What Is Courage?
In The Hobbit, the titular halfling Bilbo begins his adventure fainting at even the thought of danger: “Poor Bilbo couldn’t bear it any longer. At may never return he began to feel a shriek coming up inside, and very soon it burst out like the whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel. . . . Then he fell flat on the floor, and kept on calling out ‘struck by lighting, struck by lightning!’ over and over again” (20). But by the end of his journey, the great Thorin Oakenshield, rightful King under the Mountain and leader of the company, can say of Bilbo that he “has proved himself a good companion on our long road, and a hobbit full of courage and resource far exceeding his size” (261).
As Aristotle famously articulates in Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics, virtue can often be described as a “Golden Mean” between two extremes. We can see this truth especially clearly when it comes to courage. Where cowardice, on the one hand, is allowing oneself to be consumed by fear, and foolhardiness is a complete lack of fear, authentic courage is the refusal to let fear stand in the way of doing what is right.
Courage is the virtue of showing strength in the face of fear or difficulty.
It may seem that courage is not a virtue that would often be demanded of a child in school, but, while the courage we see our students display day-to-day is certainly of a different measure than that shown by a great heroine or mighty warrior, it is courage nonetheless. Great Hearts scholars show courage starting in Kindergarten, when many brave real distance from their parents for the first time; many students have to muster the courage necessary to stand up in front of their classmates to recite a poem they have memorized or make a presentation; and, when disagreements between students inevitably happen, we are honored to help them be brave enough to admit they were wrong, apologize, and accept their friend’s apology in kind.
Examples of Courage from the Great Hearts Curriculum
In Sam the Minuteman, a First Grade Classic to Keep, we see Sam, a young Massachusetts colonist, volunteer to accompany his father against the Redcoats at the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Even when his friend John is wounded in the battle, Sam fights bravely alongside the men and, in the end, is a part of the first battle in what would become the American Revolutionary War.
In one of our Second Grade Classics to Keep, Little House in the Big Woods, Pa tells Mary and Laura about a time when he found himself “alone in the Big Woods” at night. “Then,” Pa says, “I came again into an open place and there, right in the middle of my road, I saw a big black bear. . . . My scalp prickled, and my hair stood straight up. . . . I knew it would do no good to try to go around him. I had to pass that bear, to get home. I thought that if I could scare him, he might get out of the road and let me go by. So I took a deep breath, and suddenly I shouted with all my might and ran at him, waving my arms” (111-112). As it turned out, it “was nothing but a big, black, burned stump,” but Pa’s courage was evident nevertheless. As Pa says in his simple and sensible way, “Besides, I was coming home to Ma and you girls. I would never get here, if I ran away from everything in the woods that scared me” (113).
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first installment in C.S. Lewis’s fantasy masterpiece The Chronicles of Narnia and one of our Third Grade Classics to Keep, Peter—only a boy—finds himself High King of Narnia and forced to defend his sister from a huge gray wolf. “Peter did not feel very brave; indeed, he felt he was going to be sick. But that made no different to what he had to do. He rushed straight up to the monster and aimed a slash of his sword at its side” (144).