The triumvirate of courage

One of the most profound passages I’ve run across concerning the differences between human beings and other animals is from Roberto Saviano’s Zero Zero Zero. It comes after Saviano describes how diesel fuel was used to burn poppy fields in Mexico.

“The gomeros who had gotten drunk while dumping the fuel, they too caught fire. They drank cerveza as they worked and then fell asleep in the brush. The fire took them, too. They howled a lot less than the animals, staggering around as if the alcohol in their veins were feeding the fire from within. No one went to help them; no one ran over with a blanket. The flames were too fierce. 
That’s when Don Arturo saw a dog, all skin and bones, run toward the fire. The dog dove in that inferno and came out with two, three, finally six puppies, rolling each one on the ground to put out the flames. Singed, spitting smoke and ashes, covered in sores, but alive. They stumbled after their mother, who walked past the people gazing at the fire. She seemed to look right at each one of them, her eyes piercing the gomeros, the soldiers, and all the other miserable human beings who were just standing there. An animal senses cowardice. And respects fear. Fear is the more vital instinct, and deserves more respect. Cowardice is a choice, fear is a state of mind. That dog was afraid, but she dove into those flames to save her young. . . . Beasts have courage and know what it means to defend life. Men boast about courage, but all they know how to do is obey, crawl, get by.”

I find it very hard to read that passage and not doubt the extent of my own courage and humanity. Would I dive back into the fire for someone I love? More importantly, would I head back into the flames for someone I didn’t know or love? I don’t know. I can hope, but I cannot be sure.

What I do know is that animals have an uncanny ability to exhibit physical courage. Perhaps it stems from a limited intelligence, or from a lack of concern about how they’re perceived by others? Maybe it arises from a disregard for their own safety, or from some evolutionary mechanism which compels them to fight, to try and survive, to shoulder heavy burdens? Again, I don’t know.

So, animals exhibit physical courage. What about intellectual courage? A subset of the human race has that in abundance. But what is it exactly? It’s easier to understand when you know what intellectual cowardice is:

“The opposite of intellectual courage, intellectual cowardice, is the fear of ideas that do not conform to one’s own. If we lack intellectual courage, we are afraid of giving serious consideration to ideas, beliefs, or viewpoints that we perceive as dangerous. We feel personally threatened when they conflict significantly with our personal identity—when we feel that an attack on the ideas is an attack on us as a person.”

That’s a negative definition. My favourite way to positively define intellectual courage is based off of this line from Jorge Luis Borge’s Fictions: “Every man should be capable of all ideas” Essentially, I define intellectual courage as the willingness to entertain all ideas and beliefs.

Until a few days ago, I thought that those were the only two manifestations of courage. You could show physical and intellectual courage, or physical and intellectual cowardice. Of course, the two intertwine, but not as much as you think. It’s possible to be brave in one domain and cowardly in another. For example, there were brave Nazi soldiers who marched to their death in the Second World War with all the magnanimity and courage of story-book heroes. They were physically brave, intellectual cowards who went along with the Nazi ideology.

So, I’ve kept the physical and the intellectual versions of courage separate. But I began to wonder, what would you call a man or woman who is the possessor of both? I began to wonder, is there a higher plane than mere physical or intellectual courage? The answer is yes.

Skin in the game—or it’s strongest version, soul in the game—is a concept coined by Nassim Taleb. Skin in the game means that you take risks for what you believe in. Soul in the game means you take risks for what others believe in. The derivative of skin or soul in the game is moral courage. That’s the higher plane.

Moral courage is not simply meeting pain, suffering or death with composure and sureness. And it is not simply exploring and entertaining ideas and beliefs that oppose or conflict with your own. The morally courageous are those who, because they believe in freedom, fight against tyranny. The morally courageous are those who, because they believe in humanity, oppose the inhumane. The morally courageous work against the physical and intellectual presence of evil.

When I think about this triumvirate of courage, I think of a pyramid. The base is formed by two independent blocks; that of intellectual and physical courage. The peak is moral courage.