Project Stoicism: The Virtue of Courage

In common usage, “being stoic” describes someone who displays no or little emotion even during the most dire of circumstances. While this usage has little to do with actual Stoicism, not being too affected by negative circumstances certainly is part of it.

The ability to face negative circumstances and endure comes partly through the practice of the virtue of courage and also through the virtue of wisdom. I want to talk about the former today but will mention the latter as well.

The Oxford Dictionary defines courage thus:

1. The ability to do something that frightens one.

1.1. Strength in the face of pain or grief.

There may be times, like the ones we face right now, with COVID-19 and several states around the world suffering from catastrophic leadership on top of the pandemic, when facing just another day is a frightening experience. Thus, simply living becomes an act of courage.

Courage can also be never letting go of one’s goals in the face of adversity. This adversity can take many forms. Maybe we have a colleague who is vying for the same position we want and is using unethical methods to win the race. Maybe the class we picked at university is much harder than we thought but we need it anyway. I guess everyone can think of examples that apply here.

But at the same time we should be cautious not to confuse courage with stubbornness. Here, wisdom comes into play again. If we are courageously pursuing a goal, we have to ask ourselves a couple of questions, such as:

  • What is it we are facing?
  • Why are we in a tough spot?
  • Is the ultimate goal at the other side of the hard times a worthy one?
  • Am I serving a greater good or just myself?

If we pursue a goal for selfish or vain reasons, we cannot act courageously, because there is no virtue in the goal. We are simply stubborn and vain. So we always have to remind ourselves to judge our actions with wisdom, lest we might trap our selves in the pursuit of virtue.

Courage without wisdom turns into stubbornness and vanity. On the other hand, admitting your vanities to others and to yourself and then working to overcome them is again an act of courage, of self-reflection and worthy of a stoic.