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Courage and the Art of Living

Caroline Reichard
Religious Studies
Stanford University
July 1999

My work is in religious ethics. I am interested in how people answer the question "How should I live?" I also ask how we construct lives of which we can be proud and in which we can flourish. The focus of my current work is on courage and how this particular virtue -- from one perspective perhaps an outdated expression of "machismo" but from another perspective a vital ingredient of the good life for men or women -- is important to people interested in living well.

My work in religious ethics is about courage. Growing out of my personal experiences as a sheepdog handler, dog trainer, and search and rescue worker, the study of courage has led me far afield from traditional university venues. In my work, I combine lessons about courage learned by non-academics with the philosophical and theological speculations developed over the centuries in the scholarly community.

Courage is an easy word to use, but it's hard to define. What are we referring to when we call someone courageous? Is courage a feeling, an action, or something else? Are you born with it, or does it develop over time? How do we recognize it, and where can we find it? Traditionally, courage has been associated with life-endangering enterprises, notably war; are these the only opportunities for courage's emergence? Or, if courage can indeed be present in a wider variety of situations, is it still necessary at least to be risking your life? These are hard questions, and virtue ethics, ÷ the branch of moral theory concerned with the development of character, ÷ has had to ask these questions over and over, with every original thinker on courage having to begin again with these well-worn but still fresh questions.

Traditionally, courage has often been thought to belong to "men's worlds," but today, cultivating courage is a problem that ought to especially concern women. Courage, bravery, toughness, heroism: all have been strongly identified as masculine virtues in many cultures; these martial virtues have constituted a vital part of the full experience of masculinity. In the United States, the women's movement has underscored how debilitating an overemphasis on these "macho" qualities can be, and how men have been unable to express important aspects of themselves because of their belief that to be tender or nurturing would weaken them. But I look at the traditionally male, martial virtues themselves and explore their possibilities rather than their alternatives. I am fascinated by the experience of courage itself: how does it feel, and what does it do? Why do people put themselves in situations where great bravery is necessary; why do they want to be heroes? Men have been taught that their authenticity, their full self-expression in culture, is dependent upon their courage. So I ask how courage is related to authenticity, to the expression of one's inmost potentialities within a world which consistently resists such self expressions and the consequences of that sort of thinking for women. Ernest Hemingway called courage "grace under pressure," a description which haunts and compels me. I look at that grace in a different light than Hemingway did: he and others like him couldn't separate a salute to the real possibility of death from killing, couldn't see how toughness and softness don't stand in opposition, and saw their bravery in terms of their masculinity rather than their individuality. In my work, I aim ultimately to talk about the experience of courage as a quintessentially human experience, but I also look closely at how courage has become a "sexed" virtue, what the consequences of that misidentification are for us today, and how we might begin to find a better alternative for ourselves and for our children.

My work is in religious ethics, not philosophy, and my interest in virtues in general and courage in particular is a religious question. Some of us sense that our most important feats of courage are staged away from the battlefield, that our finest acts of courage are saved for our choices about how we are going to live our lives. We see that the world resists our interpretations and self expressions, and we find that our expression of ourselves and what we value is achieved only with difficulty. So the courage to express what we love in our lives becomes critical to life itself. In my work, I am especially interested in this aspect of courage. I am interested in how we harness our excellences in pursuit of our very highest, best endeavors and how we understand our heroism to be related to our religious beliefs about goodness and virtue.

I think that cultivating courage is vital to being a good person. That perspective informs my work throughout. My intention is to see if the particular takes on courage presented by the authors with whom I engage, thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, can shed some light on our own assumptions about courage and its value for life; if these dead men can give us some inspiration today. But I am not working on a "manual" for calculating the bravery of other people. The courage I think people ought to be concerned with is their own courage, not other people's. If my work fails to motivate anybody to take my issues more seriously in his or her own life, if it fails to elucidate to myself and others that which I value most, then it is a failure. So this is not a traditional kind of academic project. I have put my premium on persuading you that a particular viewpoint is important to your own life. And while I hope to persuade five scholars that the academic merits of my project are of a caliber warranting my reception as a Ph.D., it is my greater hope that my work will have some value for anyone interested in living well.