Courage Is The Standing Army Of The Soul
~ Henry Van Dyke. Manhood, Faith and Courage. (1906)
This is a sermon about courage – one of the simplest and most straightforward of the virtues; necessary, and therefore possible, for every true and noble human life.
It is a quality that we admire by instinct. We need no teacher to tell us that it is a fine thing to be brave. The lack of courage is universally recognized as a grave defect in character. If in our own hearts we feel the want of it, if we cannot find enough of it to enable us to face the dangers and meet the responsibilities and fight the battles of life, we are not only sorry, but secretly ashamed. The absence of courage is a fault that few are willing to confess. We naturally conceal it, and cover it up, and try to keep it secret even from ourselves. We invent favourable names for it, which are only unconscious excuses. We call it prudence, or respectability, or conservatism, or economy, or worldly wisdom, or the instinct of self-preservation. For in truth there is nothing that we are more reluctant to admit than cowardice; and there is no virtue which we would more gladly possess and prove than courage.
In the first place, it is an honourable virtue. Men have always loved and praised it. It lends a glory and a splendour to the life in which it dwells – lefts it up and ennobles it, and crowns it with light. The world delights in heroism, even in its rudest forms and lowest manifestations. Among the animals we create a sort of aristocracy on the basis of courage, and recognize, in the fearlessness of the game beasts and birds and fishes, a claim to rank above the timorous, furtive, spiritless members of creation.
And in man bravery is always fine. We salute it in our enemies. A daring foe is respected, and though we must fight against him we can still honour his courage, and almost forget the conflict in our admiration for his noble bearing. That is what Dr. Johnson meant in saying, “I love a good hater.” The enemy who slinks and plots and conceals – makes traps and ambuscades, seeks to lead his opponent into dangers which he himself would never dare to face – is despicable, serpentine, and contemptible. But he who stands up boldly against his antagonist in any conflict, physical, social, or spiritual, and deals fair blows, and uses honest arguments, and faces the issues of warfare, is a man to love even across the chasm of strife … A brave, frank, manly for is infinitely better than a false, weak, timorous friend.
In the second place, courage is a serviceable virtue. There is hardly any place in which it is not useful. There is no type of character, no sphere of action, in which there is not room and need for it.
Genius is talent set on fire by courage. Fidelity is simply daring to be true in small things as well as great. As many as are the conflicts and perils and hardships of life, so many are the uses and the forms of courage.. It is necessary, indeed, as the protector and defender of all the other virtues.
Courage is the standing army of the soul which keeps it from conquest, pillage, and slavery.
Unless we are brave we can hardly be truthful, or generous, or just, or pure, or kind, or loyal. “Few persons,” says a wise observer, “have the courage to appear as good as they really are.” You must be brave in order to fulfill your own possibilities of virtue. Courage is essential to guard the best qualities of the soul, and to clear the way for their action, and make them move with freedom and vigour.
If we desire to be good, we must first of all desire to be brave, that against all opposition, scorn, and danger we may move straight onward to do the right.
In the third place, courage is a comfortable virtue. It fills the soul with inward peace and strength; in fact this is just what it is – courage is simply strength of heart. Subjection to fear is weakness, bondage, feverish unrest. To be afraid is to have no soul that we can call our own; it is to be at the beck and call of alien powers, to be chained and driven and tormented; it is to lose the life itself in the anxious care to keep it. Many people are so afraid to die that they have never begun to live. But courage emancipates us and gives us to ourselves, that we many give ourselves freely and without fear to God. How sweet and clear and steady is the life into which this virtue enters day by day, not merely in those great flashes of excitement which come in the moments of crisis, but in the presence of the hourly perils, the continual conflicts. Not to tremble at the shadows which surround us, not to shrink from the foes who threaten us, not to hesitate and falter and stand despairing still among the perplexities and trails of our life, but to move steadily onward without fear, if only we can keep ourselves without reproach – surely that is what the Psalmist meant by good courage and strength of heart, and it is a most comfortable, pleasant, peaceful, and happy virtue.
There is a sharp distinction between courage and recklessness. The reckless man is ignorant; he rushes into danger without hesitation, simply because he does not know what danger means. The brave man is intelligent; he faces danger because he understands it and is prepared to meet it. The drunkard who runs, in the delirium of intoxication, into a burning house is not brave; he is only stupid. But the clear-eyed hero who makes his way, with every sense alert and every nerve strung, into the hell of flames to rescue some little child, proves his courage.
Courage does not consist in the absence of fear, but in the conquest of it. Timidity is no more inconsistent with courage than doubt is inconsistent with faith. For as faith is simply the overriding and subjugating of doubt by believing where you cannot prove, so courage is simply the conquest and suppression of fear by going straight on in the path of duty and love.
There is one more distinction that needs to be drawn – the distinction between courage and daring. This distinction is not in kind, but in degree. For daring is only a rare and exceptional kind of courage. It is for great occasions; the battle, the shipwreck, the conflagration. It is an inspiration; Emerson calls it “a flash of moral genius.” But courage in the broader sense is an every-day virtue. It includes the possibility of daring, if it be called for; but from hour to hour, in the long, steady run of life, courage manifests itself in quieter, humbler forms – in patience of suffering, in resistance of continual and familiar temptations, in hope and cheerfulness and activity and fidelity and truthfulness and kindness, and such sweet, homely virtues as may find a place in the narrowest and most uneventful life.
There is no duty so small, no trial so slight, that it does not afford room for courage. It has a meaning and value for every phase of existence; for the workshop and for the battlefield, for the thronged city and for the lonely desert, for the sick-room and for the market-place, for the study and for the counting-house, for the church and for the drawing-room. There is courage physical, and social, and moral, and intellectual – a soldier’s courage, a doctor’s courage, a lawyer’s courage, a preacher’s courage, a nurse’s courage, a merchant’s courage, a man’s courage, a woman’s courage – for courage is just strength of heart, and the strong heart makes itself felt everywhere, and lifts up the whole of life, and ennobles it, and makes it move directly to its chosen aim.
*From pages 40-44 of the book The Art of Manliness – Manvotionals: Timeless Wisdom and Advice on Living the 7 Manly Virtues, by Brett and Kate McKay. (2011)