The stuff heroes are made of

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Who is more truly courageous: the soldier who charges ahead, feeling no fear, or the one who is riddled with fear, but forces himself to charge ahead anyway?

How does the courage it takes to attack an enemy compare with the courage it takes to defend one's home - or the courage to endure torture?

In his animated and absorbing investigation into "The Mystery of Courage," William Ian Miller draws on a variety of sources, ancient and modern, to examine a virtue that is far more complicated than it first may appear.

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Throughout history, many societies have ranked courage among the most vital virtues, a judgment in which Dr. Samuel Johnson firmly concurred: "Sir, you know courage is reckoned the greatest of all virtues; because, unless a man has that virtue, he has no security for preserving any other."

But, unlike temperance, justice, or charity, courage can sometimes be the weapon of malefactors. And, as Miller notes with some regret, this once-admired virtue may be in danger of going out of fashion: "Courage is all too martial and masculine, too low-class for some present tastes."

Aristotle believed courage was something that could be cultivated: by practicing courageous actions, you could learn to be brave. Ironically, Miller argues, this notion was all but exploded by the horrors of modern warfare. For, if practice made perfect, "how did one explain the nervous collapse of men who had good combat records with shell shock in World War I, combat fatigue in World War II, post-traumatic stress disorder in Vietnam...?"

Under the unnatural conditions of modern warfare, in the words of soldier-poet Wilfred Owen, "Courage leaked, as sand/ from the best sand-bags after years of rain."

Preindustrial weaponry, Miller explains, was tied to human muscular power; preindustrial battles seldom lasted more than a day. Modern weapons and warfare took a much steeper toll.

But Miller's view of the relative cleanness and brevity of preindustrial war does not take adequate account of the terrible sieges that even in medieval times exacted their toll on the defenders of castles and cities. Miller excels at making clear distinctions, but sometimes, as in this case, at the risk of oversimplifying this complex subject.

Readers who balk at the prospect of wading through reams of dry data and leaden prose, however, have nothing to fear from Miller. His approach is brisk and colorful, qualitative rather than quantitative. His theories and case studies are drawn from literature, philosophy, histories, and memoirs, including the works of Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Montaigne, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert Graves, Primo Levi, Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien, and Civil War veteran Abner Small, who furnishes Miller with the words for his book's title.

Anthropology and sociobiology figure almost not at all. Considering the dubious influence of so much pop sociobiology these days (e.g.: providing caddish men with a "scientific" excuse for one-night stands), this may not be such a bad thing. By confining himself to humanistic rather than scientific sources, Miller keeps the question of courage within the realm of heroism, cowardice, and moral choice.

It is difficult, Miller points out, to agree as to who or what should be deemed courageous: "Some impose so rigorous a standard that Homeric heroes have a hard time qualifying; others are so absurdly soft on admission to the club that just about anyone who sticks to a diet qualifies."

Miller's own preference, it would seem, if not for the most ultra-rigorous standard, is for the kind of courage that entails facing some measure of serious risk to life or limb.

What, then, of moral courage? Miller claims that until the 19th century, English speakers did not draw a distinction between physical and moral courage.

In the olden days, before the blessings of modern liberal democracy, individuals who acted with moral courage were likely to be putting their very lives on the line as well: "The solitary woman who opposed those denouncing a witch stood a good chance of being burned as one herself."

Martyrs, heretics, and free-thinkers often paid for their beliefs with their lives. In the 20th century, this was still the case for those who sheltered Jews from the Nazis, for civil rights workers in the American South, for dissidents living under despotic regimes.

But in those circumstances when the worst consequences of acting on one's conscience are merely loss of a job, social status, or popularity, Miller considers this a less courageous form of courage: "It is one thing to demonstrate against nuclear power in the United Kingdom, quite another to sit-in at a lunch counter in Mississippi in 1964 or to publish the truth in Argentina in the 1970s."

Although Miller may not have solved the mystery of courage, it was probably not his intention to do so. Instead, his book serves the far better purpose of opening up the subject and setting us thinking.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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