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
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. 63–66Google Scholar.
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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 187e–188Google Scholar; The Apology 28e–29aGoogle Scholar; and Symposium 219a–221bGoogle 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  (New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1968), pp. 123, 157Google Scholar.
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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.”]
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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.
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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.)
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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.
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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.
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, 1903–1904), 11:18Google Scholar