Courage

The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016

Courage

ALICE AYRES

Daughter of a bricklayer’s laborer

Who by intrepid conduct

Saved 3 children

From a burning house

In Union Street Borough

At the cost of her own young life

April 24 1885

Love and bravery. These are the emotions we build monuments to. The entwined marble lovers in a fountain might raise a sad smile. Monuments to bravery, by contrast, are intended to inspire. Of course, they mostly depict important men on horses. Bravery has traditionally been seen as an aristocratic and overwhelmingly male virtue. It still is: “Man up.” “Grow some balls.”

Alice Ayres’s inscription tells a different story. She was a nursemaid who died rescuing her three charges when a fire broke out in the shop beneath their home. She quickly became immortalized by the Victorians as an exemplar of heroic duty and care for others. Several memorials were erected to her, among them an inscription on the artist George Watts’s Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice built in Postman’s Park in London in 1900. It is a simple wooden shelter lined with fifty-four small ceramic tablets, each one commemorating an act of bravery—from a laborer who died trying to rescue his friend from an explosion at a sugar refinery to a stewardess who went down with a sinking ship after giving her lifebelt away. The shelter is a celebration of the courage of working-class men, women and children and, in stark contrast to the marble horsemen who grandly peer over the City nearby, it appears rather humble in its design. With its floral ceramics and simple carving, it channels the aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts movement, which itself harks back to medieval decorative styles. It’s not just its appearance that evokes the medieval world. With its emphasis on extraordinarily courageous acts performed by ordinary people—requiring not only physical stamina but also emotional fortitude—Watts’s memorial also recalls a medieval attitude, in which courage was considered one of the principles that everyone should live by.

The word “courage” first entered the English language via the Old French corage, from the Latin cor (heart), and originally referred to the heart itself, understood at that time to be the seat of all feelings and the source of one’s innermost desires and intentions (see also: MAN). The medieval heart was not the muscle we’d recognize today. Rather than a pump circulating blood, it was believed to act as a chamber for heating the body’s vital spirits. The higher the temperature of these vital spirits, the more courageous a person was assumed to be. Of course, it was hard to tell how hot someone’s heart was just from looking at them (although women were usually understood to be more moist and cool than hot, dry men). But medieval physicians believed one outward sign of inner heat, and therefore courage, was hair. In a physiognomic treatise written by the thirteenth-century physician Michael Scot, “lots of abundant hair… that is thick and curly” was evidence of “much heat of the heart, such as in a lion.” This link between hairiness and bravery gave rise to lengthy discussions in medical books about men who were unable to grow beards, and hirsute ladies. This association between curly hair and being brave and strong still lingers today. At least, it might be why some parents, trying to persuade their children to eat a vegetable, resort to the lie “It’ll make your hair curl.”

But courage was not only a question of an inner fire. It could also be cultivated by striving to shape one’s life according to four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. Though they were Pagan in origin, these virtues remained a cornerstone of medieval life, even as Europe turned to Christianity and new concepts such as forgiveness and humility crowded in. Fortitude described a steadfastness, an ability to take responsibility for one’s actions and something today we call “acting with integrity.” Thus, according to Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiæ, courage was not just an ability to “stand immovable in the midst of dangers” without succumbing to the desire to attack, but also the patience to endure pain with equanimity, to have a “strength of hope” and a feeling of “magnificence”—treating all our endeavors with sincerity and importance. Courage took in a broad sweep.

Today’s talk of courage is indebted to this flexible, inclusive medieval concept. The eighteenth-century philosopher Adam Smith may have argued that courage was a question of physical resilience, and distinctly a male virtue: “We esteem the man who supports pain and even torture with manhood and firmness” rather than give way to “useless outcries and womanish lamentations.” But when we admire the bravery of individuals in our own time, it is not only because they are willing to put themselves in harm’s way, but also because they risk social exclusion. The brave speak out against injustice, or stand up for their beliefs when threatened by oppression. It takes courage to show your difference in a culture that is all too ready to show CONTEMPT (see also: SHAME). We do speak of bravery as the ability to stand firm in the face of physical hardship: the bravery of childbirth, say, or recovering from a serious illness, even the self-sacrifice that Victorians so associated with the brave. But perhaps it’s the emphasis on psychological fortitude, the ability to confront one’s demons or flourish despite the scars of trauma, that most recalls the medieval way of thinking about courage. That, and the idea that bravery isn’t just for men on horseback, but something to which the rest of us can aspire too.

For more on having the courage of your convictions, see: VULNERABILITY.