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By Richard Avramenko


The Montréal Review, July 2012


"Courage: The Politics of Life and Limb" by Richard Avramenko (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011)


". . . Richard Avramenko's Courage: The Politics of Life and Limb [is] his veritable history of the 'existential virtue par excellence' from ancient Greece to modern times. . . . Subsequent chapters deal with martial courage and honor, political courage, moral courage, and economic courage. The last chapter, 'The Aftermath,' is Avramenko's delightful effort to come to terms with his obvious reverence for courage's lofty role in human affairs."



Some years ago, while hiking with my girlfriend in the Canadian Rockies, the issue of courage arose in what was, for me, a new light. Understandably, as a city-slicker from Toronto, she asked if we should be worried about bears. I responded with a half-joke: "I'm not worried about bears-I run much faster than you." We both half-laughed.

The response was a half-joke because of the irony. Even in this day and age, it is unacceptable to leave our near and dear in the lurch. Simply put, to run away faster is an egregious act of cowardice. It would be to count myself as more important than her. The courageous person does not act this way. And lest the example lose its poignancy because it is gendered, one might retell the joke as a conversation with one's child, boy or girl. The cowardice is even more painful if we imagine a parent abandoning a child to a bear. And lest the power dimension lessen the point, one can imagine two Marines in such a situation: a mugger pulls a knife on them in a dark alley-one of them runs away, leaving his comrade to deal with the threat alone. The cowardice would be jarring. The courageous man does not ditch others for the sake of himself.

In each of these examples, what is most interesting is the relational character of courage. It is because we are with others that courage matters. If one were hiking alone, turning and running from a bear makes perfect sense. Yet the physical act is identical. If a mugger pulls a knife (and one is reasonably sure of one's sprinting ability), it makes sense to run. But leaving one's child behind with the mugger is about the worst thing one could ever do. Yet the physical act is the same. Courage thus has a two-fold character-the physical and the relational, and this is what I have explored in my book, Courage: the Politics of Life and Limb.

Courage, I suggest, is the willingness to risk life and limb for the sake of something. In other words, courage reveals what we care about. It reveals those things that matter more to us than our own lives and limbs. It reveals that which inspires us to overcome ourselves. And it is the self-overcoming character of courage that makes it so poignant. When we are witness to real acts of courage, we know immediately what matters most fundamentally to the courageous actor-and it is not herself, not her own physical well-being.

In Courage I suggest that through the history of Western political thought there are five fundamental cares for the sake of which we risk life and limb: honor, justice, liberty, wealth, and authenticity. I limit the catalogue to five because, although it is possible to imagine other things for the sake of which people might risk life and limb, it is around these cares that communities most often emerge. When one thinks of ancient Sparta-or any military society, for that matter-the centrality of honor necessarily comes to the fore. "Death before dishonor" sounds a familiar bell, even in this day and age. Martial courage, I suggest, is the glue that holds honor societies together.

The ancient Greek word for courage was andreia. The word stems from aner, which means man, as in the male of the human species. In other words, courage was a quality exclusive to men. It was both begotten and proved in battle. Without courage, one was not permitted to participate in the public life of the city. In fact, courage was so bound up with the male sex that in the earliest Greek texts, like Homer's Iliad, andreia was not yet in use. To spur warriors to hold their ground, or to charge into battle, the kings would shout, "aner esti!" Be men! The implications of this are clear: only men could participate in civic life, and participation was best accomplished through acts of violence and continual threats of violence.

This is the paradox of courage. On the one hand, courage is about self-overcoming and commitment to others. On the other hand, in its pure form at least, it is exclusionary and violent. Is there a way out of this paradox? Is it possible to maintain all that is good about courage, yet jettison the bad? These are precisely the questions asked by figures such as Aristophanes, Plato, and Aristotle in what I call the Athenian moment. In opposition to what one might call "Spartan culture" and the long war between Athens and Sparta, these thinkers recognized the need to overcome culture based exclusively on honor, manly courage, and violence. In place of martial courage, they suggest what might be called "political courage"-a courage that aims at justice rather than honor; and rather than relying on a man's capacity to do violence, they all point to logos (speech and reason) as the preferred weapon. The paradox, it seems, can be overcome.

For other thinkers, however, the paradox cannot be overcome through reason. For example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a great admirer of the Spartans and courage in general, rejects political courage for its reliance on reason and the illusion of justice. Human beings, he suggests, are not first and foremost reasonable creatures, and thus any community predicated on this vision is ill-fated. Instead, he suggests that the flourishing individual needs autonomy and the way to this is to tap into a courage based on an actual moral capacity of all people: viz., compassion. Hence, right about the same time Patrick Henry says "Give me liberty or give me death," Rousseau envisions a community individuals invoking "moral courage" for the sake of liberty. The paradox of courage is overcome through compassion.

In Courage, in addition to martial, political, and moral courage, I suggest two other types of courage: economic and existential. Examples abound of human beings, male and female, risking life and limb for the sake of wealth. Alexis de Tocqueville recognized this as one of the defining characteristics of Jacksonian America and argued that bien-être, as he called it, inspired both the great entrepreneurial daring of Americans and was the glue that brought the new democratic society together. Similarly, history is replete with examples of communities fighting and dying for the sake of authentic living. Often (but not always) informed by religious principles, the existentially courageous person sees a life out of tune with the order of Being (however understood) as one not worth living. To live inauthentically is akin to a Spartan living without honor, Socrates refusing to live the unjust life, or Patrick Henry living without liberty.

The story of Courage: the Politics of Life and Limb is that just as one cannot run away from egregious acts of cowardice in the Canadian Rockies, we cannot run away from the story courage tells us about who we are, both as individuals and as a community. Though we may laugh at courage as an antiquated virtue from former times, we should only half-laugh.


Richard Avramenko is assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is co-editor, with John von Heyking, of Friendship and Politics: Essays in Political Thought (University of Notre Dame Press, 2008).


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