Aesthetic Realism Consultant Nancy Huntting
Vera Brittain, WWI
Vera Brittain, WWI

What Is True Courage--Including in Love?
by Nancy Huntting. Given in August 2000 at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, 
141 Greene Street, New York, NY 10012

Every woman wants to feel courageous.  I remember at college wishing I had the courage to do something really useful for other people and the world, and being ashamed that I was too timid and selfish.  There was hardly a day that went by that I didn't have the feeling I was cowardly in some way.  How frequently women do feel this is a sign how much courage means to us, and how much it is an everyday matter:  when we don't want to meet new people, or pretend we feel something we don't, or join in making fun of someone knowing we should try to stop it, we feel cowardly and ashamed. 

     "There are two ways people criticize themselves," Eli Siegel said in an Aesthetic Realism lesson, "which Montaigne wrote about in his essays.  One is cowardly; the other is cruel."

      What is true courage, and what stops us from having it?  Mr. Siegel gives this magnificent definition in his work Definitions and Comment, Being a Description of the World:

Courage is the belief that the way things are is not against oneself, and therefore that these things should not be gone away from.
Mr. Siegel shows that courage arises from our attitude to the facts about the world--"the way things are."  "Courage," he continues in his comment, "is an organic like of the facts, making for a wish to know them."  The chief thing Aesthetic Realism shows, that stops us from having courage is contempt, the "disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world."  This unjust contempt is always cowardly, because it is a dismissing or changing of the facts in order to falsely get to superiority and comfort for ourselves.

        Aesthetic Realism makes it possible for people to see that the way the world is, is for us, because its structure is aesthetic: the oneness of opposites, the same opposites we are trying to do a good job with in our lives. 

       Tonight I speak of the English writer Vera Brittain (1893-1970), and what a woman studying in consultations is learning now--to show that through Aesthetic Realism we can learn what true courage is.  Vera Brittain is best known for her 1933 book about her own life, Testament of Youth, said to be the only book about World War I by a woman.  In 1915 when she was 20 she left a prestigious position as a student at Oxford to enlist as a nurse; her fiance and her brother would be killed in the war.  In her forward to the book she says:

Only, I felt, by some such attempt to write history in terms of personal life could I rescue something that might be of value, some element of truth and hope and usefulness, from the smashing up of my own youth by the War....I have tried to write the exact truth as I saw and see it about both myself and other people...
She "had known despair" she wrote later, and in this book wanted "to prove that this universal emotion could be overcome even by individuals whose courage was as small as mine."  Part of her courage is that she writes of fears she was ashamed of, and never understood, and I respect this very much.  But there was knowledge she didn't have that Aesthetic Realism can provide women now enabling them to change in ways they so much hope for.

I.  Where Does Cowardice Begin?

Eli Siegel is the person who most understood what a child feels.  “If you look at any child of three," Mr. Siegel explains in his great lecture Aesthetic Realism and the Past, “and you go deep enough you will see that that sizing up the universe....the question is, how good a job are you going to do?”

"Sometimes a child can think, as everyone can, that the whole world consists of one's enemy and it's too puzzling and I wish I could lie down and never get up. “
        In my first Aesthetic Realism consultation I was asked what I thought of the world, and I said I was afraid of it.  I began to learn that, while there are things in the world we should be afraid of, the feelings of fear I was ashamed of came from my own unjust contempt--I wanted to think the world was against me and didn't want to know it truly.  This, I learned, is the reason people both assert themselves arrogantly, and retreat from the world too fearfully.

        For instance, as a child I was usually shy and quiet around adults, but with friends I did foolish and sometimes dangerous things--like climbing on the unfinished rafters of a house being built down the street.  In my teens at a party, I felt it was safer not talking because what I said might be used against me.  But the real reason, I learned, was before I knew anything about a person I already had contempt--I felt people were not worth talking to. "Contempt is a sign of strength to people," Mr. Siegel said in a class, and asked me, "Is that so with you?"  Yes it was.  While I felt afraid and inferior, inside I thought I was superior in finding other people's flaws.  I learned it was because my thought about people was so unjust that I punished myself by thinking they were against me.  "If you don't want to know people," Mr. Siegel once said, "you have to see them as enemies."

         Only when we want to know the world and people, I learned, will we both assert ourselves and be accurately modest in a way that makes sense.  Courage is always a beautiful relation of these opposites.  "Courage," Mr. Siegel explains in his comment to the definition, is not "imprudence, foolhardiness... stubbornness" and it "quite plainly, is not flight, faintheartedness, hesitation"—

it is an accurate point between faint-heartedness and fool-hardiness, hesitation and stubbornness.  It is a rhythm, and a rhythm implies here, as elsewhere, a profound accuracy.
       Aesthetic Realism makes possible this "profound accuracy" and Mr. Siegel himself had it, magnificently.  Through what I have learned I am no longer walled up in myself, trying to get away from things.  I have a larger desire to know myself, to know other people, to see and be affected by the infinite richness of the world, that I am so grateful for—Aesthetic Realism has made me a more courageous person.

II. Vera Brittain Wanted to Know This

As a young child at the turn of the century, growing up in a well-to-do family in northern England, Vera Brittain, like every child, was not sure whether the outside world was for her or against her.  She remembers their house was "always... full of music" which she loved; at the age of 8 she says she read aloud parts of Matthew Arnold's poem about a father and son, "Sohrab and Rustum," over and over.  But she also describes herself at age 5 scornfully calling her younger brother, Edward, "Little fool!"  And in Testament of Youth she writes of the "strange medley of irrational fears" she says "tormented" her:

of thunder, of sunsets, of the full moon, of the dark, of standing under railway arches or crossing bridges over noisy streams, of the end of the world and of the devil waiting to catch me round the corner...
       "There seemed to be no one to whom I could appeal for understanding of such humiliating cowardice," she says.  There is courage in her wanting to know this.  Only Aesthetic Realism explains that we judge ourselves on how fair we are, how much true feeling we have about other people and things.  In Self and World Mr. Siegel understands the reason I and Vera Brittain had fear we were ashamed of:
   “Guilt...makes for fear....where we should be against something in ourselves, we have chosen to be against what is not ourselves.  We have chosen to oppose it, hate it.... Once, however, we see the world as giving us pain, we can see it as giving us pain in the future, too, and in ways we do not see.  We feel also we deserve this pain...”
        What made Vera Brittain courageous--more so than many people--was that while she had these fears, which she says never really left her, she also had a strong desire to know and find value in things.  At the girls' school she attended from 15 to 18, she describes her pleasure in learning history and current events, and in reading poetry--Dante, Shakespeare, Browning, Swinburne; and it was Shelley's poem "Adonais," she says that—
taught me to perceive beauty embodied in literature, and made me finally determine to become the writer that I had dreamed of being ever since I was seven.
        She wrote in her diary at 19, "I longed ...for something to ... respect with all my soul."  Every woman is hoping more than she knows to respect the outside world, find value in it which is for us, will make us stronger, more ourselves. 

Continued, III.  Respect for the World Makes for Courage

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