Natural Born Cowards

Natural Born Cowards

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato listed Courage, Wisdom, Temperance and Justice as the four cardinal virtues. Some years later Aristotle elevated courage to be the most important of those virtues.

These same philosophers also noted that there are two kinds of courage. There is “Instinctual Courage” which is marked by emotion, daring, risk taking and often foolhardiness. This was seen frequently in the young and was viewed as a lesser form of the virtue of courage. Then there is “Intellectual Courage” which is marked by caution and reflection. Such persons think through the consequences of an action that might prove dangerous to themselves, and yet are willing to expose themselves to discomfort or danger, for the good of another. This virtue, these philosophers sadly concluded, is practiced by very few. Today we might call this “Moral Courage.”

But the church, in its teachings on the problem of original sin, is aware that we are all Natural Born Cowards. Self-preservation is a built-in instinct within all creation, and is a dominating feature of human selfishness. This can be noted in the story of the Fall of humanity. The first words from Adam’s mouth after the Fall were “I heard the sound of you in the garden and I was afraid… and I hid myself.”

T. S. Eliot, describes the experience of moral cowardice in his poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, as he describes a middle-aged man who is paralyzed with inertia in the face of high possibilities:

Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
… I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

What is the antidote to such fears? In this season of Pentecost, let us remind ourselves of the words of Paul to Timothy, “God has not given us the spirit of timidity, but rather the spirit of power, and of love and of self discipline.”

Published in Light and Life,  May-June, 2007



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