“Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.”
– C.S. Lewis
“Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension yet–and this is its horror–it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world. Evil comes from a failure to think.”
– Hannah Arendt
Almost all human beings see themselves as protagonists in the story of life. We’re the good guys. Even the bad guys think it. Only a very few very self-aware baddies label themselves the enemies of humanity and goodness – even while still harboring the notion that they’re doing the world a favor.
Everyone equally believes that, if faced with a grave evil, they would summon the courage to speak the truth and resist corruption and power.
If you were a German citizen outside of Dachau or Auschwitz, would you have had the courage to protect Jews and reveal the Holocaust to the world? If you were a white property owner living in the antebellum South, would you have had the courage to harbor fugitive slaves? If you were an American soldier ordered to kill civilians in My Lai, would you have said no?
We all like to think that we would. I pray that we would.
History seems to support a different narrative. In the 20th century alone, governments killed around 262,000,000 people outside of warfare. Most of these state-sponsored murders happened within the context of supportive populations or at least compliant populations.
Resistance, courage, heroism are not the norm in history and certainly not the norm for people. Still, like the 99% of people who think they are above average, we continue to think that we are all capable of heroism.
Mundane vs. extraordinary heroism
I think the source of the problem is heroic stories themselves. We’ve seen story after story after story of brave individuals standing up to evil and winning, but we see very little of what it takes for individuals to gain the courage to face evil in the first place. If we get anything, we get a musical training montage or a mythologization of some power or gift given to the hero from beyond.
The result? We separate the mundane heroic from the extraordinary heroic. We somehow expect ourselves to transform into beings of virtue and courage when extraordinary evil comes along, but most of us go through our days of mundane challenges and pleasures in precisely anti-heroic ways.
We make excuses for our moral failings and put the blame onto others. We tell white lies at work and in the home and in relationships to avoid conflict. We maintain different personalities to please and manipulate different groups of people. We run away from our challenges and our sicknesses and our own evil into procrastination, food, sleep, drugs, alcohol, meaningless sex, religion, ideology.
We envy people who outrank and outperform us. We harbor violent fantasies. We harbor lustful fantasies. We want power. We want approval. We make getting the attention and sanction of others our moral compass. We surrender our judgment to the nearest bully or intellectual or authority figure who provides us the relief of not having to decide and bear responsibility.
Most of us aren’t willing to put in the work to make our dreams come true even in a world where that’s easier than ever. Most of us wouldn’t be able to live without Google. We fear the poor, the homeless, the different. Some of us aren’t willing to work 8 hours a day to support ourselves. Some of us won’t lift a finger to improve ourselves. Most of us have given that responsibility to the state.
If any of this is at all descriptive of the way we live, how do we expect ourselves to show heroism when the time comes? How will we stand up to the greatest sources of evil in our world – authoritarians and their governments particularly – when we can’t even get out of bed on time in the morning?
How to become heroic
We’re not all that bad or even unusual. Our ancestors struggled with their vices as well. But I’d be willing to guess that most of our ancestors understood evil and their own capacity for it better than we do. In the United States and western Europe, we’ve largely been spared from seeing extraordinary evil since the fall of the Soviet Union. That was some 26 years ago – a blink of an eye in human history.
We’re overdue to see the rise of great evil again, and we’ll have plenty of opportunities to take responsibility and face it, or default on our responsibility and become the Nazi collaborators, concentration camp kapos, Soviet informants, fugitive slave-catchers, and moral compromisers of the 21st century.
You want to be heroic? So do I. But this is going to be harder than we thought.
Heroes do not have days off. Heroes are heroic in every hour and every decision. Integrity and responsibility and courage are not one-time gifts or “power-ups” but reflexes trained over a long period of time.
The responsibility required to prevent and reverse a society’s slide into violence and authoritarianism is the same responsibility that gets you up at 5 AM to finish your important project, the same responsibility that gets you out of bed at night to care for a crying child, and the same responsibility it takes to clean your room.
The integrity required to resist the pull of power is the same integrity you need to be truthful about your spotty past to new friends and loved ones, the same integrity you need to turn down a lucrative job or business opportunity that compromises on your values, and the same integrity you need to leave behind an identity that you can no longer claim in good conscience.
The courage to face down the Nazi searching your home for Jews is the same in quality and the same in source as the courage it takes to tell your parents that you don’t want to pursue their chosen profession, the same courage it takes to ask a girl to go out with you, and the same courage it takes to disagree with your boss.
We all have had our moments when we’ve glimpsed what it can be like to be heroic. We know that at those times we are most fully alive. And while choosing heroism at all times sounds daunting, hold in your mind the end goal: choosing the good can become second-nature. Because courage becomes easier as you go. Because life becomes more beautiful as we fear it less. Because instead of all the millions of collaborators and silent witnesses and submissive citizens of history, we remember the Dietrich Bonhoeffers, the von Stauffenbergs, the Solzhenitsyns and all others who said no to evil – of the extraordinary and the mundane kind. We remember the resistors because they are what it means to be human.
Intellectual Credit: Major (and belated) intellectual credit to Jordan Peterson, whose works on totalitarianism, the banality of evil, and human psychology I was discovering at the time of this writing.