The Problem of Brains

From: University of Michigan | By: William Ian Miller
Miller EDITOR'S INTRODUCTION |Courage is a virtue that most people would like to believe they possess, but how does one know if one is never tested? In contrast, men on the verge of battle must choose between courage and cowardice every day. When law professor William Miller (right) decided to examine the nature of courage, he turned to soldiers' stories describing wars from ancient Greece to Vietnam. In this excerpt from his book The Mystery of Courage, Miller wonders whether the unintelligent and the unimaginative have an easier time on the battlefield.

One of the most salient features of intelligence, it is rather insistently believed, is its ability to find good reasons for worry, whereas those without that ability sleep well and march blithely on. And since no defensive faculty would be sensitive enough to do its work if it did not generate some false positives, this capacity must also generate certain not-so-good reasons for worry as the price of being able to do its job well. Intelligence, by this view, best displays itself as intelligence by discerning risk, by identifying cause for concern.

We even come to suspect that those who discover difficulties and perils are somehow smarter than those who figure out ways to get out of them, since these saviors do not need raw intelligence so much as know-how and virtues like tenacity, cool, confidence, and courage to implement their know-how.

Indeed, the person of limited intelligence and imagination, who sees but one way out and sticks to it, may have a higher rate of success than one who discerns a number of options and must choose among them or overcome desires to abandon one course for others. Joseph Conrad makes great comedy out of Captain McWhirr, whose mental dullness is the exact virtue needed to get him out of a typhoon, preserving his human cargo against all odds; never mind that it was his dimness that got him into the fix in the first place. But to have avoided the peril would cast intelligence again in its role as the prompter of safety first, affirming its kinship with prudence but also with unsavory cousins like timorousness and cowardice.

The intelligent pessimist

Intelligence seems to be more the provenance of the pessimist than of the optimist, of the fearful than of the brave, of the self-critical than of the person with high self-esteem.

Surely there is some truth in that ancient wisdom. Thucydides has a perfect speech for the occasion. Here is the setting. Demosthenes, heading a small Athenian force of 60 hoplites and some archers, is about to try to prevent a vastly superior Spartan naval force from landing at Pylos (425 BCE). He marches his men down to the sea and exhorts his desperate band as follows:

Soldiers, all of us together are in this, and I do not want any of you in our present awkward position to try to show off his intelligence by making a precise calculation of the dangers which surround us; instead we must simply make straight at the enemy, and not pause to discuss the matter, confident in our heart that these dangers, too, can be surmounted. For when we are forced into a position like this one, calculations are beside the point: what we have to do is to stake everything on a quick decision.

No doubt Demosthenes has a different view of the use he will make of his own intelligence, but his mordant observations assume that his men will demonstrate theirs by engaging in a competition of wits whose end will be to come up with the most pessimistic description of their present bad circumstances.

Don't think, just act

Intelligence shows off by seeing difficulty and by exposing the vanity of any ameliorative gesture as so much delusion and wishful thinking. The view is roughly that hope is irrationally seductive and the provenance of idiots. Demosthenes concedes that their straits are so dire that there is no point in trying to prove them worse than any fool can already see they are. So spare me, he says, your wit. When the situation is this bad, "calculations are beside the point." Refined tactics require time for deliberation, and they have no time; given the circumstances, sound policy, wisdom, and rashness converge. Don't think; just charge. Thinking will only prompt despair.

Demosthenes, however, doesn't stop there; he still has to persuade his men to fight, for they are not without the tempting options cowardice offers: either to run or to lay down their arms and beg quarter hoping it will be granted (not a sure bet by any means). He has some work ahead of him.

He proceeds by trying to suggest that their plight may not be as bad as it looks, noting for instance that the enemy has a difficult place to land. He tells them to ignore the difference in numbers since only a small portion of the enemy can be brought up against them given the narrowness of the landing place. He knows, however, that accentuating the positive of their position is not the best rhetorical strategy to employ, since the bleakness of their situation has already been conceded. Instead he asks them to shift their point of view, to see things from the Spartan side.

Sympathetic imagination

The Spartans are operating from ships and "on the sea quite a number of circumstances have to combine favorably if action is to be effective. So I consider that the enemy's difficulties make up for our lack of numbers." Above all, he says, you, as Athenians, "know from experience all about landing from ships on foreign shores and how impossible it is to force a landing if the defenders stand firm and do not give way through fear of the surf or the frightening appearance of the ships as they sail in."

Demosthenes himself plays the very role he would deny his men — showing off intelligence by discerning every possible point of danger — but from the Spartan vantage point. He demonstrates how a smart Spartan, one who by definition has the capacity to discern risk and cause for worry even in good times, would exercise his intelligence. Put yourself in Spartan shoes; see how scared you men of intelligence would be if you were they. By itself, though, that move wouldn't work; it requires recourse to a powerful bit of knowledge not quite avowable except in circumstances this bad.

The Athenians know the Spartans must be scared stiff because, says Demosthenes, we have been in the exact situation the Spartans are in now and were scared stiff ourselves. In fact, the Athenian troops know the Spartans have even greater cause for concern than Athenians would in the same circumstances, for the Athenians are used to fighting from ships whereas Spartans are not.

The speech is rhetorically and psychologically masterful. Demosthenes' wits did not undo his courage, but he did not need them to embolden himself. Rather his courage kept his wits functioning so that he could use them to aid the cause of his men's faltering courage, undone in part by their wits. The men are now moved to behave courageously though it was hardly their reason that got them there, but rather Demosthenes' rhetorical skills, which marshaled the appearance of reason to the cause of passion, inspiring confidence when all reason would undermine it.

Demosthenes rallied his men by conjuring up their past fears, which they then could attribute by sympathetic imagining to their Spartan enemies. Intelligence plays two roles here, one in the men and another in the leader: the men's intelligence undermines their resolve until their leader uses his intelligence to suppress theirs so as to get them to accept a more sanguine view of their situation.

When imagination is a curse

It is not just analytic smarts that keeps company with cowardice. Cowardice is likewise believed to correlate positively with imagination although the imagination that undoes courage is not the kind that makes for good poets, but a very specific imagination: one that exercises itself almost exclusively in picturing disaster, and not just any disaster, but one that befalls me, the imaginer. What exactly would it be like to have a bullet pierce my brain; would I know it when it happened; would the experience of it be an eternity collapsed into a second and then what if...? "Happy are those who lose imagination," writes Wilfred Owen. "My imagination, that cursed imagination of mine," laments soldier Philip Caputo.

Mostly, imagination merely provides the illustrations for a text of disasters that intelligence has already written. Those, however, whose imaginations are so structured as to imagine disaster only for their enemies are the beneficiaries of one of those limits of mind, such as optimism and overconfidence, that allow people to do courageous things simply because they think the odds are all in their favor.

Aristotle believes that optimists manifest a semblance of courage, a semblance ranked somewhat lower than the semblance based on fury or rage. Fury and spirit, Aristotle recognizes, often serve as "an accessory" to true courage, though they lack the perfection of reason. But the optimistic are confident in danger, he says, only because they have never experienced defeat. They don't think they can lose, "but when the result does not turn out as expected, they run away."

Aristotle makes his optimistic person's confidence a function of past success, and surely this is a reasonable basis upon which to construct justifiable optimism. Consider, however, an optimism that arises solely from a capacity for self-deception, independent of any basis in past victory. In the extreme case, the confidence of such an optimist is completely unassailable. Failure can always be explained away: the other side got lucky; they cheated; it wasn't really a defeat anyway. This optimist does not run when the going gets rough; he may well stick it out, charmed by the belief that no bullet has his name on it. But why do I adopt such an ungenerous tone? There is ample proof that positive thinking, self-deceptive though it may be, gets results.

Learning to trick yourself

We may want to distinguish between those who are high on themselves as a matter of disposition, a given aspect of their character not needing external confirmation — those sometimes annoying souls of undentable self-esteem — from those who try to trick themselves for the occasion, optimists for the nonce. There is the courage of congenital optimism, and then there is that which comes from the rum ration, the boast, the vow, the exhortation speech, or even, at times, from the application of reason.

In analogous manner, we should distinguish between those people who use techniques that trick themselves into fury and rage and those people who are by nature furious, cursed or blessed, as the case may be, with a short fuse. The techniques used to elicit fury look remarkably like those designed to increase confidence, with the rum ration and exhortation figuring prominently.

Why aren't these ploys, some of which we just saw Demosthenes make use of, designed to raise confidence in desperate situations, appropriate aids to virtue? A soldier moved to give his utmost by the effects of a rum ration or an exhortation speech does not lose his chance at courage. If the rum or the speech fails to do its job, he is still blamed as a coward, so we should praise him when they work.

Commanders are willing to take semblances of courage wherever they can get them, and not just commanders, but the doers of the deeds themselves, who welcome any trick they can play on their minds that will let them behave in a way that is not shameful. Imagine the high command saying, "Sorry, men, no awards for valor in the last show: too much yelling, too much boasting, too much rum; do without the rum next time, boys, and you will have it just right."

A disposition for courage

Isn't there a reasonable case for being more charitable to the ironically or artificially deluded than to the constitutionally self-deluded? The first has to do some work to trick himself; the other can't seem to avoid not tricking himself. The person who struggles to let one part of his consciousness wink at another part to buy some assistance for his beleaguered disposition for courage deserves some credit. Such suspension of disbelief is itself a sign of one's commitment to courage; it might well be part of what it means to have a disposition for courage. How different is this from cultivating courage by boxing, fox-hunting, wrestling, or rugby?

Why do I want that irony, that twinge of awareness of the self-trickery as trickery? No doubt it is my own politics of courage that desperately hopes to keep it separated from insanity, fanaticism, and the annoying optimism of the self-esteem crowd.

One Civil War soldier argues that courage is getting to whatever state it takes to "nonrealize" danger: "Courage is merely a nonrealization of the danger one is in owing to excitement, responsibility, or something of the sort." Yet it is hardly clear that this soldier includes the self-deception of the constitutional optimist or the insensibility of the Celt as acceptable ways of achieving the nonrealization of danger.

Since "responsibility" follows on "excitement," he seems to be raising the ante so that his "something of the sort" is not meant to include just any kind of distraction, but only those of a certain dignity. He does not go so far as to say that courage is the forgetting of fear by any means.

Still, his view is more generous than that of the philosophers who follow Aristotle (though Aristotle himself is fairly generous) and also of some bitter moderns, such as Vietnam war correspondent Michael Herr, who are deeply suspicious of the moral value of actions that pass for courageous: "A lot of what people called courage was only undifferentiated energy cut loose by the intensity of the moment, mind loss that sent the actor on an incredible run; if he survived it he had the chance later to decide whether he'd really been brave or just overcome with life, even ecstasy."