Small Wars Journal

Courage and Self-Reliance - The Essential Virtues

Mon, 10/15/2018 - 12:33am

Courage and Self-Reliance - The Essential Virtues

Franklin C. Annis

Long I have searched for the true virtues of manhood. While there are a tremendous number of philosophies that provide countless list of virtues to follow, like Benjamin Franklin’s thirteen virtues or Aristotle’s Ethics, I wanted to find those at the very heart of manhood. What are the virtues that a man cannot dare to live without? Let us strip the flesh from the bone and find the virtues are the very marrow of manhood. What are the virtues that could see a man through combat, pull him out of poverty, and ensure success in a board room?

Virtue is Action

The first assertion we must acknowledge when discussing virtues is that virtues are only manifest in action.  “Thinking” or “intending well” is not a virtue. You can “hope” all you want but unless you are willing to act, you cannot exercise virtue.  Given the absolute requirement for action, I began with these questions: Is there one virtue that enables action? Is there a cornerstone virtue that all other virtues could be built upon? The answers are yes, and that virtue is courage. For without the courage to act, there is no virtue. For this reason, courage must surely be the foundational virtue.


Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality. – C.S. Lewis

One of the most influential military strategist and 19th century Prussian General Carl Von Clausewitz wrote, “[C]ourage, above all things, is the first quality of a warrior”. He further subdivided the concept of courage into physical courage, the ability to handle life-threatening situations, and moral courage, the ability to do one’s responsibilities. Certainly, both these traits are required to experience the fulfillment of manhood. Men must possess the ability to continue acting even in time of sever physical danger being either that of combat or some other emergency.

Courage is rightly esteemed the first human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others. – Winston Churchill

Surely, none of use would apply the heroic aspect of the term “man” to an individual that froze in the face of danger. Moral courage, the ability to fulfills one responsibilities to our own conscience or an outside authority, is the rarest form of courage. While men might become accustom to physical threats, finding an individual capable of raising to challenge of living up to the fullness of their own conscience is far rarer. Clausewitz claimed that the combination of physical courage and moral courage formed “the most perfect kind of courage.” For what could possibly stand in the way of a man that had the courage to face the threats of the battlefield and fulfill the obligations of his responsibilities to his community and self? This is a man that would speak the truth and act in accordance with his conscience regardless of the threats in front of him.


It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude – Ralph Waldo Emerson

If we are to assert that courage is the greatest of the virtues because it allows for the action required for all virtues, it would follow that self-reliance would be the next greatest virtue. This is because self-reliance holds the primacy of action at the individual level. Self-reliance is the attempt to depend on oneself in various aspects of life. This includes living in accordance to one’s own conscience. Clausewitz claimed that, “Self-reliance is the best defense against the pressure of the moment.” The best soldiers are either displaying courage in actively attacking the enemy or engaging in self-reliance to improve their current condition.

When it comes to defining the virtue of self-reliance, the American Transcendentalist philosophers are unmatched. For those of you that have not read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance”, I would highly encourage you to do so. It will be hour well-spent and one that will likely change your life. Emerson claimed that society constantly conspired against manhood. At every moment, individuals feel the pressures to adapt to the norms and wishes of society. This removes us from our true nature and prevents us for reaching the pinnacle of our capabilities.

 Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the design of ambition. – Thomas Jefferson

This is not to assert that you could truly do everything by yourself or you should separate yourself from the community. However, this is a challenge for you to live as a true example of manhood; A man that stands for what he believes, speaks the truth as he knows it, and is not forced by society to conform to anything not in his nature. The more self-reliant we become in meeting our own needs, the more we will grow in our freedom to reject the pressures of the outside world. For this reason, self-reliance is truly a critical virtue for manhood.

Essential Virtues

While you might be expecting further virtues, the list comes to a hard stop here. Courage and self-reliance are the two virtues that will always represent the best of masculinity in all situations and should be carried by all men. While other philosophies might list several other virtues, I would suggest they are either not critical to manhood or could be found through the application of these two virtues.

Welcome evermore to gods and men is the self-helping man. For him all doors are flung wide: him all tongues greet, all honors crown, all eyes follow with desire. Our love goes out to him and embraces him, because he did not need it. We solicitously and apologetically caress and celebrate him, because he held on his way and scorned our disapprobation. The gods love him because men hated him. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

The immortal William Shakespeare wrote in his play Henry V, "In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man, as modest stillness and humility; But when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger." As any veteran will tell you, war is a fundamentally immoral activity. While there are a number of virtues that bring great character and depth to a man, it is courage and self-reliance that a man  should not live without. Sometimes a man in the most extreme situations must abandon all other virtues to ensure survival and these two virtues alone can see a man through combat and poverty alike. In war you either are engaging the enemy or improving your fighting position. In poverty, you are either laboring in the face of ridicule or engaging in self-reliance to gain the skills, knowledge, education, or resources that will allow you to climb out of your impoverished situation. And in the board room, these virtues will allow you to truly be an innovator and "great man" as you will have the courage to dream big and the self-reliance to trust your own instincts.

In times of peace and excess, these two virtues will lead a man to follow his true nature and thus other virtuous actions will flow through him. But unlike having a list of expected behaviors, like "giving money to charity", a self-reliant man will evaluate the situation and determine its true nature. He does not act because it is an expectation but only acts if he deems the action to be correct. While other might expect acts of charity, if these acts compromise the self-reliance or manhood of another individual it surely could not be considered a virtue. So instead of writing checks to charity foundations whose programs might perpetuate poverty, you might find the man invested with courage and self-reliance helping first-hand to invest these virtues in less successful members of society. So follows with all the other traditional virtues, each being examined and only exercised if they do not compromise these principle virtues of manhood.


The “American Dream” of having a house and a white pitched fence is a lie. It was never about materialism. The true American Dream as envisioned by the Transcendentalists were men that embodied the virtues of courage and self-reliance. These would be men that would ask the world for nothing other than to be left in peace to follow their dreams and build upon their greatness; Even if it meant being misunderstood. It is time for a new generation of men to return to these manly virtues and embrace the power that lies within us all. Let us be men among men that exercise the virtues of courage and self-reliance regardless of the fate we find ourselves in. And tomorrow we can forge a grander future.

About the Author(s)

Franklin C. Annis holds a Doctorate in Education (EdD) from Northcentral University. He created the “Evolving Warfighter” YouTube channel to share his research on Military Self-Development. Dr. Annis is a veteran of Operational Iraqi Freedom.

The views presented in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Defense or its components.