Courage is an ancient philosophical virtue. Some people are surprised by this fact. Philosophers, in the public mind, are forever associated with petty debates far removed from the hot-blooded concerns of life. When we think of philosophers, we imagine fusty academics puzzling over questions like: ‘How long is a piece of string?’ – not stalwart, heroic, types brimming over with courage and forbearance. Yet courage was an essential philosophical virtue in ancient times. Socrates and Aristotle affirmed this virtue, and other philosophers echoed the idea. Philosophers were made of sterner stuff in the ancient world. Philosophy wasn’t just an education in ideas. It involved a rigorous personal training aimed to free us from false ideas, and to prepare us for whatever hardships life could throw our way.
Consider Diogenes of Sinope (404-323BC), founder of the Cynic school of philosophy. Diogenes spurned worldly goods and lived in a barrel on the street with the dogs (the name ‘cynic’ comes from kynikos, the adjectival form of kyon, dog). Diogenes believed that society was corrupt and that social conventions were an expression of decadence. His vision of the good life involved purging oneself of all the bad influences one had inherited from society. Wisdom, in Diogenes’ view, lay in the rejection of social mores and the pursuit of a life of simplicity and reason, which is the only true way for human beings to live. Diogenes would deliver scathing moral sermons to the people who passed his barrel, which didn’t make him the most popular philosopher in town. Legend has it that when Alexander the Great asked what he could do for him, Diogenes replied: ‘Step out of my sun!’
It takes courage to look life in the eye and make it the best it can be. It takes resilience too. To walk a courageous path, one can be forced to abandon the creature comforts that one takes for granted. Fortunately, one of the benefits of philosophy is that it teaches us how to live with a minimum of comforts and possession. Diogenes demonstrated this to Alexander by rejecting his offer of help. The sun would suffice, Diogenes implied – this and the opportunity for honest reflection. In our age of ‘luxury fever’ and ostentatious wealth, we would do well to follow Diogenes’ example, and learn how to live with minimal possessions in peace and dignity.