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Written by Timothy Sexton
This is a book about that most admirable of human virtues—courage.
The opening line establishes motive. Why write about courage? Because, the author asserts, it rises and hangs higher over the capacity of human beings to do good than all other attributes. Thus, does the author justify at the outset the reason for the book’s existence and, more implicitly, what the reader is designed to take away from it. But while the quote singles out courage as the ultimate virtue, it does leave one important component unanswered: what, exactly, is courage?
Courage, the universal virtue, is comprehended by us all—but these portraits of courage do not dispel the mysteries of politics.
What is courage? A definition is not provided until near the end and even then it arrives in the form of a connotative metaphor. The end is an appropriate place to put this definition since by the time these profiles have been read, it will have become clearer what is meant by the argument that it is universal virtue cloaked in mystery.
Compromise need not mean cowardice. Indeed it is frequently the compromisers and conciliators who are faced with the severest tests of political courage as they oppose the extremist views of their constituents.
One of the most important themes of the book addresses one of the mysteries of politics: how the motivation behind an act of courage is often the decision to compromise. The author wants to make it quite clear that in the murky waters of politics, compromise is all too often viewed as cowardice and not appreciated enough as an of bravery. Under certain conditions, submission to one’s principles becomes a cowardly act that serves the short-term vision of supporters and voters to the detriment of the greater long-term good that could have been served better precisely by choosing to compromise principles.
“There are few things wholly evil or wholly good. Almost everything, especially of Government policy, is an inseparable compound of the two, so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.”
In keeping with the book’s thematic proposition that displays of courage are usually displays of dualism rather than the mythic exhibition of a superior being as usually portrayed, the author recalls the words of one of his personal heroes. Worth noting is his own prefatory introduction to Lincoln’s quotation in which he admits that this truism spoke by the 16th President rings more authentic after having served nine year in Congress than it had before.
To be courageous, these stories make clear, requires no exceptional qualifications, no magic formula, no special combination of time, place and circumstance. It is an opportunity that sooner or later is presented to us all.
The book concludes with a final reminder that courage is a virtue that is universal and admirable, but not inherent. Nobody was ever born to become courageous and nobody is ever courageous at all times. Courage is the nexus where character and contingency collide and it is presented as possibility equally open to all.
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