The Daily News – 30 December 1939
“Courage,” said Dr. Johnson, “is reckoned the greatest of all virtues because, unless a man has that virtue he has no security for preserving any other.”
And he also said, with the philosophic insight: “Courage is a quality so necessary for maintaining virtue that is always respected even when it is associated with vice.”
Sir Arnold Wilson, who quotes these sentences in “Gallantry,” the rich anthology of courageous deeds which he and Captain J. H. F. McEwen have compiled, does not include any stories of courage “associated with vice”; but there is no denying that human beings cannot help paying tribute to the heroism even of men whom they regard as malefactors.
Certainly they respect it in their enemies, even when they regard them as the agents of malefactors.
Did not Mr. Churchill himself express his admiration of the daring of the U-boat men who entered Scapa Flow and sank the Royal Oak?
It is in the same spirit that airmen bury their victims with military honours.
At one moment they are hunting their enemies down as a menace to civilisation and human freedom.
Having hunted them down to their doom, however, they remember only that the dead men fought like heroes.
So great is the honour in which men hold courage that many people have thought it essential that war should be perpetuated as the best means of keeping alive the heroic spirit.
Courage, they have preached, is essentially a military virtue, and, if human beings begin to shrink from fighting, they will become demoralised weaklings, incapable of brave deeds.
War undoubtedly provides a vast and illuminated stage for courage, but the Wilson-McEwen anthology suggests that there is some undying greatness in the human heart which even in the absence of war will respond heroically to great occasions.
This book of golden deeds comprises not only deeds of heroic men at war, but deeds of equally heroic men at peace.
The miner who after an explosion goes down into the pit to rescue his comrades, the life-boatman who plunges through the storm to the aid of a sinking ship, the fireman who enters a blazing house to bring a child to safety—these are men of the same breed as the soldier, the sailor and the airman, and they are all chronicled here.
If courage were a virtue which depended on war for its survival, we should not find so many women possessing it.
A great soldier once said: “Ten per cent. of men are heroes; ten per cent. are cowards; and the rest are capable either of heroism or of cowardice, according to how they are led.”
It is impossible to check his figures; but I feel sure that in no circumstances in civilised countries will the percentage of heroes ever fall below that ten per cent.
Almost every occasion will produce its hero, and even men who never dreamed that they possessed an ounce of virtue will behave like heroes when the occasion arises.
I remember, when I came to London first, being told by a friend of an acquaintance of his—a bucket-shop swindler in the City—who was on a ship that began to sink after a collision.
The wicked old man had a seat in one of the boats, and his safety was assured, but, seeing a woman passenger crying for help and unable to find room in any of the boats, he quietly rose, gave her his seat, returned to the ship and went down with it.
R. L. Stevenson called virtue “the implacable huntress,” and certainly the virtue of courage has pursued and inspired many a scallywag as well as many a saint.
Obviously, of course, the highest form of courage is that which is united with unselfishness.
Such was the courage of Oates on the Scott expedition to the Antarctic; such was the courage of Scott himself.
Such, too, was the courage of Tom Andrews, when he stood on the deck of the sinking Titanic, regardless of his own safety and to the last moment went on throwing rafts overboard in the hope of saving the lives of others.
Those who are old enough to remember the disaster will always think of Andrews as a giant of courage—a hero on an epical scale.
It is men like him that those of us who have gone through life without even one heroic deed to our credit envy.
It is thus that we should like to live; it is thus we should like to be able to die.
Nor can we forget the courage of the little orchestra on the deck of the Titanic that went on playing “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” as she sank.
That, too, showed courage that it is impossible not to envy.
Courage, I imagine, in the true hero, is impulsive.
When the occasion arises, he can no more resist the impulse to behave courageously than he can change the colour of his eyes.
One of the curious features of courage is that it so often comes into action in aid of people with whom the courageous man is not even acquainted and in whom he would not take the slightest interest if they were not in danger.
The most fanatical Tory will risk his life as readily to save a Communist from drowning, as though they were blood-brothers.
And I am sure that there is many a courageous Nazi who would leap into a river to save a drowning Jew whom he would feel it his duty to hate again as soon as they had returned to land.
Certainly, there is nothing that gladdens the heart more than the feeling that there are millions of these impulsive heroic souls alive.
They give life its grandeur—a grandeur that no satirist of the human race can destroy.
Life, we know, is worth living so long as heroic men and women are living.
And never in the past, I am sure, has courage—“the sword of the spirit,” as Chesterton called it—shone brighter than it shines today.