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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

What Is Courage?

By William Ellery Channing (1780–1842)

[War. Discourse preached in 1835.—From The Works of William E. Channing, D.D. 1841.]

COURAGE considered in itself, or without reference to its origin and motives, and regarded in its common manifestations, is not virtue, is not moral excellence; and the disposition to exalt it above the spirit of Christianity, is one of the most ruinous delusions which have been transmitted to us from barbarous times. In most men, courage has its origin in a happy organization of the body. It belongs to the nerves rather than the character. In some, it is an instinct bordering on rashness. In one man, it springs from strong passions obscuring the idea of danger. In another, from the want of imagination or from the incapacity of bringing future evils near. The courage of the uneducated may often be traced to stupidity; to the absence of thought and sensibility. Many are courageous from the dread of the infamy absurdly attached to cowardice. One terror expels another. A bullet is less formidable than a sneer. To show the moral worthlessness of mere courage, of contempt of bodily suffering and pain, one consideration is sufficient;—the most abandoned have possessed it in perfection. The villain often hardens into the thorough hero, if courage and heroism be one. The more complete his success in searing conscience and defying God, the more dauntless his daring. Long-continued vice and exposure naturally generate contempt of life and a reckless encounter of peril. Courage, considered in itself or without reference to its causes, is no virtue and deserves no esteem. It is found in the best and the worst, and is to be judged according to the qualities from which it springs and with which it is conjoined. There is in truth a virtuous, glorious courage; but it happens to be found least in those who are most admired for bravery. It is the courage of principle, which dares to do right in the face of scorn, which puts to hazard reputation, rank, the prospects of advancement, the sympathy of friends, the admiration of the world, rather than violate a conviction of duty. It is the courage of benevolence and piety, which counts not life dear in withstanding error, superstition, vice, oppression, injustice, and the mightiest foes of human improvement and happiness. It is moral energy, that force of will in adopting duty, over which menace and suffering have no power. It is the courage of a soul, which reverences itself too much to be greatly moved about what befalls the body; which thirsts so intensely for a pure inward life, that it can yield up the animal life without fear; in which the idea of moral, spiritual, celestial good has been unfolded so brightly as to obscure all worldly interest; which aspires after immortality, and therefore heeds little the pains or pleasures of a day; which has so concentred its whole power and life in the love of godlike virtue, that it even finds a joy in the perils and sufferings by which its loyalty to God and virtue may be approved. This courage may be called the perfection of humanity, for it is the exercise, result, and expression of the highest attributes of our nature. Need I tell you, that this courage has hardly anything in common with what generally bears the name, and has been lauded by the crowd to the skies? Can any man, not wholly blinded to moral distinctions, compare or confound with this divine energy, the bravery derived from constitution, nourished by ambition, and blazing out in resentment, which forms the glory of military men and of men of the world? The courage of military and ordinary life, instead of resting on high and unchangeable principles, finds its chief motive in the opinions of the world, and its chief reward in vulgar praise. Superior to bodily pain, it crouches before censure, and dares not face the scorn which faithfulness to God and unpopular duty must often incur. It wears the appearance of energy, because it conquers one strong passion, fear; but the other passions it leaves unmastered, and thus differs essentially from moral strength or greatness, which consists in subjecting all appetites and desires to a pure and high standard of rectitude. Brilliant courage, as it is called, so far from being a principle of universal self-control, is often joined with degrading pleasures, with a lawless spirit, with general licentiousness of manners, with a hardihood which defies God as well as man, and which, not satisfied with scorning death, contemns the judgment that is to follow. So wanting in moral worth is the bravery which has so long been praised, sung, courted, adored. It is time that it should be understood. It is time that the old, barbarous, indiscriminate worship of mere courage should give place to a wise moral judgment.