Chesterton on backbone and bravado

All Saints’ Day seems like an appropriate time to think about courage, which is—for a few other coincidental reasons—what I’ve been doing for most of the morning. From “The Prehistoric Railway Station,” an essay in Tremendous Trifles:

Brave men are vertebrates; they have their softness on the surface and their toughness in the middle. But these modern cowards are all crustaceans; their hardness is all on the cover and their softness is inside.

Theodore Roosevelt’s maxim “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” which he explained as “exercising intelligent forethought and . . . decisive action . . . far in advance of any likely crisis,” comes to mind, as do the courteous medieval knight, who could compose romantic lays at court and ride his opponents down on the battlefield, and the refined antebellum gentleman, who could observe proper etiquette in all situations and fight duels.

Real bravery is built from the inside out, which takes firmness of purpose and discipline and results in the kind of rigidity that carries both individuals and groups through crises. It’s a lifestyle—in the same sense that the renunciations and carefully structured life of a Benedictine friar were a lifestyle. Compare this passage from Lord Moran’s Anatomy of Courage:

Courage is a moral quality; it is not a chance gift of nature like an aptitude for games. It is a cold choice between two alternatives, the fixed resolve not to quit; an act of renunciation which must be made not once but many times by the power of the will. Courage is willpower.

I’ve just returned to my office from showing a class the end of The Alamo, and the backbone—the softness of honor and courtesy on the outside with the toughness of honor and bravery in the middle—of those men still beggars belief. William Barret Travis could conclude a letter with “Victory or death!” and mean it. It wasn’t just a slogan.

What we have today, especially in our increasingly shrill political debates, is a lot of bravado and tough-talking. Witness the “bravery” of screaming protesters, vandals of inanimate objects, or, at its very worst, resentful loners trying to kill—sometimes successfully—the people they blame for society’s ills. It’s no coincidence that actors—people paid millions to play pretend for a living—can be called “brave” for the roles they take. “Bravery” is simply another posture now, a shape people put on, not a fundamental character quality. A society that makes bravery an attitude, a rhetorical mode, a system of virtue signalling, is a society of Chesterton’s crustaceans. When the crisis comes, they’ll crunch.

But respect for the vertebrate is still alive. One of the most uplifting, hopeful moments of a given day for me comes when—most frequently by accident now—I run across the story of some ordinary person showing this kind of courage. The fact that such stories can still evoke our awe and admiration tells me that hope is not lost.

To take this back to Chesterton, here’s another line from this essay that I appreciated, on respect for and value of tradition among ordinary people and the elite:

If you wish to find the past preserved, follow the million feet of the crowd. At the worst the uneducated only wear down old things by sheer walking. But the educated kick them down out of sheer culture.

Less talk, less crust. More backbone. We all know this; we just have to recover it and practice it.