Courage, or fortitude, is one of that very special group of four virtues known as the cardinal virtues, the other three being prudence, justice, and temperance. They are called “cardinal” because of the foundational status they have with respect to all the other virtues. All the other virtues directly depend on them, and indeed are but more specialized exemplifications of one or another of them. The particular role played by the virtue of courage in the moral life, a very important one to be sure, is to enable us successfully to cope with the emotion of fear.
That fear can be a very powerful emotion goes without saying. So long as it is kept under the control of reason, it offers no problems; in fact, if properly controlled, it can actually be of positive benefit to us. Fear guided by reason is a fear that is directed toward something which is fully deserving of being feared. It is only when fear gains the ascendency in our lives, when fear itself, rather than reason, becomes the controlling factor, that we find ourselves in a very problematic state of affairs.
|Stoning of St. Stephen|
One of the direct and most troublesome effects of a fear which is in charge of our lives is that it inhibits, or even cancels completely, right action. Because of fear, we either hesitate to do, do half-heartedly, or simply fail to do, what it is our duty to do. We effectively abdicate our responsibility as moral agents. We succumb to moral cowardice. Now, none of us likes to be thought of as cowardly, and least of all do we want to think of ourselves as such, so what happens when fear becomes the controlling factor in our lives is that we become masters of rationalization. We manage to convince ourselves that what is clearly our duty is not really all that important; we anesthetize our sense of responsibility toward the tasks which go hand in hand with our state of life. Then the psychological games we play with ourselves become yet more complicated, for in order not to admit to ourselves how we are trafficking in rationalization, we distract ourselves, and attempt to distract others as well, by engaging in all sorts of busy-work which is in fact inconsequential, for it is activity which only serves as an escapist substitute for the activity we should be engaging in.