Thursday, September 08, 2005

ARISTOTLE AND ME: A Few Thoughts on Courage

I remember taking my first (and only) philosophy course in college. It was one of those golden days of early fall (much like today, actually), and as I walked to class with my backpack bouncing on my spine, I felt the kind of excitement and optimism that a new semester and the thought of a stimulating class can bring.

See, I thought "philosophy" was what we did late at night around the dorm, after smoking a joint or two. But after an hour spent in the company of Spinoza and Kierkegarde, I was ready for a psychic refund. Philosophy was way too much abstract yada yada for my taste. I know, I know. The failure was undoubtedly mine. Nietsche and his ilk were just too smart for this aspiring poet from a factory town.

The only philosopher who made much sense to me was Aristotle. His words not only related to my life, they suggested a better way of living it. I was especially drawn to quotes like this one on courage:

"The more thou dost advance, the more thy feet pitfalls will meet. The Path that leadeth on is lighted by one fire- the light of daring burning in the heart. The more one dares, the more he shall obtain. The more he fears, the more that light shall pale - and that alone can guide."

I started composing this post in the pre-Katrina days which now feel almost like a bygone era, a more innocent time when we could never imagine that we would see corpses left to rot on an American street, or dazed children mouthing the words "food" and "water" into TV cameras as they sat on the sidewalk and waited. In the tumultuous days that have come between that early version of the post and this one, we have witnessed an amazing panoply of courage in action on our TV screens, as well shattering displays of its failure on both institutional and individual levels.

Aristotle's words have resonated more than ever:

Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others.

And then there is this one:

"The greatest virtues are those which are most useful to other persons."

Most of the time, I don't think I'm a very courageous person. I've been known to be intimidated by a blank computer screen, a garden full of weeds, or a small child who refuses to put her shoes on. And yes, I think those things are failures of courage, too. So much of what we delay or fail to do occurs because we're afraid to try. Even ordinary things like weeding a garden or saying no to a request or honestly speaking our mind to someone close to us.

What do the every day small acts of courage against entropy and silence and our most private moments of despair have to do with the kind of heroic acts we witnessed amid the tragedy in New Orleans? According to Aristotle, quite a lot. According to him, courage is a muscle that is strengthened by every day use:

"Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts."

Do you have any idea how much hope that gives recalcitrant characters like mine? And when we think the constant struggle with the self, which often seems so futile (at least in my case) is not worth the effort, he has this to say:

"I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is over self."

Maybe that philosophy class was worth the price of admission after all.

A P.S.: If anyone would like to share your thoughts on what courage is to you, either in the comment section or on your own blog, it might make for an interesting discussion.


rdl said...

Wow! Great post! Lots to think about here. funny I took 1 philosophy class also and remember feeling the same excitement about it. But I like mine; but we read the existentialist(camus, kafka,.) that read like novels and were perfect for barstool observers like me.

Dave said...

There were some gifted philosophy profs where i went to school (Penn State) and one of my enduring regrets is that I never took a course from them. But I learn stuff just from reading the blogs - until now, for example, I had never thought much of Aristotle. (I take it these quotes must come from the Ethics?) Maybe it's time for me to give him another shot. Thanks.

Melly said...

Patry, I followed you here after we "met" last night (or was it early morning?) but saw that this post was too philosophic ;) for that hour. I came back this morning and read it. A beautiful post. As always :)

Patry Francis said...

r: "barstool observers" I like that one.

Dave: My husband went to Penn State, too. And yes, the quotes are from Ethics.

Melly: It was nice to run into you last night in a different forum. Made me feel more at home there.

ainelivia said...

Hi Patry, thanks for dropping by.
If you click on "contine reading", under the image at,
I've said something about the Tree in the Cellar.

gulnaz said...

excellent, excellent post....lots of stuff to chew about, thanks!

i loved the suggestion about becoming what we want to become through our acts. it makes everything seem possible. don't have to wait another lifetime for being a better person. i am not courageos all the times, most when it involves 'saving' someone else but it is one quality which really does beget others. you have to have courage to do all that.

Dale said...

I don't think I know what courage is. Though I never realized that till just now.

Patry Francis said...

esmeralda: nice to see you here. I returned to your site, but wasn't able to find any more about the Tree in the Cellar.

Gulnaz: The ability to change the way you are by acting like the person you want to be also gives me a lot of hope. Maybe we should give it a 30 day trial.

Dead Poet: Interesting perspective. Sometimes facing your own conscience honestly is indeed an act of courage.

Dale: I'd love to hear your thoughts once you have time to contemplate the subject.

robin andrea said...

Patry-- I had a very similar experience in my one and only Philosophy class. I expected lofty conversations that would lead to great poet insights. Instead I ended up writing mind-numbing papers on philosophical arguments for or against affirmative action.
I actually don't have a definition for courage, but I very much liked reading Aristotle's quotes.

Vickie said...

Hmm, courage...the freedom to be yourself no matter how different you might be from someone else and the ability to do what you feel is right within that context. I think a lot of courage starts with being comfortable enough in ourselves to reach out to other things. I never really thought about it much. And, I took two philosophy courses in college...

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