Few of us spend much time thinking about courage, but we know it when we see it--or do we? Is it best displayed by marching into danger, making the charge, or by resisting, enduring without complaint? Is it physical or moral, or both? Is it fearless, or does it involve subduing fear? Abner Small, a Civil War soldier, was puzzled by what he called the "mystery of bravery"; to him, courage and cowardice seemed strangely divorced from character and will. It is this mystery, just as puzzling in our day, that William Ian Miller unravels in this engrossing meditation.
Miller culls sources as varied as soldiers' memoirs, heroic and romantic literature, and philosophical discussions to get to the heart of courage--and to expose its role in generating the central anxieties of masculinity and manhood. He probes the link between courage and fear, and explores the connection between bravery and seemingly related states: rashness, stubbornness, madness, cruelty, fury; pride and fear of disgrace; and the authority and experience that minimize fear. By turns witty and moving, inquisitive and critical, his inquiry takes us from ancient Greece to medieval Europe, to the American Civil War, to the Great War and Vietnam, with sidetrips to the schoolyard, the bedroom, and the restaurant. Whether consulting Aristotle or private soldiers, Miller elicits consistently compelling insights into a condition as endlessly interesting as it is elusive.
Originally conceived as a meditation on cowardice in an extension of his "misanthropic series" (The Anatomy of Disgust; Humiliation), Miller's volume eventually gave way to the more compelling qualities of that "glorious phantom," courage. Unfortunately, fear remains the heart of the work. Miller seems unable to see courage positively; rather he views it as a negative state in which people merely lack a motivating fear. His language repeatedly plays on self-doubt. Discussing military duty, he confesses, as though driven by personal demons, "those who were given these orders and duties, with very few exceptions did not refuse them. The rate of compliance flabbergasts us, because we cannot quite trust that we would not have collapsed sniveling or cowering." The emphasis on fear, especially physical fear of death or injury in combat, leaves Miller nonplussed by non-martial forms of courage that have less to do with fear than sacrifice, determination and will: nurses in war zones and women on the frontier are dispensed with in two sentences. The convoluted structure also leads to some strange definitions of courage: "among the Cossacks... courage's substance may have been nine parts pitilessness and cruelty." As a law professor, Miller is well positioned to discuss social contracts and how people resolve conflicts between the good of society and self-preservation. Instead, he explores such trivial (or uncontroversial) issues as whether a man suffering a heart attack in a cafe should bother other patrons to get medical help. Miller admits at the outset that he cannot pin down the nature of courage; his failure to explore its deep moral and ethical issues will disappoint serious readers. (Sept.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
Harvard University Press
April 29, 2002
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.