The Art and Science of Courage

“Courage is found in the quiet moment between stimulus and response, and only when we keep ourselves in a grounded, intentional place of confidence and choice by metabolizing fear.”

Michele DeMarco, PhD
7 min readFeb 10, 2021


Person in a hoodie with a lion’s face.
Photo: Rayis.b/TWENTY20

Throughout millennia, courage has been universally admired. From Aristotle, who heralded it as “the first of human virtues because it makes all others possible,” to Biblical narratives, ancient myths, and fairy tales; film, fiction, and poetry; and historical accounts and personal stories, our human culture is steeped in inspirational tales of bravery and heroism. And yet philosophers, theologians, social scientists, and, more recently, neuroscientists are still struggling to define what courage is and where it comes from. Nature or nurture? The body, mind, spirit, or soul? Some combination thereof? One thing they all seem to agree on is that “fear and courage are brothers,” as Proverbs suggests.

The Intimate Relationship Between Courage And Fear

Mark Twain wrote that “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” Nelson Mandela seconded this: “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear,” adding, “I am the captain of my soul.” Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested there is a dimension of tenacity to courage: “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.” Put together, this points to what science also suggests — that courage is acting with intention and perseverance in the face of fear or a perceived threat.

Let’s talk about fear, because it often gets a bum rap, and threats, because there are many kinds.

Fear easily gets confused with weakness or fragility. But fear actually has an adaptive function: it protects us from danger and helps us to survive. Fear is a basic emotion that is hardwired into us and other species. As with all emotions, fear is an internal source of information: it communicates impending danger, which allows us to react very quickly to threatening situations by releasing a torrent of hormones.

We naturally respond to threats in one of three ways: fight, by disarming the threat or displaying power over it…



Michele DeMarco, PhD

Award-winning writer, therapist, clinical ethicist, and researcher specializing in moral injury. I talk about the stuff many won’t.