What Is Courage?

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

If, then, you desire courage, you must know what it is. But you can never know courage prior to having experience in courage. You see that in the intelligent study of words you must find something of your past in them, — in their meanings, — and in order to understand them at any time you must put your-self into them. In order to know courage, you must have had in experience some of the elements of the quality, and in order now to know what courage is you must think those elements into the word, " courage."

In the dictionaries the definition of the word, "courage," amounts to this: "Courage is courage," since the qualities which are given to state what courage is are all equivalent to courage. The word comes from the Latin, cor, meaning, "heart." We say, "Be of good heart," meaning, "Be of good courage." The word, "concord," also comes from cor, as though to ex-press the idea of a function working in co-operation with all other functions. The outcome is well-being, as well-being is the outcome of such working. Courage, then, is a working of the entire system in the sense of welfare promising to continue. In a state of courage, there is a consciousness of power-poise equal to apparent danger, and this sense of power-poise sometimes throws the self into danger with rush and enthusiasm. Courage is a sense of ability to maintain personal power-poise against threats of injury.

This personal power-poise comes as an experience, whatever may be said of the quality itself. At once we are carried into a wide field of interesting thought, as follows. Every individual object of existence, every truth, every law, every physical and psychic state, is many-sided. This is not only because existence is never a barren unit,— a "thing in itself,"— but because all things that continue — and so, exist — must change. Things, states, acts, therefore, are never the same for any two or more continuous moments. At any instance they have phases, for change is a process, and a process involves parts and successions of states. At each succeeding instant the phases change, for the reason suggested. Whether or no the phases and changes are actual because objective in themselves,— really in the things, acts, states,— or actual because subjective in the human mind, nobody knows. You can only know in yourself; you cannot go outside of yourself in order to know. It is certain that when you know a thing, you have built it by mental experience, and that when you know a thing more completely, you have simply added to that building by experience.

Most people are apt to assume that they know an object, truth, fact, law, act, state, when they have learned something about the matter — have had phases of a total possible experience in relation to it. We now see that this is error. The unknown phases of any object, etc., may, indeed, uncover more or less to the mind, or old phases may be newly presented, or the thing to which any phase belongs may change. The field of knowing is thus seen to be infinite. You will find it interesting to select any object or truth which you imagine you know exhaustively. Nothing can be so known. To the Infinite the final inexhaustively unknowable must be the Infinite Self.


Courage, then, can be known by any one person only in part — so far as his experiences go in the matter. There are phases of courage which you do not know, and which you never will know. An example might be —facing an Arctic winter solitude with a madman for a companion. There are phases which no human being has ever known. Here the example might be — facing in spirit the sudden wreck of the starry heavens. One phase of courage is unknown even to the Deity — that required in facing His own death — because He is the Infinite.

The study of this book, it is now observed, must indeed be partial only. It must be partial as concerns the entire volume, and it will be partial in the study involved in any page. You will understand up to your own level. You will profit according to your will. On your level, your experience will determine what you shall realize. Some of these chapters, some of these phases of fear and courage, you will not understand at all, because your experience has fallen short in some particular aspect of the discussion. At every page this has been demonstrated by some one among the book's thousands of readers. The fact, however, is not due to any lack of intelligence on the part of its readers, but is due to the limits of personal experience imposed by the nature of things.

Intelligence is the "chooser between." Always you have to choose between experiences, in order to understanding and mental development.


Now, the discussion of the present chapter affords illustration of the foregoing suggestions. Human life is a tangle of relations, and in these relations we come to knowledge through experience. Nevertheless, it is evident that multitudes of people have no experience in many relations which are entirely common. More-over, no one experiences the whole of any given relation. And again, thousands in the full experience (broadly speaking) of certain relations, remain during life largely ignorant of the meaning of very common words involved in such relations.

You are familiar, for example, with crowds, but you do not know what it means to face a crowd when it is in a certain mood, say, of anger or of ridicule. When you think of a mad mob calling for your death, you begin to experience a feeling of fear — at least, the idea of fear, because you have had the feeling or idea of fear in other experiences, and this fact gives you power to imagine fear of a mad crowd. You cannot, on the other hand, realize courage before a mad mob unless you are really courageous, and the actual courage-fact you can-not know unless you have stood at bay before such a crowd.

The relation of true marriage affords a further example. All know, in a way, the meaning of the words, "husband" or "wife," just as all know in a way the meaning of "love." But it is experience that really defines these words, and unless one is actually married or really loves, one cannot know the words, "wife," or "husband," or "love." Millions of people live in the relation indicated, and one out of a thousand knows the majesty and power and glory of physico- psychic passion. Few, indeed, know what it means highly to mate with a human being. The ideal ends in tradition, fiction, poetry, painting, music, but that world which we call the real knows the state and the relation about as much as an ape knows Mozart, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, or a kitten knows a Stradivarius. And it is not in a spirit of pessimism that these words are written. They are merely and strictly in the line of the present study.

A further illustration is seen in the idea and the fact of individuality. We know only as we experience. Few people experience any the least individuality, and few, therefore, know this splendid reality. That is to say: while all are individuals, the vast majority of men and women fail to be, freely and utterly themselves — even their better selves. The land of the free and the home of the brave is very largely the land of the bound and the home of some variety of fear. These things are not said in the mood of criticism, be it again observed. They simply confront us in the study now opening.

It is life's relations that develop the facts before us. Were a man alone on a desert island in the Pacific ocean, he might well be free and brave — in a way. To individualize himself to the limit of ability and opportunity would even then be difficult, for a man so placed would have to confront himself — and Nature — and the stars and the sea — and the world's traditions and education and a devilish misconception of religion. These things would confront this man in his thought, and if he would really individualize, he would have the task on his hands of conquering every item above mentioned. We prefer the city to the desert. In the latter the demand is incessant and insistent; in the city it is confused and put down, and we are relieved of the awful pressure of life.

Nature and civilization have always conspired to oppose individuality.

Religion, as man has made it, distorted by creed, bound by ceremony, overloaded with institutions, envenomed by selfishness, and made absolutely horrible oftentime by cruelty,—has fought in blood and fire to prevent and destroy individuality. These oppositions vary mightly.

The explanation of Nature's apparent hostility toward a true human individualization is the fact that by her oppositions she has sought to discipline and brow-beat and inspire man into splendid assertion of himself. We may say that Nature has no real intentions, yet the outcome is the same — individualization. Or, we may hold that Nature is a complex Thought of the Infinite. and then the evident purpose of life's roughness is precisely that — individualization. The more the individual becomes himself, — independent and real and assertive, — the more Nature loves and assists him.

Civilization is apparently opposed to the individual in its real intentions, but the outcome of the actual working of things is more and more the man become himself. Anciently, man understood that he was always dealing with person in his civilizations, yet he never got hold of the true meaning of personality as a real and a sacred thing. The idea is not to be found in Greek literature. Only after man had philosophized and built empires and ruined his own systems and at last begun to dream of freedom, did he really personalize himself. When he did so, he caught his first glimpse of high-browed individuality. Just as much as civilization has dropped absolute monarchs and kings, has it discovered that the one only thing worth evolution and starry systems is the individual come freely and utterly to his own kingdoms. The modern king is simply a symbol for modern government. The absolute monarch died long ago.

There is very little individuality in the completest sense because public opinion and convention and fear are so universally and unrecognizedly the rulers of life; but more truly because so few people have any experience in the individualization of the soul. The meaning of the word, "individuality," in the sense of experience, is almost unknown. For you can only know through experience, and only can know what experience has given you. If you would realize this splendid thing, individuality, you must begin by striving for experience beyond your past, since you can only know as you experience, and if your experience has been ordinary, your limited knowledge (realization) also limits your ideals, and the poor ideals hold you to the past commonplace and enslaved reality.

The courage of individuality is the sublimest possible type of courage known or conceivable. When you come into full individualization, your courage will be of full stature, like that of Peruguino's Michael the Archangel of War — who is the Minister of Peace. By so much as you strive after full freedom of self, by so much do you breed courage in the soul. This is the finest comment on your nature — that if you really become yourself, you will be courageous. And by so much as you strive after full-orbed courage, by so must your soul comes free. In freedom the self experiences entire individualization. Remember, and hold fast, and conquer!

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