“…a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.” – Thomas Paine, Common Sense
Courage comes in many forms.
For most of us, the word evokes mental images of heroic physical action under extreme danger.
A soldier sprints unprotected through enemy fire to pull a friend to safety.
A good Samaritan wades through flames to rescue an accident victim on a lonely stretch of freeway.
A bystander steps in front of a weapon, preventing a criminal from harming an innocent.
These are all examples of people who willingly face injury or death to help others in need; but facing physical danger in spite of fear is not the only definition of courage.
Courage can also manifest itself in the simple act of speaking up for what you know to be right; or speaking out against what you know to be wrong.
At times, speaking the truth in the face of the accepted lies around us requires immense levels of courage, because it is the surrounding, entrenched lie that seeks to crush the voice of truth at all costs.
Thomas Paine described how passive acceptance of a situation over time gives the situation the appearance of being correct, even if the opposite is true. He was referring to the conditions in the American colonies leading up to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War – the government of England had placed so many restrictions and limitations on the colonists that many of them believed they were no longer being treated as equal citizens of the empire.
The disagreeable conditions had become accepted by many colonists as the status quo – detestable yet unchangeable realities of life. Changing the situation through rebellion required the upheaval of every social, political and economic reality of the time, and for those who had become comfortable in their lives or who had much to risk materially, it would have been all too easy to ignore the truth of the King’s mistreatment in favor of the lie of continued stability under his rule.
Paine put it rather bluntly:
“The more men have to lose, the less willing are they to venture. The rich are in general slaves to fear, and submit to courtly power with the trembling duplicity of a Spaniel.”
So what is the opposite of trembling, duplicitous submission?
It is steadfast, determined courage.
Many of the Founding Fathers of America were wealthy men who occupied the upper levels of colonial society. They were businessmen, landowners, shipbuilders and publishers. Many of them, by standing up against the intransigence of the British Crown, risked not only their fortune, property and freedom; they risked their very lives by placing themselves in open rebellion against the king.
Revolution was not the easy way out, but they knew in their hearts it was the only way.
Revolution put at risk everything they had worked their entire lives to build, but they had the courage to choose revolution over continued servitude to an unresponsive and unsympathetic tyrant.
Their courage was manifest in their decision to stand up, knowing that any benefit would likely not be realized for generations after their deaths. They stood to lose everything – and to gain nothing but the knowledge that they had laid the foundations of a better life for their descendants.
Put yourself in the place of the Founders. They knew the difficulty of changing their situation – they said as much in the Declaration of Independence:
“…all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
The Declaration was a public statement of courage. The Founders knew that many in colonial society would placidly continue to submit to the tyranny of King George III, for the simple, pathetic reason that submission was easier than resistance.
Resistance is hard.
It’s not easy to know that most of the people around you are unwilling to stand up for themselves, and many others are openly supportive of what you know to be wrong. Taking the opposite stand leaves you open to ridicule and ostracism – you risk losing the comforting company of society and making yourself a pariah.
The Founders knew they would not only have to overcome the political and military might of England, but they would also have to contend with and defeat the sympathizers among their very neighbors; people who did not want to rock the boat, and who might passively or actively work to defeat or betray them.
They had to overcome the cowardly human tendency toward inaction.
The Declaration goes on:
“But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
This passage suggests that not only right, but duty binds free people to rebel against oppressive government, because opposition to liberty indicates an indifference toward the governed, which then eliminates the authority of that oppressive government.
It took great courage, when this condition at last became obvious, for law-abiding people to forsake the law; to ignore the easy path; to risk all that they had, in order to re-establish a just government for their nation.
The enemy of liberty is often personified by one or several individuals at high levels of government. In the case of the American Revolution, that enemy was personified by King George. But Alexis de Tocqueville, writing about his travels in the United States in 1831, pointed out that the greater threat comes from another place entirely:
“Society is endangered not by the great corruption of the few, but by the laxity of all.”
According to Tocqueville, society is threatened less by tyrants than it is by the apathy and absence of courage that allows those tyrants to thrive.
As the people of a nation born to freedom, it is our right to ourselves, and our duty to each other, to resist the laxity and indolence that invites tyranny.
When our freedom is threatened, and our friends and neighbors ignore the threat because it’s easier to bow down than it is to stand up – will we also submit, “…with the trembling duplicity of a Spaniel”?
Or will we display the same courage as our ancestors?
Would you do the right thing – the difficult, even dangerous thing – regardless of the cost?
To answer yes is to know courage.
Many thanks to Tom Morkes over at Insurgent Publishing, who was kind enough to include this essay in the first issue of his new business/arts journal, The Creative Entrepreneur. You can get a full subscription to the Journal for as little as 2$ per year; a portion of which goes to support entrepreneurs in developing countries. The first issue is 119 pages of articles, essays and poems centered on the topic of courage. Check it out for more insight, ideas, and the opportunity to help out a great cause in the process!