What makes the muskrat guard his musk?
Courage Is Calling: Fortune Favors the Brave
Ryan Holiday 2021
"What makes a king out of a slave? Courage! What makes the flag on a mast to wave? Courage! What makes an elephant charge his tusk, in the misty mist or the dusky dusk? What makes a muskrat guard his musk? Courage! What makes the sphinx the Seventh Wonder? Courage! What makes the dawn come up like THUNDER? Courage! What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the "ape" in apricot?"
Cowardly lion speech in Wizard of Oz.
What is courage? Is it the bravery of the warrior as he goes off to war? Or is it the suicidal act of a whistleblower who spills secrets of unethical governments or corporations? How do we know when to take a courageous stand for something, or to bide our time and make a difference quietly in the background? Most of us pick our battles strategically, letting some things slide while drawing the line at others. Many people don't see themselves as particularly brave, preferring to let things take their course and judge from a distance. And some people who fancy themselves as brave are in many ways cowards when things really count.
I've thought about this a lot recently as Donald Trump has turned the tables on courage, forcing those in his party to agree with him or face the wrath of his millions of devoted followers. I'm inspired to see politicians like Lynn Cheney brave enough to speak up against him and vote for his impeachment, while most of her party cowers beneath Trump's Big Lie. Democrats often aren't much better- while some of them speak out on unpopular topics, most worry about re-election and protect the system that oppresses many of their most loyal voters.
Ryan Holiday looks at the subject of courage with his new book, Courage is Calling, already a New York Times bestseller. Holiday is a prolific writer and host of both a podcast and You Tube channel, and he owns his own bookstore in Texas. He has been a devoted follower of the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism, and most of his many books touch on its teachings of logic and virtue. This book is the first of four that will examine the four main virtues of Stoicism- courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom.
Rather than being an in depth look at what makes us courageous or not, the book is an interesting set of very small essays on courage interspersed with tales from history of people that Holiday admires for their courageous acts. The book can sound a bit preachy at times, at nearly 300 pages of inspiration, and it rambles and conflicts itself at times. One chapter preaches that violence is sometimes necessary, while another tells the tales that show avoiding conflict or violence is the way to go.
Courage can be a sticky topic, because it doesn't pass the "Nazi Test". (If the Nazi's did it then it can't be such a good thing.) Holiday points out that some people were extraordinarily courageous, but for a terrible cause. Confederate soldiers fought bravely and died for the cause of slavery. (So did defenders of the Alamo). Donald Trump exhibited great courage in facing criticism of his bizarre policies, but his cause was only himself. And of course the Nazi and Japanese soldiers were courageous in taking on the world, but their cause, domination and subjugation, was an evil one. In order for courage to be associated with virtue, it has to be associated with a noble, selfless cause, and sometimes historians don't agree on what causes were virtuous and what weren't.
Here are a few inspiring stories of courage from the book that I hadn't heard before:
1- Charles DeGaulle was a lower-level general and not a politician when he was exiled to Britain after the defeat of France in WW2. He is credited with inspiring the French both in exile and under Nazi rule to rise up and not give up. During the darkest parts of the war, many French toyed with the idea of aligning with the Vichy puppet government that DeGaulle's superior, Petain, had set up. DeGaulle got the credit for being the backbone of the French Resistance, which made the liberation of France in 1944 possible.
2- Florence Nightingale was born in the 19th century to a wealthy family, and was expected to marry and live a comfortable life. But she felt a call to do something selfless and important, and ended up helping soldiers in the Crimean War. In 1854 she brought a group of nurses to the battlefields and witnessed first-hand the inadequacy of medical care at that time. She's credited as the founder of modern nursing- setting up the first science-based schools, and her profession has outlived her to provide comfort to billions.
3- When Martin Luther King was arrested in Atlanta in 1960, he feared serious jail time for his protests there, and so reached out to politicians to help with his plight. Both Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy had dealings with King in the past, and both were contacted. Nixon ignored the pleas, fearing that getting involved could hurt his election chances, while JFK used his connections to get King out of trouble. Kennedy went on to win a close election just a month later and be vindicated for his brave choice.
4- Women's right to vote, aka the 19th amendment, came down to one person in one state, Harry Burn, an obscure Tennessee state legislator who had opposed the amendment. Due to lobbying from his own mother, among others, he decided to become the deciding vote that ratified the amendment for the final state needed, even faced with opposition from his own party.
5- Norman Rockwell walked away from a lucrative career with the Saturday Evening Post to do different types of art on his own. Lyndon Johnson walked away from fellow Southern politicians in his drive for the voting rights act, giving up Democratic party dominance there for a noble principle. Mohammed Ali gave up millions of dollars of fight money to protest the Vietnam war and the draft. CVS gave up millions of dollars of sales with their decision to stop cigarette sales in their stores on principle. And during the Covid epidemic, some businesses were willing to voluntarily close and do the right thing to keep their employees and customers safe. (Some were not, however)
Holiday uses too many examples from war, including his lengthy and over-the-top gushing about the stand of the 300 Spartans against Xerxes and the Persian army. The details of the battle, fought thousands of years ago, are hard to imagine being as vivid as Holiday paints them. It comes off as hero worship, which isn't the same as virtue worship. He paints that one battle as the deciding instant that Western civilization was saved from Eastern invaders, and I don't see history as that simple. The heroic acts of warriors like the Spartans, Douglas Macarthur, Ulysses Grant and James Stockdale that Holiday details seemed to me to be extreme examples of courage that have little application in today's world.
The warrior view of courage reminds me of the Klingons from Star Trek. Klingons valued courage above all else, and to die in glorious battle was the ultimate sacrifice. Their macho culture made them the villain for most Star Trek episodes, and they were cartoonish in their devotion to honor and bravery at the expense of all else. There is a more subtle view of courage that Holiday alludes to with the works of Gandhi, Lincoln, and Florence Nightengale, one of the only women in his book.
We all seem to have a deep desire for superheroes who make up for our own weaknesses and make things right in the world. The parts of this book that I liked the best were when he talked about smaller, non-violent differences that courage can make when we do the tough things and stand up for the right causes. Where I'd like to have seen this book focus on is the small challenges most people face regularly, such as:
- Confronting a boss or superior about ethical shortcomings.
- Going to a doctor or dentist knowing that pain or bad news may result.
- Speaking in front of an audience (the number one fear!)
- Risking standing out in a crowd and being disapproved of for politics, religion, sexual orientation, or buried secrets.
- Being vulnerable and confessing to fears or mistakes
- Asking for help
- Telling someone you love them and risking rejection.
- Trying something new, outside of your regular routine. Exposing your ignorance about something.
- Telling and acknowledging the truth when your paycheck depends on you not doing so. And then moving on to a better job.
- Moving out of an abusive or unhappy situation and facing the unknown.
All of these items require courage. Most of that courage will never been rewarded with medals or statues, but it's the type of courage that matters. Without courage in these situations, we suffer in silence and frustration.
Holiday ends the book with a personal story about how he faced his own moment of courage dealing with an employer and boss who was abusive and irrational. Holiday admits that he chose the safe path of detaching from the situation while not resigning from the company. He tried to smooth things over from within, only to have to leave three years later when things got even worse. Doing the right thing is hard, especially when your paycheck depends on doing the wrong thing and looking the other way. He made up for it two years later by writing anti-Trump essays for his Jared Kushner-owned newspaper and eventually getting fired for it.
In a candid moment of honesty, Holiday admits what a lot of famous celebrities and influencers won't- that when you tell people what they want to hear you get rewarded for it. When you confront them with unpleasant truths, some of them write you hate mail, but many more just turn you off and go somewhere else. Perhaps that's why influencer Kylie Jenner has 39 million Twitter followers while climate activistGreta Thunberg has only 4 million. And Greta Thunberg has more courage in her little finger than all of the Kardassians put together.
This is the first of four books on the virtues of the Stoics. I look forward to the other three and also recommend Holiday's earlier books.