Courage in the modern world

Courage is one of the most ancient male virtues. It played a pivotal role for Homer and was central for the Philosopher Kings ruling Plato’s Just City, while Aristotle made it a paradigm virtue in his Nikomachean Ethics. They called it ἀνδρεία (andreia): literally, ‘manliness’.

Nearly two and a half thousand years later, much of what they said still applies. This short introduction will show you what courage looks like in the modern day. Next, we will explore its various expressions and learn to level it up.

What is courage

There are three components to courage (Biswas-Diener 2012):

  1. Conquering fear. If the thing you want to do does not scare you, you don’t need courage to do it. The point of courage is not to feel no fear. The point is to master it.
  2. Taking a risk. If there is no chance of failure, it’s all just business as usual. Anyone can do that. Taking a risk is the very point of courage.
  3. A good cause. A criminal takes a risk and conquers fear when stealing your wallet. But that’s not courage. Real courage has a moral component: you need to do it for a good cause.

Like all Virtues, for Aristotle courage is the golden middle between two vices.

  • The vice of deficiency is cowardice. That’s when you are paralysed by your fear, unwilling to take any risk, and thus can’t achieve anything good.
  • The vice of excess is recklessness: you feel no fear, take pointless risks, and likely also achieve nothing.

There is a continuum ranging from cowardice to recklessness, and courage is in the middle. It requires that you conquer your fear and take just enough risk to do the right thing. Not too little, not too much, but just right. The golden middle.

In the Man’s Compass, courage stands between the values of Justice and Change:

  • You should always courageously fight for that which is just. Never use your courage to fight for a wrong, selfish, unfair cause.
  • Your courage should bring about positive Change, and you need courage to Change yourself. But you should also remember that the context might Change: the risk might get too high and the cause you thought was good might turn out not to be.
Photo by Nejc Soklič on Unsplash

Men, risk, and courage

Plato didn’t like the Greek word for courage (literally: ‘manliness’), because he thought that anyone can be courageous (Hobbs 2000). And rightly so — history knows many extremely courageous women, from Joanne d’Arc, through Gloria Steinem, all the way to Frances Haugen.

And whatever your stance on other genders, you must admit that people who do identify as neither male nor female often fight their corner with a great deal of courage.

However, there is something about men that makes us particularly well-suited for courage, and that goes beyond how we are socialised.

Yes, you guessed it: Testosterone.

This is because higher levels of T are positively correlated with risk-taking. Men have been found to take more risks in every area where risk has been studied (Byrnes et al., 1999). That is just as true of Tanzanian hunter-gatherers (Apicella et al., 2017) as Western bank CEOs (Palvia et al., 2020).

Since courage requires risk, men are pretty well equipped for it. Perhaps it is no wonder that about 90% of the winners of the Carnegie Hero Fund awards are men (Wikipedia).

But before we congratulate ourselves on being awesome, remember that our courage is not better the more risk we take. It’s the golden middle. There is such a thing as too much risk and men are certainly guilty of recklessness and completely unnecessary risks, too.

Moreover, we know that the impact of testosterone on risk-taking is especially pronounced when it can lead to gaining social status (Ronay and Von Hippel 2010). Once men have status, more testosterone doesn’t inspire more risk. They’re too comfortable where they are.

None of that is good or bad in itself — it’s just how we are built. But now, we need to choose what we do with it.

We can use our capacity for risk-taking to get into fights, do whatever it takes to selfishly climb to the top, and try to get laid at all costs.

Or, we can use it to defend the weak, stand up for ourselves, and build and lead thriving communities.

The latter is courage. It’s what heroes do. The former is certainly not.

Bear this in mind as you keep reading: men are natural risk-takers, and this means we are capable of great acts of courage (especially if it gains us status) but are also prone to taking it too far and acting recklessly.

Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash

Courage Today

We think of courage as a very physical and action-packed trait. Sword in hand, defend your city. Save a baby from a burning building. Stand up against a bully.

But already Plato thought that’s too narrow. 400 years BCE, he has shown that courage is just as important in politics, social life, and thinking (Hobbs 2000).

Today, most of us will never encounter a need for action or physical courage. That’s good — the safe world we live in is what our great ancestors courageously fought for, and they did a fantastic job! Today’s world is proof that courage pays off.

Still, it’s not like there are no evils and injustices for us to worry about.

Every day, people’s rights get violated. Employers exploit their workers. People lie and coerce to get their way. Corporations manipulate us. Some are denied opportunities others have. Natural disasters leave people poor and injured.

Thus, even if it’s rarely the sword-in-hand kind, courage to fight for Justice and Positive Change is just as needed now as ever.

Think of famous whistle-blowers: Edward Snowden who took on the NSA, Chris Wylie who exposed Cambridge Analytica, or Frances Haugen who went after Meta. Others knew of those problems but cowardly did nothing. Likely many tried to recklessly fight but all they achieved was losing their jobs and burning out.

But not Snowden, Wylie, Haugen, and others like them. They used no swords (I think!), but that doesn’t invalidate their courage. They still took a great risk and made sure it wasn’t pointless: they did what had the greatest chance of succeeding.

I hope that any of you would do the courageous thing in a similarly momentous context, but courage is also needed in much more mundane situations.

Classic example: courage to punish and prevent harm

A friend of mine is a leader of a metal band. They’ve got three albums and a decent fan base. They even started their own label.

One day, he learned that the band’s drummer emotionally abused his girlfriend.

My friend could have easily done nothing and allowed the wrong to continue. He’d risk nothing: neither the friendship, nor the band’s reputation, nor even the chance of a false accusation based on hearsay. But that would be a cowardly thing to do.

He could also easily go on a full-on public cancelling and character assassination campaign. But that would be reckless and risk too much, including destroying his friend, the band, and the woman who was harmed enough and didn’t need the world to watch her pain.

We spoke about it a lot at the time.

Think of any heroic story you know, I argued. In the beginning, there is always some great quest that is thrown at the hero and he has a choice: to take it or not. A real hero has doubts and fears, but in the end, he courageously does the right thing. Be a hero.

In the end, he confronted his drummer, got him to leave the band, and published a very measured and thoughtful announcement that explained the decision and took a strong stance against abuse in the metal scene. All while avoiding exposing the identity of the harmed woman.

He strongly supported a Change that made his world more fair and Just.

Was he afraid? Of course! He was agonising over this for days!

Did he take a risk? Definitely. He minimised the risk for others (especially the woman), but he was very worried that the band is going to suffer for it, both by losing a drummer and taking a reputation hit.

But it was the right thing to do.

And while we should always do what’s right just because it’s right, it’s worth mentioning that in the end, it paid off big time. People reacted very positively to my friend’s announcement, offered support, and praised his ability to take the problem face on.

To me and to many others, he’s a hero.

Courage to protect the weak

In the above example, a weaker person was harmed by a stronger one. My friend couldn’t prevent that harm, but his announcement sent a strong message to his community, showing that harming the weak has consequences and discouraging it in the future.

We can all do that.

We have all seen a weaker person be a victim of a stronger one.

It might be the kid with glasses, it might be a nerdy co-worker, it might be the sporty person amongst geeky techies, it might be a person who is poor, gay, short, fat, black, trans, neurodivergent, has an accent, or whatever else. Maybe it’s someone who has simply made a bad first impression. Maybe it’s a man in an office full of women or a woman in an office full of men.

I’m sure you know such people. You see how they are sometimes treated. You’re there when everybody else jokes about them. Makes them feel bad. Denies them opportunities. Maybe you don’t even like them yourself, but still, you know they don’t deserve to suffer.

To do nothing is cowardly. But launching a crusade against everybody is also wrong: it is reckless and will only make things worse, likely turning you into the next punchbag.

The courageous response is the golden middle. Calmly assess the situation: what can you do that will actually help? What risk is reasonable to take?

Perhaps you can highlight some of that person’s achievements. Maybe you can assign them a role in which they can shine. You can turn some mean jokes back at the people who make them. You can talk to people individually and try to convince them to drop it.

What you do will depend on the context. If you’re a team leader and see your team ganging up against one person, you can simply order them to stop. But if it’s your boss who’s doing it, you might need to go talk to his or her superiors.

[separate article incoming to expand on this]

Courage to stand up against the system

Often you will see someone who is obviously suffering harm or injustice, but it is hard to pinpoint the specific person who is responsible for it.

[separate article on this topic incoming]

Courage in the face of disaster

Or perhaps it’s a person who is a victim of a natural disaster. Perhaps an asylum seeker escaping a war.

[separate article on this topic incoming]

Courage to be yourself

Many of us worry that if we were to be who we want to be, others wouldn’t accept us.

[separate article on this topic incoming]

Courage to change yourself

There is only one thing that people like better than being happy, and that’s complaining about how unhappy they are. Dwelling on whatever makes you unhappy and refusing to change your mind about anything is easy and requires no risk. But it takes courage to change and become a better person.

[separate article on this topic incoming]

Levelling up Courage

That is all great, you might think, but how do I become more courageous? How do I stop being a coward or a hothead and find that golden middle?

Aristotle’s simple answer is: practice.

All human virtues are just skills. You level them up by practicing them. And just like with any skill, you don’t start training your courage by throwing yourself at a dragon. You need to kill some goblins first.

Or, more likely, fend off some trolls when you see them poking fun at a noob or baiting for a reaction. Perhaps report some unfair behaviour you’ve noticed at work, at school, or in your hobby group. Maybe interrupt someone who is telling a mean joke.

Start where the risk is small: when it’s something minor, when you’re anonymous when it’s with people whom you’ll never meet again.

See how you feel in all those situations. Is it becoming easier? Are you getting better at finding the golden middle between doing nothing at all and overreacting?

Don’t worry if at first, you fail. We all know this feeling when you know you should have done something, but the moment has passed. We also all know what it’s like to try to help but end up overdoing it and just making things worse. It’s normal and we all learn from our own mistakes.

But do make sure you learn from them. Next time, don’t let the moment pass. Next time, don’t jump in with a massive over-reaction. Instead, use your experience to find the golden middle.

That is levelling up.

Once you are pwning goblins left and right, think bigger. Perhaps you always wanted to express yourself in a certain way but are worried about what others will say. Maybe there is a person in your social group who always picks on others and you think you should confront them.

Finally, think really big. Is a company you know exploiting its employees? Are some people you know discriminated against? Are there glaring systemic injustices that make people’s lives worse? Unless you live in a utopia, the answer is: definitely yes.

If you have levelled your courage up on smaller issues, you’ll know how to measure the risk you should take to address such big problems. You’ll know what actions will have the best chance of succeeding.

And while you should courageously do the right thing without expecting any reward, know that people are looking. The good you do will always come back to you.

To do nothing is cowardly. But launching a crusade against everybody is also wrong: it is reckless and will only make things worse, likely turning you into the next pun

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