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The Metafizzical Essays of
Nicholas Hancock

Published by The British Hancock Society
by arrangement with the author.


Copyright    2008 Nicholas Hancock.  Permission  is granted  to  distribute  in  any  medium, commercial or non-commercial, provided author attribution and copyright notices remain intact.

TWO CHEERS FOR COWARDICE


TWO CHEERS FOR COWARDICE

You ask why not three? Only because the word has a slightly bad odour, which, if you confessed to it, might give you a reputation for moral halitosis.

Like all the other vices we call virtues, courage was invented by a ruling elite in order to sustain its government. In the days of hand-to-hand combat it was a decisive advantage for the masters to avail themselves of a class or classes of subjects equally prepared to run sword blades through the muscle and fat of others and to be run through themselves. Now that most gentlemen killers use firearms, target practice is more useful than bravery. Yet we continue to inoculate our children with an unreasoning fear of the instinct to run.

In fact a lion defeated by a rival probably runs without compunction, his fear untinged with shame, being more concerned with physical than with psychological injury. It is unlikely he smarts from a tattered reputation as we do.

And yet do we all? Generally it follows from the warrior-origin of bravery that it was initially considered a male strength. If females chose suicide over rape by the enemy, this was admired by men but not expected. And to this day, when the suppression of fear has no practical medieval benefit, courage is still admired in males by males - specially by those, like myself, who are quite incapable of it. Besides, what motivates the bravery of the brave if not their fear of being reputed cowards?

Of course there will be times when love of whatever kind will persuade us to sacrifice our lives or comfort for another's. This must not confuse the argument since our motive would not in that case be courage but simply love. Turning the tables on these conflicting mind-sets would be to the advantage of humanity. So long as there are things worth dying for, there will be those who will want to make us die for them. Next time you are challenged, then, by a rampant male, I recommend that you take shelter without delay. And comfort yourself with the knowledge that you are acting autonomously, not reacting to word-buttons like semi-conscious robots.

La Rochefoucauld, who had pithy things to say about all the other seventeenth century vices, said nothing of cowardice. Himself a soldier, he appears not to have been able to shed the vestige of ancient thought that made it a weakness. We can go beyond him. If we have the courage to do so.