Chapter 37

  1. Courage

“Prithee, peace!

I dare do all that may become a man.

Who dares do more is none.”

— Shakspeare.

Courage consists not in hazarding without fear, but being resolutely minded in a just cause. The brave man is not he who feels no fear—for that were stupid and irrational—but he whose noble soul subdues its fears, and bravely dares the danger nature shrinks from. True courage is cool and calm. The bravest of men have the least of a brutal, bullying insolence, and in the very time of danger are found the most serene and free. Rage can make a coward forget himself and fight. But what is done in fury or anger can never be placed to the account of courage.

Courage enlarges, cowardice diminishes resources. In desperate straits the fears of the timid aggravate the dangers that imperil the brave. For cowards the road of desertion should be kept open. They will carry over to the enemy nothing but their fears. The poltroon, like the scabbard, is an incumbrance when once the sword is drawn. It is the same in the every-day battles of life: to believe a business impossible is the way to make it so. How many feasible projects have miscarried through despondency, and been strangled in the birth by a cowardly imagination! It is better to meet danger than to wait for it. A ship on a lee shore stands out to sea in a storm to escape shipwreck. Impossibilities, like vicious dogs, fly before him who is not afraid of them. Should misfortune overtake, retrench, work harder; but never fly the track. Confront difficulties with unflinching perseverance. Should you then fail, you will be honored; but shrink and you will be despised. When you put your hands to a work, let the fact of your doing so constitute the evidence that you mean to prosecute it to the end. They that fear an overthrow are half conquered.

No one can tell who the heroes are, and who the cowards, until some crisis comes to put us to the test. And no crisis puts us to the test that does not bring us up, alone and single-handed, to face danger. It is comparatively nothing to make a rush with the multitude, even into the jaws of destruction. Sheep will do that. Armies can be picked from the gutters, and marched up as food for powder. But when some crisis singles one out from the multitude, pointing at him the particular finger of fate, and telling him, “Stand or run,” and he faces about with steady nerve, with nobody else to stand behind, we may be sure the hero stuff is in him. When such crises come, the true courage is just as likely to be found in people of shrinking nerves, or in weak and timid women, as in great, burly people. It is a moral, not a physical trait. Its seat is not in the temperament, but the will.

Some people imagine that courage is confined to the field of battle. There could be no greater mistake. Even contentious men—unavoidably contentious—are not by any means limited to the battlefield. And there are other struggles with adverse circumstances—struggles, it may be, with habits or appetites or passions—all of which require as much courage and more perseverance than the brief encounter of battle. Enough to contend with, enough to overcome, lies in the pathway of every individual. It may be one kind of difficulties, or it may be another, but plenty of difficulties of some kind or other every one may be sure of finding through life. There is but one way of looking at fate, whatever that may be, whether blessings or afflictions,—to behave with dignity under both. We must not lose heart, or it will be the worse both for ourselves and for those whom we love. To struggle, and again and again to renew the conflict,—this is life’s inheritance. He who never falters, no matter how adverse may be the circumstances, always enjoys the consciousness of a perpetual spiritual triumph, of which nothing can deprive him.

Though the occasions of high heroic daring seldom occur but in the history of the great, the less obtrusive opportunities for the exercise of, private energy are continually offering themselves. With these domestic scenes as much abound as does the tented field. Pain may be as firmly endured in the lonely chamber as amid the din of arms. Difficulties can be manfully combated, misfortune bravely sustained, poverty nobly supported, disappointments courageously encountered. Thus courage diffuses a wide and succoring influence, and bestows energy apportioned to the trial. It takes from calamity its dejecting quality, and enables the soul to possess itself under every vicissitude. It rescues the unhappy from degradation and the feeble from contempt.

The greater part of the courage that is needed in the world is not of an heroic kind. There needs the common courage to be honest, the courage to resist temptation, the courage to speak the truth, the courage to be what we really are, and not to pretend to be what we are not, the courage to live honestly within our own means, and not dishonestly upon the means of others. The courage that dares to display itself in silent effort and endeavor, that dares to endure all and suffer all for truth and duty, is more truly heroic than the achievements of physical valor, which are rewarded by honors and titles, or by laurels, sometimes steeped in blood. It is moral courage that characterizes the highest order of manhood and womanhood. Intellectual intrepidity is one of the vital conditions of independence and self-reliance of character. A man must have the courage to be himself, and not the shadow or the echo of another. He must exercise his own powers, think his own thoughts, and speak his own sentiments. He must elaborate his own opinions, and form his own convictions.

It has been said that he who dares not form an opinion must be a coward; he who will not must be an idler; he who can not must be a fool. Every enlargement of the domain of knowledge which has made us better acquainted with the heavens, with the earth, and with ourselves, has been established by the energy, the devotion, the self-sacrifice, and the courage of the great spirits of past times, who, however much they may have been oppressed or reviled by their contemporaries, now rank among those whom the enlightened of the human race most delight to honor.

The passive endurance of the man or woman who for conscience’ sake is found ready to suffer and endure in solitude, without so much as the encouragement of even a single sympathizing voice, is an exhibition of courage of a far higher kind than that displayed in the roar of battle, where even the weakest feels encouraged and inspired by the enthusiasm of sympathy and the power of numbers. Time would fail to tell of the names of those who through faith in principles, and in the face of difficulties, dangers, and sufferings, have fought a good fight in the moral warfare of the world, and been content to lay down their lives rather than prove false to their conscientious convictions of the truth.

The patriot who fights an always losing battle, the martyr who goes to death amid the triumphant shouts of his enemies, the discoverer, like Columbus, whose heart remains undaunted through years of failure, are examples of the moral sublime which excites a profounder interest in the hearts of men than even the most complete and conspicuous success. By the side of such instances as these, how small by comparison seem the greatest deeds of valor, inciting men to rush upon death and die amid the frenzied excitement of physical warfare.

, In, pager

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