Monday, June 16, 2014

The Whole Principle of Courage

Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. "He that will lose his life, the same shall save it," is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice.

He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so.

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter VI.


  1. Itinérante6:49 AM

    A friend of mine was telling me about cardinal sins and she was mentioning how despair is sometimes or should be counted as one of them. This is a beautiful citation! It somehow explains that helplessness does not necessary make one idle... (I hope I got it right anyway)

  2. I read this every year to my students. My copy opens directly to the page (p.99). The whole section is just brilliant.

    Do you cut it off where you do to avoid complications? I always wonder how much of the immediately following lines to include.

  3. Enbrethiliel2:23 AM


    Although I don't think of this passage as one of my favourites from Orthodoxy, it's one that I always remember whenever courage comes up in conversation.

    Are you familiar with Chesterton's poem The Last Hero? It plays with the same theme and related paradoxes. And so we have lines like, "You never loved the sun in heaven as I have loved the rain" . . . "You never loved a woman's smile as I have loved her frown" . . . "You never loved your friends, my friends, as I have loved my foes" . . . "You never laughed in all your life as I shall laugh in death" . . . all driven by the idea that a true love of one's life requires a willingness to lose it.

  4. branemrys7:08 AM

    I don't know if I've come across that poem before or not; I certainly didn't remember it. You're right that it does seem connected.


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