How much have we lost from the ancients? I wonder that a lot. After all, because I thoroughly reject the idea that humanity is on a never-ending, can’t-be-stopped rocket of social progress, it stands to reason that knowledge and beauty could easily have been lost over the millennia of slaughter and corruption. I’ve mentioned on this blog before how much I believe in societal entropy (a human nature version of the second law of thermodynamics). And, if I am even remotely correct about that – to a level of a one-hundred-thousandth of a percent – then it stands to reason that things which are true and good and honest and real have been lost on our inexorable march away from Eden.
Solomon talked about this in his writings. When he said that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc 1:9) he wasn’t just saying that the sun has risen today in the same way it rose yesterday. He was saying that God doesn’t change, therefore truth doesn’t change, which means that our (humanity’s) attempts at the abrogation of truth have always been and always will be. Which is why he went on to say rhetorically in verse 10, “Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! This is something new’?”
Therefore, while I’m certain (because I can see it just by looking at my computer monitor) that we (humanity) have discovered new things scientifically or economically over time, I’m also convinced we have lost certain things known to the ancients intuitively. Don’t get me wrong, I fully believe that the ancients were learned beyond that for which we give them credit in the hubris of our generation. For instance, I am sure that the ancients knew more about earth science or mathematics than we would automatically assume. But perhaps it is one of those situations within humanity where the focus on one skill or ability leaves another lacking due to a dearth of investment? As if scientific advancement has taken the lion’s share of interest and justification amongst society at the expense of the arts. (I for one don’t find much beauty in post-modern art when compared to the works of Greek sculptors or Renaissance painters. But I’m rather fond of such modern marvels as air conditioning and copper piping to porcelain toilets.) Or perhaps they, being closer in time to the perfection of Eden (or less removed from it by eons of continual evil at least) saw things a little more clearly? Almost like a person closer to the stage at a concert can see the finger work of the lead guitarist better than the rascal peeking over the fence from the parking lot.
So, how much have we lost from the ancients? If we make the inquiry based on travel or mass communication, you’d have to say that we’ve lost very little … if anything. But if you ask it in the way I am asking now – with an eye and an ear to morality, integrity and virtue – you might say that we have lost many somethings which are both precious and irreplaceable.
One of those things which I view as precious and irreplaceable is the love and appreciation for courage. In this case I’m not just talking about the courage to go into battle and hold the line for the sake of your nation or your brothers in arms. This seems to be the modern idea of courage: an equivalence with military duty being resolutely carried out; which in turn might be why courage is almost looked down upon by a modern society which dislikes the boorish nature of warfare. Certainly, we sometimes might expand it slightly to encompass less taxing and more respectable social ideas like standing up to a bully in the schoolyard or driving into the lane toward the big guys when playing basketball, but we mostly just view it contextually in war. Which means that it’s mirroring vice is cowardice – running away in the face of the enemy advance.
However, many of the ancients (in this case Plato) believed that courage was more a matter of endurance. This idea itself endured and was further refined by Thomas Aquinas who used the word “fortitude” when talking about it. Both Plato and Aquinas listed it amongst the four cardinal virtues (a term coined by Plato) – those virtues which set apart a good man from an evil man – and, while the other three are extremely worthwhile (Temperance, Justice and Prudence), my thinking has been dominated lately by what it means to be truly courageous.
Even with the modern view of the word, I believe that all fathers (those who aren’t emasculated by current social mores, anyway) dream of their sons being “courageous.” Whether they see it in terms of their son being a great warrior, businessman or footballer, they want to see him brave and strong. But even these noble thoughts are nothing in comparison to their ancient counterparts. If Plato meant endurance and Aquinas used fortitude, and we have the cheek to combine them into a philosophical ideal of “enduring strength”, might we not in so doing have rediscovered one of God’s greatest gifts to mankind? Perhaps the dream of God for His sons?
By ‘God’s greatest gifts’ I don’t mean to confuse it with something physical like football (soccer) or the burrito (two of God’s OTHER greatest gifts). I mean that this elemental idea of enduring strength is nothing less than an imprint of His glory on the dirt out of which we were formed. And speaking of dirt, think of Paul’s famous passage in 2 Corinthians 4, “Be we have this treasure in jars of clay [some translations say, “earthen vessels”] to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (vv. 7-9, NIV). Does that not sound like an enduring strength? Does that not sound like the fragile holding out against the irresistible? Does that not sound like courage beyond simply standing one’s ground against an enemy bearing down upon you? Please don’t get me wrong, I admire greatly those men who have fought bravely in the sands of Iraq or the snows of the Ardennes. But to say that courage is epitomized by the warrior is to cheapen it severely.
As Paul seems to say to the Corinthians, courage is most eloquently stated by the man who spends his last ounce of energy in providing for his family. It is at its most beautiful in the woman who, despite her own constant painful condition, ministers to another person in need with kindness and meekness. It is most alive in a young child who stands side by side with a classmate as the taunts of the crowd begin. Courage is resolute and unbreakable in spite of the fragility of its host. Courage is the rock which splits the stream and the timeworn tree gripping tenaciously to the cliff. Courage endures because its strength is renewed to everlasting by a source beyond the one who bears it.
Please allow me to take that last idea one step further. C.S. Lewis said in The Screwtape Letters that “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” Lewis’ “testing point” is the same as Paul’s “hard-pressed” language and his ‘highest reality’ is that of the spiritual plane. He illustrated this thought brilliantly in Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra (highly recommended reading) by showing that courage is prized in our world only because we who are plagued by constant fears born from humanity’s perpetual sin, so seldom see it revealed purely and so inadequately understand it’s true definition. We fear the charging enemy while standing in the foxhole not because we fear the momentary bite of his bullet before we know no more, but because we fear death itself so resoundingly; and we fear death so completely because we fear what we are.
You see that, because fear can only be known in a state of life/living/reality where God is not sovereign, the absence of fear is a courage only obtainable by a full subsummation of the soul and intellect to the ultimate reality of God’s sovereignty – on earth, in heaven and in our lives. We fear the fruits of our sin (as rightly we should); consequently the path to true courage lies not in meandering through the trappings of worldly trial, but in the straight (and narrow) that leads us to God. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil for you are with me” (Ps 23:4).
We are fragile creatures, are we not? Skittish creatures who hide in the darkest recesses because we fear everything. We fear starving, so we work ourselves to death. We fear going naked or homeless, so we invent coverings and homes which in themselves become something to fear. We fear being alone, yet we fear that others will find out who we really are and hate us for it as well as that those others will turn out to be as bad and broken as we are. We fear time because it presents new challenges; and we fear new challenges because it might reveal us as failures. We fear trying something new because if we fail we might be challenged to think more humbly about ourselves. We fear everything in life so completely because if we don’t hold tight to the phyllo-dough-thin protection of fear, we might find that we need something outside of ourselves to complete us. Let me ask you: Is that strength? Is that even logical?
It seems like we spend so much time layering armor upon ourselves that we cannot afford any chink to be seen. We build up walls to protect ourselves and can’t see that our deliverance is outside our own moats and crenellations. Indeed it seems that we must acknowledge once more that though we may come and see (Venimus, Vidimus) in this life, it will always be God who conquers (Deus Vincit). And what could make a man, woman or child more courageous, more steadfastly strong, more enduringly fortitudinous than that?
Therefore, I have to ask you: Do you want to be truly courageous? If so, rely not on your own ability to conquer your fears, rather rely on the God of all comfort who can provide all things needed for life and salvation in abundance … and cast aside your fear at the same time. No weapon that has been ever developed in the belligerent history of man could ever hope to storm the rampart of God’s grace or tear down the walls of His mercy.
What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:31, 37-39