What Is Courage?

William Ian Miller wrote the book on courage — literally — and even he calls it a mystery.


What is courage? It may be the most desirable — and the messiest — human virtue. William Ian Miller wrote the book on courage, and even he calls it a mystery. The first story that he tells in The Mystery of Courage (Harvard University Press, 2000) is that of “the good coward” in the Civil War. The soldier resolutely marches into every battle — and every time runs at the first sign of bloodshed. When each battle is over, he returns and prepares for the next fight, resolving to do better. But he repeats the pattern again. Many Civil War soldiers were court-martialed or shot for desertion, Miller writes, but not this soldier. “The coward was never punished,” Miller says, because “categories like ‘coward’ are not so easy to fathom.”


In his book, Miller, who teaches at the University of Michigan Law School, has taken as his client the idea of honor, defending its virtue in a society that he sees as self-obsessed. His own standards are strict, and although he embraces the world, much of it simply doesn’t measure up — himself included.

“If I had a wish,” says Miller, “it would be never to be scared, never to feel the shame of being scared. Writing this book meant trying to understand my own feelings of cowardice. Even now, in day-to-day encounters, we politely accept behavior that, if we were brave enough, we would never stand for. Yet if we stood up to every opponent, we would be barbaric. So how do we live with ourselves when we’re humiliated and fearful? What form should courage take? That’s the question that keeps me up at night.” While there may be no resolution to the mystery of courage, here are Miller’s thoughts on that most complex of attributes.

The Mystery of Courage is different from the kind of book that most businesspeople read: There are no answers, definitions, or 10 easy steps to bravery. Why is there no resolution?

I think most men and women would say that courage is the virtue that they would most want to secure for themselves. But even though courage is the dominant theme in literature, second only to love, it is elusive. Is courage about taking pain, or is it about dishing it out? Is it about rushing into a fire when that’s your job, or is it about doing something that falls beyond your job description? Is courage the same for those who are brave in war and those who are brave in sickness?

Or consider this dilemma: You can be courageous and cowardly at the same time. Take the case of Tim O’Brien. He served a tour of intense combat duty in Vietnam, but he wasn’t the typical Vietnam War soldier. He was more suited for graduate school — Harvard, to be exact — which is where he went after his military service. O’Brien wrote a book called If I Die in a Combat Zone that describes a scene where some Vietnamese boys are herding cows in a free-fire zone. The men in O’Brien’s company fire at the herders. One cow stands her ground despite the bullets that are tearing at her flesh. O’Brien doesn’t protest this behavior by his comrades. He’s courageous in that he faced combat in Vietnam, but he doesn’t stand up to his buddies.

These days, is it an act of courage to open an envelope?


I define courage as a virtue that allows us to face real risk. I get nervous about being too generous with the term. I don’t like our “make everybody feel good” culture. Merely not being cowardly is not the same thing as being courageous. Courage is a grand and noble virtue. That’s why I’m so stingy with the word.

It takes a certain kind of character to do certain jobs. Firemen are called upon to put their lives on the line. But doing your duty isn’t being courageous. The mail carrier who works under heightened risk isn’t being courageous: Out of approximately 850,000 postal workers in the United States, only 10 were exposed to anthrax. That isn’t the virtue of courage.

If we hear about someone who won’t walk down the street because it’s too risky, we probably think of that person as defective or insane. But today, in most suburbs, you see kids dressed like knights in armor — face pads, knee pads, goggles — just to go out bicycling. In my town, parents level the snowbanks so that kids won’t put themselves at risk. That isn’t even cowardice. That’s ridiculous.

Your own study of courage is linked to the issue of cowardice.

Actually, I set out to write a book about cowardice. I asked myself how many times in my life I had felt cowardly. I know what that emotion feels like: fear, shame, and self-loathing. But had I ever been courageous? What did that feel like? I didn’t know. Had I never been courageous in my whole life?

I wanted to look at people who have experienced horrors and figure out what was going on in their heads. The people on the front lines of battle don’t know what courage is. If they don’t know, how can I say what it is? I wanted to know what they think about what is or isn’t courageous. There are some people who feel that courage means going into a “zone,” and they become afraid of losing that zone. Others say that once you feel it, you can never lose it. You’ll always do the right thing, even when you’re confused out of your mind. Feelings are mysteries; it helps to know how mysterious courage is.


Why don’t today’s leaders give us better examples of courage?

It’s terrible how little courage our leaders have. Rudy Giuliani did the right thing on September 11. He stood out like a sore thumb. Where was the president? He was in Nebraska — and his people were putting out false reports that he was under threat. Giuliani manifested courage. He put his body on the line, even though he could have been killed in the collapse of WTC Tower 2.

Why do the British love the Queen Mother? Because during the bombing of London in World War II, she refused to flee to safety. She was willing to incur the same risks as everyone else. British prime minister Tony Blair is doing more to deal with terrorism than our own president. I don’t understand why the British always end up looking better than we do in that respect. They make good soldiers and good civilians under pressure.

If the British House of Commons had been invaded by anthrax, those politicians wouldn’t have fled town. I’m afraid that we Americans won’t do the tough thing when we’re called on to display courage. Courage dwindles when left unused.

Is American culture stunting our courage?

America is afraid of putting people into risky situations. We send troops into action, but then we’re ready to pull them out of the line of fire at the first sign of significant casualties. I am taken aback that we call our war against terrorism a war against phantoms or shadows. It’s not ambiguous at all.


Our lack of courage shows up in how loosely we use the word: “He’s a courageous guy. He just invested $2 million.” That’s not courage. That’s pursuing a business deal. It’s part of the game of business. He’s not going to die. He might get an upset stomach, but that’s about it. And it’s mostly other people’s money being risked.

As for myself, I ran from the one war that I was asked to fight in. My father fought in World War II. I asked myself, Would I have run from that one? Did our fathers make the world so safe for us that we could run? Did the 1990s undermine our notion of sacrifice? When I was a kid, my dad came home at night and told me stories about his business triumphs. He never once told me about how he won three Navy bronze stars in World War II. I only discovered that when I was gathering his dispatch papers after his death. I still wonder why he thought that I would be better off hearing those boring business stories.

Can corporate leaders be courageous?

Maybe we’re asking too much by asking for courage in a business setting. But we can ask that leaders not be cowardly. We can ask that they not be so unwilling to sacrifice the bottom line that they undercut the social order (like by making people jobless to protect the quarter’s numbers). In the workplace, it takes nerve to say no to people, to make hard decisions. The opposite of being a coward isn’t necessarily being courageous.

How would you profile courage? When and where is it most likely to be found?

You never know who’s going to deliver. Civil War soldiers would look along the line of battle and wonder who would crack and who would make it. A reliable person, good as gold, might crack just when you need him most. The pear-shaped accountant who has no physical presence could save the day.


That said, here are some absolutely necessary components in profiling courage. The first is being lucky that day — on the day when you’re put to the test. That turns out to be the day when you can muster the reserves of character. A person who doesn’t scare easily can still have a bad day.

The second component is training yourself to do things that require courage. Facing risks. Aristotle says that you have to train yourself to be ready when the call comes. At some point, such demands might become easier for you to face. But it’s also true that if too many demands are made on a person’s courage, it runs out. Studies that were done after World War II show that after prolonged fighting, people simply can’t muster up any more strength from their spiritual reserves.

The third component is that some people simply have a courageous nature. Some people just don’t scare easily. But even that isn’t conclusive. If someone doesn’t scare easily, does that mean that she has more courage than someone who has to dig deep within herself to face danger? That’s why we shame people in the Army if they don’t have the courage that a situation demands. Stories of combat often tell of the courage that happens because a person couldn’t otherwise live with himself.

And the fourth component is that feeling lucky is a source of confidence. It can fuel courage. But don’t be obsessed with luck — that’s a kind of cowardice too, where you suspect that your courage is dependent upon something outside you.

But in the end, your conclusion is that we can’t really train ourselves to be courageous — that courage remains a mystery.

One thing that helps is to read stories of courage. They make you wonder how you would have done compared with the hero of the tale, and you get very humble. You start self-querying and fantasizing about your own response, your own reaction. As the psalmist says, “You become what you behold.” That’s why stories of courage take you over: They are such cries of the heart.


Harriet Rubin ( is a Fast Company senior writer and author of The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women (Doubleday, 1997).