The term “bravery” is thrown around pretty loosely in our society. Ranging from a TMI social media post to defending your country, it’s hard to figure out what being brave truly is anymore. What happens when we lose the definition of bravery, and why do we seem so hellbent on doing just that?
C.S. Lewis, a famous British writer, philosopher, and professor, covers courage from an opposing viewpoint – that of a demon trying to sow cowardice in a human he’s targeting – in his thought-provoking work, The Screwtape Letters.
What Screwtape Has To Say
Lewis writes the entire book from the viewpoint of Screwtape, who’s an experienced demon writing to his nephew, Wormwood, on how to be the most effective demon possible. The insights Lewis offers in each chapter are a fascinating take on vice vs. virtue, whether or not you believe in demons at all. In Chapter 29 of his book, Lewis addresses courage through the lens of Screwtape.
“Well, I am afraid it is no good trying to make him brave,” says Screwtape. “Hatred we can manage.” Since Screwtape asserts that evil can’t directly produce virtue, he advises Wormwood to try to create hatred in his human subject – particularly since the subject is a British man caught in the tension and horror of World War II.
Screwtape recommends that Wormwood encourage the man to hate not for his own sake, but on behalf of others: “Let him say that he feels hatred not on his own behalf, but on that of the women and children...in other words, let him consider himself sufficiently identified with the women and children to feel hatred on their behalf, but not sufficiently identified to regard their enemies as his own and therefore proper objects of forgiveness.” This hatred on behalf of others is the easiest way to keep someone trapped in hatred.
Hatred on behalf of others is the easiest way to keep someone trapped in hatred.
Further, Screwtape points out that hatred and fear (or cowardice) make a dangerous combination. From his vantage point, Screwtape says that “Cowardice, alone of all the vices, is purely painful – Hatred has its pleasures. It is therefore often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of Fear. The more he fears, the more he will hate.”
On the other hand, Screwtape beautifully articulates what true courage is: “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality.” He yields to the fact that danger and disaster, including war, usually wake humanity from its “moral stupor” and their courage comes to the surface – refining the rest of their virtue in the process.
What Can We Define As Truly Brave?
If we take Lewis’ definition of courage to heart, then being truly brave is when we are virtuous, despite risk or danger – when we respond to testing points by not compromising our virtue. In light of this, much of what we call “brave” nowadays isn’t really that at all.
It makes sense that people want so desperately to be called brave. As Lewis points out through Screwtape’s instruction, cowardice is not a pleasurable vice at all. We want to be brave, but we’re actually quite a cowardly society most of the time; hence the hotbed of hatred we’ve found ourselves in lately. As Screwtape says, hatred and fear go quite nicely together – and hatred is merely compensation for the shame we feel for our cowardice, including hatred on behalf of others.
Posting in support of a cause on social media might be affirming the value of that cause, but it certainly isn’t brave. A prime example of this is the current wave of support for the people of Ukraine experiencing Russian invasion – it’s incredibly easy for us to express support behind a screen, and maybe it even makes us feel like an ounce of the bravery they’ve exhibited in the face of tragedy is ours too. But posting poses no risk to us, while they’re truly risking their lives.
Mercy, forgiveness, dialogue, and charity take courage – hatred takes no courage at all.
In addition, shouting our views from the rooftop typically poses little to no risk to us when done online – save situations of harassment, which are an example of hatred and cowardice in the perpetrators themselves. The greatest risk we often face in posting is losing a couple of virtual followers. Instances of calling social media activity “brave,” then, should probably be few and far between, and saved for moments where someone practices honesty in the face of real risk.
What also isn’t brave is cancel culture – a prime example of the “hatred on behalf of others” that Screwtape explains to Wormwood. When we hate someone else’s enemies, we feel exempt from having mercy on them or forgiving them. Hatred is never brave, in fact, it’s always a cover for our own fear and cowardice. Mercy, forgiveness, dialogue, and charity take courage – hatred takes no courage at all. In fact, it just feeds on the shame we feel from our own cowardice.
Why Have We Watered Down Courage?
While most would probably agree with Lewis’ definition of courage deep down, we still live in a society that throws around the term “brave” like we do “love” (subject for another article). We’re quick to affirm an action or person as “brave,” when we know for a fact that the person is not facing much of a test of virtue, if they’re facing one at all. It’s important to note, though, that bravery isn’t limited to just external actions like defending your country – it can be incredibly brave to take the risk of being honest about parts of your life and story. Courage can be emotional, spiritual, and physical.
We’ve watered down courage because we want to be courageous so badly – but without growing.
Ultimately, we’ve watered down courage because we want to be courageous so badly. If enough people try to change a definition, it eventually seems like it’s been changed, after all. Right now, we live in a world that’s making its best effort to change what courage is, for the sake of reassuring those caught in the cycle of cowardice, hatred, and passivity that they don’t have to grow beyond. Often, the actions we find at the center of the modern feminist movement are doing precisely this – acting out of cowardice in the face of challenge instead of pursuing sustainable, uplifting change, and speaking out of hatred, and doing nothing to stop the cycle – and then they all call each other “brave” so they have an excuse.
The feminist movement isn’t the only place doing this, and that’s not to say that everyone who identifies as a feminist is cowardly. Once again, we have to evaluate our definition of courage by first looking at the danger posed to virtue that a person is facing – is this person being honest, charitable, patient, kind, and dedicated when there’s risk if they continue being so?
In order to turn back and become truly courageous people, we have to first look at the places we’ve given in to the cycle of hatred and fear. Where have we refused to be virtuous, and instead chosen cowardice and hatred as the way out? What have we called “brave” when it posed no risk, for others or ourselves? Where have we, perhaps, justified our hatred on behalf of others instead of confronting people who oppose us with charity?
In order to return to the true definition of courage, we first have to make sure we return to that definition ourselves – only then can we be trusted to be truly brave when it matters, and encourage others to do the same.
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