Friday, July 20, 2012

Patience and Courage

At first glance, it might seem that patience and courage are dispositions that tend in different directions, reflecting different strengths. If we are asked to imagine exemplars of each of these virtues, we probably call two very different individuals to mind—the courageous person imposing, heroic, probably male, and the patient person quiet, reserved, quite likely female. (After all, Ancient Greek courage simply was the virtue of manliness (andreia), and the Victorians used to name their daughters Patience.) Some of our images of courage may even positively conflict with some of our images of patience, with the courageous person insisting upon action while the patient person implores him to wait.

In his wonderful paper, "Patience and Courage" (Philosophy 68(266), 1993), Eamonn Callan begins with a sort of thought experiment intended to capture our intuitive--though he thinks mistaken--sense of the relative significance of patience and courage:
Suppose your friends had to ascribe a single vice to you in large measure, along with any virtues that could be coherently combined with that salient vice. Suppose further that the vice had to be either cowardice or impatience. Which would you choose? (p. 523)
Callan suspects that "almost everyone would choose impatience without hesitation," because a coward strikes us as an unreliable kind of person, and impatience itself might in some cases be a good thing, e.g. impatience with tyranny and injustice. Callan goes on to argue against this intuitive response, in that it underestimates the need for patience (an idea I have explored in previous posts), and also suggests that a more nuanced thinking about courage and patience shows that these virtues do not essentially conflict. This should not be so surprising if we think, as Aquinas does, of patience as a part of fortitude, and recognize fortitude itself as the core of courage (or, as synonymous with courage). Of course, when we speak of fortitude, we speak of endurance, and talk of courage (or bravery) may seem instead to call to mind the "courage of the charge." But charging, as Tim O'Brien notes in his memoir on Vietnam, is only a tiny slice of bravery--once one has charged into danger, there is much to be endured.

Or consider this perhaps surprising remark from Kierkegaard's Purity of Heart: "Is patience not precisely that courage which voluntarily accepts unavoidable suffering? The unavoidable is just the thing which will shatter courage" (p. 173). Interestingly (as the translator notes), the Danish for patience taalmod contains the term for courage (mod). (Literally, taalmod is "enduring courage.")

Kierkegaard connects patience to "unavoidable suffering" and thus implies that courage differs in that in courage we choose to put ourselves in the way of danger and adversity for a noble cause. And he discusses how it may seem then that there can be no virtue in enduring adversity that is unavoidable and which, it seems, cannot be chosen. (If it's unavoidable, then there seems to be no real choice.) Here, he imagines the mocking voice of someone who says that this "patience" is merely "making a virtue out of necessity," and Kierkegaard replies, yes, that's exactly it! His point is that merely being saddled with unavoidable suffering or adversity does not imply that we will, as it were, shoulder that adversity in such a way that we remain committed to the Good. We may despair, or become bitter and resentful, angry at the world. Of course, it may be that since Kierkegaard is a theist, he can assume that there is some way in which any suffering thrown at us can possibly be endured well. Non-theists may not have grounds for the same hope. But let me put that, for now, to the side. (I hope to write a chapter about this issue in the future.)

Callan discusses a case that goes to Kierkegaard's point: a man loses his sight, and vacillates between despair and rage, who thinks that the possibility of a good life has vanished. It is not that he fails to learn how to get around in the world in spite of his blindness, but his life is devoid of all hope and joy because of the deep resentment he has about having become blind. He refuses to accept this unavoidable part of his life. Callan says, "The blind man in my story has no patience for the moral task his blindness has set him, and no amount of courage or fortitude can compensate for the absence of that virtue" (p. 526).

Now here, there are interpretive difficulties, since I suggested above that we might see courage and patience as linked by fortitude. Here we might take Callan to be treating fortitude as a kind of thickness of skin, the stoniness we might ascribe to the Stoic sage: he is in despair, but doesn't show it. I have argued in my essay "In Defense of Patience" (newly revised as of yesterday), that perhaps we should question the idea that fortitude and patience can be pulled apart very far, that we should not reduce fortitude to the external appearance. (Otherwise, we can't distinguish genuine fortitude and endurance from mere psychic deadness.) Callan's point--at any rate--is that the possibility of this man's seeing and seeking Good in his life depends upon his coming to accept his blindness. Why call that patience?

Perhaps what I said about love and patience in a previous post provides part of an answer, especially if we can translate some of what I said about learning to love another person into talk of learning to love one's situation. (This is what Chris Cowley's "Learning to Love" is all about, in Philosophical Topics 38(1), 2010.) Here, we come to accept the distance between our new condition and our previous one, and re-commit to living well (and not merely, as Cowley discusses, "making the best of it").

We can call this patience, but at the same time, I think we can see, pace Callan to some extent, that such a process may in any number of cases also involve the kind of strength we describe as courage. People who are seriously injured and require extensive physical rehabilitation are sometimes praised for their courage in their efforts to endure the problems caused by their injuries, and to re-learn what they can, and to learn how to compensate for the abilities they have lost. Why call this courageous? First, there is the great endurance involved. Second, in such circumstances, we may be tempted to despair, to feel sorry for ourselves, and even be afraid to face our condition, afraid of failing, afraid to learn what our new physical limitations are, and afraid to think about living our lives, or returning to our everyday lives, beset with the problems incurred through our injuries.

If we think of courage primarily as the (voluntary) facing of fears and dangers, then courage is involved in facing the fears above, but the need for patience is not very far behind. This isn't peculiar to this example, since many courageous acts are extended in time. Indeed, focusing on courageous acts that happen in an instant may obscure that many of our actions are in fact chains of action, stretches of activity, oriented toward some goal. Within such a stretch of time, the difference between a courageous and a rash action may come down to one's ability to wait and endure the anticipation of setting out into "positive" action. (And so, in many sports, great athletes are praised for their ability to "wait for the game to come to them"--not to take bad swings or shots or to throw bad punches. Consider how Kobe Bryant will sometimes bide his time for three quarters only to dominate the final twelve minutes, or Ali's notorious "rope-a-dope" strategy for fatiguing his opponents. [Not that we should exactly recommend Ali's strategy to young boxers, for unfortunately obvious reasons of long-term health.])

So, courage and patience turn out not to be foes, or to show that there is disharmony amongst the virtues. And again, we see how in its quiet, unassuming way, patience reveals itself to be something of a "silent partner" as we seek to develop other virtues and strengths.

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