12 Enduring Takeaways From J.M. Barrie’s “Courage”

We are fresh off graduation season and its urgent exhortations for young men and women to sally forth and boldly make their mark in the world. Just over ninety-five years ago, the writer J.M. Barrie, yet to produce his enduring masterpiece “Peter Pan,” sounded some of the same notes but went most all of today’s grad speakers quite a bit better in his inaugural address upon being named rector at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland.

As a speech, “Courage” clocked in at a longish (for these days) one hour-plus, but by virtue of its text being shared and then bound into book form, it has been provided to us as a quickie half-hour or so read, available free here on the Internet. Among its many virtues is this, I will surmise: Once you read it, I doubt you will ever think about courage in quite the same light again.

He states his reason for reflecting on it forthrightly enough:

“You must excuse me if I talk a good deal about courage to you today. There is nothing else much worth speaking about to undergraduates or graduates or white-haired men and women. It is the lovely virtue—the rib of Himself that God sent down to His children.” 

That rib is complemented by plentiful heart and soul and Barrie’s tender humor in this work, offering its audience of young men perhaps unexpected insights into an adult world that he freely admits isn’t quite up to all that adults often pretend it is. It was May of 1922, after all—not even four years after the end of a world war that cratered continental Europe’s and the entire civilized world’s assumptions about its enlightened ways.

Never ascribe to an opponent motives meaner than your own. Nothing so lowers the moral currency; give it up, and be great.”

Chastened as all devotees to human progress would have been at the time, Barrie does no chest-thumping about having beaten back the forces of darkness. Instead, he offers a bevy of wry reflections that are worth contemplating at every age and time.

What follows is a selection of 12 excerpts that I have teased out and summarized with my own headlines in bold below. His excerpts are in italics.

While these dozen insights rang wise and true to me, you may well find additional nuggets that expand your list if you read it yourself, which I hope you do.


No. 1: Courage is a cardinal virtue.

“I was hewn out of one of your own quarries, walked similar academic groves, and have trudged the road on which you will soon set forth. I would that I could put into your hands a staff for that somewhat bloody march, for though there is much about myself that I conceal from other people, to help you I would  expose every cranny of my mind…I cannot provide you with that staff for your journey; but perhaps I can tell you a little about it, how to use it and lose it and find it again, and cling to it more than ever. You shall cut it—so it is ordained—every one of you for himself, and its name is Courage.”


No. 2: Adults often don’t have a clue. Forgive them.

“For fifty years or so we heeded not the rumblings of the distant drum. I do not mean by lack of military preparations; and when war did come we told youth, who had to get us out of it, tall tales of what it really is and of the clover beds to which it leads. We were not meaning to deceive; most of us were as honourable and as ignorant as the youth themselves; but that does not acquit us of failings such as stupidity and jealousy, the two black spots in human nature which, more than love of money, are at the root of all evil.”


No. 3: War is hell—and sometimes inevitable.

“I am far from implying that even worse things than war may not come to a State. There are circumstances in which nothing can so well become a land, as I think this land proved when the late war did break out and there was but one thing to do. The end will indeed have come to our courage and to us when we are afraid in dire mischance to refer the final appeal to the arbitrament of arms. I suppose all the lusty of our race, alive and dead, join hands on that. “



No. 4: We live in a fallen world, and you are no exception.

“To the others will go the easy prizes of life—success, which has become a somewhat odious onion nowadays, chiefly because we so often give the name to the wrong thing. When you reach the evening of your days you will, I think, see—with, I hope, becoming cheerfulness—that we are all failures, at least all the best of us.”


No. 5: Respect your opponents—they are as human and strong (and weak) as you.

“Even the hostile countries sent out many a son very like ours, from the same sort of homes, the same sort of universities, who had as little to do as our youth had with the origin of the great adventure. Can we doubt that many of these on both sides who have gone over and were once opponents are now friends?…I urge you not to use ugly names about anyone…Never ascribe to an opponent motives meaner than your own. Nothing so lowers the moral currency; give it up, and be great.”


No. 6: Talk straight—to yourself and others.

“Another sure way to fame is to know what you mean. It is a solemn thought that almost no one—if he is truly eminent—knows what he means. Look at the great ones of the earth, the politicians. We do not discuss what they say, but what they may have meant when they said it. In 1922 we are all wondering, and so are they, what they meant in 1914 and afterwards. They are publishing books trying to find out; the men of action as well as the men of words.”


No. 7: Avoid easy cynicism. Try doing something instead.

“Do not stand aloof, despising, disbelieving, but come in and help—insist on coming in and helping. After all, we have shown a good deal of courage; and your part is to add a greater courage to it…There are glorious years lying ahead of you if you choose to make them glorious. God’s in His heaven still. So forward, brave hearts.”


No. 8: Honor the dead by changing the world they died for. 

“I expect we shall beat you; unless your fortitude be doubly girded by a desire to send a message of cheer to your brothers who fell, the only message, I believe, for which they crave; they are not worrying about their Aunt Jane. They want to know if you have learned wisely from what befell them; if you have, they will be braced in the feeling that they did not die in vain. Where they are now, hero is, I think, a very little word. They call to you to find out in time the truth about this great game, which your elders play for stakes and Youth plays for its life.”


No. 9: Don’t “settle” (in or for…).

“By the time the next eruption comes it may be you who are responsible for it and your sons who are in the lava. All, perhaps, because this year you let things slide. We are a nice and kindly people, but it is already evident that we are stealing back into the old grooves, seeking cushions for our old bones, rather than attempting to build up a fairer future. That is what we mean when we say that the country is settling down. Make haste, or you will become like us.”



No. 10:  Don’t shy from work—embrace it.

“Isaak Walton quotes the saying that doubtless the Almighty could have created a finer fruit than the strawberry, but that doubtless also He never did. Doubtless also He could have provided us with better fun than hard work, but I don’t know what it is.”


No. 11: Cherish adversity.

“To be born poor is probably the next best thing. The greatest glory that has ever come to me was to be swallowed up in London, not knowing a soul, with no means of subsistence, and the fun of working till the stars went out. To have known anyone would have spoilt  it.”


No. 12: Be cheerful, no matter what.

“I should like to read you some passages of a letter from a man of another calling, which I think will hearten you. I have the little filmy sheets here. I thought you might like to see the actual letter; it has been a long journey; it has been to the South Pole. It is a letter to me from Captain Scott of the Antarctic, and was written in the tent you know of, where it was found long afterwards with his body and those of some other very gallant gentlemen, his comrades. The writing is in pencil, still quite clear, though toward the end some of the words trail away as into the great silence that was waiting for them. It begins:

‘We are pegging out in a very comfortless spot. Hoping this letter may be found and sent to you, I write you a word of farewell. I want you to think well of me and my end.’ (After some private instructions too intimate to read, he goes on) : ‘Goodbye—I am not at all afraid of the end, but sad to miss many a simple pleasure which I had planned for the future in our long marches…We are in a desperate state—feet frozen, etc., no fuel, and a long way from food, but it would do your heart good to be in our tent, to hear our songs and our cheery conversation…Later  (it is here that the words become difficult)—We are very near the end…We did intend to finish ourselves when things proved like this, but we have decided to die naturally without.’

“I think it may uplift you all to stand for a moment by that tent and listen, as he says, to their songs and cheery conversation.”


Leonard Cohen could read the alphabet on “Sesame Street,” just launching in, no introduction, and the kids, just like me, would be spellbound…


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3 comments to 12 Enduring Takeaways From J.M. Barrie’s “Courage”

  • Angela  says:

    These are beautiful and inspiring words. I find them remarkable especially as they are absent of any hint of sneering or demeaning, superiority or smugness; Barrie accepts the human condition for what it is, with both failings and lessons, and challenges and encourages one to do better, to keep trying.

    That brave compassion is itself yet another welcome and rare form of courage.

    Thank you for drawing our attention to this, Andrew: balm in a needy time.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Angela, sometimes I complain to myself and anyone kind enough to listen that I often get distracted from the reading at hand by following link upon link and winding up the day with 40 open windows, none of them read through. Then again, sometimes they lead to places like “Courage,” which was wholly new to me and a happy find for all the reasons you have mentioned.

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Thanks Drew – once again, never heard of “J.M. Barrie” – but loved his words and appreciate your making them so accessible here in the blog post. I’ve long been fascinated by the impact of WW l on the psyche of those who participated & their families/friends at home… beyond my ken for sure (although a glimpse through our experience of the Viet Nam years) – the Western world was deep into the enlightenment, science was ascendent, our reasonable selves were going to have a quick little war to end all wars and … OMG! JM’s reflections on courage were cast against this backdrop, he was too old to serve, but apparently the death of George in 1915, his favorite of 5 semi-adopted sons, really shook Barrie (the sons were of the Llewyn Davis family – interesting name, also that of the somber folk singer in the Coen Bros movie, “Inside Llewyn Davis” – not sure any connection but…) – I remember being fascinated by the story of the British climbers Mallory and Irvine who died on Everest in 1924 (their bodies were found in 2013 perfectly preserved over 26,000 ft!) – not only were their exploits courageous/audacious & stunning, given the lack of high tech gear etc., but their attitudes/world views were fascinating too – totally shattered from WW l – they had this questing to do the impossible, taking outlandish risks, digging deep for making a meaningful life etc. in so small measure, a result of their reactions to the unfathomable body & soul cruelty and senseless heartache of WW 1 (Mallory’s known for the “because it’s there” quip re: why attempt to climb Everest)… I sense in JM’s remarks something of that same deep humility and compassion for the lot of we humans … and certainly his interest in the notion of courage… noting that he wrote this speech in 1922. Even though we readers of this post are of a completely different generation, the calamities of our age seem to render Mr Barrie’s remarks as relevant today as 100 years ago…forgive the rambling reply here, just the kinds of stuff that reading the post stirred up!

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