The Virtue of Courage

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C. S. Lewis was one of the most famous and influential Christians of the 20th century. In The Screwtape Letters (1942), Lewis imagined a senior devil called Screwtape outlining to Wormwood, his junior nephew, the techniques necessary to keep humans sinning while viewing their behavior as virtuous. Written against the backdrop of the German bombing of Britain during the Second World War, Letter XXIX dealt with common responses when facing disaster and suffering: cowardice, courage (with resulting pride), or hatred. Screwtape, however, noticed that cowardice awakened people to the world’s moral nature and frequently turned them against the devils.

Now this is a ticklish business. We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. Whenever we have almost succeeded in doing so, the Enemy [namely God] permits a war or an earthquake or some other calamity, and at once courage becomes so obviously lovely and important even in human eyes that all our work is undone, and there is still at least one vice of which they feel genuine shame. The danger of inducing cowardice in our patients,1 therefore, is lest we produce real self-knowledge and self-loathing with consequent repentance and humility. . . . In peace we can make many of them ignore good and evil entirely; in danger, the issue is forced upon them in a guise to which even we cannot blind them. . . . If we promoted justice and charity among men, we should be playing directly into the Enemy’s hands; but if we guide them to the opposite behaviour, this sooner or later produces (for He permits it to produce) a war or a revolution, and the undisguisable issue of cowardice or courage awakes thousands of men from moral stupor.

Lewis then explains that courage is necessary for the operation of any virtue.

This, indeed, is probably one of the Enemy’s motives for creating a dangerous world—a world in which moral issues really come to the point. He sees as well as you do that courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.2

Footnotes:

1 The human under the attack of temptation.

2 C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: Fontana Books, 1955), 148-149.

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