The rare kind of courage to be examined—willingness to stand alone—can be clarified by explaining courage in its more or less popular acceptance. Generally, courage is thought of as synonymous with physical valor, fearless when in great danger, such as a soldier “going over the top” in the face of enemy fire—undaunted!
Why undaunted? It’s because we possess two brains: (1) the human cortex and (2) a small brain, the diencephalon, common to man and animal alike. The same brain, in the event of grave danger, works automatically on us as it does on animals. “When the diencephalon sends out an emergency signal through the autonomic nervous system, the adrenal medulla is made to discharge a gush of adrenalin into the blood stream.”1 It is this gush of adrenalin that instantly turns a scared-to-death individual into a fearless “hero”—over the top, undaunted!
I have experienced this instinctive phenomenon on two occasions. To label my “brave behavior” as courage would be a gross misnomer. My thinking apparatus—the cortex—had absolutely nothing to do with my behavior. It was automatic, as in animals, that is, beyond my conscious control. So, let’s not call this courage; it is by no means the same thing as “the courage to stand alone.” This rare and true courage is a task for the other brain—a venture in thinking.
Interestingly, the courage to stand alone is, in most cases, attended by more fear than going over the top in the face of enemy fire. It is the fear of ostracism, unpopularity, being looked down upon; and this fear must be overcome by reason. No diencephalon can rescue one from this type of fear. That is a job for the big brain—the cortex—the full measure of one’s intellectual capacity.
A classic example of nearly 2,000 years ago: Jesus of Nazareth, leader of an unpopular movement, had been arrested and his followers scattered. One of them, Simon Peter, was a victim of this fear. Read about him disowning his master:
. . . Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard, and a maidservant came up to him and said, “Weren’t you with Jesus, the man from Galilee?” But he denied it before them all, saying, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Then when he had gone out into the porch, another maid caught sight of him and said to those who were there, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” And again he denied it with an oath—“I don’t know the man!” A few minutes later those who were standing about came up to Peter and said to him, “You certainly are one of them, you know; it’s obvious from your accent.” At that time he began to curse and swear—“I tell you I don’t know the man!” Immediately the cock crew, and the words of Jesus came back into Peter’s mind—“Before the cock crows you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.
Woodrow Wilson wrote a booklet, When a Man Comes to Himself. That’s precisely what happened to Peter—he came to himself! And, by so doing, Simon Peter became Saint Peter. While common mortals can hardly expect to become Saints, the direction is clear: coming to ourselves, that is, gaining the courage to go it alone with whatever our highest reason suggests.
The eminent psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm, enlightens us:
Many people have, potentially, a passion for reason and for truth. What makes it so difficult to realize this potential is that it requires courage and this courage is rare. The courage which is involved here is of a special kind. It is not primarily the courage to risk one’s life, freedom or property. . . . The courage to trust reason requires isolation or aloneness, and this threat is to many even harder to bear than the threat of life. Yet the pursuit of truth by necessity exposes the searcher to this very danger of isolation. Truth and reason are opposed to . . . public opinion. The majority cling to convenient rationalizations and to the views that can be glimpsed from the surface of things. The function of reason is to penetrate this surface, and to arrive at the essence hidden behind that surface; to visualize objectively, what the forces are that moves matter and men. In this attempt one needs the courage to stand the isolation from, if not the scorn and ridicule of, those who are disturbed by the truth and hate the disturber.
Very well! Is there a formula for acquiring the courage to stand alone? All alone, if necessary, and without any fear? The answer, I believe, rests on the choice of voices: the voices without versus the voice within. By the voices without I mean popular babble in its countless variations, fickle public opinion, mob psychology. Anyone who tries to conform his conduct to these shifting standards will be hopelessly inconsistent in his life and ideas. He can never be right. What could be more fearsome?
The courage to stand alone can be generated only by reason—a job for the big brain—the cortex. Its criterion? Virtue! Whatever one’s highest conscience—the voice within—dictates as righteous! Briefly, the courage to stand alone stems from the wisdom of choosing virtue, not popularity; alignment with righteousness, not applause; approval of God, not men. Fear? None whatsoever!
What distinguishes the voice within from the voices without? Silence! Why? Because the inner voice is composed of insights, intuitive flashes, tiny revelations—growth—in the direction of Infinite Consciousness. Here we have the intellectual, moral, and spiritual attributes of man coming to himself—inching ahead toward human destiny. But how does one listen to silence? One might call it prayer, or contemplation. The procedure is to tune out worldly distractions and noises, to passionately prepare the mind to receive the inner voice.
Ortega wrote an excellent prescription: “Truth descends only on him who tries for it, who yearns for it, who carries within himself a pre-formed, mental space where the truth may eventually lodge.”
Finally, for an important and interesting sequence. As I have written elsewhere, free societies are few and far between. Historically speaking, they have been but momentary bright spots and can be accounted for only by eruptions of truth. The source of these glorious outbursts are men who have freed themselves. No man is free who is not master of himself, and only those who are masters of themselves have the courage to stand alone.
Obedience to one’s highest conscience—the voice within—is the root of all true courage which, in turn, is the root of all true freedom. The few individuals thus graced are entitled to acknowledge, along with the Psalmist, “For I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Hail to our Maker!