The Virtue of FortitudeDOUG MCMANAMAN
The typical hedonist today does not aspire to anything larger and higher, but settles for "feeling good". Such a life does not require fortitude.
emotions have an innate need to be guided by reason. An emotionally healthy
life is one in which the emotions are moderated by right reason. It follows
that emotional stability and well-being are the result of a certain structuring
in which the emotions of the concupiscible and irascible appetites are subject
to a will that in turn is subject to reason.
An emotionally unhealthy
life is one in which the emotions govern the will and reason. In this case,
the emotions are not guided at all, or they are governed by a mind not rectified
by reason via the intellectual virtues, such as wisdom and prudence.
There are a host of emotions that are left out in the treatment of temperance
and its various parts, namely the emotions of the irascible appetite, which include
fear, daring, hope, and despair. Life brings with it all sorts of difficulties,
and it is through these emotions that we relate to them. To relate to these
difficulties well requires that these emotions be moderated by the appropriate
virtues, namely fortitude and its parts.
Now the greatest achievement
of love is to learn to love the other as another self. Man's perfection
consists in the possession of God in knowledge and love. A perfect love
of another is thus one that wills that the happiness of knowing and loving God
befall him or her. Human life is a quest for the Supreme Good, and a good
human life is about willing the good, which is precisely what love is. In
other words, human life is about learning to love.
But love is difficult
to achieve. It is difficult in general, only because love is channeled through
virtue, and virtue is difficult. And it is difficult more specifically because
special difficulties arise that become obstacles in the quest for the Supreme
Good. Hence, the need for a host of virtues that will enable us to overcome
these obstacles. Emotional health, in other words, demands that we aspire
to something higher than ourselves and our own personal comfort. It demands
that our life become a quest for the Supreme Good, that is, for God. It
is this quest that brings movement and meaning to human life. It is true
that any goal endows our life with movement, and thus a certain meaning.
But a truly good life is one that aspires after what is truly good. Thus
it is not possible to achieve an emotionally healthy life unless one aspires after
what is truly good and truly larger than ourselves.
The virtue of temperance is thus not enough
for emotional well-being, since temperance deals with the greatest pleasures,
not the greatest difficulties. Rather, it belongs to fortitude to remove
the obstacles that withdraw the will from following reason on account of difficulties
that give rise to fear and sorrow.
The typical hedonist
today does not aspire to anything larger and higher, but settles for "feeling
good". Such a life does not require fortitude. But a truly meaningful
life, one whose meaning (direction) is determined in regards to man's true end
— which is the knowledge and love of the greatest good — does indeed
require a host of virtues belonging to fortitude. The virtue of temperance
is thus not enough for emotional well-being, since temperance deals with the greatest
pleasures, not the greatest difficulties. Rather, it belongs to fortitude
to remove the obstacles that withdraw the will from following reason on account
of difficulties that give rise to fear and sorrow.
in the Midst of Battle
Fortitude binds the will
firmly to the good of reason in the face of the greatest evils, and the most fearful
of all bodily evils is death. And so the very idea of fortitude presupposes
that there are certain things we should love more than our own lives, certain
things we ought to be willing to die for. We hold that the human person
ought to love what is larger than himself, namely truth, justice, and the common
good of the social whole. He ought to love the good of the entire civil
community so much as to be willing to expose himself to the danger of death for
its sake, and we would argue that he ought to love God (who is Truth) more than
himself, and be willing to expose himself — not others — to the dangers
of death for His sake, that is, for His cause.
Fortitude is the virtue that
moderates the emotions of fear and daring in accordance with right reason.
It is not, as some are wont to believe, extraordinary daring. Sitting in
a bathtub full of deadly snakes, or jumping from one speedboat to another, are
acts of daring, not acts of fortitude. Had the person been attempting to
rescue a little girl trapped in a pit of snakes, or a man unable to steer the
speedboat as a result of a heart attack or stroke, we could speak of fortitude,
but not without a pursuit of the good. St. Thomas writes:
Fortitude binds the will firmly to the good
of reason in the face of the greatest evils, and the most fearful of all bodily
evils is death.
strengthens a man's mind against the greatest danger, which is that of death.
Now fortitude is a virtue; and it is essential to virtue to tend to good; wherefore
it is in order to pursue some good that man does not fly from the danger of death.
But the dangers of death arising out of sickness, storms at sea, attacks from
robbers, and the like, do not seem to come on a man through his pursuing some
good. On the other hand, the dangers of death which occur in battle come
to man directly on account of some good, because, to wit, he is defending the
common good by a just fight. (ST. II-II.123,
a. 5)The willingness to fall in battle is not by any means limited
to the context of an actual war between nations. There are "private battles",
as in the case of a court judge who refuses to yield to death threats and delivers
a just judgment nonetheless. John the Baptist is a perfect example of a
man of fortitude with respect to a "private combat", for he did not refrain from
speaking out against Herod for repudiating his first wife and marrying his brother's
wife while Philip was still alive. This eventually led to his death.
Similarly, St. Thomas More refused to take the oath enacted by Parliament.
To do so would contravene the judgment of his conscience. As a result, he
too lost his head and won the crown of martyrdom.
More current examples
of fortitude might include a bishop or priest's refusal to provide a funeral mass
for an unrepentant mafia boss, despite death threats from family members.
Certainly the threat to court judges is still a very real possibility. Politicians
who choose to take a firm stand on certain issues, in favor of justice, might
very well risk assassination, especially in parts of the developing world.
A fireman rushing into a burning building in order to save lives, knowing that
there is a very good chance he will not come out alive, is indeed an instance
Fortitude is not fearlessness. Some people perform
acts of apparent fortitude, that is, without the virtue. This occurs when
they tend to what is difficult as though it were not, a behaviour due either to
ignorance, that is, they are simply unaware of the extent of the dangers involved.
Sometimes a person has so often escaped dangers in the past that on the basis
of that experience he is rather confident of overcoming current dangers. Or, a
person might possess a certain skill which leads him to think little of the dangers
of battle, thinking himself more than capable of defending himself against them.
Sometimes a person will act through the impulse of a passion, such as excessive
anger, or sorrow, of which he wishes to rid himself. These are not acts
of fortitude precisely because no moderation of fear is involved.
truly brave man does not suppress his fear. He really experiences it, but
holds fast to the good, moderating the fear of which he is fully cognizant.
The principal act of fortitude is to endure, whereas aggression or attack is its
secondary act. For enduring fear is more difficult than attacking evil through
We are what we love, and it is really
only by loving that which is larger than ourselves that we actually become enlarged
and enriched. It is the direction towards the sovereign good — which
is unlimited — that brings meaning to human life, and it is the pursuit of
this great good that makes one's life great.
Now goodness is a property
of being, just as growth is a property of living things, or as malleability is
a property of iron. Just as whatever is living grows, so too whatever has
being is good. Goodness means fullness of being. Accordingly, evil
is a privation of being, a lack of something that ought to be. A physical
evil, for example, is a deformity of some kind. Think of a bird with only
one wing. It is lacking what it ought to have, namely another wing.
From a physical point of view, the bird does not enjoy fullness of being.
It suffers from a physical evil.
Now the human person is both physical
and moral. As a moral agent, the human person is capable of bringing about
moral evil. He does this by choosing a certain way. And since evil
is a privation of being, a lack of something that ought to be there, an evil choice
is one that involves a deficient will, one that lacks an order that it ought to
have. For example, if I owe a person one hundred dollars, and I only pay
back ten, my will that he be given his due is deficient and lacking. Thus,
my will is bad or evil, which is to say, lacking what it ought to have.
Now a moral agent (a human person) is what he chooses. We become
what we choose. Our character is established by the choices that we make.
In making an unjust choice, I become an unjust man. In choosing to lie,
I become a liar, a person who is untrustworthy. In choosing to kill, I become
(am) a killer. In short, in choosing deficiently, I become deficient, that
is, my character is deficient.
Now at the risk of sounding like
a dualist, let's just say that the evils of the soul are more to be feared than
the evils of the body; for the body is destructible, while the soul is not.
For example, it is better to have good character and missing fingers than to have
all ten fingers and a morally bad character. Moreover, the evils of the
body are more to be feared than the evils of external things. Hence, it
is better to lose all four tires than all five fingers. And so it follows
that it is unreasonable to incur evils of the soul in order to avoid bodily evils,
such as a physical beating or even death, or worse, evils of external things,
such as the loss of money or popularity. So too it is unreasonable to endure
bodily evils in order to avoid the loss of money or honors from those of questionable
But the one lacking
fortitude loves "external goods" and the goods of the body (temporal goods) more
than his character, more than the common good, and more than the sovereign good,
namely God. His love is thus disordered.
But the one lacking fortitude loves "external
goods" and the goods of the body (temporal goods) more than his character, more
than the common good, and more than the sovereign good, namely God. His
love is thus disordered.
Now, the object
of the will is the good. The will is drawn to something only because it
sees it as a good. You and I are basically good, insofar as we have being.
That is why we have a natural love for ourselves. But if we begin to make
choices that are morally evil (deficient), we establish ourselves as deficient.
But we do not love what is deficient. If we have any love for something,
it is only insofar as it is good. I might love my new car as far as it drives
well and has good gas mileage, but the brake lights are smashed and there is a
large dent in the passenger door, and it is missing a back seat. Consequently,
I am not entirely happy with it. Similarly, as morally deficient, we are
not entirely happy with ourselves, and the more we plunge into moral depravity,
the more unhappy with ourselves do we become, that is, the more our self-loathing
increases. Thus, the one who lacks fortitude cannot but loath himself from
the very depths of his conscience. What he loathes is his small moral stature.
That is why he can never enjoy the peace that he seeks to maintain by refusing
to endure the difficult and the fearful. He has allowed his fear to veer
him off the course that reason has laid out for him. He is dominated more
or less to some degree, by fear. And as his fear is not moderated by reason,
it does not receive the perfection it requires, leaving him emotionally out of
kilter. It is in this way that those who lack fortitude and do nothing about
it set themselves up for a low grade depression, a profound dissatisfaction with
themselves, that they will have to endure later if not sooner.
temporal evils are to be feared to some degree. Love of temporal goods can
be reasonable, that is, when they are loved not so much for their own sake, but
for the sake of higher goods. It is reasonable to fear the loss of one's
house, because a house can be instrumental in attaining higher goods, such as
the goods of virtue. It is true that I love my body for its own sake, but
from another angle I also love my arms and legs insofar as they are instrumental
in attaining higher goods, namely virtue.1 But our love for bodily
and external goods should not be so great as to hinder us from serving higher
goods, and they are not to be despised in so far as they are instrumental towards
attaining goods of the soul.
And so we ought to learn to moderate
the emotion of daring, which moves us to attack difficult evils that loom on the
horizon. What is needed when faced with a threatening situation is a carefully
thought out battle plan, one whose ultimate aim is, again, to serve higher goods.
Inordinate daring (foolhardiness) can needlessly expose us and others to the loss
of external goods that are instrumental to these higher goods. True fortitude
attacks evil at that point when not doing so would endanger greater goods.
Consider, for example, the bishop or priest who chooses to significantly lighten
the weight of his preaching at a particular time for fear of bringing down upon
himself the wrath of the state, thereby allowing members of the Church to remain
in ignorance, or allowing a portion of the Church to be scandalized. This
is to love temporal goods too much. Or consider politicians who choose not
to uphold what they know to be true and just for fear of losing office.
It is often the case that people allow their moral and political views to be shaped
by the zeitgeist, that is, by what is
current and popular, in order to minimize friction and the chances of finding
oneself friendless or unemployed. Much less are such people willing to die
for what is true and just. But one must be willing to attack evil, despite
temporal losses, in order to preserve virtue in others.
Anyone who has worked with teenagers knows that the happiest and most emotionally
healthy of them are those who aspire after great and honorable ends. And
certainly not all of them do. It is not uncommon to see hordes of teenagers
loitering every night at the local Donut shop or mall, doing very little with
their lives if anything at all. This is pusillanimity,
or smallness of soul. This rather pusillanimous existence is by no means
limited to teenagers. Many adults have settled for a very small existence,
which usually includes but does not seem to go far beyond a house with a well
manicured lawn, a colorful garden, a cottage perhaps, and sometimes a life
that deliberately excludes children, but not pets. These things are not
evil in themselves. Rather, it is the lack of aspiration towards what is
worthy of great honor that is small and deficient. The emotion that suffers
in this case is the emotion of hope; for the virtue of magnanimity perfects hope
and involves a stretching forth of the mind to great honors. There is no
emotional wholeness without such a stretching forth to the great.
Many people are under the false impression that striving after great honors
is about the pursuit of financial success or great wealth. The reason is
that financial success is what our culture tends to honor most. In a hedonistic
culture in which pleasure is regarded as the principal good, a life in pursuit
of wealth is the only life that makes any sense; for wealth buys pleasures.
Anyone who has worked with teenagers knows
that the happiest and most emotionally healthy of them are those who aspire after
great and honorable ends. And certainly not all of them do.
We honor great athletes, but athletic achievement is not great, at least
not absolutely. A great athlete is not necessarily a great man. Neither
is an intelligent and well educated man necessarily great and worthy of honor.
But magnanimity is about the pursuit of great honors, because honor is the greatest
of external things. But persons are honored principally on account of their
virtue. Moral excellence is greater and more worthy of honor than is athletic
and even academic excellence. Magnanimity is thus not so much the pursuit
of Olympic gold, or musical stardom, or financial success, much less fame and
international repute, as it is the pursuit of great moral achievement.
Magnanimity aspires after moral excellence, and since generosity, gratitude,
and beneficence savor of excellence, the magnanimous man is ready to perform acts
of great generosity, gratitude, and extraordinary beneficence. The magnanimous
do not have such a high regard for external goods or a fear of evils such that
they are inclined to give up the pursuit of justice or any other virtue.
Thus, they do not conceal truth on account of fear, nor are they given over to
complaining. Bellyaching betrays a defect of magnanimity in that the mind
gives way too readily to external evils. Such vices are contrary to moral
But neither do the magnanimous despise wealth or great repute.
They regard them as useful for accomplishing deeds of virtue. That is why
they do not love them so much that they are willing to forgo virtue for their
sake. Hence, an emotionally healthy and truly magnanimous person is neither
very joyful at obtaining such goods, nor terribly grieved at their loss.
Now every virtue brings a certain beauty to human character, but magnanimity adds
a certain luster over and above the others, giving them an added greatness, thus
raising the stature of human character. That is why the magnanimous have
beautiful character that, by virtue of the unity between matter and spirit, manifests
in the countenance.
and its Excesses (presumption, vainglory, ambition)
order to refine our understanding of this virtue and better appreciate what it
is and isn't, let us glance briefly at its excesses. Firstly, magnanimity
is not incompatible with humility. Magnanimity involves the recognition
in oneself of something great which comes from God, namely divine grace and one's
natural gifts; but the magnanimous recognize their own defects and the weakness
of human nature, that is, their inclination to sin and complete dependence upon
divine grace. The magnanimous are inclined to deem themselves worthy of
great things in consideration of the gifts they hold from God. But humility
allows them to keep their own deficiency at the forefront of their minds.
As St. Thomas Aquinas writes: "Humility makes us honor others and esteem them
better than ourselves", for we see some of God's gifts in them, gifts that we
in oneself and others is a part of magnanimity, but confidence in oneself can
be inordinate by way of excess. This is presumption,
and it is rooted in an inaccurate assessment of oneself. The presumptuous
tend to what is above their power. Their hope in themselves is disordered,
because their love for themselves is disordered. That is why presumption
tends to go hand in hand with personal pride, the inordinate love of one's own
As St. Thomas Aquinas writes: "Humility makes
us honor others and esteem them better than ourselves", for we see some of God's
gifts in them, gifts that we don't have.
Having absolutely no confidence in anyone is certainly not
a sign of emotional health. The other extreme, overconfidence in others,
stems from a lack of sound observation, an inability or refusal to see the defects
of others. This flaw can sometimes be disguised as virtue, that is, as a
"positive disposition". But there is nothing virtuous in being positive
about a situation that has not been properly assessed, just as there is nothing
virtuous in being negative when there is much to be confident about.
The quest for honor is inordinate when a person desires the recognition of
an excellence that he does not have, thus wanting more than his fair share of
honors, and when a person desires honor for himself without referring it to God.
The latter amounts to a lack of gratitude, which is a part of justice. Finally,
the quest for honor is inordinate when it is pursued for the sake of being honored,
as if to rest in the honor itself. This is ambition.
But the truly magnanimous do not love themselves more than others; rather, they
love the other as another self, and for God's sake. They desire the recognition
of their own excellence only to the degree that it would profit others.
But the heart of the ambitious rests in honor itself, without reference to the
profit of others.
Vainglory is the
inordinate desire for glory (to be known by others). Such desire for glory
is inordinate when it is desired for its own sake, rather than as being useful
for something greater, for example, that God may be more known and loved by others,
or that human beings may be made better on account of such knowledge. Mother
Teresa, for example, was very well known, but she did not desire such reputation,
and yet her renown made innumerable people better.
Vainglory is particularly
dangerous in that it renders us presumptuous and too self-confident, and presumption
blinds us to the need to seek counsel from others. That is why vainglory
begets disobedience, boastfulness, hypocrisy, contention, obstinacy, discord,
and interestingly enough, the love of novelties. The vain strive
to make known their excellence by showing that they are not inferior to others.
They do this in a number of ways. Since intellect is the most superior power
in man, the vain will strive to show intellectual superiority. Thus, they
do not readily give up their opinion when confronted with evidence of its weakness
and inferiority. This is obstinacy, an excessive or stubborn attachment
to one's opinion. And since the will is also a superior power, the person
who strives to make known his excellence will exhibit a stubborn attachment to
his own will. Such a person rarely agrees with others. This is discord,
which begets quarreling or contentiousness. And a contentious person can
hardly be expected to obey the commands of his superiors. Thus, he is inclined
to disobedience. Finally, vainglory begets a love of novelties. For
the vain wish to stand out from the rest, so they are given over to novelties
which tend to grab our attention and call for greater admiration.
A right relationship to one's money is critical for emotional well-being.
Emotional health demands that we stretch forth to that which is larger than the
self, and so it demands of those with great wealth that they aspire to do something
great with it. Only a person of great wealth is capable of doing great things
with that wealth, and it is magnificence that intends the production of a great
work at great expense. There is no end of human work that is as great as
the honor of God. And so the magnificent man looks for opportunities to
do a great work that God may be more honored. This is how magnificence is
connected to genuine love. Recall that genuine human love wills that the
happiness of knowing and loving God befall another. Hence, this love seeks
the honor of God, desires that God be glorified and thus more loved. Thus,
charity in the heart of one who has wealth is magnificent.
that pertain to my own person are certainly good, but better than my private good
is the good of the civil community at large; for it is a larger good. But
better than both are things that pertain to God. That is why a magnificent
person, who aspires to the largest and greatest, will not choose, first and foremost,
to be lavish towards himself; for doing so is not particularly great. The
virtue of religion is the most perfect part of the virtue of justice. Religion
seeks to render to God the honor and thanks we owe Him. Thus one cannot
be truly magnificent without the virtue of religion, and by the same token, one
cannot be emotionally healthy without the entire spectrum of human emotion subordinated
to a will disposed by the virtue of religion.
But the magnificent man
will also intend a great work at great expense for the honor of a person deserving
of great honor, or for the honor of the entire state. The defect of magnificence
is the mean or miserly heart whose intention is principally focused
on spending the least amount possible. He does not shrink from producing
a measly work so long as he spends little.
Once, while admiring
a beautiful old Church in a poor area of a small Canadian town, a friend remarked
how magnificent the Church was. Behind that magnificent Church were magnificent
people who built it at great expense. And yet there is a Church that was
recently built in one of the wealthiest towns in the country, a Church that is
anything but magnificent. In fact, it is less than ordinary, and its appearance
almost suggests a kind of miserliness, as if the principal intention was to reduce
cost rather than build a great Church that speaks of the greatness and majesty
of God. The excess of magnificence, however, is waste or wastefulness, wherein
expenditure exceeds the value of the work.
Life brings with it all sorts of hardships, many of which are inflicted by
others. Things rarely go our way, and human beings are continually developing
psychologically and emotionally. We can be very difficult to put up with
at different times throughout our lives. We are often the cause of great
sorrow to others, and others to us. Hardships lead to sorrow, and sorrow
in turn can beget anger. Anger can beget hatred, which in turn can lead
to unjust injury, either verbal or physical. That is why the emotion of
sorrow needs to be moderated according to reason. In this way, we allow
sorrow to move us towards a more complete realization of the good, just as moderated
anger helps in the execution of reason's response to injustice. A patient
teacher, for example, will allow her sorrow to move her to find new and improved
ways of teaching a lesson so as to be more easily understood by those students
that are not learning.
The virtue of patience is that habit by which we endure
hardship so that we maintain the course of action set out by reason. The
patient man is not inordinately saddened by the things which cause him hurt.
The defect of patience is, of course, impatience, which is an inability to bear
hardship, and which involves a loss of self-possession. This results in
the forsaking of the good on account of the sorrow caused thereby. Many
people regard Robert Latimer as a courageous man because he had "the nerve" to
murder his handicapped daughter and face the justice system in order to have the
law against euthanasia changed. He was a daring man, but not a man of fortitude.
Latimer's actions could never have been a matter of fortitude, because murdering
a handicapped child is intrinsically unjust, and his decision to murder her bespeaks
a lack of patience, an inability to deal with the sorrow caused by the hardships
of raising a handicapped child.
The virtue of patience is that habit by which
we endure hardship so that we maintain the course of action set out by reason.
It is not inconsistent with patience
to rise up against one who inflicts injustice. Patience is not spinelessness,
the excess of meekness. The excess of patience is impassivity.
The impassive do not allow themselves to be moved by sorrow. They endure
it when they should not, thereby allowing the situation that is causing the hardship
to perpetuate — a situation that isn't necessarily unjust, but one that requires
effective remedy. Moreover, there is nothing praiseworthy about "patiently"
enduring harm against others, against the common good, or against the divine honor.
Such "patience" is merely a front that disguises a cowardly and unjust spirit.
Longanimity is the virtue that moderates
hope in that it bears upon a good that is a long way off. The delay of the
hoped for good causes sorrow, which is difficult to endure, and so in this sense
longanimity has something in common with patience. Perhaps we can call its
defect "brevanimity". The "brevanimous" might include those who begin projects
enthusiastically, but leave them undone, or those who seem to always need a change.
And perhaps the excess of longanimity is a kind of impassivity in which one fails
to do what is required to bring about the good that is a long way off.
Constancy is the virtue by which a person
endures the toil involved in persistently accomplishing a good work. It
belongs to perseverance to persist in good for a long time until the end.
Perseverance moderates the emotion of fear as it regards weariness or failure
on account of the delay. It differs from constancy in that constancy makes
a man persist firmly in good against difficulties arising from external hindrances.
The defect of perseverance is effeminacy.
The effeminate are ready to forsake a good on account of difficulties which they
cannot endure. Delicacy, according to
Aquinas, is a kind of effeminacy and is thus a vice contrary to perseverance.
The delicate, after considering the toil involved in a difficult work, will naturally
recoil, whereas the effeminate are principally focused on the lack of pleasure
involved in a particular work.
The excess of perseverance is pertinacity,
which exceeds the mean of perseverance appointed by reason. The pertinacious
man persists inordinately in something against many difficulties. He desires
the proximate end too much. The pertinacious and the effeminate have something
in common, for the pertinacious shun the pain involved in not realizing the pleasure
of the end that he loves and pursues inordinately.
- Aquinas writes: "those things that are desired for their own sake,
some are desired for their own sake alone, and never for the sake of something
else, such as happiness which is the last end; while some are desired, not only
for their own sake, inasmuch as they have an aspect of goodness in themselves,
even if no further good accrued to us through them, but also for the sake of something
else, inasmuch as they are conducive to some more perfect good." (S.T. II-II,
Q. 145, ad. 1)
Virtue of Prudence by Doug McManaman
Virtue of Temperance by Doug McManaman
Virtue of Fortitude by Doug McManaman
Virtue of Justice by Doug McManaman
Douglas. "The Virtue of Fortitude." (February 2006).
with permission of Douglas McManaman.
Douglas McManaman is a high school religion teacher with the York Catholic District School Board in Ontario. He is currently teaching at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ontario and maintains a web site, A Catholic Philosophy and Theology Resource Page, in support of his students. He studied Philosophy at St. Jerome's College in Waterloo, and Theology at the University of Montreal. Mr. McManaman is the past President of the Canadian Chapter of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. Douglas McManaman is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.
Copyright © 2006 Douglas McManaman