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A History of the Concept of Cowardice

Kyle Williams, PhD student at Rutgers, has written a fascinating book review of Chris Walsh’s Cowardice: A Brief History over at Boston Review. As Mr. Williams explains, the concept of cowardice has an rich history in Western literature and thought, starting at least with the Bible, holding a significant place in the Middle Ages, and retaining a strong moral influence into the early American Republic and even the Civil War.

Mr. Williams citation of the pre-Princetonian Samuel Davies struck me as particularly interesting:

One of Walsh’s achievements is to reintroduce us to an earlier time in American history when the epithet had a common currency and circulated quickly in times of fear and war. During the Seven Years’ War, Samuel Davies, a minister, hymn-writer, and president of the College of New Jersey, delivered a sermon to recruit volunteers for the war effort called The Curse of Cowardice. His text was Jeremiah 48:10: “Cursed be he that doth the work of the lord deceitfully; and cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood.” As an evangelical and veteran New Light of the Great Awakening, Davies was skillful in stirring the emotions of his listeners and readers. He brought the far-off threat of enemies and the abstract concept of duty near. His sermon was a “denunciation,” he said, “like the artillery of heaven” meant for the coward who refuses to obey God when he “in the course of his Providence, calls him to arms.”But Davies would not leave the matter simply with those who refused the call. He enumerated the many and various ways a coward could fail in his duty: by fighting without “Vigour,” by not volunteering and going cheerfully, by not making the war effort fully personal. Davies’s Puritan cunning issued in a precise exegesis of cowardice. For him, the outward show of duty was insufficient. It must be inwardly accepted. And duty could not legitimately be deferred; it must be personally appropriated. “Great Britain, I own is interested in our protection,” he implored, “but can she be as much interested as ourselves?”

And yet this concept of cowardice as failing to fulfill one’s duty has been all but lost in the modern day. Mr. Williams explains that this is in part due to the changing strategic value of “courage” in a military context:

In modern warfare, then, the charge of cowardice came to serve less of a purpose. By World War II, the U.S. military turned from an outmoded system of punishment to a therapeutic treatment of fear. Tolerance was encouraged among the troops. One pamphlet read: “Have you been hiding some very dark thoughts about yourself? Have you called yourself a coward?” Language inside and outside the military changed from carrying moralistic tones to psychological ones. Succumbing to fear or depression came to be seen less often as a failure than as an experience of battle fatigue or shell shock. And while figures such as George S. Patton would take up the banner of martial vigor, the tide had turned. The U.S. military executed only one soldier for desertion in World War II and has not done so again since.

But Mr. Williams goes on to explain that the change was more than just semantic or limited to one aspect of American society (the military). The change was bound up in the larger moral and philosophical revolution:

This change can be understood by the materialism of warfare (those modern methods and foreign sites of battle) but the cultural context is also important and sheds light on broader societal trends. Increasingly the language of duty and vocation had less purchase on the imaginations of Americans. In its place came the language of individual rights: a liberalism of the individual eclipsed a republicanism of the community and the state. There was also the triumph of a therapeutic worldview that rendered older, moralistic vocabularies less useful. Not all at once, in fits and starts at first and finally with the regularity of consensus, institutions gave way that might bind and loose the conscience with the burdens of duty and the threat of stigma and punishment.

Indeed, this point becomes Mr. Williams basic platform for criticizing Walsh’s proposal. It is not enough to recover a word or a rhetorical style, Mr. Williams states. One must actually push back further to the moral and philosophical foundation:

Walsh laments this semantic shift and urges a return to older and everyday notions of cowardice. He notes that just because the term has been abused does not mean that it cannot be used rightly. “It pushes us to ponder seriously what we should do, how we should act, and what it is we’re so afraid of.” He argues for the thoughtful invocation of cowardice not just in extreme situations of danger, but also in common life where expectations and responsibility call us to account.

Though Walsh is right to say that cowardice can be a useful category for thinking about personal obligations, I am skeptical of the recovery program he recommends. Shorn of a thick moral grammar that steadies and constrains it, the rhetoric of cowardice—and the fear of being called cowardly it elicits—has a tendency to goad violence and the assertion of power pure and simple. Perhaps that is one reason we have seen its renaissance in conversations about national security. At the end of the Cold War, neoconservatives such as Robert Kagan and William Kristol became increasingly vocal about the ideal of a New American Century, arguing that a failure to assume global leadership would be a mark of cowardice. Today the habitually bellicose Senator John McCain and others like him often draw from such language in support of intervention in Ukraine or elsewhere.

On the other hand, a more humble and everyday deployment of cowardice can scarcely be imagined without envisioning the moral communities in which it might take place. It would happen within the lives of individuals, families, and civil society, unambitiously and mundanely where institutions and judgments were held in common. It would happen in a place, for example, where a minister such as Samuel Davies could ascend a pulpit and deliver binding moral sentiments. It is precisely that coercive morality that made older uses of cowardice intelligible. And to recover that use of cowardice would be a recovery not just of language but of a different way of life.

Mr. Williams has given us a great introduction to Chris Walsh’s book, and that book has itself helped us to start a very important conversation. The review has successfully whet my appetite to check out the book and its thesis in more detail. And our sympathies are most certainly with those concluding thoughts of Williams. To recover a meaningful sense of “cowardice,” we will first need to recover a meaningful sense of “duty” and what it means for a person to have a duty. That will in turn require us to re-examine what it means to be human, and what, in the older language, it was to have an natural end.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.