Is True Courage--Including in Love?
Huntting. Given in August 2000 at
Aesthetic Realism Foundation,
141 Greene Street, New York, NY
woman wants to feel courageous. I remember at college wishing I
had the courage to do something really useful for other people and the
world, and being ashamed that I was too timid and selfish. There
was hardly a day that went by that I didn't have the feeling I was
cowardly in some way. How frequently women do feel this is a sign
how much courage means to us, and how much it is an everyday
matter: when we don't want to meet new people, or pretend we feel
something we don't, or join in making fun of someone knowing we should
try to stop it, we feel cowardly and ashamed.
"There are two ways people criticize themselves," Eli Siegel said in an
Aesthetic Realism lesson, "which Montaigne wrote about in his
One is cowardly; the other is cruel."
What is true courage, and what stops us from having it? Mr.
gives this magnificent definition in his work Definitions and
Being a Description of the World:
the belief that the way things are is not against oneself, and
that these things should not be gone away from.
shows that courage
arises from our attitude to the facts about the world--"the way things
are." "Courage," he continues in his comment, "is an organic like
of the facts, making for a wish to know them." The chief thing
Realism shows, that stops us from having courage is contempt, the
in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the
world." This unjust contempt is always cowardly, because it is a
dismissing or changing of the facts in order to falsely get to
and comfort for ourselves.
Aesthetic Realism makes it possible for people to see that the way the
world is, is for us, because its structure is aesthetic: the oneness of
opposites, the same opposites we are trying to do a good job with in
Tonight I speak of the English writer Vera
Brittain (1893-1970), and
a woman studying in consultations is learning now--to show that through
Aesthetic Realism we can learn what true courage is. Vera
is best known for her 1933 book about her own life, Testament of
said to be the only book about World War I by a woman. In 1915
she was 20 she left a prestigious position as a student at Oxford to
as a nurse; her fiance and her brother would be killed in the
In her forward to the book she says:
by some such attempt to write history in terms of personal life could I
rescue something that might be of value, some element of truth and hope
and usefulness, from the smashing up of my own youth by the War....I
tried to write the exact truth as I saw and see it about both myself
known despair" she
wrote later, and in this book wanted "to prove that this universal
could be overcome even by individuals whose courage was as small as
Part of her courage is that she writes of fears she was ashamed of, and
never understood, and I respect this very much. But there was
she didn't have that Aesthetic Realism can provide women now enabling
to change in ways they so much hope for.
is the person
who most understood what a child feels. “If you look at any child
of three," Mr. Siegel explains in his great lecture Aesthetic
and the Past, “and you go deep enough you will see that that
sizing up the universe....the question is, how good a job are you going
child can think, as everyone can, that the whole world consists of
enemy and it's too puzzling and I wish I could lie down and never get
In my first Aesthetic Realism consultation I was asked what I thought
the world, and I said I was afraid of it. I began to learn that,
while there are things in the world we should be afraid of, the
of fear I was ashamed of came from my own unjust contempt--I wanted to
think the world was against me and didn't want to know it truly.
This, I learned, is the reason people both assert themselves
and retreat from the world too fearfully.
For instance, as a child I was usually shy and quiet around adults, but
with friends I did foolish and sometimes dangerous things--like
on the unfinished rafters of a house being built down the street.
In my teens at a party, I felt it was safer not talking because what I
said might be used against me. But the real reason, I learned,
before I knew anything about a person I already had contempt--I felt
were not worth talking to. "Contempt is a sign of strength to people,"
Mr. Siegel said in a class, and asked me, "Is that so with you?"
Yes it was. While I felt afraid and inferior, inside I thought I
was superior in finding other people's flaws. I learned it was
my thought about people was so unjust that I punished myself by
they were against me. "If you don't want to know people," Mr.
once said, "you have to see them as enemies."
Only when we want to know the world and people, I learned, will we both
assert ourselves and be accurately modest in a way that makes
Courage is always a beautiful relation of these opposites.
Mr. Siegel explains in his comment to the definition, is not
foolhardiness... stubbornness" and it "quite plainly, is not flight,
is an accurate
point between faint-heartedness and fool-hardiness, hesitation and
It is a rhythm, and a rhythm implies here, as elsewhere, a profound
Aesthetic Realism makes possible this "profound accuracy" and Mr.
himself had it, magnificently. Through what I have learned I am
longer walled up in myself, trying to get away from things. I
a larger desire to know myself, to know other people, to see and be
by the infinite richness of the world, that I am so grateful
Realism has made me a more courageous person.
Vera Brittain Wanted
to Know This
As a young
child at the
turn of the century, growing up in a well-to-do family in northern
Vera Brittain, like every child, was not sure whether the outside world
was for her or against her. She remembers their house was
full of music" which she loved; at the age of 8 she says she read aloud
parts of Matthew Arnold's poem about a father and son, "Sohrab and
over and over. But she also describes herself at age 5 scornfully
calling her younger brother, Edward, "Little fool!" And in Testament
of Youth she writes of the "strange medley of irrational fears" she
says "tormented" her:
sunsets, of the full moon, of the dark, of standing under railway
or crossing bridges over noisy streams, of the end of the world and of
the devil waiting to catch me round the corner...
"There seemed to be no one to whom I could appeal for understanding of
such humiliating cowardice," she says. There is courage in her
to know this. Only Aesthetic Realism explains that we judge
on how fair we are, how much true feeling we have about other people
things. In Self and World Mr. Siegel understands the
I and Vera Brittain had fear we were ashamed of:
“Guilt...makes for fear....where we should be against something in
we have chosen to be against what is not ourselves. We have
to oppose it, hate it.... Once, however, we see the world as giving us
pain, we can see it as giving us pain in the future, too, and in ways
do not see. We feel also we deserve this pain...”
What made Vera Brittain courageous--more so than many people--was that
while she had these fears, which she says never really left her, she
had a strong desire to know and find value in things. At the
school she attended from 15 to 18, she describes her pleasure in
history and current events, and in reading poetry--Dante, Shakespeare,
Browning, Swinburne; and it was Shelley's poem "Adonais," she says that—
perceive beauty embodied in literature, and made me finally determine
become the writer that I had dreamed of being ever since I was seven.
She wrote in her diary at 19, "I longed ...for something to ... respect
with all my soul." Every woman is hoping more than she knows to
the outside world, find value in it which is for us, will make us
III. Respect for the World Makes for Courage