“I am tired of hearing about men with the ‘courage of their convictions.’ Nero and Caligula and Attila and Hitler had the courage of their convictions . . . But not one of them had the courage to examine their convictions or to change them, which is the true test of character” (Sydney J. Harris).
TODAY, AS WE CELEBRATE ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S BIRTHDAY, LET’S MEDITATE ON THE VALUE OF COURAGE. There can be little question that Lincoln’s place in history was secured by the courageous coupling of his character and his well-informed conscience.
Courage is a quality of such basic importance that from ancient times it has been counted as one of the four “cardinal” virtues: justice, wisdom, courage, and moderation. The word “cardinal” comes from the Latin cardo (“hinge” or “axis”), and these virtues are cardinal in that all the other virtues hinge on them. They’re the necessary foundation on which all the other virtues must be built, and there is even a sense in which courage is the prerequisite for the other cardinal virtues. There are great difficulties in the practice of any good human trait, and it is courage that enables one to overcome these difficulties. Without courage, nothing else can be accomplished. As James Matthew Barrie put it, “Courage is the thing. All goes if courage goes.”
And yet it should be equally obvious that courage must be balanced by other virtues or it becomes an evil thing. As Sydney J. Harris pointed out, many of the most sinister figures in world history have been persons of courage, but their courage was not informed by justice and equity. It is no great thing to act courageously if our actions are not governed by a conscience grounded in valid principles.
And so, as Harris suggests, what we need are folks with “the courage to examine their convictions,” and also the courage “to change them, which is the true test of character.” Abraham Lincoln was old-fashioned enough to believe that there are objective standards of right and wrong, and for all his courage, he also had humility. On more than one occasion, he took a position that varied from his previous policies, based on his growing understanding of the requirements of rightness for himself and for his nation. We’re indebted to his example, and we need to be more Lincolnesque in the living of our lives.
“Without justice, courage is weak” (Benjamin Franklin).