Of Cowardice And Magnanimity

The philosopher and naturalist Theophrastus of Eresos succeeded Aristotle as head of the Peripatetic school; and while he may not have had his predecessor’s visionary profundity, he more than compensated for this with a genial manner, relentless curiosity, and a genius for organization.  Like the Prussian naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt, there was nothing in the heavens or on the earth that escaped his attention; and his exhaustive botanical treatise, the Historia Plantarum (Study of Plants) remained an authority in the field until well beyond the medieval period.

Like many ancient writers, he paid much attention to moral philosophy.  He knew that the foundation for productive achievement was character and the study of virtue; and he was able to judge men with the same acuity and precision that a scientist might dissect a sun-beam with a well-situated prism.  His friend Callisthenes, a historian who accompanied Alexander of Macedon on his expeditions to the East, had a falling out with Alexander and found himself in one of the conqueror’s dungeons.  His death followed soon after, a result of Alexander’s apathy or cruelty.  Theophrastus later composed a book to honor his friend.  He observed that Callisthenes had come under the influence of a man who enjoyed both unlimited power and good fortune, yet who was someone who did not know how to use these gifts for proper ends.  (I cannot help relating a mischievous and unwarranted remark by Cicero here, however:  he said (Tusc. Disp. III.10) that Theophrastus was not so much regretting his friend’s death as he was  expressing envy at Alexander’s achievements).

But to continue with our subject.  One of Theophrastus’s compositions was a collection of personality profiles called Characters.  It may have been part of a larger treatise on moral philosophy that has not come down to us.  He describes the typical traits of thirty personalities; his observations are razor-sharp, and show a worldly psychological insight we do not expect to find in a scientist.  Let us consider what he says about a cowardly man.  I quote him in full below:

Cowardice is a certain shrinking of the heart.  A coward is a man who, as he sails along, imagines that the cliffs in the distance are pirate ships; if the waves are high, he asks if there’s anybody in the ship ‘s company who has not been initiated into the mysteries [i.e., rites to receive divine protection during dangers].  He bends over toward the helmsman and inquires whether he intends to keep to the high sea, and what he thinks of the weather; and to his companion says that he is in terror in consequence of a dream he has had; and he takes off his tunic and gives it to his slave, and begs to be set on shore.  In a campaign, when the infantry march forth, he bids his comrades stand by him and look sharp, urging the importance of finding out whether yonder object be the foe or not.

When he hears the sound of battle, and sees men fall, he says to those about him that, in his haste, he has forgotten to take his sword; then he runs back to his tent, sends his servant out and bids him see where the enemy are; meanwhile he hides his weapon under his pillow, and then wastes a long time hunting for it. While in his tent, seeing one of his companions brought wounded from the field, he runs out, bids the fellow “Cheer up!” and lends a hand to carry the stretcher.  And then he stays to tend the sufferer, washes his wounds, and sits by his side driving away the flies—anything but fight the enemy.  When the trumpeter sounds the signal for a fresh onset, he exclaims as he sits in his tent: “Plague take him!  He won’t let the poor fellow get to sleep with his eternal bugling.”  Then, staining himself with blood from the other’s wound, he meets the troops as they return from battle, and pretending to have been in the thick of the fight, he exclaims, “I’ve saved a comrade!” And then he takes his demesmen [a member of the same Greek township] and tribesmen into the tent, and assures each one of them that he himself brought the wounded man to the tent with his own hands. [1]

Who can doubt, after reading this, that this craven, abject personality type abounds in contemporary society?  Now when I use the word abject, I do so with a specific intention.  The word is derived from the Latin verb iacio, to throw down, combined with the preposition ab.  A person who is abject is one who literally prostrates himself on the ground in fear.  Do we not see these types every day in the media, in politics, in public offices, at work, and at play?  Is there anything so ignoble, so destitute of any potential for honors and glory, than the cowardly personality?  And yet this seems to be the type that finds not just ready acceptance among us today, but even praise; for the sanctimonious coward flourishes in environments where he can hide.  He does not wish to be tested, under any circumstances.  He does not want to be exposed.  He wants to bury himself in large organizations, behind layers of protective screens, and tell others what they must do, while he himself remains safely unaffected by the results of his decisions.

The fact that cowardice is so commonplace makes the value of its opposite, courage, that much more precious.  But it seems clear to me that this word has lost some of its resonance as a result of too frequent use.  Those whom the media extol as “courageous” are often not very courageous:  courage has become conflated with following the approved line, with adopting the official position.  Real courage has something more; to it is grafted a certain something, a certain element that can only be described with Cicero’s phrase “greatness of soul” (magnitude animi), a phrase I have often discussed in other places, particularly in reference to Cicero’s On Moral Ends and On Duties.  Examples of this quality can readily be found, if we know what to look for.  Greatness of soul is an embracing magnanimity, a lofty spirit that looks down on the base things of this world, and seeks an unconscious, quasi-communion with the divine.  Greatness of soul is that inexpressible halo surrounding the great man, which both protects him from corruption, and enables him to persevere despite all obstacles placed in his path by Fortune.

An example of this I found recently in the rich history of Al-Andalus.  Yusuf Ibn Tashfin (يوسف بن تاشفين) was a leader of the Berber Almoravid kingdom, and he ruled from about 1060 to 1106.  Early in his reign, he acquired a reputation as both an honorable man and a formidable fighter.  His biographer, Ibn Khallikan, says that the other Muslim rulers of Andalus began to fear him; and they were worried that he might cross into Spain from northern Africa to make war on them.  When the discovered that he had already formed an intention to cross into Spain, the other Andalusian potentates had a letter drafted to him that ran thus:

If you let us alone, your conduct will be attributed, not to weakness but to generosity, and if we obey your orders, our conduct will be attributed, not to helplessness but to prudence.  We therefore prefer the attribution which is the more honorable for ourselves, hoping that you will prefer the attribution which is the more honorable for you.  The place which you hold is one in which you should not let yourself be surpassed in noble acts; by sparing us who are members of distinguished families, you will obtain for the duration and the stability of your power all that you can wish for.  Salutation!  [Biog. Dict. IV.451]

Ibn Tashfin had this letter read to him (for he was not proficient in Arabic), and took its contents under advisement.  His secretary expressed his approval of the tone of the letter.  It was neither craven nor desperate.  The Andalusian leaders did not want trouble, and they were prepared to look on Ibn Tashfin as a friend and guardian.  According to Ibn Khallikan, this aide of Ibn Tashfin then went on to give the following advice to his master.  I suspect that it was written by the biographer as a rhetorical buttress to his story, just as the ancient historians liked to put brilliant speeches into the mouths of their protagonists.  In any case, it is a sublime and wonderful sequence of sentiments, artfully expressed:

Sire, the crown of royalty and its beauty have a testimony in their favor which cannot be repelled, provided that he into whose hands the kingdom has fallen prove himself worthy of it by pardoning when pardon is asked and by granting favors when favors are requested.  Every time that he bestows an ample gift, he increases his influence; increase of influence consolidates his dominion, and when his dominion is consolidated, people think it an honor to obey him; when obedience is felt to be an honor, the people come unto him, and he is not obliged to encounter fatigues for the purpose of reaching them, and he thus inherits the kingdom without ruining his happiness in the next life.  Know that it was said by a great king, who was a sage well acquainted with the means by which royalty is to be attained:  He who bestows may command; he who commands may lead, and he who leads an army becomes master of the land.

This passage is a masterful piece of advice for any leader in any circumstance, and ought to be studied carefully.  Ibn Tashfin agreed with this counsel and asked his secretary to draft a response to the Andalusian leaders, which he then dictated.  It ran thus:

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, From Ibn Tashfin, greeting, with the mercy of God and his benedictions!  Such is the good wish of one who is in peace with you and salutes you.  May God’s decree respecting you be that of aid and assistance!  You have full power to enjoy as you please the royalty which is in your hands, being specially honored with our favor and our benevolence.  As long as you hold to your engagements towards us, we shall hold to ours towards you; that we may live in good brotherhood with yon, you must live in good brotherhood with us.  May God dispense his grace to us and to you!  Salutation!

This warm and dignified letter was sent in response to the Andalusian leaders, along with a gift of “Lamtian shields,” a prized kind of shield that was made only in Morocco in a small town called Lamta (in Ulterior Sus).  When the leaders received this letter, they were relieved and grateful that Ibn Tashfin had shown himself to be a just man, possessed of magnanimity and grace.  “It was thus that Yusuf [Ibn Tashfin],” says the biographer Ibn Khallikan, “by the good management of his secretary, obtained what he wished for, namely, the goodwill of the people of Andalus.”  So it was that greatness of spirit contributed to the promotion of healthy relations and mutual amity.


[1] Trans. by C.E. Bennet & W.A. Hammond.




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