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  Taking Stock
Courage to Dare
By Robert Cummings Neville

The simple courage to dare points up an important character of the human condition, namely, that life needs to be chosen.

Some people manage to go through the necessary stages and institutions of life without ever really investing themselves in anything. They can make friends, but they don’t work much at friendship. They can have families, but not work hard for them, emotionally investing in love and nurture beyond keeping things going. They can hold jobs but not identify with them. And when they die, they will be missed a little, but not much, because it’s almost as if they had not lived except for those depending on them directly.

Perhaps we should not say these people who lack the simple courage to dare are tempted by any kind of death. Rather they never engage life in some elementary sense and so have very little to die from. They enjoy life in their way, especially simple pleasures such as good company and food. They are missed by family and friends, but because they do not try much, do not invest themselves in much, do not risk much, not much is different with their passing. These are common antiheroes of our time.

The simple courage to dare points up an important character of the human condition, namely, that life needs to be chosen. It’s possible, of course, to slide by and let the inertia of one’s conditions of birth and community supply a trajectory for life, even a career with the appointments of friends and family. If you are well enough born you can drink your way through a Yale education, as some of my classmates did, having a good time, but never really being alive, a kind of “Gentleman’s C” zombie. Part of the evil of a consumerist society is that constant entertainment can blind us to the undead-unlife of not having chosen to be or do something with attendant ordinary risks. To live only vicariously in others is to have not chosen life yourself.

The simple courage to dare does not require anything extraordinary to dare—just investment in ordinary human relations where you make a difference to family and friends, commitment to a job so as to find some meaning and accomplishment in it, perhaps nothing more than earning a living. The simple courage to dare means taking ordinary citizenship seriously, caring for neighbors, schools, social institutions, and the rest. Though the simple courage to dare need not move beyond ordinary things shared with neighbors throughout the community, it involves risk because it is always possible to tell when you have failed in an invested friendship, family, job, or community role. When Moses (Deuteronomy 30) summed up his life’s work by telling the people that he (in God’s name) set before them life and death, blessing and curse, and challenged them to choose life that they might live and prosper, he did not have in mind the heroism that might be involved in conquering Canaan. Nor did he mean to choose between Yahweh and Chemosh. Rather he challenged them to choose the good life God had prepared, or fail to choose and therefore have no life to speak of.

The heroic courage to dare differs from the simple courage by having extraordinary projects. People with heroic courage to dare are usually blessed with friends and colleagues who tell them they can’t do what they propose. The project is beyond reasonable expectation, or is untimely and out of fashion, or puts in jeopardy the possibility of having an ordinary life. I’ve been told for years that metaphysics is impossible and systematic philosophy even worse; theological bureaucrats have assured me that seminary faculties can never be changed or innovation accomplished. Friends have insisted that I should never have supported my family’s high culture by means of creative debt management rather than the more modest lifestyle that could be paid for by my salary. But I am a heroic geek and have dared live out the dreams of an academic Walter Mitty. Thurber’s Walter Mitty, of course, just dreamed them.

What counts as an extraordinary project is a relative matter, as my own example illustrates. The really serious projects change the course of the world, and they don’t have to be violent like Alexander’s or Tamerlane’s. Imagine how Bach had to overcome the contempt of his children to write his outmoded style of music. Imagine the drive of Mansa Musa to establish the greatest university in the world in 1500 at Timbuktu. Think of the heroic daring of Cheng Ho, the Moslem eunuch and Ming Dynasty admiral, who established trade under the sway of the Chinese navy from Sumatra to Ceylon, Africa, Aden, and Hormuz, receiving tribute from Mecca in 1433. What aviator would dare be first to cross the Atlantic in a single-engine plane? What hero would go first into space, walk on the moon? Who would risk life to seek peace in Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Iraq, Israel, Northern Ireland? Who would march in front at Selma, at Tiananmen Square? Who would undertake to be an artist, a poet, or a playwright and step beyond fashions and conventions? Who would start a new business, invent a new product, change an established way of life?

If one has a dream beyond the ordinary, it takes heroic courage to dare act upon it, for too many people would say the funded experience of the race and simple prudence are against it.

The dreams differ from the grand to the sublime and to the ridiculous ambitions of academic geeks, but each defines a project for courage. Two kinds of temptation to death must be overcome by the heroic courage of daring. One is the death of not dreaming at all, and the other is the death of the dream itself.

I said earlier that one important part of the human condition is that life must be chosen. Now I add that the human condition is such that we can distinguish between the actual and the possible, and the better and the worse, and therefore between the ideal and the inertial. The inertial forces of life will carry us somewhere, but likely not toward the best that we might accomplish with deliberate effort. Most of us have ideal dreams despite the fragmentariness of our knowledge, the prejudice in our prescriptions, and the ease of self-deception regarding what is likely to happen and how that differs from what might happen if we put our heart into action. For the simple courage to dare, those ideals are very ordinary, ones that would apply to everyone, and we think of them as moral ideals or obligations. For the heroic courage to dare, the ideals are larger, on the scale of genuine imaginative constructions, and we usually don’t hold everyone to be obliged by them. People are heroic to the degree that they adopt them when they don’t have to and could follow a more ordinary way. Even though simply courageous people without heroic daring are not obligated to dream, they lack a creative dimension of life. To adopt a dream and define oneself by it is to create oneself a partly new person, risking ordinary stability to acquire and exercise whatever energies and abilities are necessary to achieve the dream. Failure to have at least modestly heroic courage is to fail human creativity.

It is also to fail the dream itself. Many people define themselves by fine dreams large or small, and identify themselves with the life required to achieve them. Heroic courage to dare requires more than adopting the dream; it demands committing oneself to all the means necessary to achieve it. I wager that a great many adults dreamed, as children, of being a concert pianist or great musician but failed to commit ourselves to the practice necessary to get to Symphony Hall, Nashville, or the rock concert arena. However talented we once seemed, and despite encouraging parents, we soon let the dream die. That dream’s death is a common part of our culture. Even the uncommon dreams are usually left to die, however, when it comes time to commit the real organization of life around the discipline to achieve them. Most people in universities are following some dream to which university study is a means, which requires discipline. My experience, however, is that most people dream big to begin with and then trim the dream to fit the inertia of the discipline required. To be a genuinely creative philosopher requires study of the history of philosophy; most people in graduate school drop the risk of philosophical creativity to dream of studying only other philosophers. Dreams die when the risky life required to achieve them is not chosen.

—Robert Cummings Neville is a Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology at Boston University. This excerpt is from Courage, a collection of essays edited by Barbara Darling-Smith and reprinted by permission of University of Notre Dame Press. An on line catalog of titles published by University of Notre Dame Press may be found at

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