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#16: Courage/courage

Copyright © 2014 by William B. Irvine


In my previous post, I talked about the things we can do to overcome fear. The first step is to figure out what we are afraid of. In doing this research, we might realize that we are afraid of public speaking. We might also find, if we examine our lives carefully, that we fear failure. It is a fear, as I have explained, that can limit our ability to succeed.

The second step in our program to overcome fear is to expose ourselves, in ever-increasing “doses,” to the things we are afraid of. If we fear public speaking, for example, we should start out by addressing small, friendly audiences. When we survive this experience, perhaps to our amazement, we should move on to bigger audiences.

To overcome a fear of failure, we should go out of our way to do difficult things. By taking on such challenges, there is a good chance that we will fail, but in failing we will learn lessons that can help us succeed in the future. We might also come to realize that there are worse things in life than failing. One of them is not even trying to do difficult things because we fear failure.

The Stoics had multiple reasons for trying to overcome their fears. They realized, to begin with, that groundless fears give rise to needless anxiety. One of the primary goals in the Stoic philosophy for living was to prevent themselves from experiencing needless anxiety—hence, their desire to overcome their groundless fears. Furthermore, like most philosophers in the ancient world, they cared very much about virtue. But before I continue, a word of explanation is in order.

In the 21st century, the word virtue is associated with a kind of prudishness: a “virtuous” woman is one who is sexually reserved. But to ancient philosophers, to be a virtuous human being was to be an excellent human being, someone who was, among other things, wise, just, and courageous. Another important virtue was self-control. In fact, the ancients realized that it was, in a sense, the keystone virtue, since without it, one was unlikely to possess the other virtues.

Ancient philosophers also thought that the way to become more virtuous is to practice the various virtues. Do you want to become more self-controlled? Then exercise your self-control. Likewise, you can become more courageous by doing things that require courage, and one way to do this is by making yourself do things that you fear.

It is convenient, in discussions like this, to distinguish between two kinds of courage. What I shall refer to as lowercase-c courage involves fearlessness regarding relatively minor things. This is the kind of courage required to ask someone out on a date. Uppercase-C Courage, by way of contrast, involves fearlessness regarding things that can have a major impact on your life and maybe the lives of others. It is what is required to jump into a raging river to rescue a drowning infant.

A Stoic knows that the best way to become uppercase-C Courageous is to go out of our way to do things that require us to display lowercase-c courage. He will therefore advise us to go out of our way to trigger in ourselves the emotion of fear, just so we can develop our ability to cope with or, better still, suppress that emotion. Thus, if you have a fear of public speaking, you should practice your courage by giving a talk before the garden club so that if, later in life, you have the opportunity to talk sense into an angry mob, you will have the Courage to do so.

There is another benefit to be derived from intentionally putting ourselves in challenging situations: it is a great way—and maybe the only way?—to develop our self-confidence.

I would not advise readers to attempt to climb Mt. Everest. There is a very good chance that if they undertake this challenge, they will end up dead. But I will readily admit that those who successfully summit Mt. Everest, when they return to their low-altitude existence, will have gained something important. The challenges they will then be confronted with will, after all, likely be trivial compared to the Everest challenge, meaning that they will undertake them with confidence.

Success, as they say, begets success. I will add that success also feels great, particularly when you had to work very hard to attain it.

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