In Search of Nobility (6): Intrepidity

After a long delay (due to a busy year at a new teaching job), I am at last getting to the sixth, penultimate, post in my series on recovering Nobility in a debased age. Rather than taking our own modern sensibilities for granted, I’ve been focusing on the definition of “nobility” given by the Webster’s 1828 Dictionary. It is time now to focus on another of his terms, highlighted below:

1. Dignity of mind; greatness; grandeur; that elevation of soul which comprehends bravery, generosity, magnamimity, intrepidity, and contempt of every thing that dishonors character.

Intrepidity. Like some of the other terms we’ve seen in this exploration of the theme of nobility, intrepidity is not a commonly used word these days. Like most of the terms, it has deep roots in ancient languages, especially Latin. The specific Latin roots here are in (not) and trepidus (alarmed). From this we may gloss the term in English as “unmoved by danger,” or even “undaunted.”

No doubt this brings to mind two more common terms, courage and bravery, but we have already examined these in the chapter on Bravery. There we saw that bravery is not the absence of fear, but the ability to deal with fear appropriately rather than being mastered by it. An intriguing question thus arises from Webster’s definition above: why distinguish bravery, the quality of mastering fear, from intrepidity, the quality of being unmoved by danger?

It is certainly possible that Webster was just indulging in rhetorical amplification, drawing upon close synonyms to bring out related, but still distinct, aspects of the one excellence summed up by the Cardinal Virtue of Fortitude. Persistent and thoughtful reading of our classical heritage frequently reveals the idea at work that Virtue as the thing Excellence itself, but also specific practical instances of excellent conduct, do in fact exhibit a rich, interwoven tapestry of shades of meaning.

We live in a language-impoverished age. It has been estimated by many researchers that the average American adult has a working, active vocabulary of 20,000 words, but manages to make it through the activities and needs of most days using a good bit less than 1,000 of those.1 As a classical languages teacher, I very frequently encounter great consternation in students when they learn that Greek and Latin often have 4-5 different words for some one thing, or that a single Greek or Latin word is so rich that it can bear 7-8 distinct English meanings. In this condition, is it any wonder that even if we regularly, actively use only two words for a basic, broad concept, bravery and courage, we think they are simple synonyms that exhaust the subject and go no further in our thoughts?

Thus, although I cannot definitively speak for Webster’s intentions, allow me to assume, for the sake of our own further inquiry, that he used two seemingly equivalent terms, bravery and intrepidity, because they aren’t exactly the same thing, but express nuances of a broader truth – nuances to which we should pay significant attention.

Back to in + trepidus, then, as meaning something like “unmoved by danger.” Earlier we saw that Courage may be defined as “the quality of being able to endure and confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation.” This means that courage is always relative to danger, and often to death: without the existence of danger, and of death, there could not be any such thing as courage. Now in terms of this other term for an important quality of a truly noble person, intrepidity, we should start asking what in the world it might mean to be facing serious danger, and perhaps even death, and yet to be unmoved.

I’ve spent much space herein quoting classical thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Plutarch. Let me now turn for elucidation of intrepidity to a class of moral philosophers descended from Plato’s Socrates, the Roman Stoics. One of their number, Seneca, who lived in the time of the cruel Emperor Nero and the ministry of the Christian Apostle Paul, penned many helpful things about living one’s life in the face of adversity and remaining virtuous.

Let’s think with Seneca for a bit about the root psychological condition that danger and death provoke: fear. Writing of the fear of death, Seneca says:

 All you need to do is to advance; you will thus understand that some things are less to be dreaded, precisely because they inspire us with great fear. No evil is great which is the last evil of all. Death arrives; it would be a thing to dread, if it could remain with you. But death must either not come at all, or else must come and pass away.

Do you not suppose that virtue will be as efficacious as excessive fear? No man can have a peaceful life who thinks too much about lengthening it, or believes that living through many consulships is a great blessing. Rehearse this thought every day, that you may be able to depart from life contentedly; for many men clutch and cling to life, even as those who are carried down a rushing stream clutch and cling to briars and sharp rocks.

Most men ebb and flow in wretchedness between the fear of death and the hardships of life; they are unwilling to live, and yet they do not know how to die. For this reason, make life as a whole agreeable to yourself by banishing all worry about it. No good thing renders its possessor happy, unless his mind is reconciled to the possibility of loss; nothing, however, is lost with less discomfort than that which, when lost, cannot be missed. – Moral Letters to Lucillius, Letter 4: On the Terror of Death

In terms of Webster’s category intrepidity, being unmoved by danger, notice Seneca’s phrase near the end: “Most men ebb and flow in wretchedness between the fear of death and the hardships of life.” Now what are ebbing and flowing if not motions, in this case, motions of the soul? The inner life of a person who is eaten up by fear cannot be anything but a constant, moiling motion. Such a person, continually being moved by some danger is by our above definitional discussion not intrepid, and in that sense, not noble.

But what of fear itself? Don’t we all experience this emotion, some of us more often than others? Aren’t there just plenty of things in our mad, rushing, intemperate age to spur our souls to continual motion this way or that, worrying about how it’s all going to turn out? Surely fear, that emotional and psychological affliction that either inhibits confident action or spurs us to such, is just an ordinary, perhaps inexpungible part of basic human life?

Or perhaps not – we should be philosophical and subject this seemingly obvious truth of human life to greater scrutiny. Of fear, Seneca provocatively reminds us of its actually ephemeral (fleeting, transitory) nature, as seen in the simple fact that what we fear is always something that could happen but has not:

There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality…What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come. Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow. – Moral Letters to Lucillius, Letter 13, On Groundless Fears

Here we begin to see how it it might be possible to face a danger, a real and even serious danger, while yet being unmoved (intrepid). For what, really, is the fear that the danger has provoked in us? It is a temporary, changing emotional state operating in mere reaction to a possible, but nevertheless unreal event.

High performer students who fear getting bad grades have not actually gotten the bad grades – and may not! – but the unreality of the potential future is usually enough to unsettle their minds unduly. But heed Seneca: what is the student afraid of? Quite literally, no-thing, since the future hasn’t happened and might turn out very differently from what the fear says.

Faced with having to give a speech in public, a person might fear the possible, yet currently unreal, condition of being thought poorly of. Again, the person is literally afraid of no-thing, a figment of the imagination projecting and extrapolating from knowable current conditions to unknowable (because unreal and only potential) subsequent ones.

A soldier going into battle may experience great fear, but again, of what is he afraid? The bullets of the enemy hitting him? A possible eventuality – but one that is not yet, and may not come to be at all. Whether the soldier is an atheist thinking his fate is merely the mechanical result of unpredictable decisions intersecting with blind physics or a religious person believing that God controls all things with an all-wise Providence, the simple truth of the soldier’s current actual state can’t be connected to a future potential state by anything other than his own unmoderated thoughts and feelings. He, too, is literally afraid of no-thing.

The examples could be multiplied without end, but all will demonstrate the same clear truth: much of what alarms the human mind is not even real, but only a projection of that mind, which ought rather to be seeking the middle ground of virtue between the vicious extremes. The only way to be unmoved by danger is to not allow fear, a made up reaction to a currently unreal mere possibility, to move oneself. The soul’s motion when faced with danger should be forward along the middle path of Virtue, not Left or Right along the deviant paths to Vice. Rather than surrender to fear, one ought to examine the circumstances, try to determine where the extremes are, and avoid them. Thus, as Seneca puts it elsewhere:

…it is not poverty that we praise, it is the man whom poverty cannot humble or bend. Nor is it exile that we praise, it is the man who withdraws into exile in the spirit in which he would have sent another into exile. It is not pain that we praise, it is the man whom pain has not coerced. One praises not death, but the man whose soul death takes away before it can confound it. All these things are in themselves neither honourable nor glorious; but any one of them that virtue has visited and touched is made honourable and glorious by virtue; they merely lie in between, and the decisive question is only whether wickedness or virtue has laid hold upon them. – Moral Letters to Lucillius, Letter 82, “On the Natural Fear of Death”

And again:

It is tragic for the soul to be apprehensive of the future and wretched in anticipation of wretchedness, consumed with an anxious desire that the objects which give pleasure may remain in its possession to the very end. For such a soul will never be at rest; in waiting for the future it will lose the present blessings which it might enjoy. And there is no difference between grief for something lost and the fear of losing it. Moral Letters to Lucillius, Letter 98, “On the Fickleness of Fortune”

Returning again to the operative distinction that Virtue is always a mean between two Vicious extremes, perhaps we can more clearly see now by striving for the narrow, middle path one could really and healthfully be emotionally and psychologically unmoved by danger – and so, attain to the quality of true nobility that Webster calls intrepidity.

Let me close this installment with one more from Seneca on how to properly frame one’s thoughts about the constantly changing conditions of life which so easily threaten to overwhelm the soul with fear and the many vices fear can underwrite. Here Seneca advises living according to the distinction between length of life and quality of life:

I have no time for such nonsense; a mighty undertaking is on my hands. What am I to do? Death is on my trail, and life is fleeting away; teach me something with which to face these troubles. Bring it to pass that I shall cease trying to escape from death, and that life may cease to escape from me. Give me courage to meet hardships; make me calm in the face of the unavoidable. Relax the straitened limits of the time which is allotted me. Show me that the good in life does not depend upon life’s length, but upon the use we make of it; also, that it is possible, or rather usual, for a man who has lived long to have lived too little. Say to me when I lie down to sleep: “You may not wake again!” And when I have waked: “You may not go to sleep again!” Say to me when I go forth from my house: “You may not return!” And when I return: “You may never go forth again!” You are mistaken if you think that only on an ocean voyage there is a very slight space between life and death. No, the distance between is just as narrow everywhere. It is not everywhere that death shows himself so near at hand; yet everywhere he is as near at hand. – Moral Letters to Lucillius, Letter 49, “On the Shortness of Life”

In the upcoming final post examining Webster’s 1828 definition of “nobility,” I’ll look at his final category, “contempt of every thing that dishonors character.

  1. Note that my figures here are not the result of in-depth personal research, but only perfunctory collation of multiple online sources. Depending on how far you yourself might go performing a search of surveys, you will find active vocabulary estimates ranging from 10,000 to 20,000, and these are often paired with estimates of “passive” vocabulary – additional words that are partly known, but not well enough to be actively used – ranging from 40,000 to 80,000. []