Amichai Amit: Courage is often considered a virtue most pertinent to times of crises and especially to actual battle. What is the importance of courage in day-to-day public life?
Jean Porter: You are quite right, and Aquinas would in fact agree with this, with some qualifications. Courage is the virtue through which someone firmly holds onto rational and spiritual values in the face of danger, especially the danger of death. As such, it is clearly exemplified by the willingness to face death on the battlefield in defense of the common good. It might seem that courage has little relevance to our day to day lives, which are so safe and secure. And yet, on reflection, how safe are we, and even more to the point, how safe do we feel? In my talk, I focus especially on public attitudes towards the threat of terrorism, and I argue that we are challenged to hold onto certain ideals — equality, tolerance, respect for rule of law — even in the face of potentially lethal attacks. You might say that in certain ways, we are a society in crisis, although it is hard to say whether at this point this crisis reflects actual dangers, or stems from our perceptions of the world.
AA: Is there any difference between courage in the private realm and courage in public life?
JP: The differences would be circumstantial. Actually, in my talk I will focus on the courage of the community as such, acknowledging that courage at this level is dependent on the courage of many individuals, but assuming nonetheless that it makes sense to speak of a community or a nation as courageous. the parade example would be the courage of the British people during the Blitz, and I claim that the American people displayed courage in the immediate retractions to the 9/11 attacks.
AA: One may think that in a well-ordered society, one in which law and bureaucracy are in good order, courage is required only in times of crises and when the social and legal systems falter. What do you think about this view?
JP: I think it is critically important for any large-scale, complex society to have a legal system and bureaucratic structures in good working order. These are not only requirements for efficient functioning, they are also the institutional embodiments of ideals of equality and freedom. To put this in medieval terms, they are the preconditions for political rule, in contrast to a kind of dominion that reduces subjects to a servile statues. that being said, however, formal structures are not enough — they must also be defended and interpreted by individuals who are committed to the rules precisely as embodiments of moral ideals, and are committed to interpreting them accordingly. Recent experience clearly indicates that formal structures, to say nothing of tacit norms of civility and discourse, are no match for malice and stupidity.
AA: (In relation to the previous question): What are the relation between justice and courage?
JP: Like all good Thomists, I affirm the connection of the virtues, and therefore believe that true courage presupposes a disposition towards justice. Perhaps more to the point, justice is quickly eroded if one is too cowardly to hold firmly to the ideals that are central to a just society. Again, I think our experience confirms this.
AA: Do you think courage is a virtue especially needed in contemporary public life? Are there any characteristics of our times that render courage more crucial than in past times?
JP: I don’t know that I would say it is more necessary, but we are perhaps faced with a distinctive set of challenges. The dangers that we face are in one sense ongoing, but they tend to be expressed in episodic bursts of violence, rather than through continued onslaughts. This situation encourages either paranoia or complacency, and we see both in public life.
AA: Aristotle defined courage as the mean between rashness and cowardice. Your talk focuses on courage and cowardice, but not rashness. Do you think rashness is less crucial when it comes to the public sphere?