Patient and courage

Topics: Virtue, Courage, Prudence Pages: 8 (3201 words) Published: January 15, 2014
Patience and Courage
At first glance, it might seem that patience and courage are dispositions that tend in different directions, reflecting different strengths. If we are asked to imagine exemplars of each of these virtues, we probably call two very different individuals to mind—the courageous person imposing, heroic, probably male, and the patient person quiet, reserved, quite likely female. (After all, Ancient Greek courage simply was the virtue of manliness (andreia), and the Victorians used to name their daughters Patience.) Some of our images of courage may even positively conflict with some of our images of patience, with the courageous person insisting upon action while the patient person implores him to wait.

In his wonderful paper, "Patience and Courage" (Philosophy 68(266), 1993), Eamonn Callan begins with a sort of thought experiment intended to capture our intuitive--though he thinks mistaken--sense of the relative significance of patience and courage: Suppose your friends had to ascribe a single vice to you in large measure, along with any virtues that could be coherently combined with that salient vice. Suppose further that the vice had to be either cowardice or impatience. Which would you choose? (p. 523) Callan suspects that "almost everyone would choose impatience without hesitation," because a coward strikes us as an unreliable kind of person, and impatience itself might in some cases be a good thing, e.g. impatience with tyranny and injustice. Callan goes on to argue against this intuitive response, in that it underestimates the need for patience (an idea I have explored in previous posts), and also suggests that a more nuanced thinking about courage and patience shows that these virtues do not essentially conflict. This should not be so surprising if we think, as Aquinas does, of patience as a part of fortitude, and recognize fortitude itself as the core of courage (or, as synonymous with courage). Of course, when we speak of fortitude, we speak of endurance, and talk of courage (or bravery) may seem instead to call to mind the "courage of the charge." But charging, as Tim O'Brien notes in his memoir on Vietnam, is only a tiny slice of bravery--once one has charged into danger, there is much to be endured.

Or consider this perhaps surprising remark from Kierkegaard's Purity of Heart: "Is patience not precisely that courage which voluntarily accepts unavoidable suffering? The unavoidable is just the thing which will shatter courage" (p. 173). Interestingly (as the translator notes), the Danish for patience taalmod contains the term for courage (mod). (Literally, taalmod is "enduring courage.")

Kierkegaard connects patience to "unavoidable suffering" and thus implies that courage differs in that in courage we choose to put ourselves in the way of danger and adversity for a noble cause. And he discusses how it may seem then that there can be no virtue in enduring adversity that is unavoidable and which, it seems, cannot be chosen. (If it's unavoidable, then there seems to be no real choice.) Here, he imagines the mocking voice of someone who says that this "patience" is merely "making a virtue out of necessity," and Kierkegaard replies, yes, that's exactly it! His point is that merely being saddled with unavoidable suffering or adversity does not imply that we will, as it were, shoulder that adversity in such a way that we remain committed to the Good. We may despair, or become bitter and resentful, angry at the world. Of course, it may be that since Kierkegaard is a theist, he can assume that there is some way in which any suffering thrown at us can possibly be endured well. Non-theists may not have grounds for the same hope. But let me put that, for now, to the side. (I hope to write a chapter about this issue in the future.)

Callan discusses a case that goes to Kierkegaard's point: a man loses his sight, and vacillates between despair and rage, who thinks that the possibility of a good...
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