Circumstances of Courage1



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Circumstances of Courage1

Andrew Sabl

Visiting Associate Professor

Harvard University

Department of Government

1737 Cambridge St., N-410

Cambridge, MA 02138

(617) 496-0234

asabl@gov.harvard.edu

(Permanent Affiliation:

Public Policy and Political Science, UCLA

sabl@ucla.edu)


Draft prepared for the Brown University Political Theory Workshop, 12 October 2006. This is a very rough and preliminary draft; comments of any length are therefore very welcome but please do not cite without permission.

My topic is political courage: specifically, the extent to which courage is a civic virtue in a liberal democracy. The question is both whether certain kinds of courage are necessary for ordinary citizens of a liberal democracy and whether certain kinds of courage (the same, or others) are even compatible with it. That certain specialized political offices call for something called political courage I do not doubt, but my subject is whether liberal democracy requires such a thing of ordinary citizens and if so what shape it might take.

I assume at the start an instrumental view of political virtue: a political virtue is one that benefits the polity or the values it ought to embody rather than (necessarily) the person who holds the virtue. Thus many ancient discussions of virtue, as well as contemporary “virtue ethics” to the extent that tit builds on these discussions,” will be either irrelevant or relevant in accidental and unintended ways. For instance, in discussing true courage, which “chooses and stands firm because that is fine or because anything else is shameful,” Aristotle says that “it is quite possible for brave people not to be the best soldiers”—for instance, those who have nothing to lose might fight more fiercely than those with the proper motivational structure.2 If that is the case, the place to look for politically useful military courage is clear: it is those with nothing to lose who most have it, not those who are so well constituted that they think more about what is shameful than about fighting.

In previous work,3 I have put forth a framework on political virtue that is meant to make sense of these questions. I distinguished between core virtues, those which are really necessary for most members of a liberal democracy to possess most of the time if the polity is to continue functioning, and ideal virtues, those conducive to one vision among many of how a liberal democracy ought to progress or flourish. I also claimed that most virtues are pluralistic and episodic: it is legitimate for some citizens to specialize in some, others in others; and many virtues are called for only in certain circumstances, useless or harmful in others. The same article asserted, briefly, that a certain radical and world-changing conception of courage fit the last category: it is useful in times of radical crisis when liberals must dare to act before liberalism’s enemies do, but “a danger to the polity” when this is not the case and existing institutions demand our qualified support.

A similar conclusion has long been associated with liberal theory but has always lacked intuitive appeal. Hannah Arendt wrote that “courage is one of the cardinal political virtues”—and that “we” all hold this “as a matter of course” even though our theories of politics give little reason for doing so.4 Both parts of her claim still have force. The Rawlsian liberalism that serves as political theorists’ default assumption now seems to have no more room for courage than did the more pluralistic liberalism that reigned when Arendt wrote.5 The first virtue of social institutions is of course justice. And to avoid an incoherent destabilizing clash between private and political duties, our private morality must (roughly speaking) put justice first as well. The primary “natural duty” is one of justice, “to support and to further” arrangements that satisfy the principles of justice.6 Other duties considered necessary for the just society’s stability include civility and mutual aid—but not courage. Later Rawls, which focuses more on reasonable pluralism, still stresses other values, and other virtues,7 but not courage. In a well-ordered society based on an overlapping consensus rather than on agreement regarding comprehensive doctrines, “a normally effective sense of justice” is essential (the purely political conception that cements the polity is still a “political conception of justice8) but courage is not: the “very great virtues” “that make a constitutional regime possible” are “the virtues of political cooperation” (tolerance, “being ready to meet others halfway,” reasonableness, fairness)—not the virtue of courage.9 To be sure, courage might be praised or valued within a particular comprehensive conception, but politics, it seems, can do without it as it cannot do without fairness, toleration, or a sense of justice.

This seems both intuitively wrong and theoretically correct. A nation of political cowards sounds like a candidate for liberal failure—for instability and injustice—let alone for ignobility. On the other hand, there seem good reasons for the internal processes of liberal democracy, where it is hoped law and peaceful dispute resolution reign, to downplay the role of courage, whose paradigmatic sphere of operation is war.10 In this essay I shall sketch a defense of both our intuitive attachment to political courage and the reasons for liberal theory to reject the claim that it is central to political life. Courage is a political virtue in certain circumstances, but not those Arendt envisioned and not for the reasons she had in mind. There is nothing in general wrong with liberal democracy’s aspiring to make many kinds of courage obsolete—to make democracy as safe for cowards as for the rest of us who are imperfect in other ways. The form of courage that has the best claim to be enduringly necessary and more of a help to liberal democracy than a hindrance is neither the martial courage of the ancients nor the existential courage of Arendt and her followers but what the Germans call civil courage: and it too must, if it is to be tamed for democratic purposes, play a more limited role than many think. For the qualities that make it so attractive as a counterweight to political evil also represent a threat to political justice. Thus civil courage will be arguably a liberal-democratic core virtue—but the fact that its presence in the core is arguable means that it must either grudgingly take its place among “ideal” virtues or stand with those who question altogether the worth of liberal democracy or the way we think about it.


I. Red herrings: preservationist courage and military valor.

Courage can mean many things; political courage, almost as many. A matrix combining all the possible ways of defining the virtue of courage (not having a certain kind of fear, or overcoming it? If overcoming: by means of feelings of solidarity, rational knowledge of the good, patriotism, animal spirit, or does it not matter?) with all the possible definitions of political goods worth being courageous for, would have a great many boxes. Since no claim is made here about permissible “ideal” virtues or goals—everyone is entitled to praise all sorts of motivations for standing fast in pursuit of all kinds of potential goods in the face of all kinds of temptations—I shall start by talking about two kinds of courage that might seem both fundamental to liberal democracy and related to each other, but (I shall claim) are neither.

Holloway Sparks has described the “classical” portrait of political courage as the “warrior courage of soldiers and heroes” that “enables the warrior to gain personal glory while defending the existing community from external harm.” We might note at least four distinct propositions involved in this “classical” or epic view: courage is (1) the special province of soldiers and heroes; (2) oriented towards glory; (3) what might be called preservationist or conservative, involving steadiness in defense of the existing order; and (4) addressed towards external enemies. Sparks notes that Plato’s “civic” (or “political”) courage in the Republic is a version of courage in this sense (we might add, without the glory but with more immediate, i.e. romantic, compensations): it is preservationist, and the quality above all of the Guardians.11

Considered as a specialized or else episodic virtue, this seems, once more, unexceptionable. Surely every liberal democracy sometimes faces military threats, and surely some people some of the time must be able to brave danger in repelling them. The extent of those threats, and therefore the frequency and scope in which warrior virtue must operate, is a persistent partisan dispute between conservatives and liberals, one which theory can hardly illuminate reliably. One thing the theorist can do is point out how the claims made for warrior courage typically metastasize in ways that make no logical but keen political and psychological sense.

Put simply, the four above qualities have little logical connection to one another, and none has any logical connection to a willingness to repress domestic dissenters who lack alliance with foreign enemies. The tendency to conflate the two, accidentally or as a deliberate evasion, is of course very ancient. Even Plato’s own treatment, which he carefully limits to specialized, political courage in the hypothetical ideal city, engages in such slippage. Courage is sought in the warrior class because it seems the quintessential quality of warriors (429b)—but then is inconsistently asserted to serve a more generalized political end. The guardians’ steadfastness in the face of external threats is conflated with their refusal to tolerate any changes in the politeia (430b). The very quality with which the guardians were first identified—the ability to distinguish enemies to be attacked from friends to be treated kindly—is quickly forgotten: the response to domestic innovation is placed in the portfolio of those entrusted with ruthlessness towards foreign threats.

It is hardly new to note that times of war present the danger of domestic conformity and political repression, but not always recognized that it often does so through appeals to political courage—identified with this narrow or military ideal. The soldier’s values of obedience, patriotism, and steadfastness in the face of death come to be conflated with civic virtues that ought in many cases to be opposites of these; veterans are assumed to be preferred candidates for office, as if physical bravery entailed general civic devotion or selflessness; the contentment with the status quo that is a good thing in the professional soldier (it prevents coups) is made a virtue of the whole citizenry, precisely the body entrusted with making and evaluating demands for change;

The link between valuing soldiers and punishing dissenters is so strong largely because the slide between very different claims about courage is so easy. While an extreme version of the military-civic slide—that career soldiers are best suited to monopolize political power—is restricted to military dictatorships, subtler versions can be found across the political spectrum. On the (non-authoritarian) Right, it is common to assert or at least imply that domestic dissenters are allied with foreign enemies precisely because the former often refuse the demand to heap plaudits on those who attack the latter—appear, that is, insufficiently appreciative of military courage, thus cowards by association.12 In the republican or “civil liberal” center, preference for a draftee over a professional army is sometimes linked to unrelated values like social mixing or fair distribution of military risk but just as often to the idea that the military virtues or their civilian analogue make for more steadfast citizens. But there is no a priori reason to suppose this. Even habits of cooperation and sacrifice common in civilian service projects might be double-edged if they (as alleged) spill over into civic life. As Richard Posner has pointed out, the “GI generation’s” ethos of service and sacrifice made them poor critics of government misbehavior precisely because they were

particularly good at keeping secrets and at lying for the greater good, tactics of solidarity which boomeranged when the [Vietnam] war turned sour. Their whimpy [sic] successors, the ‘Silent Generation,’ turned out to have deeper insights into the war.13


But perhaps most interesting is a recent claim from a leading left-liberal that turns out to be a version of this argument. In attacking what he sees as dangerous talk of “balancing” security and liberty, restricting the latter in the face of threats to the former, Jeremy Waldron writes:

Of course, it is possible that we could make the adjustment in the other direction. Instead of beginning with an idea of the maximum risk…we were prepared to bear as a result of people’s liberty, we might begin with an idea of the minimum liberty…we were prepared to accept. The recalculation after September 11 would then require us not to accept less liberty but to brave a higher risk for the sake of the liberty we cherish. The appropriate changes in public policy, then, would be calls to greater courage, rather than diminutions of liberty.14


Leaving aside that “calls to greater courage” seems not quite a public policy (any more than calls to tighten one’s belt are a social policy), the question is who is being called to greater courage, and greater than what. The idea seems to be that we must all display something like warrior courage, since terrorists intend to make all of civilian society a battlefield.15 But the word “greater” is problematic here, as the amount of warrior courage normally expected of, say, four-year old children is normally zero. To accept even a small but pervasive degree of violent insecurity is to display the kind of virtues that liberal governments are supposed to render obsolete for most people and required only in a few. Waldron resists talk of “balancing” liberty against security partly because such talk is too casually consequentialist whereas liberty is supposed to be at least quasi-absolute.16 But perhaps virtues, or their absence, are tacitly regarded as quasi-absolute as well. One way of reformulating the goal of a liberal society is that of making the truly necessary civic virtues as few as possible and their necessary level as close to zero as possible. The call for everyone to get used to needing warrior courage is much more radical than it seems.17

To sum up: That warrior courage translates particularly well into the courage necessary for domestic political life is a claim that can certainly be made. But it is an ideological claim: it presents a certain story about what ails politics, a claim that must stand on its specific causal arguments and cannot claim to rest on anything inherent in the logic of either courage or liberal democracy. That is: it is no more plausible to suppose that military or preservationist courage is related to the (nebulous) courage appropriate to citizens than to suppose it is related to anything else: generosity, or courtesy, or drunkenness, or skill at pole vaulting.


II. Arendtian Courage: Radical Virtue for Dark Times.
Arendt’s claim that courage is crucial to politics is very specific and surprisingly hard to gloss. She endorses the claim attributed to Churchill that courage is the first of all human qualities” because it “guarantees all others.”18 This could on the surface mean many things, for instance a point about weakness of will, but in citing it Arendt means very specifically the courage necessary to leave the private realm and engage in public action.

In her discussion of political freedom Arendt writes that courage

Does not gratify our individual sense of vitality but is demanded of us by the very nature of the public realm. For this world of ours, because it existed before us and is meant to outlast our lives in it, simply cannot afford to give primary concern to individual lives and the interests connected with them; as such the public realm stands in the sharpest possible contrast to our private domain, where, in the protection of family and home, everything serves and must serve the security of the life process. It requires courage to leave the protective security of our four walls and enter the public realm, not because of particular dangers which may lie in wait for us, but because we have arrived in a realm where the concern for life has lost its validity. Courage liberates men from their worry about life for the freedom of the world. Courage is indispensable because in politics not life but the world is at stake (emphasis added)”19
The degree of actual danger or threat to our persons is not, it seems, even relevant; military courage is not at issue. (In another passage Arendt says, yet more vividly, that even cowards can be heroes and that being a coward may even increase the courage displayed by leaving one’s “private hiding place.”20) It takes courage to face not so much physical danger but the insecurity specific to politics, in which how our private lives go is not of concern. But it remains unclear why politics should be insecure at all, why it should seem threatening to leave home and engage with others, why “the public realm” in general and politics in particular (a word that Arendt uses sparingly) should involve such risk. A common answer given by Arendt scholars involves the uncertainties and vagaries of risking one’s private identity in the world of public perception, an answer that focuses on authority rather than identity seems more convincing and harder to claim as universally valid.

Arendt’s work was born in what she (following Brecht) called “dark times”: specifically the “first half of the twentieth century,”21 which saw two world wars, Depression, Holocaust, and the unprecedented political structure that Arendt would analyze as Totalitarianism. Arendt took for granted that as a result of these experiences (and only these experiences) “the thread of tradition finally broke”: “the gap between past and future,” once a construct of intellectuals who can stop time notionally, in thought, is now “a tangible reality” and has “political relevance.”22 The vigor and brilliance of Arendt’s attempts to make sense of such times resonated with an entire postwar generation with personal or familial memories of these catastrophes and of the multiples losses of certainty, hope, and identity that went with them.23 Arendt’s self-consciously literary, baroque, evocative rather than careful words and arguments, praised as a new way of doing political theory by Arendt’s Continental or postmodern followers and often so infuriating to Anglo-American critics,24 track more closely than either group recognizes a particular set of political experiences. Arendt’s method, akin to Socrates’ (tentative, original, prone to use everyday metaphors, non-systematic) makes sense if and only if one thinks that there is no alternative to starting anew, that the world no longer contains solid premises from which to reason and make systematic progress through logic alone. Considering “all our experiences in this century, which has constantly confronted us with the totally unexpected,” optimistic doctrines of continuity and Progress (here Marxist, but Arendt blames liberal ones just as much) represent “a comfortable, speculative or pseudo-scientific refuge from reality.”25

Both those who want to claim Arendt’s insights are undoubtedly true and those who want to dismiss them as undoubtedly nonsense should recognize that Arendt explicitly links her theoretical claims to specific kinds of experiences and political conditions.26 “Anglo-American” theory sounds very different from Arendt because it is written by Britons and Americans who have no reason to believe the claim that modernity has catastrophically disrupted political and cultural life: whose traditions never stopped working. Where constitutional traditions persist, even grow stronger over time, Arendt’s answers can still fascinate but they seem the mere intellectual games that Arendt granted they would have been absent the experience of Dark Times:

“the disorder and the hunger, the massacres and the slaughterers, the outrage over injustice and the despair ‘when there was only wrong and no outrage,’ the legitimate hatred that makes you ugly nevertheless, the well-founded wrath that makes the voice grow hoarse. All this was real enough as it took place in public; there was nothing secret or mysterious about it.”27


But it is mysterious now: her experience, not ours. Arendt’s apparently obscure political categories—power vs. authority vs. strength vs. violence; courage is the central political virtue but toleration is not—are often seen by both her partisans and enemies as resting on abstract theses about the human condition when they could be read as attempts to make sense of political circumstances.

This has clear implications for courage and explains why courage is so important and so central to Arendt’s politics. Arendt sees revolutions as a matter of power’s slow disintegration followed by a contest of initiative:

Disintegration often becomes manifest only in direct confrontation; and even then, when power is already in the street, some group of men prepared for such an eventuality is needed to pick it up and assume responsibility.28
Arendt’s example of this is France in 1968, where the students were not ready to pick up the power lying in the street—but de Gaulle was.29 Arendt’s metaphors, like Socrates’, should be taken very seriously as attempts to create new premises when old ones are inapt. If revolution means a rush to pick up power, and if power in most modern societies is so fragile that it is often lying there to be picked up—this is what a crisis of authority means—then politics is like a game of Australian Rules football. The ball is propelled forwards through rough kicks and fist-socks: it typically lands close to players on both sides (more like soccer than like a U.S. football pass) and whoever gets it first wins possession. Many players running hard and trying to scoop up the ball in their hands means that head-on collisions are very common and are more serious the harder the players are competing. Now make the prize for getting the ball not a possession but the right to write the constitution and dominate the political system. This is no longer a game in which toleration could possibly be more important than courage.30 Even an agreement not to play, to let the ball lie there, would only entail that someone else, perhaps a great enemy, could break the deal and pick it up without effort—much as fascism in fact seemed in the eyes of a generation that ten or twenty years before saw no reason to doubt that liberalism would survive forever only to see it die utterly, defended by no one.

This is not our game. There is simply no good reason to believe that authority in liberal democracies is now fragile, that alternative claimants to power fail mostly or even partly because they fail to take initiative Arendt’s defense of courage is not “wrong” but describes political circumstances that simply are less relevant here and now than they did in her day and her birthplace. (It is no accident that the active politicians most influenced by Arendt mostly grew up in Eastern Europe, or Iraq.) Short of portraying our times so pessimistically that we forget the profound difference between the problems of the U.S. today and those of interwar Germany or Austria, 31 we cannot easily claim that politics today requires the courage Arendt described. We can now enter politics without risking either life or security and without expecting the “miracles” that Arendt saw in the political realm.32 And we can fail to enter politics without leaving politics to fascists and communists: in a stable liberal democracy, a moderate preference for our private shelters simply does not do the polity fundamental harm.


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