Seeing the Beauty of Courage

“Courage, Anxiety, and Despair: Watching the Battle,” 1850, by James Sant.

A characteristic feature of virtue is its beauty.

The habitual capacity to grasp what is good, to relish it, and to act upon it, is an invisible quality that inspires admiration and love, when we perceive it in others.

When we find it in ourselves, it offers peace of soul.

One apparent exception to this rule, Aristotle observes, is courage.

Though it is not always reasonable to flout danger, a sound grasp of circumstances sometimes demands that we face up to a given threat, even when the risks are real.

Since acts of courage can result in injury, death, or other painful consequences, courage is a virtue whose beauty can be hard to appreciate—especially when it demands that we put ourselves at risk.

Still, Aristotle concludes, the beauty of courage shines through, as evidenced by the honor we bestow on those who act bravely, or the shame we feel when we act otherwise.

James Sant’s “Courage, Anxiety, and Despair: Watching the Battle,” by personifying these three habits, prompts us to consider the state of our own souls when we give way to one or the other of them.

As Eric Bess notes in his discussion of the painting, Anxiety lurks in the darkness, suppressing the only response she is capable of making to danger, while Despair turns away.

Neither, of course, will do anything to make the situation better.

We do not know whether Courage’s dagger will be sufficient to ward off the approaching threat. That is, after all, the nature of courage: it must act without perfect assurance, or else calling upon it would not be necessary.

The shells around Courage’s neck, Bess reminds us, are traditional symbols of beauty, love, and salvation.

Courage, I would suggest, is an expression of love, when it realizes that the good it serves requires a present defense. This willingness to act from love is a thing of beauty, and a source of hope.

Where would our world we be without Courage?

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