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Few of us spend much time thinking about courage, but we know it when we see it—or do we? Is it best displayed by marching into danger, making the charge, or by resisting, enduring without complaint? Is it physical or moral, or both? Is it fearless, or does it involve subduing fear? Abner Small, a Civil War soldier, was puzzled by what he called the "mystery of bravery"; to him, courage and cowardice seemed strangely divorced from character and will. It is this mystery, just as puzzling in our day, that William ...

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THE MYSTERY OF COURAGE

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Overview

Few of us spend much time thinking about courage, but we know it when we see it—or do we? Is it best displayed by marching into danger, making the charge, or by resisting, enduring without complaint? Is it physical or moral, or both? Is it fearless, or does it involve subduing fear? Abner Small, a Civil War soldier, was puzzled by what he called the "mystery of bravery"; to him, courage and cowardice seemed strangely divorced from character and will. It is this mystery, just as puzzling in our day, that William Ian Miller unravels in this engrossing meditation.

Miller culls sources as varied as soldiers' memoirs, heroic and romantic literature, and philosophical discussions to get to the heart of courage—and to expose its role in generating the central anxieties of masculinity and manhood. He probes the link between courage and fear, and explores the connection between bravery and seemingly related states: rashness, stubbornness, madness, cruelty, fury; pride and fear of disgrace; and the authority and experience that minimize fear. By turns witty and moving, inquisitive and critical, his inquiry takes us from ancient Greece to medieval Europe, to the American Civil War, to the Great War and Vietnam, with sidetrips to the schoolyard, the bedroom, and the restaurant. Whether consulting Aristotle or private soldiers, Miller elicits consistently compelling insights into a condition as endlessly interesting as it is elusive.

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Editorial Reviews

Modris Eksteins
Though he alludes to the connection only briefly in closing, one has the sense that this book is his reckoning with his own moral conundrum: What did I do in the age of 'Nam? There's little overt autobiographical information, but the personal concerns ooze from the interstices of the text.
James Bowman
[Miller] is brave enough to have written a book about courage, a subject he regards—as much at the end as at the beginning of his story—as a 'mystery.' Not that its mysteriousness prevents it from being of absorbing interest. Miller is at his best in displaying the results of his trawlings through the literature of war for examples that illuminate what he calls 'the emotional terrain' of courage, which includes all those counter-urges—fear, shame, humiliation, and disgust—that courage must overcome.
Merle Rubin
In his animated and absorbing investigation into The Mystery of Courage, William Ian Miller draws on a variety of sources, ancient and modern, to examine a virtue that is far more complicated than it first may appear...Although Miller may not have solved the mystery of courage, it was probably not his intention to do so. Instead, his book serves the far better purpose of opening up the subject and setting us thinking.
Laura Miller
[Miller] had planned to take up the topic of cowardice. Instead, he found himself intrigued and baffled by the opposite of that vice. In Miller's new book, The Mystery of Courage, he explains that bravery is much harder to define than we might think. Does it take more courage to launch a bold attack or maintain a stout defense? Is courage the result of passion or reason? Is moral courage superior to physical courage or vice versa? And has our contemporary life, often shielded from danger and the immediate threat of war, lost some of its grandeur and resonance because courage—whatever that may be—is seldom demanded of us? It's impossible to read Miller's book without jumping from these larger philosophical questions to the even more difficult personal ones, questions that explore the limits of our own fortitude.
Anne Valentine Martino
It takes great courage to write about courage...[and] Miller has written to the challenge. The Mystery of Courage is an irresistible meditation on a virtue that you might not think you want to read this much about, but almost right away, you do...[Miller's] prose is scholarly and vigorous. Majestic rhythms echo throughout the book.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Originally conceived as a meditation on cowardice in an extension of his "misanthropic series" (The Anatomy of Disgust; Humiliation), Miller's volume eventually gave way to the more compelling qualities of that "glorious phantom," courage. Unfortunately, fear remains the heart of the work. Miller seems unable to see courage positively; rather he views it as a negative state in which people merely lack a motivating fear. His language repeatedly plays on self-doubt. Discussing military duty, he confesses, as though driven by personal demons, "those who were given these orders and duties, with very few exceptions did not refuse them. The rate of compliance flabbergasts us, because we cannot quite trust that we would not have collapsed sniveling or cowering." The emphasis on fear, especially physical fear of death or injury in combat, leaves Miller nonplussed by non-martial forms of courage that have less to do with fear than sacrifice, determination and will: nurses in war zones and women on the frontier are dispensed with in two sentences. The convoluted structure also leads to some strange definitions of courage: "among the Cossacks... courage's substance may have been nine parts pitilessness and cruelty." As a law professor, Miller is well positioned to discuss social contracts and how people resolve conflicts between the good of society and self-preservation. Instead, he explores such trivial (or uncontroversial) issues as whether a man suffering a heart attack in a cafe should bother other patrons to get medical help. Miller admits at the outset that he cannot pin down the nature of courage; his failure to explore its deep moral and ethical issues will disappoint serious readers. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
KLIATT
This book is not about a series of events in which men and women act courageously, nor is it a group of biographies of courageous individuals. It is an examination of courage from a philosophical point of view. Although the picture of a firing squad on the cover may spark some initial attention, the scholarly discussion of an abstract concept will quickly deter all but the most serious YAs. This small audience will include serious students of war as well as future philosophy and history majors. Those who accept the author's challenge to "...follow me, no, not to dethrone czars, that's too risky, but to search for courage" will find an intriguing academic exercise. When they finish, they may have more questions than answers. The text is well written in a scholarly but conversational style. Much is spent pondering questions (e.g., Is courage the fear of being called a coward?). The author examines courage across time, from ancient Sparta to the present, and across cultures, including the traditional Japanese attitude towards suicide and surrender. He presents the ideas of established philosophers (e.g., Aristotle's concept of a "courageous disposition") and thoughts from the diaries of present-day soldiers. He proposes stimulating contrasts (e.g., physical courage vs. moral courage; courage vs. fanaticism) and when the reader feels that he is coming to a logical conclusion, Miller tosses in another idea to consider. Will the reader find courage? Maybe it would be easier to dethrone the czars. This book cries out for discussion. It has the potential to provoke serious debate long into the night. KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended for advanced students and adults. 2000, Harvard Univ. Press, 346p.notes. bibliog. index., Boyd
Library Journal
In this fourth solo effort, Miller (The Anatomy of Disgust) presents a provocative analysis of the fine line between courage and cowardice. Using historical example, literature, and the memoirs of soldiers, sailors, and marines, Miller has put together a witty, articulate, and thoughtful study of why some fight and some run. From ancient Greeks and Romans to the 20th-century warrior, Miller examines the social, cultural, and psychological factors that define courage and cowardice. Through the occasional psychobabble, Miller does offer some interesting insights into this unsolvable psychological mystery. He determines that courage is what society perceives it to be, whether moral or physical. Instinct, luck, training, peer pressure, opportunity, skill, shame, and the desire for glory are all factors that can influence the actions of a hero or a coward. Most interesting is his surprising discussion of how and why cowardice is a crime in the military society. This excellent study is rich with examples of those who stood or ran in battle and how they were judged by their fellow soldiers; it would be a perfect companion to John Keegan's superb book, The Face of Battle (1983). Recommended for all public libraries.-Col. William D. Bushnell, USMC, (ret.), Sebascodegan Island, ME
Rubin
Readers who balk at the prospect of wading through reams of dry data and leaden prose have nothing to fear from Miller. His approach is brisk and colorful, qualitative rather than quantitative.Christian Science Monitor
National Review
[Miller] is brave enough to have written a book about courage, a subject he regards--as much at the end as at the beginning of his story--as a 'mystery.' Not that its mysteriousness prevents it from being of absorbing interest. Miller is at his best in displaying the results of his trawlings through the literature of war for examples that illuminate what he calls 'the emotional terrain' of courage, which includes all those counter-urges--fear, shame, humiliation, and disgust--that courage must overcome.
— James Bowman
Booklist
[Miller] displays an exquisite feel for the warring emotions overlain by courage, such as cowardice, fear, and shame, and for the situations in which courage is displayed. Its stage is primarily combat...[which] Miller examines with astuteness and sensibility to layered meanings...An accessible intellectual exploration.
— Gilbert Taylor
Globe and Mail
Though he alludes to the connection only briefly in closing, one has the sense that this book is his reckoning with his own moral conundrum: What did I do in the age of 'Nam? There's little overt autobiographical information, but the personal concerns ooze from the interstices of the text.
— Modris Eksteins
Ann Arbor News
It takes great courage to write about courage...[and] Miller has written to the challenge. The Mystery of Courage is an irresistible meditation on a virtue that you might not think you want to read this much about, but almost right away, you do...[Miller's] prose is scholarly and vigorous. Majestic rhythms echo throughout the book.
— Anne Valentine Martino
Christian Science Monitor
In his animated and absorbing investigation into The Mystery of Courage, William Ian Miller draws on a variety of sources, ancient and modern, to examine a virtue that is far more complicated than it first may appear...Although Miller may not have solved the mystery of courage, it was probably not his intention to do so. Instead, his book serves the far better purpose of opening up the subject and setting us thinking.
— Merle Rubin
Salon.com
[Miller] had planned to take up the topic of cowardice. Instead, he found himself intrigued and baffled by the opposite of that vice. In Miller's new book, The Mystery of Courage, he explains that bravery is much harder to define than we might think. Does it take more courage to launch a bold attack or maintain a stout defense? Is courage the result of passion or reason? Is moral courage superior to physical courage or vice versa? And has our contemporary life, often shielded from danger and the immediate threat of war, lost some of its grandeur and resonance because courage--whatever that may be--is seldom demanded of us? It's impossible to read Miller's book without jumping from these larger philosophical questions to the even more difficult personal ones, questions that explore the limits of our own fortitude.
— Laura Miller
BBC History Magazine
The Mystery of Courage is immensely wide-ranging and intelligent. It is the more interesting for having started as a book on cowardice, which was overcome by the courage shown by the subjects of Miller's researches, most notably soldiers.
— John Hudson
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674041059
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 6/30/2009
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 360
  • File size: 552 KB

Meet the Author

William Ian Miller is Professor of Law at the University of Michigan.

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Table of Contents

Preface

1. Introduction: The Good Coward

2. Aristodemus, or Cowardice Redeemed

3. Tim O'Brien and Laches

4. Courageous Disposition

5. Courage and Scarcity

6. "I Have a Wife and Pigs"

7. Shoot the Stragglers and the Problem of Retreat

8. Offense, Defense, and Rescue

9. Man the Chicken

10. Praised Be Rashness

11. Stupidity, Skill, and Shame

12. The Shape and Style of Courage

13. The Emotional Terrain: Fear, Hope, Despair

14. The Emotional Terrain: Disgust, Anger, Relief

15. Courage and Chastity

16. Moral Courage and Civility

17. Fixing to Die: A Valediction

18. Concluding Postscript

Notes

Bibliography

Index

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 2, 2002

    Outstanding!

    I had the privilege of studying the dynamics of the blood feud culture under Professor Miller. After the class I began reading some of his literature. Miller's historiography and use of primary sources is gripping, and his frank admiration and identification with honor cultures of the past is refreshing in this time of stifling political correctness. Professor Miller has an extremely rare gift: He sees both himself and others as they really are. His self-examination is as important to his work as his historical analysis and philosophical musings. If you are honest with yourself you will recognize many aspects of your own psyche from Miller's writings. 'The Mystery of Courage' can tell you more about yourself than a thousand psychotherapists. This is a must read- you will never think of honor, bravery, fear, life or death the same way again.

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