By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   May 23, 2019

Most people would agree that courage is an admirable quality. The word came originally from the Latin word for “heart” – as in Richard, Coeur de Lion, or “Richard, the Lion-heart.” Dan Rather, once a leading TV news “anchor-man,” used to sign off with that single word, “Courage!” (His predecessor and mentor, Walter Cronkite, would close a little more solemnly, with “That’s the way it is.”)

But what does courage really mean? The examples with which History presents us usually concern fighting against impossible odds. One thinks of General Custer and his men, overwhelmed on a mountain in Montana. Then there was the defense of the Alamo in 1836, by 200 Texans, against a much larger Mexican force – led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana – which slaughtered the defenders to the last man.

The people of Mexico do not celebrate this victory. After all, it led ultimately to their loss of a huge portion of what is now the South-Western United States. But Mexicans have their own courageous wiped-out defenders, in the form of six boy cadets, who died protecting Mexico City from American invaders in 1847. And a victorious battle against French invaders at Puebla on May 5, 1862 gave their country its National Holiday of Cinco de Mayo.

Speaking of the French – against whom can they celebrate their own to-the-death courageous stand? The tradition must surely go back to their own legendary national hero, Roland, who in 778 A.D. led a rear-guard action, defending Charlemagne’s forces against a Muslim army, at Roncesvalles in northern Spain. Roland, and those he led, of course did not survive.

Which brings us to Muslim heroes, of whom the most outstanding must surely be Saladin, whose most famous exploits involved fighting the Christians of what’s known to historians as the Third Crusade – led by our friend Richard Coeur de Lion. Yet, although Richard failed to capture Jerusalem, which was supposedly the goal of his whole crusade, neither he nor Saladin took advantage of the opportunity to die gloriously fighting in the Holy Land. Saladin died of a fever in Damascus in 1193. Richard (a King of England who spent very little of his reign there) had a rather ignominious end, being shot by a crossbow while besieging an obscure castle in France.

But, we must come back to England (even if Richard didn’t) to resume our quest for courage. And, if you haven’t been to that country, it may surprise you to know that the word, “Courage,” is to be seen very prominently all over England. And no, it is not the slogan of a political party, nor is it the message of some religious group. It happens to be the name of a beer, which comes in many varieties, including bitter, ale, and stout. Its symbol, always appearing together with the name COURAGE, is a fighting cock – and you might think that this is a fitting emblem for a people who have withstood the threats and attacks of many foreign foes.

But, surprise! The name of this time-honored Brewing Company is actually the name of the man who founded it in 1785 – John Courage. His own background was French, which language has the same word.

This takes us back to the Continent, and particularly to Spain, where the traditional symbol of courage is the bullfighter, who risks his life, and demonstrates his skill, by confronting in a relatively small space, a large animal, reared to be fierce and dangerous. But in essence, the spectacle is less of a “fight” than it is a ritual slaughter. There is only one intended outcome, and the odds do not favor the bull. Nevertheless, there is an element of danger to the men involved – for otherwise, the whole show could hardly be considered an exhibition of courage. When (as does not happen often) a popular bullfighter is killed by the bull, he is mourned and eulogized, as if he had died heroically in some worthy cause.

Of course, there is also moral courage, which may involve risks to personal relationships and social standing in order to defend one’s beliefs.

Yet the truth is that, although we may modestly decline to admit it, you and I, being mortal, are called upon, throughout our lives, to manifest great courage, knowing that ultimately nothing lies ahead of us but the unknown. As one of my epigrams puts it: “It takes a special kind of courage to face what we all have to face.


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