E. Belfort Bax


The Logic, Phenomenology, and History of a Concept

(May 1890)

E. Belfort Bax, Courage: the Logic, Phenomenology and History of a Concept, Time, May 1890, pp.461-473.
Republished in E. Belfort Bax, Outlooks from a New Standpoint, 1891, pp.163-178.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

How shall we define Courage? What do we mean by Courage? Let us seek the broadest expression possible of courage – the bare notion of courage in itself. So considered, may we not define it as the subordination of pain or fear to resolution or purpose? I can think of no more catholic definition in words of the notion than this one, or one that more completely excludes all debatable matter as to the extent of the operation of will, or the degree of consciousness of the purpose, involved in “true” courage, still less ulterior considerations of the content of the purpose. No one would call the indifference to danger of an infant or an idiot, or the mere endurance of the man powerless to resist, courage, but some might affirm that certain animals could be said to have courage, or that the mere physical absence of fear would constitute a claim to the possession of courage, and many other such things. Again, no one would say that to jump over a precipice without an object was a brave action. Let us take this, then, as the primary abstract definition of courage per sethe subordination of pain or fear to resolution or purpose. The corresponding formula for cowardice will, of course, be the opposite of this – the subordination of resolution or purpose to pain or fear. But though there is a formal opposition here, there is no real opposition. Courage and cowardice are absolutely indistinguishable from this point of view. Thus, a man, shall we say, fights to the death rather than runs away. But why does he fight rather than run away? Is the doing so courage, or is it cowardice? Does he fight because he is a brave man, and does not fear death? Or does he fight the rather because he is a coward, and fears the derision of public opinion which would follow on his running away? It is conceivable that, a man of little imagination, he fears Mrs. Grundy, whom he knows personally, more than the “king of terrors,” whom he does not. Or, take the case of the suicide. He does not fear death, a great terror to many, but yet he is called a coward by the man of correct morals because he fears to encounter the troubles of life. Of course, the man of correct morals is here only making believe; he does not really think the suicide a coward, but it is the proper thing to say in the interests of conventional morality, and a rather nice doctrine for himself, too, inasmuch as he probably fears the troubles of life less than death, and therefore he, Q.E.D., is a brave man. But even though he may be shamming, the logic of the man of correct morals is unimpeachable. He has a perfect right, from a theoretical point of view, to take up the position he does. Considered in their most abstract expressions, courage and cowardice are indistinguishable. There is no outward mark by which we can affirm, on the strength of the mere abstract definition of courage or cowardice, that a particular action is courageous or the reverse.

In the case of the man who fights and runs away, it is impossible to say that he is not actually showing courage – i.e., subordinating fear to resolution in running away. He may run away from an overwhelming sense of the duty of preserving himself to fight another day. It may have cost him a stupendous moral effort to resolve to run away and face the ridicule and the contumely of his fellows rather than yield to his inclination as a fighting man to hold on and die with harness on his back. It may cost a man no effort to fight and much to run away, or it may cost no effort to run away and much to fight. There is possible fear on either side; there is possible resolution on either side. So that the bare abstract conceptions of courage and cowardice are, when applied to the concrete world, perfectly interchangeable. We must first have a concrete and particular case before us before we can determine motive, and hence before we can predicate courage or cowardice of any action. To fight is usually regarded as a brave action, to run away as a cowardly action; but, as we have shown, the reverse may just as easily be the case. All actions to which the pair of concepts – courage and cowardice – are applicable at all, may, in short, fall under one or the other indifferently; there being no action absolutely brave as such, and no action absolutely cowardly as such. The distinction between the concepts – courage and cowardice – is as yet formal and not real. All this is no mere logomachy, but very important, inasmuch as there are few ethical concepts with which the general public are so fond of playing fast and loose as with this one, and their ability to do so rests on the arbitrary application of the concept in its purely formal aspect as though it were a real one.

We now come to the distinction between moral and physical courage. Here we are concerned with the degrees of consciousness of purpose involved in the act of resolution – i.e., in how far it is an act of individual initiation, properly so-called, and in how far merely the spontaneous effervescence of animal spirits. Reflecting on courage, we find that this distinction is involved therein. The question is no longer merely the subordinating of pain or fear to resolution or purpose, which always presents itself in a double aspect, the possible fear and the possible resolution being assumable on either side, but the definiteness of the resolution, the steadfastness, clearness, and rationality with which the purpose is conceived. This latter is not double-sided. Physical courage is always implicitly or explicitly distinguishable from moral courage in all actions into which the category of courage enters. Assume the courage, and the action itself tells you whether it is physical or moral. To take an obvious, if somewhat homely illustration. When the peasant or Donnybrook Irishman goes forth to punch a head in general, regardless of the result upon his own, he shows physical courage; but when the Irish member, in the full swing of the London season, deliberately, after weeks of reflection, bears the obloquy of the police court and punches the head of a particularly obnoxious member of a Tory Government, he may be doing a foolish and even an improper thing, but he shows moral courage. The Donnybrook Irishman has made the resolution to exercise his muscles in a particular manner, and to this resolution he subordinates the fear of personal injury to himself. But the resolution here is more instinctive than conscious, and not the result of deliberate resolution. The mere sense of physical power is sufficient to effect it. In the other case, on the contrary, it is not the result of an animal instinct but of an intellectual act. The resolution here does not come of itself, but is created and sustained by a conscious and definite act of will of the individual as such. We see in this second stage of the analysis that an opposition has arisen within the concept. It has sucked up the contradiction into itself. In the first place we had only to deal with the external opposition of courage and cowardice. Now we have to do with an internal opposition, that between physical, animal, or instinctive courage, in which the resolution and the purpose arise without any effort on the part of the individual as the mere result of his inherited animal, system, and moral courage, in which the purpose and the resolution are created and framed by the intellect and will of the individual himself. Animal courage, though it may evoke a kind of aesthetic admiration can never evoke moral praise properly so-called. For animal courage is outside the sphere of individual initiation, which consists in definite choice and not in natural impulse. Animal courage involves no effort, because the fear is not felt or the danger realised.

The natural impulse and all those elements in his character which form part of the Logic of Nature are necessary and imposed upon the individual; it is the particular or individual element par excellence as opposed to this universal element, that which constitutes his particularity or his thisness, which is the decisive factor. But the thisness, the hereness and nowness, is the illogical and irrational element in all Reality, and always opposes itself to the universal or logical element. It is the Hyle which is as yet not Ousia. The much-vaunted freewill is nothing but the illogical or irrational element in the essence of the individual, his undetermined particularity, as opposed to the logical element, or that in him which is universal and necessary. The former corresponds to chance in external nature; it is the element which is transient and irreducible to law. But it is, nevertheless, this element alone, the alogical spontaneity or thisness of the individual in the act of rationalising himself, which with doubtful accuracy we term freewill, with which moral praise or blame is concerned. You can only praise or blame this particular man for that in him which concerns his thisness or his particularity. The other spontaneity which is not identified with effort on the part of the individual is reducible to so-called natural law. Moral courage must then involve an effort of individual initiation which may or may not be accompanied by physical or animal courage. The subordination of fear to resolution must take place through an individual nisus here and now and not through an irresponsible impulse. The opposition between physical and moral courage is sometimes realised in a striking manner, as in the case of that Russian bureaucrat spoken of by Stepniak who sheltered the Nihilist, though the doing so plunged him into an abyss of terror himself. The extreme form of moral courage brings us to the question of how far individual interest in the object of the resolution to which present fear or pain is subordinated is compatible with courage. That it is not involved in the primary definition of courage is obvious, but on reflection the general conscience of mankind proclaims that the fullest expression of moral courage is reached when pain or fear is subordinated, not to the purpose of individual advantage, but to a purely disinterested end. For the subordination of the individual to the purpose then becomes complete. It is not merely immediate fear or pain which is subordinated in the resolution, but the whole content of the individuality is staked upon something, the interest of which is outside itself. The Oriental who braves death or torture rather than divulge to a rapacious tax-gatherer his hidden store of wealth, or the prize-fighter who exposes his life for a stake of money may show a kind of courage which we instinctively accept as such; but the man who plunges into a burning building, and falling rafters, and suffocating smoke, to save a stranger’s life, our reason accepts as showing a higher, more perfect and complete kind of courage. That the fullest manifestations of moral courage presuppose the disposition to physical courage is a proposition hardly admitting of a doubt. A fine kind of courage may be shown, like that of the Russian Bureaucrat above referred to, in passivity, but it is one-sided; the completest manifestations of courage involve an activity, and to “deeds of heroism” the mere physical disposition is requisite. Stepniak’s Russian, though exhibiting the highest moral courage in sheltering his friend, while so keenly feeling the sense of his own danger, might, nevertheless, owing to his lack of mere animal courage, have fallen a victim to panic had he been set to lead a forlorn hope. The completest form of courage, then, may be defined as the subordination of pain or fear to a resolution involving a disinterested object, and realising itself indifferently whether in action or passion.

The last definition, introducing, as it does, the question of content, brings us to the threshold of the concrete world. We have now traced three distinct phases in the concept courage. The first was the mere definition, vague as regards all content, “The subordination of fear to purpose.” The second, the well-known distinction between physical and moral courage, was in apparent contradiction with the primary definition, inasmuch as in physical courage which is, per se, purely active in its manifestations, the action seems the result of blind instinct (as in the case of the Donnybrook Irishman), and it is only on reflection that we discover the implicit motive (to wit, in this case, the need for muscular exertion); while in moral courage, which is, per se, purely passive in its manifestations, the fear does not always, at first sight, seem subordinated (as in the case of Stepniak’s Russian), and it is only reflection which shows us that the man, though he trembled for his own safety, was no coward, but brave, since the fear itself was in essence fully subordinated by a conscious effort to the end in view. Reflection further impels us to introduce into our definition of courage the nature of the object (as to whether disinterested or not), in addition to bringing to light the one-sided nature alike of physical and moral courage considered per se, and thus introduces the concluding definition of courage in which the vagueness of the primary form of the concept and the one-sidedness of the secondary form are alike abolished, while the essential determinations of both these forms are maintained.

The phenomenology of courage exhibits some curious combinations and a good many spurious modes. There is the apparent courage of the man who is insensible to danger, not because he subordinates fear to purpose, but because he lacks imagination, or because his imagination is blunted in particular directions through custom, or because, maybe, he is ignorant of the danger threatening him. There is no real subordination of fear to purpose in any of these cases. Thus (to take an example referred to by Aristotle) the seaman does not fear a storm as the landsman does, because he may have confidence in the steersman or the goodness of his ship, or what not; or because, having passed through many storms unscathed, his imagination has got blunted as to storms in general. The landsman may think him brave, when in reality he is not so. Let us suppose the landsman is a physician, and he takes the sea-captain through a cholera hospital or through a leper-house; while the physician walks unmoved, taking a purely scientific interest in all he sees around him, the mariner may in his turn quake with fear and turn pale. On the other hand, the seaman may fear a certain course while the landsman sees the vessel taking that course unmoved, not because the seaman is more timid than the landsman, but simply because he foresees a special danger attending it unknown to the latter. The landsman’s unmoved bearing while the ship is being driven straight upon shoals, looks like that form of moral courage which consists in the subordination of fear to personal dignity, or the evoking for one’s person of the admiration of others – and which is shown in the suppression of the outward manifestations of the unpleasant – while in reality it is nothing of the kind, but the mere insensibility of ignorance.

Then, again, the boor or the idiot, whose imaginative powers are sluggish, will never have the idea of future danger present to him, because be never has ideas at all, and is incapable of receiving any vivid or lasting impression on his imagination. Such an insensible person will seem brave, but not be so. His imaginative power is so feeble that only a very present pain or a most immediate danger can affect him. It requires intellect to be intelligently afraid.

The secret of a good deal of apparent courage lies in this: Most persons are afraid of something, but they, at times, show up brave on the background of persons who are afraid of something else. For some reason or other, inherited or acquired, a particular thing affects the imagination of some persons more powerfully, they realise it more graphically, than others. I knew a man in Berlin, who had been through the Franco-German War, had fought at Gravelotte, seen thousands fall around him at Sedan, had stormed the trenches of Metz, and been made a sergeant on account of his services in the field, who yet quailed before the sting of a gnat. His hand became slightly inflamed, and he was thrown into a paroxysm of fear of blood-poisoning. I saw him deadly white and trembling and scarcely able to walk from fright. What mitrailleuses, Gatlings, and chassepots were unable to effect, that did a little summer fly. A friend of mine who fears neither infection, nor mad dogs, nor infuriated bulls, in fly-time is prostrated with terror at the presence of a wasp round about his person. All men may seem brave in disposition until their Achilles-heel is disclosed. The seeming coward is often merely a man of exceptionally vivid imagination, the seeming brave man often merely one of dull imagination.

A more specious form of spurious courage than those already mentioned is the performance of an act apparently, but not really, involving danger. For example, a woman in the present day who throws herself in front of a squadron of dragoons to stem their passage, or tries to force her way through a cordon of police, performs an act which in a man would be courageous, and she wins an additional kudos from the popular opinion as to the weakness of her sex. But in reality, this very opinion is her protection, and deprives the action of all special claim to heroism. She knows the dragoons will not disembowel her with their bayonets; she knows the policemen will not brain her with their truncheons. Her “womanhood” is a sufficient protection for her. Certain women in the past, as Jeanne d’Arc, the Maid of Saragossa, &c., in a time when women did not enjoy the privileged immunities exacted by modern sentiment, have really shown heroism in braving dangers which were as real for them as for men. The same may be said of certain women during the final struggle of the Commune, in 1871, when for the nonce class-ferocity overrode class-gallantry. It is strange, by the way, that in modern warfare the exploitation of the above sentiment has never been tried by the losing side. A reserve corps of Amazons suddenly intercepted between an attacking and a defending force, might easily save the latter from a disastrous rout. Flaubert describes how the “mercenary” Matho protected himself from the missiles of the enraged Carthaginians by covering himself with the stolen veil of the moon-goddess as with a shield, none daring to violate the sacred vestment. So here, a regiment having fought a good fight, and being hard pressed, might effect a secure and orderly retreat, having drawn around itself the protecting veil of its reserve womanhood. The attacking body must instantly fall back, unable to follow up their antagonists. Military men possibly consider, however, that the difficulties of training the Amazonian “cover” would be insuperable.

There is another form of spurious or, at least, of cheap bravery which is connected with the foregoing subject. In a domestic squabble, such as may from time to time be seen in some of the bye-ways of London, in which a man and his wife are engaged, the passer-by, greedy of renown for street prowess, will ostentatiously stalk up to the disputants, and without informing himself further in the matter, will take the part of the woman and commence objurgating and possibly threatening the man. He thinks to obtain credit for pluck and determination for championing what is conventionally supposed to be the weaker side. He knows all the time that he will probably have the bystanding profanum vulgus on his side, and that the unlucky husband will be quite unable to retaliate upon him for the insults received. Were he to take the side of the man he might have to face half-a-dozen other individuals equally desirous with himself of acquiring the local and temporary renown of the street. But this might be unpleasant, and more than that renown was worth, and would require pluck indeed. Similarly, the murderer of a seducer, though he often poses as a hero, really knows that he may rely on the support of a clamorous and often hypocritical section of public opinion.

By taking the mere phenomenal aspect of courage in abstraction from the concept, which it presupposes, it is easy to degrade the terminology of courage to silly and meaningless epithets of abuse, and this is commonly done.

Courage in its manifestations involves the encountering of pain or danger. But courage does not mean the mere encountering pain or danger. Every sane person would regard the man who, without any object, even that of suicide, tried to cross and recross a railway line before an express train only two or three hundred yards distant in the off-chance of accomplishing the feat safely, as a lunatic or a fool. There must be some conceivably adequate motive to stamp the encountering of danger as the manifestation of courage. Now it is a common trick to postulate some sentiment or whim of A as an adequate motive for B to encounter pain or danger, and the refusal to do so is stigmatised by B as cowardice. A good instance of this is to be found in the dog-muzzling controversy. A well-known authoress, famed for her erotic novels, zealously contends for the freedom of every mangy cur to bite how, when, and where it pleases. Being unable to support this contention by any valid argument, she falls back on the rather stale device of stigmatising those persons who are sane enough to object to unlimited freedom of biting as cowards. The contention is, of course, that the trifling inconvenience which the muzzle causes the cur, in preventing him from exercising his natural proclivity to bite, should supply an adequate motive for the man to run the risk of being bitten. Those who would take steps to restrain the mordant liberty of the cur, since they do not hold the doctrine of the divine right of dogs to bite just because it is their nature to, think that sentimental scruples as to muzzling them are evidence, not so much of natural courage as of native imbecility.

Or to take another instance. A neighbour practises sparrow-shooting in his back garden while I am sitting at my window writing. About every sixth time he fires, the shot whizzes around my head; the remainder of the shot is distributed between the upper air and other neighbour’s windows. I, in common with those others, object to the practice. It is true that only at about every sixth discharge of the gun the shot comes in at my window at all, and even then it may not touch me, since the space occupied by the window is many times that occupied by my head. But, nevertheless, I join in the general protest. We don’t say that we think anything of the danger, but we insist on the practice being stopped on the ground that there is a lady in delicate health who is prejudicially affected by the noise, just as people never mind going into a house where there is scarlet fever or small-pox on their own account, but only through fear of carrying the infection to their families. Our garden sportsman, however, thinks he sees through us. After some excited discussion, indignant at having his sport abolished, he looks us full in the face, and says: “The fact is, you’re a pack of d—d cowards; you’re afraid of being shot, that’s what it is!” Now it is not nice to be called a coward, and after this who could refuse to show his pluck by allowing the sparrow-shooter to continue as before? Just as “Ouida” considers that the pleasure the canine race in general takes in being free to bite, or perhaps the trouble it gives her to keep her dogs muzzled (as the case may be), a sufficient reason for men repressing their natural dislike to being bitten by mad dogs, so the sparrow-shooter thinks the pleasure he takes in his sport an adequate ground for his neighbours repressing their natural disinclination to their persons becoming the possible objective of small shot. The term “coward” is thus degraded to a mere abusive epithet based on individual caprice.

In the history of the concept courage, we have the logical determinations of courage realised or manifested in concreto. The mere logical determinations per se are abstract, the mere phenomenal manifestations per se are also abstract. The concept, though imbedded in them, is only discernible on analysis. In History, on the other hand, which, while no abstraction, is in its true sense an ideal reproduction of a reality in which the unessential is left out, and therefore no mere summary of particular facts or phenomena, the concept is realised – clothed in flesh and blood. The first period in the development of human society exhibits courage in its pure and immediate form, unconscious of itself as such. The clansman or tribesman fights for his kinship-group because he cannot conceive of doing otherwise. He lives only in it and through it. Fear is with him, unconsciously but uninterruptedly subordinated to a purpose of which he is perhaps also only vaguely conscious, and the consciousness of the fear and the purpose first become apparent on the decay of tribal society, when it is approaching the transition to civilisation. It is to this period that the great epics of the world belong. In the Iliad, in Beowulf, in the Scandinavian sagas, we see courage first recognising and admiring itself as such and holding, as it were, a mirror up to itself. Human society had existed, thousands of men had fought and died for tribe and kindred, but none had been found to sing their acts. Human society was unconscious of itself. It had not as yet become object to itself. Just as in logic, every real concept is but the reproduction of the abstract elements it presupposes; as in psychology every time-moment of our life contains the presentment not of itself, but of the moment passing away or just past; so in history it is a society in the act of passing away, which first knows itself as it is in itself. The nameless epic singer is the expression of this self-consciousness as regards primitive society. Courage and valorous deeds are the object of his lay, as they it is which strike the awakening consciousness of society most. It is now that the distinction between courage and cowardice manifests itself. The first mention of cowardice in literature is in the 6th book of the Iliad, i.e., the Dolon incident. It is as yet a sporadic abnormity scarcely conceivable to the average man. The appearance of cowardice is one of the symptoms of the dawn of civilisation, and the first faint glimmerings of introspection.

Tribal Society becomes conscious of itself, and embodies that consciousness in the epic long before the individual becomes conscious of himself as having interests apart from the society. This latter consciousness – that of the opposition of the individual and society – brings to light the further distinction between physical courage and moral courage. The old courage, however, the courage which knows no cowardice – much less the opposition between physical and moral – lingers on in a bastard form in the mercenary soldier of antiquity and other historical periods. The opposition of physical or active and moral or passive courage is the cardinal form of the concept courage throughout the period of civilisation. Most manifestations of courage, most dispositions to courage, fall under one of these heads to the exclusion of the other, or at least the unequal balancing of the two is observable. The classical instance of moral courage is that of the endurance of the early Christians. Determination such as that described in the Acts of the Martyrs of Lyons, even if we allow a margin for exaggeration, implies a moral courage quantitatively unsurpassed. But we cannot reckon the endurance of the early Christian Martyrs to the highest forms of moral courage qualitatively, for the simple reason that its purpose was not disinterested. A firm belief in death being the portal of eternal bliss and glory, in golden cities, in great white thrones sustained these martyrs. The purpose, therefore, to which pain or fear was subordinated was that of direct personal advantage or reward, the same in kind as that of the Oriental who endures tortures rather than divulge his hidden store of wealth to the tax-gatherer. Moral courage has probably both quantitatively and qualitatively reached its highest point in the Russian revolutionary movement of our own day. Here the greatest conceivable suffering is endured for ends which are absolutely impersonal.

We see, then, courage opposing itself first to cowardice as in the grey dawn of History society first becomes conscious of itself through the individuals composing it. Afterwards as the individual and his interests become separated from, and gain the upper hand over, the society and its interests, and with that introspective habit of mind which follows more or less closely thereupon, courage falls asunder into physical (generally coincident with active) and moral (generally coincident with passive) courage. This opposition is characteristic of civilisation, and in an advanced civilisation it is the exception to find a man in whom moral and physical courage are indissolubly blended.

But what as to the future of courage? In a society in which present economical conditions are changed, and in which an equal possibility of development is ensured for each and all alike – what form will courage take? We cannot, indeed, expect a recrudescence of that undefined, perhaps, but all-pervading enthusiasm which sent forth the man of the early world to fight for race and kindred, not knowing himself as personality distinct from them, a courage differing from physical courage as such, inasmuch as it was no mere effervescence of animal spirits, and yet differing from moral courage as such, inasmuch as no conscious effort was involved in it. But yet with men living a healthy life, physically and mentally, who can doubt that our present opposition between physical and moral courage will give place to a different and an intrinsically higher courage than any that have hitherto obtained, a courage according with the changed conditions, a courage no longer displaying itself, indeed, as in the onrush of the barbaric foeman, or the endurance of the martyr, the necessity for such having passed away, but in other ways – a courage less outwardly brilliant perhaps, but even more real, because more constant in its disinterestedness of purpose, and more sustained in the definiteness with which that purpose is conceived?

E. Belfort Bax


[The Editor takes this opportunity of reminding the readers of Time that all signed articles are on the same footing, and that the writer alone is responsible for any opinions expressed in them. The Editor in taking a place among the signed contributors in so doing divests himself pro hac vice of his official character and becomes as one of them. – Editor of Time]


Last updated on 14.1.2006