Raimond Gaita on Some Varieties of Courage

[Walter] Bonatti [a mountaineer] says … that he curses the need to prove himself, wishing he were free of it as most people are. For him, the need was not to prove himself to others, but to prove to himself that he possessed certain virtues even in the face of death — not death in the mountains but in the face of death period.

Most people live their lives without worrying about whether they would have the courage to face death. For others it can be very important to know what they would do if they were sitting on the train next to a person whose safety was threatened by a gang of thugs. Would they intervene, or would they sit quietly, hoping to be left alone? What would they do, they ask themselves, if they lived in a country in which a neighbor might disappear in the middle of the night at the hands of the secret police? Physical courage has been devalued in most Western democracies, where people are lucky that moral courage seldom needs physical courage to support it. Most of the peoples of the earth are not so lucky.

It is not therefore because they are morbid that men like Bonatti are tortured by doubts about their courage. In the mountains they seek to know not what kind of mountaineer they are, but what kind of human being. That is why it is so shaming to know that one has proved a coward even when no one has suffered the consequences of one’s cowardice. … But though it is devastating to learn that one is a coward, to have been brave in the mountains is not a good reason for believing that one will be brave elsewhere. It is one thing to risk death, to face it courageously in a blizzard or when someone has fallen, and another thing to face it in the guise of a slowly degenerative illness, and another thing again to have the courage to remain human in a concentration camp.

from The Philosopher’s Dog, (Random House, 2002), 151-152. [Not one of the sort of reflections I would have expected from this title. Gaita’s good for surprises like that.]

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