In our previous article in this series, we discussed cowardice, perhaps the most famous distortion of a cardinal virtue. On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have another distortion which has a great tendency to be confused with the virtue of fortitude itself: recklessness or rashness.
This excess of courage is something which is often confused with the virtue itself because it always appears as great or spirited courage. The reckless man may even succeed in his endeavor started with foolish motivations or uncontrollable energies.
However, when we dig deeper into the motivation and heart of the matter, we will find that like all other excesses of virtue, recklessness is another missed mark on the path to the cultivation of noble virtue.
Not only is the reckless often confused with outward courage, but it bears striking resemblance to the impulsive, a distortion of prudence, which we discussed a few weeks back. So similar are these too distortions of virtue that recklessness and impulsiveness are often used interchangeably in our modern lexicon. When we compare recklessness with the two general behaviors behind the impulsive (lack of willpower and lack of wisdom) though, we do find that the reckless does not often meet either criteria – instead, being described by a handful of adjectives wholly unique to the realm of courage and its excesses and deficiencies.
The confusion about the reckless man is furthered due to these very adjectives which will differ in severity based on the perception of the person describing the action. A reckless man may draw praise for his perceived boldness or ire for his suicidal tenacity. He may find himself the hero in songs and odes, yet the man who simultaneously condemned his men to a needless death (Roland is a wonderful tragic hero in this regard, which makes his story so much more fascinating and worthwhile to read).
But we also have examples such as the famed (and perhaps fabled?) Horatius at the bridge or the northern equivalent of the giant Dane who singlehandedly held up the English army at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Were those men reckless? They certainly put their lives on the line for a greater cause and the preservation of their city (in the case of Horatius) or their battle-brothers (in the case of the Norseman). These noble deeds were also microcosmic last stands, for they prolonged the war – or in the case of Stamford Bridge, merely enabled a slaughter to turn into a battle. It is hard to call these acts anything but courage, yet our modern, fragmented view of character and virtue will see these men as “toxic”. Perhaps they should have hugged it out at their respective bridges.
It is thus difficult to come up with an accurate set of descriptors for this excess of courage without potentially tarnishing some heroes – both real and fictitious – and stepping on some toes. I have racked my brain on how we can unify this excess in a manner that encompasses the vast lot of historical examples of recklessness, to no avail. Instead, I believe that like in the aforementioned case of the impulsive, though, there is a similar set of tripartite descriptors that can ascertained in order to best depict the reckless.
- Wanton disregard for the lives of his brethren or his own: These are the men who, like Roland, single in on a narrow-minded view of the battle at hand. Such single-mindedness turns into a near suicidal-tendency as victory must be achieved on their terms, no matter the cost. The generals and pencil-necks who sent millions to their death in the meat-grinder on the Western Front of the Great War were men of this sort (made more dangerous by having no skin in the game). There is no room for prudent strategy, no room for the art and nuances of war, in the minds of these men.
- Selfish eagerness for glory: This could be summed up by another word – stupidity. This type of reckless man is the man who single-handedly charges across no-man’s land in an attempt to do, in his mind, monstrously great deeds. He does not do this because he prudently senses an area to exploit, or because he is motivated by courage to prosecute a noble deed, or because he is making a heroic last stand like the men at Szigetvár. He is a crazy man who will only be another forgotten casualty on the KIA list, in the event he perishes like every 999 out of 1000 other times this stunt would fail.
- Overestimation of one’s own capabilities: Too often is reckless behavior the result of an “invincibility” complex, something which is a hallmark of youth. Such overestimation of your abilities can lead you to emulate Icarus and “fly too close to the sun” in your own battle. You will be like the over-eager men who fall for feints and ruses, only to be utterly crushed as they think the battle is won, that they can rest on their laurels, or that they will easily defeat the enemy.
I believe there is another manifestation of recklessness which makes this distortion unique in may ways: at times, men will become reckless because they suffer from cowardice in another area or realm of life. For instance, the speeding driver who would rather rashly attempt to evade the cops instead of owning up to his misdeeds is acting recklessly to cover up his inability to confront his own faults.
Jordan Peterson, in Beyond Order, makes this correlation between recklessness and cowardice in Peter Pan. He discusses how Pan, in his quest to never grow up, engages in rash and reckless behavior out of his fear of becoming an adult. Such recklessness out of cowardice is rarer, in my view, and its close relationship with both the impulsive and the coward make me leave this out of a potential four part division.
When discussing courage, its relationship with fear often comes up with the erroneous declaration that courage is an “absence of fear” often being stated. It’s my belief that recklessness actually occurs the most when this natural deformation of human instinct – fear – is suppressed. Fear is something that, as previously stated, is natural and healthy because it is informative. Fear tells us that there is danger and that something is not right. Learning to both harness and listen to fear is the hallmark of a virtuous man. If you don’t have any fear to harness or learn from, your tendency will be one of barbaric (in a negative sense) despoliation, indiscriminately and needlessly harming yourself and others.
So how should you find the balance between cowardice and rashness?
- Learn to practice prudence – think through various strategies and their respective outcomes. Don’t be impulsive and jump at the first thought that comes up.
- Listen to the advice of your right-hand men. Justinian had Belisarius. Octavius had Agrippa. You need a man to see things a bit differently and point out any foolish or wanton acts you’re about to take.
- Cultivate a healthy respect of fear. Learn from your fears and make sure your response to it is prudent and virtuous, not something that is impulsive or reckless.
- Be mindful of those impacted by your decisions. Are you condemning thousands to death because of your vanity or foolishness? Are you leaving a squad a man short because you think you can charge a pillbox by yourself?
Recklessness is difficult to overcome because, in many ways, it’s less a poor habit and more an action that occurs in a moment of passion. This is why it is important that you always be vigilant and prepared. Do not wait for your vices to flare up to set about conquering them. You must uproot them now and build the prerequisite habits to be able to attack them should they arise again. Failure to build virtue in good times so is like living a life without an immune system – you will be crippled the second a hostile agent enters your system.
There are a few things to take away from the reckless archetype:
- Recklessness often goes hand-in-hand with a lack of prudence.
- The reckless man is often selfish and overestimates his own abilities.
- Rash decisions have a tendency to lead to your destruction or the deaths of men in your command.
- It is easy to confuse the reckless with the courageous.
Next, we shall examine the excesses and deficiencies of temperance. If you’d like to learn more about true courage, check out our episodes on this virtue below.