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Courage is calling

A summary of Ryan Holiday's first entry of his new 4-book series.
Courage is calling

Amazon link: Courage is Calling

1-sentence summary: Courage is the small, right choice you make for the benefit of others.

Table of contents

As all of Ryan Holiday's books, this book is filled with short, digestible chapters. It includes some 60 chapters across 3 different sections. For simplicity's sake, I will only include the section titles.

  • Part I: Fear
  • Part II: Courage
  • Part III: The Heroic

Big ideas

Courage, temperance, justice, wisdom.

Courage is Calling is the first book of Holiday's new 4-part series on the cardinal virtues. The author's goal is to help fill the gap he sees in society: one dominated by virtueless values. Each virtue brings along with it a way to improve the world we live in.

  • Courage: How can we be brave and inspire others to stand up for what is right?
  • Temperance: How can we apply moderation to our consumption and rebalance our world?
  • Justice: How can we restore feelings of fellowship and a desire for service in everyday people?
  • Wisdom: How can we stir individuals to prioritize truth and depth over what's fleeting?

As a classicist and humanist, I can appreciate a modern take on these values. Hopefully, others will too.

Effective truths

One of my favorite concepts from the book is an idea Holiday borrows from Peter Thiel: effective truths.

Effective truths are beliefs we adopt as our own and act upon, regardless of how true they may actually be. For example, when Thiel, one of the richest and most well-connected men in the world, was told he could do nothing about the Gawker situation, he accepted that as the case and did nothing — making it an effective truth. Only later did he challenge it and overcome Gawker in an incredible series of events.

As Henry Ford puts it, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can't – you're right." That is the essence of an effective truth. Courage is remembering that we have the agency to choose our own effective truths. We can choose what we believe to be possible and then act accordingly.

And we'll likely be surprised once we do.  

What courage is not

Less of a big idea and more of an overarching theme was Holiday's attempt to redefine what courage actually looks like in the day-to-day human experience. Our definition of virtue is colored by the grand gestures we see in movies and read about in history. But most often, courage is much calmer.

  • The opposite of courage is not fear, but apathy. Not caring about what is right, about others, about yourself... that is the ultimate betrayal of the virtue. Apathy is the socially acceptable version of despair.
  • Courage relies on petites actions — small steps that incite courage in others, and then, as more people stand up, those are what swell into the grand movements we read about. But a seed of bravery is all it takes to begin.
  • Courage is often boring. Holiday writes, "we all have to work toward [courage] in our own way, in our own lives - most of which are quite pedestrian." When huge risk is required, it's usually because a bad situation arose from a lack of virtue. Grand gestures are never the first line of defense.
  • Courage can be dangerous. I appreciated that the author points out "courage is not an independent good." People can be courageous towards stupid things (see January 6, 2021). And stupid courage is just as contagious as its productive brother.
  • Courage is not a promise of success: "Fortune may favor the bold, but it offers no guarantee."

Notable quotes

"Virtue is something we do."

"Leaders are dealers in hope."

"Vague fear is sufficient to deter us; the more it is explored, the less power it has over us."

"If you fear that there isn't anything you can do, chances are you will do nothing."

"One man with courage makes a majority."

"Start small on something big."

"Whatever you're not changing, you're choosing."

"It's complacency that puts you in a position to have to take huge risks."

"Courage is about risk, but only necessary risk."

"One way to remember who you are is to remember who your heroes are." — Steve Jobs

"Love makes us heroic."

"There is no such thing as half a risk."

Books mentioned

The biography for Courage is Calling was a special gift for those who preordered the book. Since he hasn't made the full list public, I'll only include the books which I found mentioned frequently, or especially helpful.

The Persian Expedition by Xenophon

Memorabilia by Xenophon

The Last Lion (3 book set) by William Manchester

Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters edited by Mary and William McFeely

Roman Honor by Carlin Barton

Serpico by Peter Maas

The Wise Men by Walter Isaacson

A Certain Idea of France by Jackson Julian

Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield

The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World by Edward Shepherd Creasy

You can get a copy of Courage is Calling by clicking the link.