COURAGE IS CALLING: Fortune Favors the Brave | Ryan Holiday, Penguin Random House (2021), p278.
Courage matters. Yet, individuals, tribes, and countries vary in response to challenges and the amount of courage summoned. The subtle cultural variations in how values are inculcated and cultivated can result in life-and-death distinctions: Witness the Holocaust’s disparate impact in Denmark and Italy versus Belgian or the Netherlands.
As societies across the globe gallop towards destabilization, the power of personal virtue may be our saving vanguard.
Hence, the timely launch of Ryan Holiday’s tetralogy of the Stoic or cardinal virtues (temperance, justice, wisdom, and courage). The first of his four is Courage is Calling - Fortune Favors the Brave.
Ostensibly, the tome calls folks to face their fears, run towards them - while others run away - and motivate readers to speak up when others are silent. He shares what leaders have said or done to demonstrate a perspective on boldness, heroism, cowardice, courage, and fear.
Ryan Holiday culls examples of courage from the well-known experiences of Florence Nightingale, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frederick Douglas, and Charles de Gaulle. Winston Churchill, John Lewis, and Peter Thiel. Lesser-known examples include N.Y.C. cop Frank Serpico, Texas Ranger Bill McDonald, and Roman dramatist Decimus Laberius.
Holiday rightly frames fear as the value opposite of courage. “Define your fear,” he notes. When defined, fear “can be defeated. When articulated, the downside can be weighed against the upside.” Agreed. Yet fear and courage are more than mere risk calculations.
Holiday never really unpacks what courage is, let alone how to make it a habit. At best, he tells us through his cherry-picked examples. Still, inherent in many lessons drawn from conflict is survivor biases. In battle, those on the losing side often demonstrate as much courage - for example - as those who prevail - but the vanquished often suffer a deficit of resources, technology, and leadership or are disadvantaged by terrain. Nevertheless, the story of victors serves our collective imaginations well.
Much of Holiday’s Courage reads more like a devotional; his thoughts flow forth in bite-sized anecdotes meant to uplift, exhort, or encourage.
His tone is often between a rant and a jingoistic cliche. “Each of us has more power than we think.” “One person can turn things around.” “Defeat is a choice. The brave never choose it.” “Trust your gut. Do your duty.”
In other words, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics provides a deeper understanding of courage. The Stagirite tackles courage first among virtues; it’s the golden mean between fear and confidence. Excess courage contributes to rashness or foolhardiness, and a deficit is a cowardness. A courageous person feels fear but is not ruled by it.
If the Classics are not your taste, check out Aquinas’ Summa Theological (ST II-II) and Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed. The latter breaks courage into three manifestations: "moral courage” to challenge unjust laws and leadership.
Leveraging the power of small habits to develop virtue muscle can be gleaned from the learnings and practices of positive psychology more than from Holiday’s book.
At one point, Holiday relies on a mantra: F.E.A.R. An acronym spelling False Evidence Appearing Real. As slogans go, this one is a disservice. We don’t beat fear by pretending fear itself is an invalid plinth. We must reject enslavement to fear. To invoke Tennyson’s word picture, as they were charging, the Light Brigade heard real cannons to the right and left of them, and there was evidence of real danger that “volley’d and thunder’d” in front of them.
Even in service to a noble concept, pleasantries wrapped in falsities fail.
Holiday’s skills as a thinker and communicator are much more forcefully on display in his “Stillness is the Key,” “Ego is the Enemy,” or even the “Obstacle is the Way.” He follows a similar format and formula but enlivens tested ideas with fresh insights and relevance in a compelling fashion.
In Courage, his central theme, an earnest call to act bravely, is essential. Each of us must. Even though the writer is gifted and a prodigious author of mostly better work, Courage is Calling will add little to your journey towards better. Consume an illustrated book of Aesop’s Fables for a more significant lift in one’s quest towards better.