Every now and then you can read a sentence or two of prose that can change your life. I’ve had that experience more than once reading C.S. Lewis, but these words, from The Screwtape Letters, have stood out to many as much as anything he’s ever written. “Courage is not simply one of the virtues,” wrote Lewis, “but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.”
Until I read those words, I’d had a more cramped view of the term. There was physical courage, the willingness to risk your body in the face of mortal danger. And there was moral courage, which usually manifested itself in the willingness to accept, say, career or reputational risks to make a righteous stand. But to Lewis, courage is essentially tied to every virtue, to the point where we don’t even know if we possess the virtue until it’s tested.
Let’s put it this way. Do you know if you’re truly a loving person until your capacity to love is tested? Do you know if you’re an honest person until your integrity can cost you something tangible? Do you even know if you’re humble until you face the praise and flattery of men? It is the moment when a virtue is truly tested that courage is called for, and courage is never separated from the virtue itself.
Thus, when it comes to physical danger, for example, we draw distinctions between recklessness and courage. Recklessness can be breathtaking to observe, but it’s also typically foolish. Sometimes it’s evil. We also draw distinctions between courage and obstinance, which can be deployed for good or ill depending on the purpose of the resistance.