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THE MYSTERY OF COURAGE by William Ian Miller


by William Ian Miller

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-674-00307-1
Publisher: Harvard Univ.

Michigan law professor Miller (The Anatomy of Disgust, 1997, etc.) continues his Sue Grafton–like progress through the catalogue of human attributes.

Acknowledging that “courage is no easy virtue to get a grip on,” Miller nonetheless charges fearlessly ahead in this entertaining, troubling, and fluid meditation on what he calls “the most frequent theme of all world literature.” Miller focuses principally on the military variety, for “no theory of courage can ignore war or the experience of fighting, without being hollow at its core.” Miller analyzes the memoirs of soldiers, the musings of martial philosophers, and even war poems and novels to illuminate his themes. We hear a variety of opinions, from philosophers Plato, Socrates (Miller describes his little-known military exploits), and Aristotle; from Icelandic sagas (which, Miller claims, contain only 128 similes throughout); from such Civil War authors and soldiers as Abner Small and U.S. Grant; and from Vietnam veterans Tim O’Brien and Philip Caputo. Mike Tyson, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., and Edith Wharton are among the many who make cameos. Throughout, the author continually admits that his subject is daunting in its complexity; sometimes he states this explicitly, but more often he reveals it stylistically in his tendency to ask questions rather than make statements (e.g., “Could it be that the human capacity for courage is ineffably tied to the limits of our bodily powers?”). Miller defends less secure ground (as he admits himself) when he writes about the courage of women and about moral (rather than physical) courage: he concludes his comments about women in the military by declaring that they “will have made it” when they can be court-martialed “for cowardly conduct,” and he avers (a bit patronizingly) that moral courage is only “nearly as sublime” as “physical bravery.”

Well-researched and gracefully written, but ultimately both tenuous and tentative.