Courage Is Rightly Esteemed the First of Human Qualities Because . . . It Is the Quality Which Guarantees All Others

Winston Churchill? Samuel Johnson? James Boswell? Aristotle? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The rights and freedoms enshrined in political documents are sometimes nullified by oppressive governments. The health of a society depends on the principles and the bravery of the populace. Here is a pertinent adage:

Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others.

These words have been attributed to statesman Winston Churchill, but I have not been able to find a citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1931 Winston Churchill wrote an article published in “Collier’s” magazine about King Alfonso XIII of Spain, and the piece included Churchill’s cogent remark about courage. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Men and kings must be judged in the testing moments of their lives. Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities, because, as has been said, it is the quality which guarantees all others. Courage, physical and moral, King Alfonso has proved on every occasion of personal danger or political stress. Many years ago in the face of a difficult situation Alfonso made the proud declaration, no easy boast in Spain, “I was born on the throne, I shall die on it.”

The common modern version of this quotation has been simplified and streamlined. The phrase “as has been said” is typically omitted. Churchill was probably referring to a remark by the famous 18th-century man of letters Samuel Johnson. The quintessential biographer James Boswell who authored “The Life of Samuel Johnson” described a conversation about public speaking that occurred in 1775: 2

“Why then, (I asked,) is it thought disgraceful for a man not to fight, and not disgraceful not to speak in publick?” Johnson. “Because there may be other reasons for a man’s not speaking in publick than want of resolution: he may have nothing to say, (laughing). Whereas, Sir, you know courage is reckoned the greatest of all virtues; because, unless a man has that virtue, he has no security for preserving any other.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In March 1952 a columnist in Bernardsville, New Jersey published the streamlined quotation without an attribution: 3

Following is a quote which I think appropriate in these days of stress and confusion:

“Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all the others.”

Numerous other newspapers published the instance above with an attribution to Winston Churchill in the same year. For example, in June 1952 “The Cincinnati Enquirer” of Ohio printed the quotation and ascription as a filler item under the title “Daily Thought”. 4

In 1980 the book “Churchill: Speaker of the Century” by James C. Humes included a section of “Maxims and Mottoes” which contained the following version. The phrase “all the others” was changed to “all others”: 5

Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others.

In 2006 “The Quote Verifier” reference book by Ralph Keyes included an entry for this quotation citing Winston Churchill’s 1937 book “Great Contemporaries” which consisted of short biographical essays including the piece about King Alfonso. Keyes also included information about the Samuel Johnson quotation.
6

By 2010 the website Goodreads which lists crowd-sourced quotation information featured an entry for this saying with an unlikely attribution to an ancient sage: 7

“Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others.”
― Aristotle

In conclusion, Winston Churchill should receive credit for the passage he wrote in 1931. Interestingly, Churchill acknowledged the existence of a precursor, and Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson” contains the most likely forerunner which was spoken by Johnson.

Image Notes: Illustration of person leaping from Sasin Tipchai at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Piotr Plebaniak whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Plebaniak mentioned the attributions to Churchill and Aristotle.)

Notes:

  1. 1931 June 27, Collier’s, Unlucky Alfonso by Winston Churchill, Start Page 11, Quote Page 49, Column 2, P. F. Collier and Son, New York. (Unz Database)
  2. 1791, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.: Comprehending an Account of His Studies and Numerous Works, in Chronological Order by James Boswell, Volume 1 of 2, Time period specified: April 5, 1775, Quote Page 473, Printed by Henry Baldwin for Charles Dilly, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1952 March 27, The Bernardsville News, Bernardsville Close-Up by The Mayor, Quote Page 6, Column 6, Bernardsville, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1952 June 7, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Daily Thought, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1980, Churchill: Speaker of the Century by James C. Humes, Appendix I: Wit and Wisdom, Section: Maxims and Mottoes, Quote Page 268, Stein and Day, Briarcliff Manor, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page 28, 104, 105, and 277, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  7. Website: Goodreads, Article title: Aristotle > Quotes > Quotable Quote, Timestamp on first ‘Like’ by Kirsten: Jan 05, 2010 04:21PM, Website description: Goodreads is a large community for readers that provides book recommendations; the site is owned by Amazon. (Accessed goodreads.com on July 14, 2019) link