What does courage actually look like? Why is it that many who can face mortal dangers in battle lack the other virtues? How do you account for a man like Cicero, whose voice trembled at the beginning of every speech and who never distinguished himself in battle, yet who stood up to Catiline and saved the Roman Republic from its greatest internal threat?…
Toward the end of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, which we read in the Humanities track at Wyoming Catholic College, the infamous utilitarian educator Thomas Gradgrind sees the devastation resulting from his suppression of his children’s imaginations and emotional lives. His son has robbed a bank and tried to pin the crime on an innocent workman; he tries to flee, but an odious young fellow named Bitzer tracks him down, convinced that capturing him will advance his own career. Crushed by recent events, Gradgrind wants to help his son escape, and he humbly asks, “Bitzer, have you a heart?” Bitzer—trained from childhood in Gradgrind’s system—reacts to the question with surprise: “The circulation, Sir, couldn’t be carried on without one. No man, Sir, acquainted with the facts established by Harvey relating to the circulation of the blood, can doubt that I have a heart.” In his old age, Gradgrind, unlike his pupil, comes to see that “The heart has its reasons that reason cannot understand,” as Pascal wrote in his Pensees.
Pascal’s understanding of the heart underlies our theme in this summer’s Wyoming School of Catholic Thought, The Paradox of Courage (June 10-14 in Lander). The title phrase comes from G.K. Chesterton, who pointed out that courage is a paradox because the willingness to die accompanies and actually stems from a powerful desire to live. Imagine explaining that to Bitzer! Courage, like love, comes from the heart. The ancient Greeks called its source thumos, the “breast-soul,” where the “irascible” passions (as St. Thomas Aquinas called them) find their seat. In a famous chapter of The Abolition of Man called “Men Without Chests,” C.S. Lewis lamented the loss of heart in modernity—and Bitzer would be a good example.
“Loss of heart” implies loss of compassion, loss of inspiration, loss of hope, loss of courage—and it’s this situation in the culture that we most want to address. Last summer, for the first time since before the founding of the College, we revived the Wyoming School of Catholic Thought that our founders had started in the early 2000s, before the College existed. Why the revival? Because a number of adults my wife and I met in our travels, perhaps experiencing loss of heart themselves, asked us if we had anything for adults like what we do in our curriculum. Many people hunger for the depths of conversation that ordinary life rarely seems to offer, given the many demands on our time and attention.
Last year, our faculty members and guests had a vibrant discussion of our topic, “Returning from Exile”—how to come back into the fullness of a heritage in danger of being lost. This year’s topic reflects the truth that cultural revival can only come about through courage, a recovery of the resources of the heart. Aristotle considered courage the basis of all the other virtues. Without it, how can one hold steady in battle? When temptations come, how can one stand one’s ground? In the Republic, Socrates calls courage “the invincible attachment to things held in awe.” With courage, one will be calmly in charge of oneself, capable of choosing the right thing in the right way at the right time. Without courage, the other cardinal virtues—prudence, temperance, and justice—will be impossible.
We’re going to be reading a number of works from the greatest guides in the Western tradition, such as Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, St. Athanasius, St. Thomas Aquinas, Herman Melville, and T.S. Eliot. Wyoming Catholic College faculty will lead the sessions, and there will be ample time for the kinds of conversations that serious adults most enjoy. What does courage actually look like? Why is it that many who can face mortal dangers in battle lack the other virtues? How do you account for a man like Cicero, whose voice trembled at the beginning of every speech and who never distinguished himself in battle, yet who stood up to Catiline and saved the Roman Republic from its greatest internal threat? What does courage look like in our own circumstances? Where are we going to need to take heart most, both personally and culturally, in the trials to come?
Please consider joining us this summer, when we will take up the conversation and examine the deepest questions as they arise. You will enjoy the atmosphere of the classroom, the company of the faculty and your fellow participants, and the beautiful scenery of Wyoming that provides our setting. We have limited room, but spaces are still available. To find out more, please contact Dr. James Tonkowich: firstname.lastname@example.org. 307-355-4468.
Republished with gracious permission from the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (April 2018).
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