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Common Courage

( Originally Published 1884 )

Success Won through Failure.—Tyranny of " Society."—Moral Cowardice.—Pandering to Popularity.—Intellectual Intrepidity.—Energetic Courage.

" If thou canst plan a noble deed,
And never flag till it succeed,
Though in the strife thy heart should bleed,
Whatever obstacles control,
Thine hour will come go on, true soul!
Thou'lt win the prize, thou'lt reach the goal."


ALTHOUGH success is the guerdon for which all men toil, they have nevertheless often to labor on perseveringly, without any glimmer of success in sight. They have to live, meanwhile, upon their courage sowing their seed, it may be, in the dark, in the hope that it will yet take root and spring up in achieved result. The best of causes have had to fight their way to triumph through a long succession of failures, and many of the assailants have died in the breach before the fortress has been won. The heroism they have displayed is to be measured not so much by their immediate success, as by the opposition they have encountered, and the courage with which they have maintain ed the struggle.

The patriot who fights an always losing battle the martyr who goes to death amidst the triumphant shouts of his enemies the discoverer, like Columbus, whose heart remains undaunted through the bitter years of his " long wandering woe" are examples of the moral sub-lime which excite a profounder interest in the hearts of men than even the most complete and conspicuous success. By the side of such instances as these, how small by comparison seem the greatest deeds of valor, inciting men to rush upon death and die amidst the frenzied excitement of physical warfare !

But the greater part of the courage that is needed in the world is not of a heroic kind. Courage may be displayed in everyday life as well as in historic fields of action. There needs, for example, the common courage to be. honest the courage to resist temptation the courage to speak the truth the courage to be what we really are, and not to pretend to be what we are not the courage to live honestly within our own means, and not dishonestly upon the means of others.

A great deal of the unhappiness, and much of the vice, of the world is owing to weakness and indecision of purpose in other words, to lack of courage. Men may know what is right, and yet fail to exercise the courage to do it; they may understand the duty they have to do, but will not summon up the requisite resolution to perform it. The weak and undisciplined man is at the mercy of every temptation; he can not say " No," but falls before it. And if his companionship be bad, he will be all the easier led away by bad example into wrong-doing.

Nothing can be more certain than that the character can only be sustained and strengthened by its own energetic action. The will, which is the central force of character, must be trained to habits of decision otherwise it will neither be able to resist evil nor to follow good. Decision gives the power of standing firmly,. when to yield, however slightly, might be only the first step in a down-hill course to ruin.

Calling upon others for help in forming a decision is. worse than useless. A man must so train his habits as to rely upon his own powers, and depend upon his own courage in moments of emergency. Plutarch tells of a King of Macedon who, in the midst of an action, withdrew into the adjoining town under pretense of sacrifi cing to Hercules; while his opponent Emilius, at the same time that he implored the Divine aid, sought for victory, sword in hand, and won the battle. And so it ever is in the actions of daily life.

Many are the valiant purposes formed, that end merely in words; deeds intended, that are never done; designs projected, that are never begun; and all for want of a little courageous decision. Better far the silent tongue but the eloquent deed. For in life and in business, dispatch is better than discourse; and the shortest answer of all is, Doing. " In matters of great concern, and which must be done," says Tillotson, " there is no surer argument of a weak mind than irresolution-to be undetermined when the case is so plain and the necessity so urgent. To be always intending to live a new life but never to find time to set about it this is as if a man should put off eating and drinking and sleeping from one day to another, until he is starved and destroyed."

There needs also the exercise of no small degree of moral courage to resist the corrupting influences of what is called " Society." Although "Mrs. Grundy" may be a very vulgar and commonplace personage, her influence is nevertheless prodigious. Most men, but especially women, are the moral slaves of the class or cast to which they belong. There is a sort of unconscious conspiracy existing among them against each other's individuality. Each circle and section, each rank and class, has its respective customs and observances, to which conformity is required at the risk of being tabooed. Some are immured within a bastile of fashion, others of custom, others of opinion; and few there are who have the courage to think outside their sect, to act outside their party, and to step out into the free air of individual thought and action. We dress, and eat, and follow fashion, though it may be at the risk of debt, ruin, and misery; living not so much according to our means as according to the superstitious observances of our class. Though we may speak contemptuously of the Indians who flatten their heads, and of the Chinese who cramp their toes, we have only to look at the deformities of fashion among ourselves, to see that the reign of " Mrs. Grundy" is universal.

But moral cowardice is exhibited quite as much in -public as in private life. Snobbism is not confined to the toadying of the rich, but is quite as often displayed in the toadying of the poor. Formerly, sycophancy showed itself in not daring to speak the truth to those in high places; but in these days it rather shows itself in not daring to speak the truth to those in low places. Now that " the masses " exercise political power, there is a growing tendency to fawn upon them, to flatter them, and to speak nothing but smooth words to them. They are credited with virtues which they themselves know they do not possess. The public' enunciation of whole-some, because disagreeable, truths is avoided; and, to win their favor, sympathy is often pretended for views, the carrying out of which in practice is known to be hopeless.

It is not the man of the noblest character the highrest-cultured and best-conditioned man whose favor is now sought, so much as that of the lowest man, the least-cultured and worst-conditioned man, because his vote is usually that of the majority. Even men of rank, wealth, and education are seen prostrating them selves before the ignorant, whose votes are thus to be got. They are ready to be unprincipled and unjust rather than unpopular. It is so much easier for some men to stoop, to bow, and to flatter, than to be manly, resolute, and magnanimous; and to yield to prejudices, than run counter to them. It requires strength and courage to swim against the stream, while any dead fish can float with it.

This servile pandering to popularity has been rapidly on the increase of late years, and its tendency has been to lower and degrade the character of public men. Consciences have become more elastic. There is now one opinion for the chamber and another for the platform. Prejudices are pandered to in public which in private are despised. Pretended conversions which invariably jump with party interests are more sudden; and even hypocrisy now appears to be scarcely thought discreditable.

The same moral cowardice extends downward as well as upward. The action and reaction are equal. Hypocrisy and time-serving above are accompanied by hypocrisy and time-serving below. Where men of high standing have not the courage of their opinions, what is to be expected from men of low standing? They will only follow such examples as are set before them. They too will skulk, and dodge, and prevaricate be ready to speak one way and act another just like their betters. Give them but a sealed box, or some hole and corner to hide their act in, and they will then enjoy their " liberty! "

Popularity, as won in these days, is by no means a presumption in a man's favor, but is quite as often a presumption against him. " No man," says the Russian proverb, " can rise to honor who is cursed with a stiff backbone." But the backbone of the popularity-hunter is of gristle; and he has no difficulty in stooping and bending himself in any direction to catch the breath of popular applause.

Where popularity is won by fawning upon the people, by withholding the truth from them, by writing and speaking down to the lowest tastes, and, still worse, by appeals to class-hatred, such a popularity must be simply contemptible in the sight of all honest men. Jeremy Bentham, speaking of a well-known public character, said : " His creed of politics results less from love of the many than from hatred of the few; it is too much under the influence of selfish and dissocial affection." To how many men in our own day might not the same description apply?

Men of sterling character have the courage to speak the truth; even when it is unpopular. It was said of Colonel Hutchinson by his wife, that he never sought after popular applause, or prided himself on it: "He more delighted to do well than to be praised, and never set vulgar commendations at such a rate as to act contrary to his own conscience or reason for the obtaining them; nor would he forbear a good action which he was bound to, though all the world disliked it; for he ever looked on things as they were in themselves, not through the dim spectacles of vulgar estimation."

" Popularity, in the lowest and most common sense," said Sir John Pakington, on a recent occasion, " is not worth the having. Do your duty to the best of your power, win the approbation of your own conscience, and popularity, in its best and highest sense, is sure to follow."

Intellectual intrepidity is one of the vital conditions of independence and self-reliance of character. A man must have the courage to be himself, and not the shadow or the echo of another. He must exercise his own powers, think his own thoughts, and speak his own sentiments. He must elaborate his own opinions, and form his own convictions. It has been said that he who dare not form an opinion must be a coward; he who will not, must be an idler; he who can not, must be a fool.

But it is precisely in this element of intrepidity that so many persons of promise fall short, and disappoint the expectations of their friends. They march up to the scene of action, but at every step their courage oozes out. They want the requisite decision, courage,. and preseverance. They calculate the risks and weigh the chances, until the opportunity for effective effort has passed, it may be, never to return.

Men are bound to speak the truth in the love of it.. " I had rather suffer," said John Pym, the Common-wealth man, " for speaking the truth, than that the truth should suffer for want of my speaking." When a man's convictions are honestly formed, after fair and full consideration, he is justified in striving by all fair means to bring them into action. There are certain states of society and conditions of affairs in which a man is bound to speak out and be antagonistic when conformity is not only a weakness, but a sin. Great evils are in some cases only to be met by resistance; they can not be wept down, but must be battled down.

The honest man is naturally antagonistic to fraud, the truthful man to lying, the justice-loving man to oppression, the pure-minded man to vice and iniquity. They have to do battle with these conditions, and, if possible,. overcome them. Such men have in all ages represented the moral force of the world. Inspired by benevolence and sustained by courage, they have been the main-stays of all social renovation and progress. But for their continuous antagonism to evil conditions, the world were for the most part given over to the dominion of selfishness and vice. All the great reformers and martyrs were antagonistic men---enemies to falsehood and evil-doing. The Apostles themselves were an organized band of social antagonists, who contended with pride, selfishness, superstition, and irreligion. And in our own time the lives of such men as Clarkson and Granville Sharpe, Father Mathew and Richard Cobden, inspired by singleness of purpose, have shown what high-minded social antagonism can effect.

It is the strong and courageous men who lead and guide and rule the world. The weak and timid leave no trace behind them; while the life of a single upright and energetic man is like a track of light. His example is remembered and appealed to; and his thoughts, his spirit, and his courage continue to be the inspiration of succeeding generations.

It is energy the central element of which is will that produces the miracles of enthusiasm in all ages. Everywhere it is the mainspring of what is called force of character, and the sustaining power of all great action. In a righteous cause the determined man stands upon his courage as upon a granite block; and, like David, he will go forth to meet Goliath, strong in heart though a host be encamped against him.

Men often conquer difficulties because they feel they .can. Their confidence in themselves aspires the confidence of others. When Csar was at sea, and a storm began to rage, the captain of the ship which carried him became unmanned by fear. " What art thou afraid of?" cried the great captain; " thy vessel carries Caesar!" The courage of the brave man is contagious, and carries others along with it. His stronger nature awes weaker natures into silence, or inspires them with his own will and purpose.

The persistent man will not be baffled or repulsed by opposition. Diogenes, desirous of becoming the disciple of Antisthenes, went and offered himself to the cynic. He was refused. Diogenes still persisting, the cynic raised his knotty staff, and threatened to strike him if he did not depart. " Strike!" said Diogenes; " you will not find a stick hard enough to conquer my perseverance." Antisthenes, overcome, had not another word to say, but forthwith accepted him as his pupil.

Energy of temperament, with a moderate degree of wisdom, will carry a man farther than any amount of intellect without it. Energy makes the man of practical ability. It gives him vis, force, momentum. It is the active motive power of character; and, if combined with sagacity and self possession, will enable a man to employ his powers to the best advantage in all the affairs of life.

Hence it is that, inspired by energy of purpose, men of comparatively mediocre powers have often been enabled to accomplish such extraordinary results. For the men who have most powerfully influenced the world have not been so much men of genius as men of strong convictions and enduring capacity for work, impelled by irresistible energy and invincible determination: such men, for example, as were Mohammed, Luther, Knox, Calvin, Loyola, and Wesley.

Courage, combined with energy and perseverance, will overcome difficulties apparently insurmountable. It gives force and impulse to effort, and does not permit it to retreat. Tyndall said of Farady, that " in his warm moments he formed a resolution, and in his cool ones he made that resolution good." Perseverance, working in the right direction, grows with time, and when steadily practiced, even by the most humble, will rarely fail of its reward. Trusting in the help of others is of comparatively little use. When one of Michael Angelo's principle patrons died, he said: " I begin to understand that the promises of the world are for the most part vain phantoms, and that to confide in one's self, and become something of worth and value, is the best and safest course."

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