By Benedita Sampaio Nunes
The word courage is a beautiful word, it comes from cor-age, the Latin for “of the heart”. Nowadays, it is generally understood as a virtue that allows one to undertake difficult things by overcoming fear and facing danger, suffering, fatigue. We often assume that courage means fearlessness, but it is quite the opposite: courage requires the existence of fear and is about the capacity to act in spite of fear. Throughout human civilizations, it has been celebrated as one of the main virtues a human being can possess. The concept of courage can be analyzed from multiple angles. The angle that I would like to touch upon today is one that in my view offers a greater connection to its Latin root and was addressed by Michel Foucault’s last course delivered at the Collège de France, entitled ‘The Courage of Truth’.
In this course, Foucault links the virtue of courage to a fundamental component of the democracy of Classical Athens called parrhesia. The term parrhesia is borrowed from the Greek παρρησία parrhēsía meaning literally “to speak everything” and by extension “to speak freely”, “to speak boldly”, or “boldness”. This “telling it all”, this “telling the truth” without dissimulation or detour, implies risk-taking, certain exposure to the anger of others, and to this extent, is linked to the virtue of courage. Indeed, courage in democracy is not about seeking the most extensive agreement, the broadest consensus, it is about seeking the truth, even – or, especially – when it requires shaking up mainstream opinions and comfortable beliefs.
In an essay entitled “What Is Enlightenment?” (1784), Kant argues something very simple: Enlightenment is not so much a moment of history, a philosophical current, an evolution of mentalities. It is, fundamentally, an act of courage that depends on each one of us – the courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Sapere Aude! [Dare to know!] – the courage of truth – is the motto of Enlightenment. If parrhesia was addressed to others around us, with Kant, the courage of truth is internalized. It is not so much about others as about oneself. It is about the courage to shake our own certainties and find out our own truth by ourselves.
So, courage is not only about undertaking difficult things despite fear and obstacles. It is not only about defending one’s convictions even when others do not like them. It is also, and most importantly, about accepting to question our own most anchored certainties. It is true that by daring to think for ourselves, we expose ourselves to danger, to criticism, to errors, to condemnation. But we finally grow out of immaturity and get closer to what is true.
And because today is International Women’s Day, a special thank you to all the brave women out there in the world who find the courage to empower themselves and others in the most vulnerable and adverse circumstances. Your courage of truth contributes to the progress of humanity as a whole. These are times we all need cor-age.
8 March 2022