinations. Their courage in the engagement of such an infinitely dangerous mission is indeed admirable, and encouraged other resistance movements to rise up during WWII, uniting the people as a powerful cohesive force against external aggression. As Marianne Williamson observed, “As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” This is the evident achievement of their physical exhibition of courage, as courage in this instance is definitely, without questionable doubt, a virtue that empowers others.

Courage can also be seen as a virtue in the quest for individual identity: to be different and break free from the restraints of a conformist society. Such idealism is indeed a shining positivity in a stark world – an example of this individualistic courage is in the model of Vincent Van Gogh, the world-renowned painter of pieces-de-resistance such as ‘Sunflowers’ and ‘Starry Night’. He was an idealist and an innovator in his own right, willing to challenge even the conventions of art in his ceaseless quest for self-expression and self-fulfilment. Pablo Picasso also exhibited this version of courage, shedding light on the abstract art scene in Paris, and ushering in a new era for the fine arts through his constant breaking of barriers and opposition toward artistic conventions. These two artists are famous globally, and the singular differentiating aspect that set them apart from other artistic talents was their courage, as they were largely misunderstood by others during their lifetimes. However, their courage to be different indubitably changed the course of the evolution of art forever, and now their works are priceless and considered by the curators of fine art to be nearly sacrosanct. Their courage to dream, and realise their dreams, once again empowers global society, as they were pioneers to dream the impossible, convention-challenging dreams. Indeed, their courage is a virtue that inspires and stimulates our imagination.

Courage may also manifest as moral courage, and is virtuous in fighting for change, choosing to risk embarrassment rather than tolerate injustice. One such example is that of Mother Teresa, of whom virtue was an integral part of her existence, as it was inborn and ingrained in her being. She renounced all worldly pleasures she might have possessed and rendered herself destitute, courageously caring for the aged and young in Calcutta, in a stunning display of self-sacrifice. After all, a virtue is a trait that is meant to be advantageous to people – Mother Teresa’s courage and virtue widened the circles of compassion of an infinite number of individuals all over the world. Another individual who exemplifies courage is Martin Luther King Jr., who was the leader in the civil rights movement from 1955 until his assasination. He advanced civil rights through nonviolence, inspired by his Christian beliefs and nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi. However, apart from his deep religious and moral beliefs, less appreciated and acknowledged is the courage of his convictions. King was nearly killed when he was stabbed by an assailant while on a book tour, and was arrested numerous times as he led marches and other demonstrations. He lived a great deal of his life in the face of ugly crowds, yet, King’s beliefs and courage prevailed. It must be acknowledged that he was human, flawed and no doubt he was scared. However, his humanity never overcame his commitment to a higher purpose and in his own brave, nonviolent way, he showed courage. King’s courage gave others strength, and inspired many others to have the same goal of ending racial injustice. Therefore, this shows how moral courage can be expressed to end injustice, and is undoubtedly virtuous in fighting for positive change in society.

However, we must also recognize that courage may not always be virtuous – it may bring about devastating consequences like the imposition on peoples’ lives, destitution and military aggression. As seen in Adolf Hitler’s Expansionist Policy in WWII to set up his ideal world, he singlehandedly orchestrated the deaths of six million Jews during the Holocaust in the pursuit of his vision. His power was absolute and unchallenged, and showed courage and fierce determination in executing his plans. He was convicted in his desire for absolute power, even resorting to underhanded means for political ascension – he and his Gestapo (the German secret police) burnt down the Reichstag in order for Hitler to initiate a state of Emergency and seize both the power of the Chancellor and the President and install himself as the absolute dictator, the Fuhrer. It took courage for Hitler to pursue this dream for absolute dominion so relentlessly, especially in the face of such mounting global opposition and adversity. Despite the threat of military aggression against his country and the ultimate threat of a world war, he remained resolute. However, such a dream as he wished to be fulfilled was tainted and distorted, and as the saying goes, ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. In this instance, his courage was abused and brought unimaginable pain and suffering to vast numbers of people – such courage can never, in any sense, be considered virtuous.

Similarly, courage should not be regarded as a virtue when such courage is utilised to pursue what one thinks is the right course of action against general consensus and the greater good of all. Courage in this sense can be made manifest in one man’s assumed delusional struggle against the broader concerns of society, a self-initiated renegade cause that brings destruction and uncertainty in its wake. Such an example is of the parallels of both Doctor Stockmann from the play, ‘Enemy of the People’, by Henrik Ibsen, and the true story of Erin Brockovich. In both cases, both Brockovich and Stockmann discovered discrepancies in the water supply that led them to deduce, with conviction, that the water sources were poisoned. Hence, they sought to challenge the authorities, albeit with insufficient evidence, compromising and jeopardising the livelihoods of many of whom had jobs dependent on the water supply and its management. Despite the evident repercussions their perception of the truth might have imposed on the innocents, they nevertheless went ahead with their quest for supposed justice, disregarding the injustice that they would exact on the people. Hence, in this sense, courage is seen as an instrument of a selfish quest for a personal belief, rather than an expression of a noble virtue.

Oscar Wilde quipped, ‘Society does not exist, it is a mere concept. The real world consists of only individuals.’ This statement can be seen as true when we realize that there is no realistic standardisation and no coagulation of the separate individuals of society into one condensed body. Since courage is an instrument exacted and controlled by the individual, the perception of courage and the effects of courageous acts are bound to vary greatly as the individual lends a portion of his multi-dimensional character to the expression of courage. Hence there can be no clear-cut designation of courage as a pure virtue, as it does not exist in mono-dimensions. Courage can be positive, bestowing blessings upon others, and can be a virtue, or it can be a curse – depending on what objectives it lends itself to.


This first appeared on The Knowledge Loft. It is reproduced with permission.


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