josef pieper on courage

The Power of Evil

Bertolt Brecht once remarked, “When I hear that a ship needs heroes for a crew I wonder whether the ship is old and unsafe.” He has a point. But Bertolt Brecht presumably was not aware of the fact that 1,500 years earlier St. Augustine had said something quite similar; in his book on the City of God we read: “Courage is a testimony to the existence and power of evil in the world.” In other words: because justice and goodness do not automatically prevail on their own, because on the contrary their success depends on human effort, therefore courage is to be counted among the elements that make a person “right”. It is a liberal illusion to assume that you can consistently act justly without ever incurring risks: risks for your immediate well-being, the tranquility of your daily routine, your possessions, your good name, your public honor--in extreme instances possibly even more: liberty, health and life itself. All this clarifies at the outset some essential features of courage. For instance (as Thomas Aquinas put it), “the praise of courage depends on the justice involved”--notice how carefully this establishes an order of priorities. And this means that anybody who knowingly fights on the side of injustice cannot truly be called courageous; the “courage” of the criminal is indeed a misnomer.

In 1934 I published a small volume on courage and prefaced it with the motto, “The praise of courage depends on the justice involved.” My friends at the time knew exactly what I tried to say, and my less friendly contemporaries [the German Nazis] knew it as well.

In addition, it became evident (so I hope) that recklessness, adventurism, bravery, fearlessness, aggression all differ from the concept of courage, which ranks among the four cardinal virtues and thus is declared an essential component of a person's wholeness. Images of risky mountain climbing or dangerous ski jumping are exactly what do not illustrate the nature of courage as virtue (contrary to such an attempt by a television program some time ago). How else could this virtue be the call and challenge of all people, of any average person--indeed, of you and me? Invariably, such courage in action is altogether unpretentious. To be courageous means: to oppose injustice in the face of overwhelming external power and to accept willingly any resulting disadvantage, be it only public ridicule or social isolation. In fact, the ultimate proof of courage may very well be marked by the total absence of anything spectacular. Whenever there is talk of daring and braving and risking, we may consider this an almost certain indication that true courage is not present. If a pornographic novel is advertised as “risqué”, then in truth nothing at all is being risked. It would be much more risqué to declare publicly that chastity is part of what makes a person whole; this would be much more dangerous. The symbolic figure for courage is indeed not the imposing “hero” and “conqueror” but the martyr, and he is recognized as a martyr only post factum. The moment of his ultimate testimony sees him defeated, ridiculed, abandoned and above all: silenced. For this reason the ancient sages declared the decisive element in courage to be endurance, not attack--in a world whose natural inner structure includes the fact of not being “right” on its own.

Pieper, (1989, 67-68); "Die Aktualitat der Kardinaltugenden", originally published in Buchstabier-Ubungen (Munich: Kosel-Verlag, 1980). Translated by Lothar Krauth.
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