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Note: You will find passages from Courage is Calling in italics and quotes from other sources in quotation marks.
Ryan Holiday's forthcoming series on the four Stoic virtues begins with Courage is Calling.
These virtues are courage, temperance, justice and wisdom.
The last of the great Roman emperors, Marcus Aurelius, called them the "touchstones of goodness". They're known as the cardinal virtues in Stoicism and serve as a compass for orienting ourselves towards virtue.
Courage is Calling deconstructs courageous acts through a diverse collection of historical stories followed by probing questions. The book is organized into short chapters that analyze courage from a variety of perspectives. Holiday shares stories that display the virtues of courage while offering moralistic examples. These stories act as a springboard for Holiday's probing questions designed for reflection.
Holiday begins the book with a condensed version of a Greek fable, The Choice of Hercules. This story serves as the backdrop for the entire book, emphasizing courage as a choice we all make rather than an inherent characteristic. As Holiday includes a fraction of the story, included below is my own version, expanded where necessary.
Hercules stands at a crossroads. Having walked for many miles around Greece's spiraling mountains, he has come to a fork in the road. Hercules stands in the middle of the two paths, shifting his weight uncomfortably, staring off into the distance in deep deliberation. In the absence of guidance to separate the identical paths before him, Hercules decides to pick one at random. As he steps forward, two goddesses manifest beside him. One is Kakia, the other Aretê. Both goddesses reign over a path, intent on convincing Hercules to choose theirs.
Hercules is promised a life of luxury, one devoid of hardship, should he follow the path of Kakia.
The second goddess, Aretê tells Hercules that her path will require discipline and courage. Men cannot achieve great things without some effort and application, she says. Aretê emphasizes to Hercules that tests will be laid upon him, he will suffer hardships, and he will endure great losses. Aretê promises Hercules the opportunity to demonstrate his courage and discipline, which will earn him true happiness when reflecting on his honorable deeds.
Hercules chose the path of Aretê, avoiding the enticement of Kakia. He suffered more pain than any man before him, eventually dying in the most extreme agony imaginable. His father, Zeus, was so impressed with Hercules' sacrifice that he brought him back from the underworld, elevating him to the status of a God.
The point of this story is not to trivialize fact from fiction but to take the experiences of Hercules to heart. Storytelling serves to capture a lesson, imbuing it with meaning in a way that facts cannot.
"Tell me the facts and I'll learn. Tell me the truth and I'll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever." — Ancient proverb.
Hercules' choice teaches us that we will all meet Kakia and Aretê in life. The crossroads Hercules found himself at is one we encounter daily in each decision that we make. Our choices lead us down many paths that ultimately shape our lives. Should Kakia seduce us, our lives will be a trifle of instant gratification, stagnation and regret. Aretê's route will provide us with the opportunity to show our true metal. As Seneca would write, "I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent — no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you."
The Choice of Hercules depicts the choice of vice and virtue.
"Virtue" can seem old-fashioned. Yet virtue—arete—translates to something very simple and very timeless: Excellence. Moral. Physical. Mental.
Courage to the Stoics wasn't just some lofty goal among many, but one of the four Cardinal Virtues.
They're called "cardinal," C. S. Lewis pointed out, not because they come down from church authorities but because they originate from the Latin cardo, or hinge. It's pivotal stuff. It's the stuff that the door to the good life hangs on. North, south, east, west—the four virtues are a kind of compass (there's a reason that the four points on a compass are called the "cardinal directions"). They guide us. They show us where we are and what is true.
If these concepts seem unattainable to you, Holiday presents them as a skill to cultivate.
Aristotle described virtue as a kind of craft, something to pursue just as one pursues the mastery of any profession or skill. "We become builders by building and we become harpists by playing the harp," he writes. "Similarly, then, we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions.
It's long been held that there are two kinds of courage, physical and moral. Physical courage is a knight riding into battle. It's a firefighter rushing into a burning building. It's an explorer setting out for the arctic, defying the elements. Moral courage is a whistleblower taking on powerful interests. It's the truth teller who says what no one else will say. It's the entrepreneur going into business for themselves, against all odds.
“The only time a man can be brave is when he is afraid.” - George R.R. Martin
The hero and the coward are both gripped by fear, but only the hero acts. Our fear is a protective mechanism that has kept us alive for 300,000 years. The key to cultivating courage is not ignoring our emotions but tempering them through training.
Training is not just something that athletes and soldiers do. It is the key to overcoming fear in any and all situations. What we do not expect, what we have not practiced, has an advantage over us. What we have prepared for, what we have anticipated, we will be able to answer. As Epictetus says, the goal when we experience adversity is to be able to say, "This is what I've trained for, for this is my discipline." If you don't want to flinch when it comes, Seneca would say around the same time, train before it comes. What we are familiar with, we can manage. Danger can be mitigated by experience and by good training. Fear leads to aversion. Aversion to cowardice. Repetition leads to confidence. Confidence leads to courage.
To borrow a famous phrase from Allen Iverson: We're talking about practice? Yes, we're talking about practice. Because it's the most important thing. With practice, you go through the actions in your mind. You build the muscle memory of what you do in this situation or that one. You learn how to fortify and are fortified in the process. You run through the drills, you play your scales. You have someone ask you purposely tough questions. You get comfortable with discomfort. You train at your T-pace for deliberate intervals, raising your threshold as a runner. You familiarize. You assemble your rifle with a blindfold on, you work out with a weight vest on. You do it a thousand times, and then a thousand times more while there is no pressure so that when there is, you'll know exactly what to do. Know-how is a help. But it's preparation that makes you brave.
To each," Winston Churchill would say, "there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour." It's more accurate to say that life has many of these moments, many such taps on the shoulder.
Our training ensures we will meet fear where we stand. When our tap on the shoulder comes, will we be ready to answer it?
Here are two actionable steps we can take to deal with our fears.
Our first responsibility is to keep watch over ourselves. We must recognize Kakia and Aretê when they appear. Imagining ourselves at those crossroads, we must look within and observe our feelings when presented with a choice. Kakia's path will be the one we feel no resistance to, the one that feels familiar and comfortable. Aretê will show us what we know to be right but will fill us with fear and apprehension.
In the beginning, we will prefer Kakia to Aretê. This is normal. We understand that there is a choice to be made and will not always choose the right option. This practice has roots in mindfulness. When we practice meditation, we train ourselves to recognize when we're thinking and to observe our thoughts from a higher altitude. We are not the thinker who has thoughts; but the observer looking down from the summit of a great mountain. Like Zeus watching the feats of Hercules from Mount Olympus. This perspective allows us to observe the fleeting thoughts that normally ensnare us, avoiding Kakia's seduction.
Exercises like the one above must be used moment by moment, which is challenging to form a habit around. We often forget to apply our training in the heat of the moment, when it is most valuable, falling into the patterns we are accustomed to. Premeditatio Malorum, or negative visualization, is an exercise the Stoics themselves recommend. Many self-help gurus advise the opposite of this exercise. Such people advise you to visualize how you wish an event to unfold, often with supernatural optimism. Does anything ever go according to plan? Expecting the best-case scenario in every situation is setting ourselves up for disappointment.
The Stoics were rational realists; they were not dealers in hope. If it's almost certain that an event won't go as planned, what are some of the ways it may fail? By identifying these derailments, we can better prepare ourselves to deal with them instead of making the situation worse. You can meet optimism and Stoicism halfway: expect the best, but prepare for the worst. Holiday further expands:
Better to be pessimistic and prepared than the alternative. It was Aristotle who said that the optimistic are the most vulnerable, because "when the result does not turn out as expected, they run away." Foresee the worst to perform the best.
Premeditatio malorum serves as the foundation for Tim Ferriss' Fear Setting exercise, which Holiday explores:
The entrepreneur and writer Tim Ferriss has spoken of the exercise of "fear setting"—of defining and articulating the nightmares, anxieties, and doubts that hold us back. Indeed, the ancient roots of this practice go back at least to the Stoics. Seneca wrote about premeditatio malorum, the deliberate meditation on the evils that we might encounter. "Exile, war, torture, shipwreck," Seneca said, "all the terms of the human condition could be on our minds." Not in the form of fear, but in that of familiarity. How likely are they? What might cause them? How have we prepared ourselves to handle them? For Seneca, the unexpected blows land most heavily and painfully. So by expecting, by defining, by wrestling with what can happen, we are making it less scary and less dangerous at the same time.
You can watch Tim Ferriss's TED Talk for the complete guide on fear setting.
This exercise may be mistaken for having irrational thoughts about the future. However, negative visualization is a deliberate exercise that you perform before an event to better prepare you for the possibility that things might not go according to plan. If you tend to be consumed by irrational thoughts, Marcus Aurelius suggests focusing on just what is in front of you:
"Don't let your reflection on the whole sweep of life crush you, don't fill your mind with all the bad things that might still happen. Stay focused on the present situation and ask yourself why it's so unbearable and can't be survived."
Holiday expands on Aurelius' quote:
It's when we imagine everything, when we catastrophize endlessly, that we are miserable and most afraid. When we focus on what we have to carry and do? We are too busy to worry, too busy working. There is plenty for you here right now. That's why the Stoics talked about sticking with "first impressions." Just what you see. What's here. Not everything else that may or may not someday be related to it.
Maintain a balance between taking notice of what is here and planning for the possibility of things not working out the way you had hoped. As Holiday explains, one way to accomplish this is to break the situation down into manageable chunks:
Start small . . . on something big. Eliminate one problem. Move things one iota. Write one sentence. Send one letter. Make a spark. We can figure out what's next after that. Your headlights illuminate just a few feet of the dark road in front of you, and yet that is enough for you to move forward and make continual progress.
Isn't that how we solve big problems? By breaking them down? By focusing on the piece in front of us? Ideally, early on, before it gets harder or buried in other problems? (Rivers are more easily forded at their source, goes the expression.) Build some momentum, some confidence as you begin crossing stuff off the list. And most of all, isn't this what training helps you with? Telling you the first and smallest thing you should do—what your job in this moment happens to be.
"He who does something at the head of one regiment," Abraham Lincoln reminds us, "will eclipse him who does nothing at the head of a hundred." Better to win a small battle than continually to defer for some larger, perfect battle in the future.* The struggle continues. We play our part. We get started. We do what we can, where we are, with what we have. It adds up.
Whatever you're not changing, you're choosing. The best time to have tackled a hard problem was a long time ago; the second best time is now.
Conversely, the greatest moments in human history all share one thing—whether it's landing on the moon or civil rights, the final stand at Thermopylae or the art of the Renaissance: The bravery of ordinary men and women. People who did what needed to be done. People who said, "If not me, then who?
Reading this chapter, I was reminded of a scene from Neil Gaiman's novel Neverwhere, which explores a hidden city beneath London.
In a scene at the beginning of the story, our protagonist, Richard, finds a woman lying on a damp London road. Richard's girlfriend, Jessica, wishes to leave the woman alone. They are already running late for an important dinner with her boss, and she hasn't the time to deal with another delay. Richard refuses; he can't leave without getting the stranger to safety. The rest of Richard's life is shaped by this encounter.
Jessica was happy to leave the discovery of an unconscious woman to a stranger; someone else would come along soon, right? Richard is the perfect exemplar of those who ask, 'if not me, then who?'
How many people before Richard had pretended not to notice this stranger, hoping someone else would help her? How easy to presume a drunk had had one too many and was sleeping it off rather than a victim of assault, robbery, or rape. Perhaps we imagine them as drunk to rationalize our inaction. After all, if they caused it, why should we intervene? But, how they got there is immaterial. A human could be in mortal danger; it's our societal duty to help those in need.
How would you respond? Who makes the world a better place? If you were lying on those cold cobblestones, who would you wish for?
Confronting fear forces us to ask: if not me, then who?
The tale of Hercules suggests that courage is viewed as a defining moment in one's life. Despite their importance, these moments are rare and are often overlooked until years later. For Holiday, courage is a habit practiced moment by moment.
Did you tell your friend what you truly believed in your last conversation? Or, did you passively agree to avoid starting any drama?
If you're struggling to decide between courage and cowardice, consider a question: what would the world look like if everyone did this?
The act of courage can be as big or as small as living the life we choose or refusing to hold our tongue in company.
Courage is Calling's most important message wasn't explicitly stated, but it was evident throughout all the stories.
In the examples Holiday provides, both men and women can make small decisions that have enormous consequences. When we look back at history, we can easily weave a narrative about their brave acts. We know the results of their decisions, but they didn't as they made them. Did they believe they had acted courageously at the time? Or was it just another brave decision after a series of others?
If a butterfly can flap its wings in India and cause a hurricane in New York, can we accurately predict the blast radius of our actions? A single moment of cowardice can ruin everything we've achieved. When we don't know what the magnitude of our decisions will be, it's safer to integrate courage into our character as something we practice moment to moment.
A variety of stories illustrate the importance of virtue in Courage is Calling. If I didn't include them here, unedited, I would be circumventing Holiday's intent.
My two favorite depict the consequences of cowardice and courage. In the former camp, we see how Nixon lost the presidency because of a moment of hesitation caused by fear.
On October 19, 1960, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested for trying to eat at a restaurant inside Rich's department store in Atlanta. With their enemy in custody, southern authorities seized the opportunity to try and crush King while they had the chance. Holding him on other charges, they denied bail and sent him to the state prison in Reidsville, where he was to be sentenced to four months on a chain gang. There was real worry that King might be beaten or lynched, and so, overwhelmed with worry, Coretta Scott King, very pregnant with her third child, called both the Nixon and Kennedy campaigns, who, in one of the tightest elections in American history, both desperately needed the black vote.
Nixon, as it happens, was not only friends with King but had personally overseen the Eisenhower administration's civil rights efforts. His advisers urged him to act, but Nixon hesitated—weighing the same considerations that had flashed in the mind of Theodore Roosevelt a half century before. He didn't want to lose the South. He didn't want to wade into the middle of controversy. He was worried it would seem like grandstanding. And so he betrayed King in the moment, and left the door open for Kennedy to call both the governor of Georgia as well as Coretta, whom he rang directly from an airport to console and reassure. Meanwhile, his brother Robert Kennedy called the judge in Alabama and pressured him into releasing King.
King immediately made it known who had been there for him when he needed it, even though he had planned to vote for Nixon. "I had known Nixon longer," he recalled, and "he would call me frequently about things, getting, seeking my advice. And yet, when this moment came, it was like he had never heard of me. So this is why I really considered him a moral coward and one who was really unwilling to take a courageous step and take a risk."
Kennedy went on to win the election two weeks later by less than half a percentage point—just thirty-five thousand key votes across two key states. Two phone calls had won him the presidency. A few seconds of cowardice, the time it would have taken to speak with the wife of a good man wrongly imprisoned, cost Nixon the office.
It was Nixon's fear of public retribution that prevented him from standing up for King, an apparent friend. Nixon paid the price for a moment of cowardice.
"A time comes when silence is betrayal." — Martin Luther King Jr.
The second story is about Corporals Jonathan Yale and Jordan Hearter, who didn't hesitate to give their lives to save others.
Corporals Jonathan Yale and Jordan Haerter were working a guardpost in Ramadi in 2008 when a truck bomber raced toward the small base they protected. An exit to safety stood just a few feet away. The local police didn't hesitate to use it when they saw the truck coming. It was the two Marines, who had met only moments before, who stepped forward in unison and began to fire. Two thousand pounds of explosives went off as they unloaded their weapons into the accelerating truck. Six seconds had elapsed between the time the truck entered the alley and its deadly blast.
The crater that marked the last moments of the two men's lives, just twenty and twenty-two years old, was more than sixty feet wide and five feet deep. General John Kelly, who interviewed witnesses on the scene, would write movingly of the sacrifice the heroes made without hesitation or consideration. "They could have run and likely survived, but did not," he said. "I do not think anyone would have called them cowards if they had. They took seriously the duties and responsibilities of a Marine on post, and stood their ground before they would allow anyone or anything to pass. For their dedication they lost their lives. Because they did what they did only two families had their hearts broken . . . rather than as many as fifty. These families will never know how truly close they came to a knock on the door that night." Just a few seconds of courage—we talked about that. That's all it takes. It also may be all you have.
You don't get to sleep on it. You don't get to run through all the scenarios. You don't get to ask for advice. Because people are counting on you. Because this is what you were trained for. Because this is what the situation demands, what your ideals demand. Trust your gut. Do your duty. Maybe it will work out. Maybe it won't. The hero does it anyway.
As Kelly would say of those Marines—it was six seconds in the alley. One second to recognize the situation. Two seconds to raise their weapons and fire. Two more critical seconds for the bullets to do their work and stop the truck. And just one fleeting second left to live, less than even what you've spent reading this sentence. Six seconds. "Not enough time to think about their families, their country, their flag, or about their lives or their deaths," Kelly later said, "but more than enough time for two very brave young men to do their duty . . . into eternity. That is the kind of people who are on watch all over the world tonight—for you.
"It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness." — Seneca
Each of us will face a time when life won't go according to plan. We will feel down and out as if fate has dealt us a rotten hand. History has witnessed the same for many remarkable people. As they persevered through their trials and tribulations, they learned that these experiences shaped their character. They found that the wilderness provided them with the strength and resilience they needed to continue. As Marcus Aurelius said, "the impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way"
Seneca was exiled. Epictetus too. The twentieth-century German-American political philosopher Hannah Arendt was arrested by the Gestapo, spent eight days in prison, then seven years in exile. Galileo spent the remainder of his life under house arrest after daring to assert that the Earth revolves around the Sun and for refusing to retract this claim, even though no one would have blamed him if he had. Eleanor Roosevelt was sent away by her parents as a young girl and then lived for decades in her husband's shadow. Herman Melville was savaged by reviewers. Steve Jobs was fired from Apple. Charles Darwin spent twenty-three years in purgatory before he could publish his thoughts about evolution. You don't think that you'll be loved and appreciated for all you do, do you? It'd be wonderful if we cherished our heroes, if we rolled out the red carpet for our creative geniuses. Instead, we put them through the gauntlet. We torture them. We drive them away.
Churchill was not only a prisoner of war in his youth, but at the height of his political career he was driven out of public life. His crime? In part, he was right about Germany. No one wanted another war. No one wanted him to be correct about Hitler's menace. So it was easier to make him go away than to prove him wrong. For nearly ten years Churchill languished at his estate outside London. Or so his enemies thought. In fact, he was reading. He was writing. He was resting. He was making valuable contacts. He was waiting for his moment. "Every prophet has to come from civilization," Churchill would explain, "but every prophet has to go into the wilderness. He must have a strong impression of a complex society . . . and he must serve periods of isolation and meditation. This is the process by which psychic dynamite is made."
You can let this break you, or you can let it form you—form you into the person that destiny is calling you to become. Because you know the work you're doing is important, because you know it's bigger than you. Remember: Between mountains lies the valley. You may have tumbled down from your former heights. You may have been thrown down. Or simply lost your way. But now you find yourself here. It is a low point. So?
Cowardice is caused by the fear of reprisal. Am I going to be ridiculed? What will they say about me? Instead of focusing on what others think of us, we would do better to consider what we think of ourselves. As Marcus Aurelius wrote, "it never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinions than our own." One way to escape this spiral of suppression is to ask yourself what you're willing to pay. What price are you ready to pay for voicing your true thoughts, standing up for what you believe in, and living life on your own terms? Holiday illustrates this point beautifully in one of the finest passages from Courage is Calling.
Some philosophers have questioned why one person would ever give their life for someone else's. They questioned risking for a cause, let alone dying for one. What's so bad about being a bootlicker, they ask, if it means you get to keep breathing? What good are principles if they cost you your life? There's a logic to it. It's just a pathetic logic. The (braver) philosopher John Stuart Mill would concede that war was an ugly thing—ambition can be ugly too—but, he said, the "decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse." You have to care enough to draw the line somewhere, and the failure to do this is ultimately far uglier than most of the excesses of history.
The good news is that deep down we know there are things so much worse than dying. It's why we admire the heroes, famous or not, who fought and challenged, gambled and sacrificed for what they believed in. Cato gave his life to resist Julius Caesar. Thrasea and, belatedly, Seneca fell in opposition to Nero. The Spartans preferred to fight as free men than live as rich slaves under Xerxes. Isn't that what we recognize in Socrates's greatness? He could have gotten away, bribed his way out of jail, but he didn't. And Jesus too?
Let us pause for a moment to memorialize some lesser-known heroes: The nameless blacks who were beaten, who lost jobs, had their loans called in but still registered to vote anyway. The countless couples who married interracially in defiance of the Nazis or apartheid. A sixty-year-old mother named Lori Gilbert-Kaye who threw herself in front of her rabbi during a mass shooting in 2019, shielding him from death with her body and her life. Leonard Roy Harmon, a black cook on a Navy ship who used his body to protect the evacuated wounded at Guadalcanal, dying for a country that was still illegally depriving him of his ability to vote and live freely. Anne Dufourmantelle, the French philosopher, who died rescuing two drowning children while on vacation. Wilfred Owen, the poet quoted earlier in this book, who returned to active service in World War I after his friend and fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon had been seriously wounded. Like Bertrand Russell, Owen was antiwar, but he felt someone should document the horrors of the war. He would die in battle just a week before the Armistice, dying in a war he opposed, but fulfilling a duty he believed he had.
"We should cherish the body with the greatest care," Seneca said. Same goes for our profession, our standing, the life we have built for ourselves. "We should also be prepared, when reason, self-respect, and duty demand the sacrifice, to deliver it even to the flames." We said before that fear asks, "But what if . . .?" It worries about the cost—mostly to ourselves. A hero doesn't think about that. They accept the bill that comes due for doing the right thing.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, some businesses were willing to sacrifice for public health, while some were not. It seems like an obvious trade, but if it were so obvious, everyone would have done it. We talked about the courage of business leaders who make hard choices, but perhaps the hardest choice for a company is to make a decision that prioritizes people over profits. It took courage for Reed Hastings to jettison his DVD business, but it'd have been braver had he stood up to Saudi Arabia when they demanded the removal of a controversial Netflix show that criticized their government for murdering a dissident journalist. Instead, thinking of his stock price, Hastings explained, "We're not trying to do 'truth to power.' We're trying to entertain." What good is being a billionaire if you can't use it to take the pretty straightforward stance against dismembering members of the press?
Taking the hit for someone, something else. That's what heroes do. A coward thinks of themselves. Courage forces us to ask, "If not now, when?" and "If not me, then who?" It pushes us to be bold. It also asks: What if everyone was selfish? What would things look like? It encourages us to gamble on ourselves, to carve out an unconventional path. But we can't forget the other side of the rabbi Hillel's question is equally important. "If I am only for me," he asks, "who am I?"
"Our voice leads us in the direction of the person we wish to become, but it is up to us whether or not to follow. More times than not we are pointed in a predictable, straightforward, and seemingly positive direction. However, occasionally we are directed down a different path entirely." — Pat Tillman
Life's most important tasks are often hidden behind our greatest fears.
No rule is perfect, but this one works: Our fears point us, like a self-indicting arrow, in the direction of the right thing to do. One part of us knows what we ought to do, but the other part reminds us of the inevitable consequences. Fear alerts us to danger, but also to opportunity. If it wasn't scary, everyone would do it. If it was easy, there wouldn't be any growth in it. That tinge of self-preservation is the pinging of the metal detector going off. We may have found something.
Our biological wiring deploys fear to keep us safe from danger. However, we must temper this emotion with reason. By reframing fear as a call to action, we can use it as a compass.
Using role models is one practical way to apply this notion. Holiday didn't mention them in the book, but I have found them useful in making decisions.
Imagine someone you admire from history or fiction in your shoes, and ask yourself: what would they do? This approach may backfire if you select the wrong mentor. The point isn't to become someone else, but to model your decisions off an ideal.
To make our character straight, we need a ruler; only by measuring up to a mentor can we fix the crookedness.
"Without a ruler to do it against, you can't make crooked straight." — Seneca
Role models serve as our rulers.
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