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Fortitudo, by Sandro Botticelli

Courage, also known as bravery and fortitude, is a [personality trait]], the ability to confront fear, pain, risk/danger, uncertainty, or intimidation. Physical courage is courage in the face of physical pain, hardship, or threat of death, while moral courage is the courage to act rightly in the face of popular opposition, shame, scandal, or discouragement.

Theories of courage

As a virtue, courage is discussed extensively in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, where its vice of deficiency is cowardice and its vice of excess is recklessness.

It is understood that physical and moral courage is important in combat.

There are ample illustrations of courage in religion, such as in persecution or even martyrdom. In Roman Catholicism, courage is one of the four cardinal virtues, along with prudence, justice, and temperance. ("Cardinal" in this sense means "pivotal"; it is one of the four cardinal virtues because to possess any virtue, a person must be able to sustain it in the face of difficulty. In both Catholicism and Anglicanism, courage is also one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The precise view of what constitutes courage not only varies among cultures, but among individuals. For instance, some define courage as lacking fear in a situation that would normally generate it. Others, in contrast, hold that courage requires one to have fear and then overcome it.

There are also more subtle distinctions in the definition of courage. For example, some distinguish between courage and foolhardiness in that a courageous person overcomes a justifiable fear for an even more noble purpose. If the fear is not justifiable or if the purpose is not noble, then the courage is either false or foolhardy.

Moral courage, more than physical courage, is widely debated. It is frequently regarded as courage in following one's own ethics which may result in the individual feeling isolated from colleagues, or even family. Also moral courage is facing shame, scandal, prejudice or even discouragement and defeating it.

Søren Kierkegaard opposed courage to angst, while Paul Tillich opposed an existential courage to be to non-being, fundamentally equating it with religion.

"Courage is the self-affirmation of being in spite of the fact of non-being. It is the act of the individual self in taking the anxiety of non-being upon itself by affirm­ing itself ... in the anxiety of guilt and condemnation. ... every courage to be has openly or covertly a religious root. For religion is the state of being grasped by the power of being itself."

Merriam Webster Unabridged Dictionary 1934 - 1980 editions: "1.The heart, as the seat of intelligence or feeling". Significant is the absence of any mention of bravery. Instead, this longstanding definition indicates that courageous actions and decisions are motivated by something deeper and more comprehensive than cerebral intelligence. The simplest illustration is when a parent runs into a burning house to save a child, not out of the bravery associated with soldiers in battle, but rather out of the courage which results from profoundly felt love.

Civil courage

Civil courage (sometimes also referred to as 'Social courage') is defined by many different standards, but the term is usually referred to when civilians stand up against something that is deemed unjust and evil, knowing that the consequences of their action might lead to their death, injury, or any other negative effect.

In many countries, such as France and Germany, civil courage is enforced by law; this means that if a crime is committed in public, the public is obliged to act, either by alerting the authorities, or by intervening in the conflict. If the crime is committed in a private environment, those that witness the crime are either to report it, or try to stop it.


Valour is the moral strength required to perform one’s duties honestly. It is not physical courage. Very few will have the opportunity to display a disregard for their personal safety under hazardous conditions. Rather, valour is the concept that bridges the ideas of truth and duty. It is the moral courage to live honestly and to do one’s duties, no matter the circumstances. Source - Royal Military College of Canada Officer Cadet Handbook p,15.

Bystander effect

Main article: Bystander effect

The death of Kitty Genovese in 1964, Queens, New York, is often cited as a classic example of civil-courage failure. It is said that during a half-hour long attack, Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered in full view of thirty-eight witnesses (now believed to be around 12), while none interfered. (Accounts differ, though; none of the witnesses claims to have witnessed the entire attack, many claim that they were not aware that Genovese was in danger, and some shouted at the attacker and called authorities.)

Criminologists argue that such passivity is a result of "big-city life," cultural emphasis on individualism, or a common expectation that "someone else" will intervene. Others believe that simple cowardice is another explanation of passivity.


  • Douglas N. Walton, Courage: A philosophical investigation (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986).
  • Stephen Palmquist, Angst and the Paradox of Courage (2000) [1]

See also

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