Moral Courage: An Inquiry into the Hearts of Kings
By Andrew Groft
In a classic children’s story and recent Hollywood movie, four ordinary children entered a new world through an old wardrobe. Almost immediately upon entering this world, the powers of darkness, cold, chaos and disintegration felt the presence not of ordinary children, but of kings and queens. Who knows for sure what the author of the book meant to teach, if anything at all. But it’s interesting that these children were royal, not because of their family line or religious faith, but because they were part of the human family. Maybe the moral lesson was that there is really no such thing as “ordinary” people. Maybe the moral lesson was that royal blood runs through the veins of every human being, regardless of their bloodline, gender, race or creed.
But a discussion of moral lessons in a scholarly setting can feel uncomfortable—“ethical lessons” may be a better way to phrase it. Right?
When it comes to exemplary lives among the human family, one finds that no matter the country of origin, the gender or religious faith, men and women from all walks of life have it within them to inspire greatness in others and to move the cause of human liberty.
Fredrick Douglass was a slave who fought every instinct and every social convention to get an education, escape bondage, and speak tirelessly for equality of opportunity. Martin Luther could have lived a life of relative ease as a teacher and monk at the University of Wittenberg; instead he chose to stand for something—a choice that carried no promise of popularity and great promises of pain. Joan of Arc could have avoided arrows and flames, but she mustered the fortitude not just to do battle, but to do what she deeply felt to be the right thing. Harriet Tubman escaped to freedom in 1849 and might have found some safety and security in her new life in the north; but she chose to return to the south again and again, at great personal risk, to free others unjustly bound by slavery. Mahatma Gandhi was an educated attorney who saw humanity as more important than security, and he lived and died for it. Our list could go on with Ronald Reagan, Martin Luther King Jr., and others.
The American founding, although often seen today as passé, was full of examples of men and women who summoned the courage to stand for a better and more equitable humanity. George Washington, James Madison, Martha Washington, Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson are only a few of note. They were not of superior genetic makeup, but people like you and me who lived their fifty to eighty years or so and are now dead and gone. Their lives challenge the living to ask the questions, “What is moral courage? What does it have to do with me? And is it really powerful enough to create positive change in the world?”
An influential leader once said,
“Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today's world do not have. It is a weapon that we as Americans do have. Let that be understood by those who practice terrorism and prey upon their neighbors.”[i]
Knowing that terrorism has existed as a tactic of war for thousands of years, it is hard to tell who might have spoken these words. If this leader lived prior to the military use of gunpowder, we might compare the strength of moral courage with bows, arrows, catapults and broadswords. If he lived later, we might include muskets, cannons and crossbows, and wonder if moral courage could be that strong. But Ronald Reagan shared these words in 1981. Is moral courage really more formidable than cluster bombs, bunker busters and nuclear warheads? If so, we as humans ought to learn what moral courage is; what it has to do with the American Republic; what it has to do with kings; and what all of that has to do with you and me.
Etymology may be the best framework for shedding light on moral courage and a useful method for answering questions regarding its strength and applicability. Most would say that etymology is the study of word origins, and they would be right. But it is more than that. Etymology is the study of truth. It comes to us from the Greek etymos, meaning truth, and logia, meaning, the study of. Since truth comes to us in words, and since words are the conveyors of truth, today etymology means the study of word origins. And it is interesting to think that we might gain a greater understanding of truth by understanding the origin of words.
So we will consider the truth behind five words and the answers to five corresponding questions. We will do this for three reasons: to better understand our humanity; to bring kings back into their rightful places; and to save a declining America.
The five words are moral, ethical, courage, king and republic. Corresponding questions will be asked in sequence with each of these five words.
The word moral comes to us from the Latin mos[ii], roughly meaning the core characteristic of humanity. Mosre is a newer word meaning a return to that core humanity. A more is a deeply held human custom—likely named such because mores are customs thought to contribute to social stability. Add to these root words the suffix -alis or -al, both meaning of or pertaining to, and the Latin word moralis or moral comes to mean, of or pertaining to our core humanity[iii]. Another way of saying this is that a moral or moral lesson is something that brings us back to who we as a human race really are at our very core.
So moral is not necessarily a religious term, but good religion reminds us of it.
Note the distinction that we are speaking of good religion, not necessarily true religion. Frustrated in our inability to determine which religion is true, we have almost completely stopped asking which religions are good. But any student of human civilization understands that good religions remind adherents of the core elements of a shared humanity. In the same way, moral is not necessarily a philosophical or even a literary term, but good philosophy and good literature remind us of it. Today, when Zeno and the more extreme schools of stoicism suggest that pleasure is too dangerous and that humans ought to have little or none of it[iv], something doesn’t sit right. When Epicurus, or his followers, tell us that we are to have unlimited pleasure even at the price of wearing our lives away in raucousness[v], something still seems amiss. Buddha teaches of the middle way[vi], Aristotle the mean[vii], Poincaré the polymath, Shakespeare the playwright and Keats the poet[viii] all speak of this middle way that far from being mediocre feels almost like a human perfection worth striving for. Moral means human, and the human race might do well to seek out and promote churches, schools, literary circles, businesses and governments that promote our humanity through a not-necessarily-sectarian morality.
Whether or not the reader agrees with every particular of reasoning, the etymology of the word moral should reveal some truth. And the question that will be asked corresponding to the freshly defined word is: Can mankind act against his true nature and in so doing become something less than human? As with all five questions, the answers are worth considering and will be touched upon at the conclusion of this paper.
The second of our five words is ethical, and we can’t really delve into the truth behind either the words moral or ethical without looking at the Roman statesman Cicero. Cicero appeared on the world stage in a time when the Roman Republic was living out some of its final years[ix]. Before Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, before he was made Consul for life, even before the Republic became an empire, Cicero knew that the Republic was in trouble. He looked to the Greek learning just after their Golden Age and was impressed with their concept of ethykos or ethics. He wanted to share this concept of ethics with his Roman kinsmen in a way they would understand and readily adopt. So he studied the meaning of the Greek ethykos and rendered, for the very first time[x], the Latin word moralis. Where ethykos meant full of the likeness of the gods[xi], Cicero’s rendering meant, as was said before, full of the likeness of the core of our humanity. Maybe Cicero wanted to be more secular in his approach. Or, maybe the two definitions mean the same thing.
For whatever reason, Cicero equated our core humanity to a kind of godliness that might raise his people out of the dregs of apathy and dependence, to the moral heights needed to preserve a republican form of government. Neither the Greeks nor the Romans believed that men were gods, but maybe if Roman citizens could be reminded of this Greek ideal, they could save a dying Republic. Ethical, then, is the mother of the word moral, and the two words mean roughly the same thing. Both ethical and moral point us to a noble part of our humanity that promises to involve all mankind who choose to embrace it in the establishment of good government, sound business, strong community, and a strength and stability that might just rival the most formidable of weapons.
After looking closely at the word ethical, the corresponding question will be: What did Cicero see in Greek ethics that he felt needed to be taught to a Roman government and people in crisis?
Courage is our next word, and it comes from the Latin cor, meaning heart or divine center. This is an easy etymology as many have heard or said things like, “I feel that in my core.” The French coeur also means heart. Add to this root the Old French –age which means the same as –al, and courage comes to mean, of or pertaining to the heart. It is often explained as the ability to act in the face of fear[xii].
But is acting in the face of fear always a good thing? Doesn’t it take courage to rob a home or assault a rival? Isn’t it courage that empowers men to kill, rape and destroy? So courage must seek qualification from another word that will empower mankind to act for the preservation and strengthening of humanity. Courage must be qualified by a word that inspires in men and women the fortitude to stand for their true selves. So the question that corresponds with this third word is: What happens to the meaning of the word courage when it is qualified as moral courage?
The fourth word is king, and it is surprising how few understand the significance of this word in relation, not only to our humanity, but also to the republic in which we live. King comes from the Hebrew gen, meaning life, or the origin of life. This, too, is an easy etymology because so many have heard the words generation, genesis, genealogy, genetics and even general, which means, of or pertaining to the whole, not confined to specific parts. In later Hebrew, Indo-European and even Germanic and Anglo-Saxon cultures, gen became kin[xiii], and means life and family. You are my next of kin. He sought to find his kinsmen. These chairs are the same kind. Even, please be kind to me. All these phrases refer to life and/or family. Add to kin the suffix –ing which gives action to words, and kinning means giving, preserving and protecting life, family and ultimately humanity.
The verb kinning[xiv] became the noun king when certain individuals were seen by their tribes as being the chief life-giver and protector. Sometimes this happened because individuals were, indeed, the grand -father or -mother of the tribe. Other times the title was bestowed upon the bravest warrior who proved to be a great life protector in battle[xv]. A king, then, is a man or a woman who gives and protects life. By adding the feminine symbol V or U[xvi] to king, the word evolves to kuing, kuin and finally queen[xvii].
It is easy to see how this institution could be abused and used as a way to keep a people in a sort of parental bondage. When ancient families grew larger, merged with other tribes, conquered other families or were themselves conquered, the question “who will be king among us” created outsiders and second-class citizens. Kings would then use all of their power to maintain their royal line. By fear or gifts, kings would keep their people in a state of childlike dependence. The kings would be like parents or grandparents if, like them, they sought to raise every citizen to adulthood and kingship. On the contrary, history’s kings usually sought to keep their people in perpetual childhood. They reserved the title of life-giver to themselves and stole it from every father and mother of their realm[xviii]. These kings, with intentions good or ill, promised, like a father, to provide and protect. Ultimately, they would provide for every need as long as their “children”, or the people of their realm, would honor them and remain loyal to their authority.
The king and queen is a fundamental family form that entered into the state mistakenly or as a means to power. Kings are life givers and life protectors—male and/or female. The question coupled to this word is: If a king is a giver and protector of life, were the monarchs of history imposters? A secondary question might be: What is the proper governmental form most suited to our core humanity? And, are there differing “best” forms for family and state?
The fifth and final word is republic. And it is political science 101 that gives us what is supposedly the truth behind this word. Like the word moral, it was Cicero who reintroduced this word into the minds of his Roman countrymen using the two parts res and publica to remind them that their government was the people’s thing, or that it was a government of the people. This is a critical component of proper government, but what kind of people? Did the word refer to people that possess ethical and moral courage, or mere animals that walk upright?
Cicero wrote of res publica nearly 450 years after the first Roman republic was established. Only two hundred years after its founding, the Romans—a small nation of farmers, fishers, herdsmen and merchants—were ruled over by Etruscan kings from the north. In 509 BCE, Brutus, Publius Valerius, and many other Romans threw off their Etruscan kings and established something new[xix]. Suppose they declared that instead of being ruled over by kings, all Roman citizens would themselves be kings, and would participate in government as they gave and protected life in their families. Suppose the first rendering of this new government wasn’t res publica at all, but rex publicus, or simply rex publica. This rendering would not only remind them that the new government was the thing of the people, but that it was the thing of the life-givers and protectors in each and every home. Fathers and mothers who lived up to their truest and most noble humanity would have a say through direct representation in the halls of state.
The new form of government would work: if instead of one king, or a few kings, all citizens would live up to their kingly responsibilities in their homes, and participate as citizens in the state; if all citizens saw giving and protecting life as their moral virtue (or that which they were born to do); if they were educated like kings, financially sound like kings, hard working like kings, independent, and filled with moral courage. These were some of the characteristics of true kings. And if the people of Rome could embrace them, not a limited class, but all of the citizens, then their republic might work.
What if a new and more accurate etymology came from rex, meaning king, and publicus or publica meaning people? Rexpublica or republic would then mean that the people are kings. And a republican form of government would be a system of government where all or at least most of the citizens were living up to their humanity as kings and queens within their homes, rearing their children to true adulthood, and participating in the workings of the state directly or indirectly through representation. If maintaining a republic is a great task that has rarely been done in the annals of humanity, then what is the significance of moral courage in a republic? This becomes our last, and maybe most important question.
Can mankind act against his true nature, and in so doing become—or start to become—something less than human? Is the able and intelligent woman who sits on the couch like a vegetable, neglecting family, community, church, education, business and state really a woman? Does the man who unfairly uses his fellow human beings for his own physical gratification, and who allows the lusts of his heart to rule over him exhibiting traits of humanity or animalism? More than the rock, more than the vegetable or beast, we are humans who have the power not only to eat, drink, have sex, protect ourselves and fulfill physical gratification, but to give and protect life, and to promote humanity[xx] through our multi-denominational, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic humanity.
What did Cicero see in Greek ethics that he felt needed to be taught to a Roman government and people in crisis? A closer read of Cicero, Livy, Plutarch and others including Tacitus and Gibbon might surprise the reader who learns that many of the problems that lead to the collapse of the Roman republic between 100 BCE and 180 CE are shared by the American republic of 2007. A superman national pride, a feeling of infallibility, selfishness, a morality based on an ever-more-complicated legal code, complacency in the home and apathy in their responsibilities as citizens were only a few of the elements of crisis that lead Cicero to preach ethykos and moralis.
What happens to the meaning of the word courage when it is qualified as moral courage? What happens when people understand that it is not just the fortitude to act in the face of fear, but to act for a better humanity? Being who we were born to be has never been easy because we rarely take the time to ask it as a question. And even when we do, we, like animals, have a hard time seeing beyond ourselves. The fortitude to lose your hard-won job because you refuse to participate in immoral or unethical business practices is moral courage. The strength to humanely and rationally speak against racism and bigotry, even at the cost of offending your most endeared friends, might prove to be more difficult even than engaging in the horrors of war—and maybe more effective at establishing peace, too.
If a king is a giver and protector of life, were the monarchs of history impostors? Did they know what they were doing when they sought to keep the masses in perpetual childhood? Or were they just part of a system that they mistakenly believed to be good for humanity? It is difficult to shed from our minds the deceiving physical symbols of golden crowns and scepters, and see the real kings and queens in our communities. It is not easy, though essential, that we change our perceptions to see ourselves not as individuals meant to rule over others, nor to be ruled over by others, but as life-givers, life-enhancers, and life protectors who strive for the education, financial stability, work ethic, independence and moral courage of true kings and queens.
What is the significance of moral courage in a republic? Everything.
Republics don’t last unless a bulk of the people embrace the deepest core of their humanity. Republics last when the people are not only trained in useful arts, but educated like kings and queens who have the ability to take their turn at the helm of government, or at least who know how to check a runaway government without depending on an inner-ring class of elites who “know”. Moral courage is the substance by which men and women qualify themselves for the duties, rights, privileges and benefits of a republic. Without it, history provides numerous examples of supposedly enlightened parent-rulers, and dependant, cowering children who must be kept in an almost constant state of war, or turn on their leaders in the mad fury of civil revolution.
The words moral, ethical, courage, king and republic ought to mean more now than they did an hour ago. With five words and five questions, do we better understand our humanity? Can we bring kings back into their rightful places? Are we more equipped now to do our part to save a declining America?
Bringing kings back into their rightful places and saving a declining America must happen chronologically—the one before the other. When homes are seen as the proper place for kingdoms, not the state, and when parents begin acting like the true kings and queens that their humanity requires, then America will begin to see the long-term results in the form of greater strength, security and personal liberty. And it is critical that the true nature of kings and queens are adopted and embraced over the false props that have characterized state-kings struggling to maintain power over others. When we bring kings back to their rightful places, active citizens will begin living for each other, and promoting strong but limited government as a way to preserve liberty. Moral courage drifts into the realm of platitudes except when the people start to recognize their core humanity, and live true to it. We must cultivate the moral courage to stand against those things antithetical to our moral selves, even at the cost of material well-being, popularity and security.
Edward Everett was a historian, University President, Governor, Secretary of State under President Fillmore, Senator and one of the greatest orators of his day. In a speech given at a 50th Anniversary Celebration of American Independence (1825), Mr. Everett echoed the power of moral courage. He said of the American Founders as a group:
“It is by champions like these that the great principles of representative government, of chartered rights and constitutional liberty are to be discussed; and surely never in the annals of national controversy was exhibited a triumph so complete of the seemingly weaker party, a rout so disastrous of the stronger. Often as it has been repeated, it will bear another repetition; it never ought to be omitted in the history of constitutional liberty; it ought especially to be repeated this day; the various addresses, petitions, and appeals, the correspondence, the resolutions, the legislative and popular debates, from 1764 to the Declaration of Independence, present a maturity of political wisdom, a strength of argument, a gravity of style, a manly eloquence, and a moral courage, of which unquestionably the modern world affords no other example.”[xxi] (emphasis added)
Could it be that we were all born to be kings? Not to rule over others, but to give, promote and protect life and freedom? Could it be that our American Republic depends on kingly hearts and moral courage? Not just acting in the face of fear, but standing for our true humanity? It is clear that America will find the security and the freedom she deserves as the masses learn to live up to their God-given callings as members of a rex publica. So many of the American founding fathers and mothers did it. Others of every time, ethnicity, gender, and religious faith did it. History and literature may never know them all, but the question is, will they know you?
Possibly what C.S. Lewis and so many other philosophers, writers, poets, prophets and statesmen have tried to tell us is that there is just no such thing as an ordinary person—only men and women who were born to possess or who are striving to possess moral courage and the hearts of kings. PrintShare this article with a Friend
Andrew Groft was awarded his Doctor of Education Degree from George Wythe College in 2001. Dr. Groft has taught and consulted for the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, Tennessee School for the Deaf and Blind, George Wythe College, Southern Utah University, Iron County Public Schools, and several schools, businesses and governmental forums throughout the Western United States, Europe and Eastern Africa. He has served on several business and academic boards. Andrew, his wife Leslie and their four children reside in Cedar City, Utah.
Photo of Mother Teresa: Personal picture taken in India by Evert Odekerken.
[i] Waldman, Michael ed. My Fellow American. Naperville, Illinois: Coursebooks, Inc., 2003. 245-251.
[ii] A Latin Dictionary.s.v. "mos," by Charlton T. Lewis & Charles Short.
[iii] A Latin Dictionary.s.v. "mos," by Charlton T. Lewis & Charles Short. "Mos: A measuring or guiding rule of life." 1167.
[iv] Epictetus. Great Books. Edited by Mortimer J. Adler. Vol. 11, Lucretius, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Plotinus. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1990. 192-198.
The Enchiridion, Epictetus. Elizabeth Carter transl. Website. http://www.classics.mit.edu. Internet accessed 8 May 2007.
[v] Epicurus. Letter to Menoeseus. 128-129. Quoted in Long, A.A. Hellenistic Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics, 62. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986.
Long, A. A. Hellenistic Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986. 96.
[vi] Buddha. Quoted in James Fieser and John Powers Scriptures of the World's Religions 83. New York: McGraw Hills, 2004.
[vii] Aristotle. The Complete Works of Aristotle. Edited by Jonathan Barnes. Vol. 1, Nicomacean Ethics. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995. 1748.
[viii] "…but for harmony beautiful to contemplate, science would not be worth following."— Henri Poincaré Weissglass, Julian. Exploring Elementary Mathematics: A Small-Group Approach for Teaching. Series of books in the mathematical sciences. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1979. The poet John Keats, in his Ode on a Grecian Urn, put it this way:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” John Keats, Ode to a Grecian Urn, ed. Cerf and Klopfer. New York: The Modern Library, 1952. Section v. p 185. “To be or not to be” Hamlet 3.1.64-72
[ix] Matyszak, Philip. Chronicle of the Roman Republic. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003. 145.
Dudley, Donald R. The Civilization of Rome. New York: The New American Library, 1962. 85.
Rostovtzeff, R. Rome. London: Oxford University Press, 1968. 126.
[x] Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology s.v. "moral" by C.T. Onions
[xi] The Pocket Oxford Greek Dictionary s.v. "ethic" by J. T. Pring
[xii] The Oxford English Dictionary s.v. "courage" by J.A. Simpson and E.S.C. Weiner
[xiii] A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages s.v. "kin" by Karl Darling Buck
A Handbook of Germanic Etymology s.v. "kinanan" by Vladimir Orel
[xiv] There is such a word and it’s found under the etymology of king but it has one n instead of two
[xv] http://mshistory.k12.ms.us/features/feature18/pushmataha.html (website for Pushmataha)
[xvi] The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology s.v. "queen"
[xvii] The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology s.v. "queen" and "king"
[xviii] Fichte, Johann Gottlieb. Addresses to the German Nation.Trans. R.F. Jones & G.H. Turnbull. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1922. 136-138, 143-145.
[xix] Matyszak, Philip. Chronicle of the Roman Republic. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003. 15-46.
Plutarch's Lives. Vol. 1. Edited by Arthur Hugh Clough. Translated by Dryden. New York: The Modern Library, 2001. 129-143.
[xx] Maslow, Abraham H. Motivation and Personality. New York:Harper Collins, 1987. 56-61.
[xxi] Edward Everett, "The Issue in the Revolution" Fiftieth Anniversary of American Independence Gathering,1825. Cambridge, MA.