The Scythians fight by flying. This is what Socrates tells us, anyway, in Plato’s Laches. He asks Laches himself what courage is, and Laches replies that courage is to stay at your post and fight. Socrates acknowledges that staying and fighting is the form courage must sometimes take. But it also takes other forms—the Scythians are not cowards. So staying and fighting cannot define courage. Can courage sometimes demand that we shelter in place? The answer must be yes. And if we are to preserve our humanity as well as our lives during this pandemic, our sheltering must be undertaken as a courageous act, a flight which is part of the fight.
Courage is the virtue which disposes us to act well in circumstances we perceive to be dangerous or offensive. Anger, not fear, is the emotional response most characteristic of circumstances which call for courage, though anger is not opposed to fear. We feel this anger when what we love is under threat. It is that urge to neutralize, to destroy, if need be. At its most ferocious it prompts us to do whatever it takes, unto death, to destroy the threat. Achilles is the literary exemplar of the man whose rage is unleashed but unregulated, all fight but no courage.
This native martial aspect of the human soul is a terrible power. Many features of modern civilization inoculate against it. In peaceful and sanitary times there can seem no need for it, save for those brutes in the warrior and athlete classes who need to cultivate it to keep the rest of us safe and entertained.
John Lennon’s “Imagine” is the apogee of this stupid illusion that humanity can long endure without all of us marshaling that fighting spirit and channeling it toward those good works which are hard but needful. Pandemics remind us that we all have something to kill and die for. It is no part of courage to regulate an appetite which has atrophied. Courage is only possible when that fighting spirit is alive and well.
Now here many of us are, sheltered in place. We’re keeping ourselves and others safe by flying from the virus for the purpose of killing it off, a funny sort of siege but it is the virus which is besieged. It has taken some of us anyway, and it will take more. I’ve sometimes imagined our sheltering as a diabolical parody of the Passover, at which the spirit of God moved over sheltering Egypt and kills a small minority. The gravity of the crisis cannot be measured by the body count.
It is easy to see our essential services personnel as warriors in the great fight of our day. It is harder to see ourselves, those of us who are sheltering, anyway, as warriors in the same fight, warriors who, like the Scythians, need to fly in order to fight.
C. S. Lewis’s sermon, “Learning in Wartime,” has been getting well-deserved attention over the last few weeks. But I have been thinking more about a different bit of Lewis. In Out of the Silent Planet we’re introduced to a race of rational animals called the Hrossa. Though they are sinless, they take a nearly sacred joy in hunting the hnakra, a deadly aquatic creature which appears from time to time in the lakes and streams. To hunt and kill a hnakra is among the highest honors a Hross can achieve. The hnakra represents, so to speak, an opportunity to exercise the full range of the capacities of rational animality. They have something close to reverence for the hnakra, for this reason.
Our virus is not evil; its presence among us and its lethality do not give us any new reason to lose trust in God. God’s Providence promotes the common good of the universe, Aquinas tells us, and this means that many kinds of creatures should be allowed their season to flourish, even sometimes at the expense of other kinds of creatures (Summ. theol. I.22.2.ad2). In God’s martial world the virus has been pitted against the humans and the humans will win, with casualties. That is, they’ll win if they stay human.
We need to remember all this in order to muster the spirit which will sustain us this week and the weeks to come. Our momentary lack of mobility and socializing is not intrinsically debasing, just as a soldier’s patient vigil in a foxhole is not debasing. The consequences of holing up may be debasing, if the government refuses to relinquish the power it has consolidated once the worst of the crisis has passed, or if the people willingly permanently hand it over. But right now, we are engaged in a “common endeavor,” as the Queen nobly put it over the weekend. The US Surgeon General, Jerome Adams, warned the nation that this week will be “our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment.” Someday they will ask you, “What did you do in that second week of April, 2020?” When you reply with jokes about sweatpants and Netflix and wine you will have no shame if you can also reply, “I did my part in the fight.”