steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Virtuous and Gentle Discipline

 It’s a truism that the brave person is not the fearless person, but the one who does dangerous things despite their fear. This has always made me feel a little sorry for those who are naturally fearless. Are they condemned by their natural boldness never to qualify as brave?


My maternal grandfather was one such. One hundred years ago he was a young merchant navy officer when his ship (with an unwise cargo of saltpetre, horses and oily rags) caught fire. The captain went mad because of his terrible burns, and the order was given to abandon ship. So my grandfather took to a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic with some other men, and they spent a couple of days trying to stop themselves from falling asleep. One man failed, and the last day was spent in company with his corpse – which they had to keep in the boat in case of a later investigation by the Company. Eventually they drifted back to the crippled ship, which was still afloat, and the fire mostly out; and in due course were picked up by another vessel.


Later, bankrupt during the Great Depression, my grandfather wrote an account of that experience in the hope of making some money. But he was no writer, and it never got beyond manuscript stage. (I typed it up later.) He had no imagination, you see – an essential ingredient of fear - and it all came out ploddingly factual. So, a decade after, when he was on deck during D-Day, firing his ship’s guns at the German bombers (he commanded one of the fleet that brought the floating harbour to Arromanche) perhaps he wasn’t being brave at all. If he didn’t know the meaning of fear, how could he face it down?



Do virtues in general need to be consciously and effortfully practised, to be really virtuous? If nature or training makes good behaviour unconscious, then does it lose some of its moral weight? No one gives a medal to a bullet-proof vest for taking a bullet: only to the bodyguard who throws himself in the bullet’s path. But the bodyguard’s training is aimed at making him more like an inanimate object – it ducks under the conscious, decision-making part of the brain and works to trigger a reflex. Perhaps a by-stander with no training would deserve a bigger medal still for doing the same thing?


I wonder whether this is where my ambivalence about good manners comes from. Saying “Please” or “Thank you” is a habit we try to inculcate in children, but insofar as it is a habit, is it worth less? Shouldn’t we be trying to inculcate gratitude and consideration for others in general, and hoping that its outward manifestations will bloom unbidden? Perhaps, but as a strategy it’s patchily effective at best. We admire sprezzatura, but this is itself defined as a kind of neglect, the evidence of a grace that is (or appears to be) unconscious. But even if it’s unconscious now, we might still give credit for the hard work that went into making it unconscious, just as we admire the previous hard work of the musician whose playing of the instrument seems effortless. We know they didn't get that way without doing a lot of scales.


Christian iconography sometimes shows Christ on the cross looking serene and God-like, sometimes agonized and all too human. The Christ of “Let this cup pass from me” and “Why hast thou forsaken me?” is easier to empathize with, and braver according to the truism with which I started; as God, Christ may be generous and loving, and even self-sacrificing – but “brave”? For the same reason, I find angels hard to sympathize with, or even admire, having an uneasy feeling that virtue comes too easily to them to be worth very much. And yet they seem to be firmly in God's good books despite this. The sneaks.


Tags: family history, maunderings
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