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From Vol. 4, Issue 6, June 2022

The stoic approach to overcoming cowardice


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“All virtues can be thought of as a habit, and the virtues of courage and strength are no exception. Life provides you opportunities every day to practice strength and courage.”

The Stoic virtue of courage elicits imagery of fighting on the battlefield in the face of immediate bodily harm. Certainly, Marcus Aurelius had his fair share of war. However, this virtue can be viewed more broadly as dealing with any threat to one’s life or wellbeing, including that state of flourishing that Stoics are aiming at. We could even use the term fortitude or strength to better understand this virtue. It’s useful to discuss why these virtues are vital, but it’s equally useful to discuss what the associated vices – cowardice, or weakness – will manifest in your life if you choose to embody them.

An argument for strength

It is no secret that life can be difficult at times. All the ancient Stoics – and, certainly, all of humanity – must face adversity of some kind. What allows us to carry this burden and to deal with such difficult times is fortitude and strength. Strength is vital in that it is the virtue that allows you to adequately handle life’s difficulties.

A simple analogy is strength training in the gym. We could define strength as the ability to resist load. In the weight room, the load takes the form of barbells and iron plates. It is one’s strength that allows one the ability to lift more and more load. In life, the load takes the form of adversity, fear, and the fight against injustice. Strength, in this view, is the ability to handle adversity, overcome fear, and succeed in upholding justice.

The consequences of cowardice and weakness

If one cannot handle adversity, overcome fear, or succeed in upholding justice, what are the consequences? In other words, what are the consequences of cowardice and weakness? Consider the nature of all organisms. Our genes wish to survive and pass on to the next generation. Humans can override these genes, choosing to die for our values (Socrates being a noble example). However, Socrates was strong. He had fortitude. He knew what he stood for.

A person who does not have these virtues is unable to override these base genes. They will aim for survival at all costs, even at the expense of other people. If, for example, a coyote attacked a village of people, the strong person would grab a spear and defend the village. A weak person – because they lack courage and prioritize survival overall – would run! They may even go so far as to trip someone up, sentencing them to death, if it meant their own survival.

A strong person knows on the deepest of levels what their values are and can stand by them. They also can handle adversity, overcome fear, and protect those in need. A weak person values survival over everything else. They cannot bear a load, overcome fear, or protect those in need. Hence, in their desperation for survival, they will likely succumb to lying, cheating, stealing, or worse.

Practice strength every day

All virtues can be thought of as a habit, and the virtues of courage and strength are no exception. Life provides you opportunities every day to practice strength and courage. Perhaps you find yourself dreading a difficult workout where you must muster the fortitude to get off the couch. Or possibly a team member at work has called in sick and you must choose to carry their load so that the work can continue successfully. Courage and strength can obviously be manifested on the battlefield, but there is also a tremendous amount of opportunity to be virtuous right in front of us in our “ordinary” lives.

imageBrandon is most well-known for his podcast, The Strong Stoic Podcast, where he discusses philosophical ideas both solo and with guests. He also coaches individuals to help them be their best selves, writes articles, plays music, manages projects, and several other things.