Courage: The Original Virtue

February 11, 2010
by J.B. Potter '11

MacgregorCol. Douglas Macgregor (on the right with H-SC President Christopher Howard), a prominent commentator on military affairs, visited Hampden-Sydney College at the end of January as a special guest of the Wilson Center.  Macgregor, who served in the army for nearly thirty years, is a graduate of West Point and a Gulf War veteran.  His practical military experience has been augmented by graduate studies; Macgregor holds a PhD in international relations from UVA.  As a soldier and a scholar, he has enjoyed a productive writing career, authoring and publishing numerous articles and four books. He currently serves as a lead partner with Potomac League, LLC, a consulting agency based near Washington, D.C.

Col. Macgregor's talk, entitled “Courage: The Original Virtue,” was part of the Military Leadership and National Security Studies Program of the Wilson Center.  As the title suggests, Macgregor’s speech dealt with what courage is and why it is important.

He began by differentiating between the two distinctive types of courage, physical and spiritual.  “Physical courage is a willingness to sacrifice and endure pain and hardship,” said Macgregor.  Although this type of courage is often entwined with leadership, it is not sufficient unto itself.  Indeed, as Plato suggested and Macgregor noted, courage needs an intellectual dimension.  This additional dimension creates spiritual courage, that is to say, the courage to say what you mean and mean what you say.  This courage is what Disraeli, a 19th Century British Prime Minister, called the “rarest of all qualities to be found in public life.”

Throughout history, countless cultures and peoples have seen courage as the keystone of society.  As Macgregor said, courage has always been revered because “without courage, nothing of enduring value can be achieved.”  In his view, moral courage involves accountability, asking questions, using your head, and speaking your mind.  In other words, courage means that you accept the possibility that you might fail.  With this in mind, a courageous person will deliberatively think about and implement the best solution to a given situation, a solution that takes circumstances into account.  Thus courage is about effectively and efficiently assessing and responding to problems.

Macgregor reiterated the following throughout his speech: “courage is not merely the absence of fear.”  Courage is something more; it entails taking risks, making value judgments, and standing up for what you believe in.  Indeed, courage is a virtue that we should all strive for because the future of humanity depends on it.