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The Ambivalence of Political Courage

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2009


Historically many political theorists have closely associated the practice of politics with the disposition of courage. During the past two centuries or so, however, some theorists—particularly liberals—have striven to tame the concept of politics, emphasizing the importance of gentler qualities such as toleration, civility, compassion, and reasonableness over the more bellicose quality of courage. But liberals are far from unanimous on this point. Judith Shklar, for instance, is more ambivalent about courage, recognizing both the continued relevance of moral courage for liberalism's long, difficult struggle against cruelty and fear and, at the same time, acknowledging the dangers of endowing the concept of politics with a heroic quality. Taking Shklar's ambivalence as a starting place, this article explores the current relevance of courage for politics.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 2001

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I would like to thank Jonathan Allen, Patrick Deneen, Amy Gutmann, George Kateb, Beth Posner, Joseph Romance, Alan Ryan, Maurizio Viroli, and the editor and anonymous referees of The Review of Politics, for their thoughtful comments on earlier versions of this essay.

1. For instance, Montesquieu rebukes the laws of Sparta, writing, “Lycurgus, whose institutions were harsh, did not have civility as an object when he formed the manners; he had in view the bellicose spirit he wanted to give his people” (The Spirit of the Laws [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989], p. 319)Google Scholar. Albert O. Hirschman usefully illuminates the development of the distinction between calm and violent passions in the liberal tradition. See Hirschman, , The Passions and the Interests (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), esp. pp. 6366Google Scholar.

2. For instance, see Gutmann, Amy and Thompson, Dennis, Democracy and Disagreement (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996)Google Scholar; Greenawalt, Kent, Private Consciences and Public Reasons (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ackerman, Bruce, “Why Dialogue?Journal of Philosophy 86 (1989): 522CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Moon, J. Donald, “Constrained Discourse and Public Life,” Political Theory 19 (1991): 202–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Larmore, Charles, “Pluralism and Reasonable Disagreement,” Social Philosophy and Policy 11 (1994): 6179CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3. For feminist critiques of manliness and aggressiveness in politics, see Elshtain, Jean Bethke, Women and War (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1987)Google Scholar; Elshtain, , “Citizenship and Armed Civic Virtue: Some Critical Questions on the Commitment to Public Life,” in Community in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 4755Google Scholar; and Brown, Wendy, Manhood and Politics: A Feminist Reading in Political Theory (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1988)Google Scholar.

4. See Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), pp. 3536Google Scholar. Arendt's view of courage is sometimes improperly conflated with a Nietzschean will to power. For a clarification of this misunderstanding see Arendt, , “What Is Freedom?” in Between Past and Future (New York: The Viking Press, 1968), esp. p. 156Google Scholar. See Shklar, Judith, “The Liberalism of Fear,” in Political Thought and Political Thinkers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)Google Scholar.

5. See Bentham, Jeremy, Deontology (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Browne, Green, and Longman, 1834), p. 251Google Scholar.

6. See Stevenson, Robert Louis, “The Great North Road,” in Letters and Miscellanies of Robert Louis Stevenson, vol. 22 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1911), p. 358Google Scholar.

7. Strictly speaking, this is Hemingway's definition of “guts”. Attributed to Hemingway, by Parker, Dorothy, “The Artist's Reward,” The New Yorker (30 11 1929)Google Scholar.

8. For discussion of operatiqnal definitions of courage employed by clinical and experimental psychologists, see Rachman, Stanley, Fear and Courage, 2nd ed. (New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1990)Google Scholar.

9. For an analysis of the philosophical meaning of courage, see Walton, Douglas N., Courage; A Philosophical Investigation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986)Google Scholar; von Wright, George Henrik, The Varieties of Goodness (New York: The Humanities Press, 1963)Google Scholar; Geach, Peter, The Virtues (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977)Google Scholar; Wallace, James D., Virtues and Vice (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978), esp. chap. 3Google Scholar; and Foot, Philippa, “Virtues and Vices,” in Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy (Oxford: Basil BlackWell, 1979), pp. 1Google Scholar

10. Socrates displayed courage as a soldier (by saving the life of Alcibiades during the battle of Delium); as an officeholder (by opposing the unconstitutional trial of the strategoi while taking his turn presiding over the Athenian council); and as an ordinary citizen (first, by refusing to participate in the assassination of Leon of Salamis and, later, by refusing to abandon or renounce his philosophical explorations). For Plato's accounts of the courage of Socrates see Laches 187e188Google Scholar; The Apology 28e29aGoogle Scholar; and Symposium 219a221bGoogle Scholar. For discussion of Plato's own view of courage, see Tessitore, Aristide, “Courage and Comedy in Plato's Laches,” journal of Politics 56 (1994): 115–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11. The word courage is derived from the French word cœur (“heart”), and was, perhaps, originally associated with chivalry. Other names for courage have different derivations and connotations. For instance, “bravery” comes from the Italian word bravo (a thug or hired assassin). Some philosophers still make something of these distinctions. Walton, for instance, suggests that courage stripped of its lofty purpose and normative content is mere bravery. See Walton, , Courage, p. 98Google Scholar. However, in ordinary usage, the differences between the various names for courage have become indistinct, even as our thinking about the nature of courage has become muddied. The question of what, exactly, courage is, and whether courage can be said to have strong normative content, has been reopened. This question cannot be closed merely by reference to etymology.

12. This problem was identified by Thomas Hobbes, who explained, in a protoliberal moment, how the passion of courage—defined as “sudden anger”—along with the kindred passions of honor and glory, could be used by political leaders to overcome the rational self-interest of citizens to avoid civil discord. See Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan [1651] (New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1968), pp. 123, 157Google Scholar.

13. As Amelie Rorty explains, “Psychologically, the magnetizing dispositions of courage typically diminish the force of other highly desirable categorical dispositions” (Rorty, , “The Two Faces of Courage,” in Mind in Action [Boston: Beacon Press, 1988], p. 301)Google Scholar.

14. Montesquieu writes: “L'héroïsme que la Morale avoue ne touche que peu de gens. C'est l'héroïsme qui détruit la Morale qui nous frappe et cause notre admiration”(Montesquieu, , “Mes Pensées,” Oeuvres Complètes, ed. Caillois, Roger [Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1949], 1:1305)Google Scholar. [“The heroism that morality favors does not affect that many people. It is the heroism that destroys morality that affects us and causes our admiration.”]

15. See Galston, William, Liberal Purposes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 217–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16. See Macedo, Stephen, Liberal Virtues: Citizenship, Virtue, and Community in Liberal Constitutionalism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990)Google Scholar.

17. Rorty, Richard, “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy,” in The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, ed. Peterson, Merrill and Vaughan, Robert (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), 269Google Scholar.

18. Shklar's account of fear has been criticized for being limited and onesided. For instance, it has been suggested that she focuses on the fear of state oppression to the exclusion of the equally common fear of being stateless. See Tamir, Yael, “The Land of the Fearful and the Free,” Constellations 3 (1997): 296314CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19. Shklar, , Ordinary Vices (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), p. 8Google Scholar.

20. In addition to obvious violations of human rights by totalitarian regimes (e.g., the political use of torture and murder), we can understand this to include cruelties performed by ostensibly liberal regimes (e.g., systematic discrimination against, and intimidation of, members of minority groups). See Shklar, Judith, “The Liberalism of Fear,” p. 11Google Scholar. Previously published in Rosenblum, Nancy, ed., Liberalism and the Moral Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21. See Shklar, , “The Liberalism of Fear,” p. 11Google Scholar; and Shklar, , Ordinary Vices, p. 242Google Scholar.

22. Shklar, , “The Liberalism of Fear,” p. 15Google Scholar.

23. Shklar, , Ordinary Vices, p. 234Google Scholar.

24. Ibid., pp. 5, 242.

25. Ibid., pp. 23–24.

26. Shklar's admiration for Montaigne is due, in no small part, to his identification of cruelty and torture as the foremost human evils. Like Shklar, Montaigne associates cruelty with cowardice, although he is much harsher in his declamation of cowardice than is Shklar. See De Montaigne, Michel, The Complete Essays, trans. Screech, M. A. (New York: Penguin Classics), II:27Google Scholar.

27. Shklar, , Ordinary Vices, 25Google Scholar.

28. Shklar, , “The Liberalism of Fear/” pp. 34Google Scholar.

29. Other liberal theorists either have been less attentive to this problem or have found a way around it. For instance, Galston does not share Shklar's nervousness when theorizing about virtue from a liberal point of view, although he does acknowledge that the virtues needed by liberalism may “come into conflict with other powerful tendencies in liberal life” (Galston, , Liberal Purposes, pp. 217–22Google Scholar.)

30. See Herodotus, , Herodotus, trans. Godley, A.D. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), V. 78Google Scholar.

31. See ?Callistratus, , “Song of Harmodius,” in Lyra Graeca, trans. Edmonds, J. M. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927), IIIGoogle Scholar.

32. For discussion of varieties of patriotic zeal, see Viroli, Maurizio, For Love of Country: An Essay on Patriotism and Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)Google Scholar.

33. Thucydides, , History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Smith, C.E (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), II.43.1Google Scholar.

34. Cicero, , De Officiis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), bk. I.23Google Scholar.

35. See Machiavelli, , Discourses, III.3Google Scholar.

36. Ibid., I. 9.

37. For instance, public opinion surveys reveal that American citizens still perceive courage to be an important quality of political leadership. One recent national survey found that 82.7 percent of Americans believe that courage is an extremely important or very important characteristic of leaders, while only 3.4 percent believe courage to be either not very important or not important at all. Courage ranked higher than charisma, forcefulness, and religiousness, but slightly below good judgement, honesty, and fairness. See Institute for Research in Social Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA Today Study Number 3023 (05 1987)Google Scholar.

38. Kennedy, John F., Profiles in Courage [1956] (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1964), p. 60Google Scholar.

39. Although Kennedy sometimes refers to the responsible and unselfish officeholder as “conscientious,” I prefer to reserve this term to describe persons who follow their personal moral principles rather than official duties which can, themselves, be inconsistent with these principles.

40. Consider Arendt's account of the centrality of courage to political life. Arendt, writes, “The connotation of courage, which we now feel to be an indispensable quality of the hero, is in fact already present in a willingness to act and speak at all, to insert one's self into the world and begin a story of one's own” (Human Condition, p. 186)Google Scholar.

41. Shklar, , Ordinary Vices, pp. 25, 242Google Scholar.

42. This transformation resembles the disillusionment experienced by many ex-communists during the 1930s and 1940s, as the extent of Stalin's betrayal of their idealistic vision of the revolutionary workers’ state became clear. See Gide, Andre, Wright, Richard, Silone, Ignazìo et al. , The God That Failed (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1950)Google Scholar.

43. Recall the confrontations between police and veterans groups during the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami, Florida.

44. It is worth noting that some of the most ardent anti-communists had once been communists themselves. See Burnham's, James preface to the 1960 re-print of The Managerial Revolution (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1960)Google Scholar.

45. Emerson made at least two public speeches condemning what he called “Mr. Webster's treachery”. See Emerson, , “The Fugitive Slave Law, Address to Citizens of Concord, 3 May 1851”Google Scholar; and “The Fugitive Slave Law, Lecture in New York City, 7 March 1854,” in Complete Works (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 19031904), 11:18Google Scholar

46. Emerson, “John Brown: Salem Speech, January 6,1860,” ibid., p. 280.

47. Quoted in McPherson, James M., Ordeal By Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1982), p. 116Google Scholar.