The Anatomy of Courage by Prince
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.