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Courage: The Mother of the Virtues


You have probably heard by now the story about a young man brutally murdered on a DC Metro train while the other passengers cowered in the corners and didn’t lift a finger to keep him from being carved to pieces before their eyes. It’s just another story that makes us feel like we’re sinking back into the bad old days of the 1970s, when criminals ruled the streets and the good citizens were too frightened to stand up to them.

But worse than the original story are the excuses afterward, starting with an account from one of the witnesses in the Metro car, who concludes:

What I don’t wish is that I had somehow tried to attack the assailant. I am a little bit larger than he was, but I would not have won. It’s scary, because if we had been sitting closer and had seen the attack start I probably would have tried to help, and would have been stabbed.

By the way, we finally got an exact description of the attacker, who was 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 125 pounds. I am less than tall myself, so I want to be sensitive in how I describe it, but this guy was a shrimp. He’s at a disadvantage of at least four inches and fifty pounds compared to the average American male. And he was totally outnumbered by the other passengers. (By contrast, at a Renaissance festival in Colorado, a “wench-costumed woman” put a man in a headlock after he stole a jouster’s sword, which gives you some idea of the cultural difference between Colorado and DC.)

So what is remarkable is the assumption that if he had intervened, the DC witness would necessarily have failed. Who assumes that? Maybe it’s just an ad hoc rationalization for what he knows is cowardice, but the many other excuses offered by people who weren’t there and have nothing to rationalize indicate a broader trend.

It’s as if it is a totally exotic notion that anyone would ever have been called upon to show physical courage.

Consider The Daily Beast’s Mike Barnicle, who dismisses arguments that the passengers should have intervened, scolding us that, “The reality is that nobody knows how they would react in a similar situation. We’d like to think we’d behave honorably, with courage and care, but we simply cannot know until a moment like that occurs.” Really? Nobody could ever know how they would react? It’s as if it is a totally exotic notion that anyone would ever have been called upon to show physical courage at any point in their lives.

Yet how many millions of men are veterans? How many have been in actual combat and know exactly how they answered that question? On my way up to DC, I ride the Metro line that stops at the Pentagon and is often packed with service members, and I can guarantee an attack there would end very differently.

It’s not just those with military training. How many of us have had to deal with bullies at school, or with ill-intentioned people in the streets? For example, I know how I would react because I’ve done it. The last time I can recall was many years ago: two drunk guys in a parking lot were attacking a third guy, and I tackled one of the drunks, allowing the victim to safely escape. It was not that big a deal and did not involve much risk on my part, though I didn’t really know that going in. Fighting drunks turns out not to be very sporting. So it’s not something I have regarded as all that important.

The main reason I don’t regard it as important is that this was not the answer to some sort of metaphysical mystery. It was not a moment that revealed what I would really do in a crisis, because I was never in that much doubt about how I would act—or at least, how I should act. It’s not that I had a specific plan or some special training that gave me confidence. It was simply that I knew it is possible to act when action is needed, and I expected it of myself.

What’s disturbing about this case is that the expectation of courage is totally disappearing.

That’s what’s really disturbing about the reaction to this case: that this expectation of courage is totally disappearing. Courage is now viewed as exotic and unusual and unproven and unknowable—rather than a normal and expected part of being a man.

Or consider the account of a woman who was abused and threatened over a long period of time by two belligerent girls on a Metro car, while 30 other passengers averted their eyes and pretended not to notice. Yet she concludes, “I don’t know if I would have helped me.” Really?

This is about way more than whether you’re good in a brawl. Physical courage is just one form of courage, and when we give up on it, we’re giving up on other forms of courage that we need just as much—particularly moral courage and intellectual courage.

When we give up on physical courage, we give up on other forms of courage that we need just as much.

Ironically, the same people now making excuses for cowardice are the kind who engage in exaggerated Kabuki theater displays about how evil slavery was and how terrible the Confederate flag is and how much they furiously oppose them—150 years after it took any courage to do so. But how do they think slavery was defeated? Who do they think took down that flag the first time around? By their own admission, they would have been the ones averting their eyes when they saw a master beating a slave. They would have been the ones to make compromises and concessions every time John Calhoun thundered.

Aristotle said that courage is the mother of the virtues, because it makes all the others possible. Or as C.S. Lewis put it, “Courage is not just one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Living in a free and peaceful society is an enormous value, but it’s not something that happens on its own or can simply be mandated by a distant government. It requires each of us to take the responsibility to defend it in large ways and small, even if it requires sticking our necks out a little from time to time.

Aristotle said that courage is the mother of the virtues, because it makes all the others possible.

But maybe that’s the point. Perhaps this explains the weird combination of intrusive moralizing about “microaggressions” on one side, and elaborate excuses for passivity on the other. The people cowering in the corners not wanting to make eye contact while a thug carves up some poor sucker are the same people who stay silent while a Twitter mob demands that some guy be fired from his job based on a dubious report of an allegedly offensive statement. They’re the people who tell you that they agree with the article you wrote but won’t post it to Facebook because they don’t want to deal with the anger they get from people who disagree. They are the ones who give the fashionable political or cultural stampede of the moment the dangerous confidence that it is backed by a total consensus, because they don’t want to be the ones to stick their necks out.

Courage is an essential virtue for a free society—and an insurmountable barrier to petty tyranny. Perhaps this explains why cowardice is being openly touted as a new virtue.

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