Living a life of virtue is the chief aim of the Stoics. To do so, we must understand what Virtue is. Here is my take on it. The four virtues in Stoicism are; Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Temperance. In this part, we are going to be brave and look at the virtue of Courage.
The first idea we have of Courage is of a person being a hero. Saving others or valiantly fighting in a battle. What we will find is that courage takes on many different forms. And we will also explore how it fits within the Stoic idea of living a virtuous life.
Face your fears
Of course, the soldier or protestor who is standing up for her beliefs is acting out of Courage. She is facing her fears, overcoming them, and standing her ground. Her sense of Justice shows her what to fight for. Her Temperance tells her how far to go. And her Wisdom has given her the reasoning power to outline these virtues. Courage then tells her when and how to act. When her rational view of the situation tells her the boundaries of justice are in peril, that is the moment she needs to step forward.
Fear is an important driver when we need to call upon our Courage to act or keep doing what we are doing. But what are the fears that we face? Is it always this enemy ready to harm us or are there others a bit closer to home. Fear is often connected to losing something. And losing something hurts. In a battle, we fear losing our lives, which could be considered the ultimate test of Courage. Although forsaking our nature and our beliefs can be viewed as an even bigger loss.
Have the courage to let go of things
There are smaller battles we wage on a more frequent base. Such as the times when we need to make decisions that can see us losing our possessions, wealth, job, or our status. How far do you let your boss push you around before you stand up for yourself? How much do you let your money or status control your actions, instead of living the life you want to live? And how much do you worry about your possessions being stolen from you?
Stoicism doesn’t tell you not to have things, it tries to train you to let go of the fear of losing things. You might have a fancy car, but it can be taken away from you at any moment. So enjoy driving it now, but if it has to go, hand over the keys and take the bus.
These are all external aspects of our lives that require Courage from us. Yet, we need to look closer and go inward to see what we need to ask ourselves. Then we will see what possible battles we can find there. How do we know where our limits are and when we need to act? That starts with knowing yourself. Any kind of philosophy starts with the question of who you are. As Socrates answered when asked what the most important principle of philosophy is: “Know Thyself”.
This is where we must also start. It is time to ask ourselves a lot of questions. Not the easy questions, but we must go for the hardest questions to get to the core. And believe me, this takes a lot of Courage. Because most of the time, we will find things we don’t like about ourselves. Unless we find the Courage to investigate ourselves, we can’t grow as a person.
Are you losing your identity, your virtue?
Why does it take Courage to examine ourselves? There is a fear of losing the supposed identity we have created over all these years. What will my friends think? How will my family look at me? When these doubts arise, the moment for the warrior is there to stand up and shout: ‘For Freedom!’ Because it is freedom and peace that you need. But they are never easy to get and require you to take responsibility and have the Courage to keep going.
Once we have discovered our true nature, we can then apply these views to our life. Determining what we value the most will eliminate many battles for us. What happens, is that we realize we don’t need as much as we previously thought. The fear of losing things gets smaller. We like to live in a big house, but if we had to move to something smaller, that wouldn’t impede our happiness. We can adjust and live similar lives, perhaps even happier.
Where do we draw the line?
Courage is a skill we can practice and one we can employ in many different scenarios. You’ve probably been more courageous than you realize. Developing Courage needs the help of the other virtues, they all work together. One way is to try to picture the outcome if we act as a coward and don’t follow our nature. What will we have to deal with then and is that acceptable? What we begin to see here is that often Courage is common sense, the rational thing to do. True Courage then lies in the realization of this fact. That the alternatives are not an option.
We have seen that Courage tells us when and how to act in the face of fear, adversity, and self-reflection. It is most often connected with the idea of losing things. This is why we need to ask ourselves what is really important to us and where we draw the line. Finding this out takes true Courage. And as Seneca put it:
“Sometimes even to Live is an act of Courage.”Seneca