I have this hunch that people in modern society can be very brave. They would jump in front of a bus to save a child or beat off a shark from attacking their mate on his surfboard or chase down a thief to retrieve an old lady’s handbag or any number of dangerous gestures.
Only I think they lack courage.
Brave but not courageous. Let me explain.
Way back on 14 August 1861 one hundred years almost to the day before I was born, the New York Times published an article entitled Courage and Cowardice in which the reporter wrote
A man may be brave, absolutely fearless, and yet lack courage; not moral courage, but physical courage of the higher kind. Indeed, the man who does not know the sensation of fear (and there are men so constituted) can never be truly courageous
The idea here is that bravery is the ability to confront something painful or difficult or dangerous without any fear, most often because the fear is unknown or not felt.
This can be instinctual such as hitting a shark on the nose or somewhat calculated when running after the thief. Either way, it is an ego-driven response, more instinct than rational.
Courage is the ability to confront something painful or difficult or dangerous despite any fear.
This means there is usually time to think through the consequences and to know that they are likely to be painful or contain a risk that should be avoided if possible.
This distinction suggests that the brave soul is somewhat blase, maybe not sure what is coming and yet will jump over the rim of the trench into the enemy fire. The courageous soul is fully aware of the impending doom and is scared shitless but goes over the lip anyway.
Now suppose that the prevalence of bravery is greater than courage.
More people are throwing themselves fearlessly into the fire than those who hesitate before they do.
What does this look like for a society?
The brave souls
The brave souls do not understand why the courageous might hesitate. They do not see why they should be fearful. All they need is some bravery for goodness sake.
Anyway, what is there to worry about? There is nothing to fear. The fearful are weak, namby-pamby types who pretend there is something to be frightened about just so they can claim they are courageous. God help us. That will never get anything done. If we were fearful we’d never have left the forest for the savanna or Africa for the riches of the world.
And anyway, when the heat is on, courage fails so many. I mean they just land in a heap of quivering blubber on the floor or try to hide on the inside of a huge tub of icecream too frightened to move.
No, we need brave souls, the fearless warriors, the ones who give victory and can come back to sing of their heroic acts.
The courageous souls
Well, bravery is certainly useful. But courage is the purer attribute. It takes more self-control, more to overcome, and, well, more courage to be courageous than brave.
What is coming is known or the possible consequences are, especially the likelihood of pain and suffering and the feelings of that pain. This is not an easy thing to overcome. It takes great personal fortitude to do it.
The courageous souls have looked fear in the eye and done it anyway. The brave cannot claim such a conquering of fear. They have not even seen it. They still have to face fear, still have to deal with that horror confrontation and so, despite their actions, they are actually fearful creatures. They are often consumed by fear with reckless acts as their only salve.
A society dominated by the brave may win wars but is unlikely to gain much empathy or decide a social safety net is a good idea or even introduce a universal income.
A society dominated by the courageous could still win the wars after exhausting all the possible alternative solutions to avoid conflict and much more likely to introduce social policies.
More importantly than this, the courageous know themselves. They have looked at the fear and freaked out. They have panicked and been shaken to their boots. Then they went over the lip into the enemy fire.
There really is something noble in that.
Brave but not courageous
Returning to the origins premise that modern society has plenty of bravery but not much courage is backed up by any number of current laments, many on this blog.
We have populist leaders who commend bravery to their followers in the form of hatreds and tweets that say ‘yes, it’s fine to point that semi-automatic rifle at a protester’.
They don’t ask for too much courage though. To take some pain for the greater good.
We have traditional media that sensationalise everything, the bravery response and make cuts to journalism that analyses and asks pointy questions about the future.
We have social media that is designed for the brave — remember we said they were actually fearful souls — to slander, troll and generally act the macho with no consequence whatsoever.
And, and, and….
So here we go. Let’s get a dose of courage added to the COVID-19 vaccine injections. Have a herd immunity to bravery and get us some of that 1860’s ‘physical courage of the higher kind’.