The Anatomy of Courage by Prince Puckler Muskau


IN A LETTER TO A FRIEND.

As for the article of courage and its various manifestations, it is a very peculiar thing: I have thought much about it, and observed a great deal; and I am convinced that, except in romances, there are very few men who at all times show distinguished, and none at all who possess perfect courage. I should esteem any man who maintained the contrary of himself, and who asserted that he did not know what fear was, a mere braggart; but, nevertheless, I should not consider it my duty to tell him so, to his face. There are endless varieties of courage, which may, however, be comprised under three general dispositions of temperament, and six principal rubrics; within this arrangement a thousand modifications still remain, but I cannot here pursue them.

We come, first, to three sorts of that courage which alone can be called natural, and which, like all that nature gives directly, is perfect; that is, without any mixture of fear so long as it lasts, and which, therefore, has only a temporary influence. These are,

 1. Courage from passion, such as love, anger, vengeance, and so forth.

 2. From hunger, or the want of any thing indispensable to existence.

 3. From habit, which, according to a law of nature, hardens completely against particular kinds of permanent danger.

All the others are artificial, but not, therefore, imperfect; that is, they are not always without admixture of fear, the result either of a dawning, or on already advanced state of civilization. They may be divided into

a. Courage out of vanity.

b. Out of a feeling of honour.

c. Out of duty; under which head may be reckoned the inspiration of religion, and all kinds of enthusiasm; which is also closely allied to a. At last we come to the physical conformation which supports courage, or renders it difficult of exhibition, or puts it altogether out of the question.

(There is certainly a fourth kind of courage, in some measure the shady side of the others,—courage from avarice. I omitted it, because it is rather an enormity, and can only produce criminals; it is, therefore, allied to madness, of which I do not speak here.)

They are, firstly, a strong and healthy nervous system, and a sanguine temperament.

Secondly, a weak and excitable constitution, which is called par excellence a nervous constitution.

Thirdly, that unfortunate defective formation, probably of the nerves of the brain, which produces an unconquerable timidity, becomes real suffering and a regular malady, rendering all manifestations of courage next to impossible.

That these divisions are subject to more or less modification, and often branch off into each other through inward motives, or external influences, follows of course. I will in few words touch upon these  powers in their general and universal operation, and examine how the different value of the chief combinations are classified.

One, two, and three, I give up; for every one knows that with both man and beast, when a beloved object is in danger, or under the influence of a natural impulse, or when animated by a blind rage, or pinched by hunger, instinct alone acts, and timidity vanishes: but let the excitement cease, and the courage disappears also. When full of food, the lion flees before the feeblest man; and, when the hunger of the terrible boa is quite appeased, it may be laid hold of, without danger. It is equally well known that habit would make us forget the sword suspended over our heads by a single hair. The soldier, continually in battle, is as indifferent to bullets as the boy to the flying ball: and yet the same soldier would shudder at a species of danger that the most cowardly spy encounters in cold blood, and, in all probability, would feel real terror if he were compelled to a conflict with a tiger, which the timid Indian, armed with a short sword, and protected only by a green shield, will go in search of and subdue. The boldest mariner is often absurdly fearful in a carriage; and I have known a brave officer who turned pale whenever he was obliged to leap his horse over a hedge or a ditch.

But the case is very different when the courage of civilisation makes common cause with the physical disposition. If No. 1, in its highest perfection, be conjoined with a, b, and c, it is easy to see that the individual uniting the whole will be the bravest possible man; when, however, No. 1 stands alone, precious as it is, in, and for itself, there is but little dependence on it. The weaker No. 2, united to a, b, or c, is a rock compared to it: for the last motives have this great and invaluable quality—they are lasting, while No. 1 depends upon time and circumstance; and then will produce only the so-called naturally brave, of whom the Spaniards say, He was brave in his day; No. 1 reduced to his own resources would perhaps encounter with vermilion cheeks and perfect cheerfulness, danger that would make No. 2 + a, b, or c, pale and serious.

Notwithstanding this, it is by no means certain whether No. 1 would not be seized with a panic in the fight, for all his red cheeks; but No. 2, with his powerful auxiliary, certain that he must fight, is quite secure, while the colour returns to his cheek even in the midst of the danger. As soon as fear seizes No. 1, it must influence his action; with No. 2 + a, b, or c, it is a matter of indifference whether he feels fear or no, as it will be neutralized by the permanent auxiliary qualifications, and its influence on his actions nullified. And, although No. 1 + a, b, c, must always remain the summum perfectum, yet No. 2 + a, b, c, will sometimes do bolder and more surprising things, because the nervous excitement is more strongly acted on; especially if enthusiasm be brought into play.

The other sex, for instance, never possess any other than this species of courage; and if our manners had not, as well out of vanity, as a feeling of honour and duty, entirely dispensed with courage in them, and directed their whole education on this principle, then a lady, No. 2 + a alone, even without b and c, would certainly have surpassed the bravest man in point of courage, and would probably have been victor in every combat, where only this courage and its endurance, and not merely physical strength or skill, should decide.

No. 1 gifted also with a, b, c, would be brave sometimes, and sometimes not; if No. 2, however, were equally a, b, c, then the disadvantageous side of such a disposition would come into action, and No. 2 would in this case be a regular portion, not so much because he must be such, like No. 3, but because it would be far more convenient, and more suitable to his nature: such would be many men in the lower, and the whole dear sex in the highest, degree. The undeniably cowardly disposition of the Jews has the same foundation. We have so long denied them human and social rights, that the motives of vanity and the sense of honour can operate but feebly on them, while that of duty in relation to us can scarcely exist at all. Nothing but centuries of a more reasonable and humane policy can render this otherwise.

The unfortunate No. 3 would only be courageous in two predicaments; in half-frantic religious ecstacy, or in despair, itself the very extremity of fear, when he might reach a point beyond the limits of courage. We have seen, for example, people destroy themselves out of dread of death!

What I have here said, little as it is, appears to me sufficient to point out a mode of drawing new deductions from every possible combination; to determine their relative value; and, what is most important of all, to excite further reflections, from which all may draw practical benefit.

You may think, my dear friend, that I could not occupy myself with subjects, without endeavouring to analyse my own portion of courage; for who can undertake to study mankind without beginning and ending with himself? Are you curious to be informed on this point? It is a ticklish thing; but you know that I have a pleasure in being candid, and therefore willingly withdraw, at times, the curtains of my most secret chamber, to afford my good friends a glimpse. Listen, then: the result will be found in that admired juste milieu, which certain well-known governments have discovered without knowing it, and find that it answers admirably well, because it may be translated by the German word mittel mässigkeit (moderation, or mediocrity.) This is just the case with me also: in the first place, I must own to the feminine temperament No. 2, although I would rather have belonged to No. 1; however, laws are not to be prescribed to the Creator; and to say of myself what I think, without maintaining it as certainly demonstrated, would be too vain on my part: fortunately, in addition to my mediocre No. 2, I possess a, b, c, thoroughly, at least in a high, if not in the highest degree.

I know the nervous agitation which in some is called bashfulness, and in others fear, as do many who would not perhaps admit it so candidly; but it does not conquer me, and acts merely as a shower of rain does on a man wrapped in a waterproof cloak; the water remains on the surface, and does not penetrate. I have before signified that physical conditions, that is, stronger or weaker condition of the nerves, produce great variations, particularly in the dispositions 1 and 2. The advantageous effect of a good breakfast on the courage has become proverbial among the French; and all those who are in the least "nervous" must acknowledge that there is a good deal of truth in it. The young libertine in Gil Blas was perfectly in the right to answer, when he was called at five in the morning to fight a duel,  "That he would not rise at such an hour for a rendezvous with a lady, much less to have his throat cut by a man;" at eleven o'clock, when he had breakfasted, and was thoroughly awake—not before—he got up, went out, and was run through the body: a strong illustration of the folly of getting up, too soon. However, when it must be, the admirable a, b, c, can conquer even distasteful fasting, as they can everything else, whether they act together or singly: with the help of this æs triplex, my littleness has fought its way very comfortably through the world, as I hope it will continue to do, without any great injury accruing, or being likely to accrue, to my vanity, my sense of honour, or my sense of duty.

Being, in addition, half poet and half enthusiast, even the courage of rashness was not unknown to me in my youthful days; notwithstanding which, it is possible that, without my a, b, c, I might have run away when it was dangerous to stay.

Now that I have grown up a civilised man, I observe one peculiar shade. In danger, I think far less, sometimes not at all, of the danger itself; but I am afraid of my fear; that is, I am afraid that others should observe I am not quite so much at my ease, as my vanity and my sense of honour (duty has nothing to do with it) require I should be. At the very moment of danger, this feeling, as well as every other that can be called anxiety, ceases of itself; because action makes stronger claims on the spirit's strength, and the weaker affections fall naturally into the background. This weakness (for such it certainly is) of extreme anxiety respecting the opinion of men, is so characteristic of me, that I feel it continually whenever I am called upon to do anything that brings me under observation,—for example, whether I make a speech, act a part, or encounter mortal danger. Herewith must not, however, be reckoned more or less physical excitement, or when natural impulses such as I, II, III, come into play. I can, without boasting, affirm, with a good conscience, that the mortal danger is, in relation to the others, the lightest of the three; and you will laugh when I tell you, that the strongest fit of timidity that ever seized upon me was, absurdly enough, on one occasion when I was to sing in public!—an unlucky passion that possessed me at one time in my foolish life, and which I renounced merely out of vexation at this ridiculous bashfulness. If I were writing about another, I should, out of civility, call such a disposition, only an exaggerated sense of honour,—at most vanity, well-founded vanity. But I dare not flatter myself, and therefore I give it its true name,—the fear of men; for bashfulness is a part of fear, as audacity is of courage, but of courage, so to say, without soul, consequently without dignity, as bashfulness is fear without shame. It must not be overlooked that the greatest courage cannot, at the bottom, dispense with audacity, and the greatest men in profane history possessed it. It is, however, one of the greatest gifts for the world; and many deceive through their whole lives, by the help of audacity alone. It is not necessary to say that it must, however, be coupled with understanding, and so applied as we must in public go decently clothed. I am sorry that I have it not, and can only obtain it by artificial means; but it appears to me of so much importance, that I am half inclined, dear Schefer, to favour you with a second dissertation, if it were not a principal maxim of my book and letter-writing trade not to give too much of  what is valuable. You are quit for the fear this time; and, as you are but too well acquainted with me, I see you smile, and hear you distinctly exclaim, "Another fancy-piece to look like truth." My dear Schefer, a good conjurer shows all the cards, and yet you only see what he pleases to let you. You and the Secret Society understand me. Like Wallenstein, I keep my last word in petto. This is my last but one.