The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 63, No 4, July-Aug. 2010

Theology for the Laity

The Moral Virtues: III

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.

Fortitude and Other Virtues

       As we have seen, the virtues share several characteristics. Each is a habitual disposition that makes its possessor good, and makes his or her actions good. Each virtue seeks a middle course between the opposites of excess and defect, and each demands a firmness of mind, so that the virtue may be practiced readily and repeatedly. Because this last quality - firmness of purpose - is the quality specific to the virtue of Fortitude, we can see that Fortitude is a necessary condition to every virtue.

       What sets Fortitude apart from the other virtues is the 1capacity it gives us to face hard tasks, and especially tasks that are dangerous. Fortitude strengthens our will to follow the good of reason despite our fear of bodily harm or hard work, and it places limits on our will when our will is moved to some rash action. St. Thomas Aquinas taught, "...Fortitude is about...curbing fear and moderating daring" (ST II-II, 123.3).

The Proper Aim of Fortitude

       This description needs to be understood carefully. We have all heard the term, "flight or fight." This is the arena in which Fortitude manifests itself. To lessen daring, Fortitude moderates the blind human tendency to fight. To curb fear, Fortitude encourages us to fight, if a stern reply is an appropriate response. We must always remember that virtues seek the mean between extremes. Fortitude, like all the virtues, is a habit of self-mastery. It prods us to lay aside unreasonable fear, and directs us to rein in any temptation to unwise behavior through rash or hasty action.

       If we ask which of these actions of Fortitude is the more important, St. Thomas argues from St. Augustine that fear of pain is a stronger motivating force than the desire for pleasure.

    There is none that does not shun pain more than he desires pleasure. For we perceive that even the most untamed beasts are deterred from the greatest pleasure by the fear of pain (ST II-II,123.11).

       Therefore, in our everyday life, Fortitude manifests itself more often by assisting us to face our fears than by reducing our inclination to lash out blindly. This is because danger exercises its own dampening effect on our bravery. And because danger is more apt to incite our fear, urging us to run away, rather than to perform some act of foolhardy bravery, Fortitude usually concerns itself with enabling us to withstand fear in the face of some perceived danger.

A Particular Blessing of the Virtue

       Fortitude is particularly concerned with strengthening our will in the face of death, which is the greatest bodily evil we can suffer. By helping us to face death without fear, Fortitude necessarily enables us to confront with some degree of calm and assurance all those other, lesser fears and temptations toward weakness that frequently beset us. As we look at the saints, our examples in faith, we attribute the greatest Fortitude to the martyrs, those who offered up - or lost - their lives for their belief.

The Greatest Gift

       Jesus tells His disciples, "Greater love than this no one has, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (Jn 15:13). These words remind us that Fortitude is a choice; the martyrs deliberately gave their lives because they found a greater value in loving God than in continuing to live in the world. The accounts of the martyrs' deaths are all very clear about this: their sacrifice was a choice, freely given.

The Example of the Martyrs

       The account of the martyrdom of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, who died in Carthage in 203, is a good example. The document that describes their death is remarkable. It is one of the earliest examples of Christian autobiography, and it is the earliest account of Christian life to be written by a woman.

       Shortly before their death, the martyrs were given a public meal, which anyone could observe. The author who took over the account from St. Perpetua wrote,

    The martyrs strove to make of it an agape, a lovefeast, and to those who crowded round them they spoke of the judgments of God and the joy of their own sufferings. Their courage astonished the pagans and caused the conversion of many.

       The account says that once they reached the arena, Perpetua was attacked by a fierce cow. The force of the attack stunned her, so she momentarily forgot where she was. When she once again realized what was happening, the author says "...she gathered her torn tunic round her, pinning up her hair lest she should seem to be mourning."

       These are not idle details, nor do they reveal a bizarre and inappropriate vanity. The author wants us to be very clear that this was no funeral, nor were the martyrs unwilling sacrificial victims. Perpetua wanted the spectators in the arena to know that she was mistress, not victim, of her fate.

       Eventually, Perpetua was attacked by a soldier with a sword. His first blow caused great pain, but it did not kill her. At this point heroic Fortitude took over: Perpetua reached out, and aimed the point of the sword to her throat. She wanted to make certain the sacrifice of her life was done properly - and before she could lose her nerve.

Reasonable and Unreasonable Fear

       Thus far, in this reflection we have consistently contrasted Fortitude to fear, so let us now consider the fear that is opposed to Fortitude. To do this we must first distinguish between fear that can (and should) be avoided, and the fear that cannot.

       St. Thomas turns to Aristotle, who wrote, "a man would be insane...if nothing, not even earthquakes nor deluges, inspired him with fear" (ST II-II, 125.1). He adds, "Reason dictates that we should shun the evils that we cannot withstand" (Ibid, ad 3). Fortitude does not equip us to face natural catastrophes without flinching; it rather concerns itself primarily with the spirit with which we face dangers and difficult undertaking. Chief among these is our death, whether from illness, old age, accident, or weakness.

       Human reason teaches that each of us will die. Fear causes us to shrink before this inevitability, reminding us that when we die we lose something we love - our life in this world, and all the good things our life holds for us. Fortitude commands us to face the fact of our death calmly, and to accept a reality that our reason tells us we cannot avoid.

A Cautious Bravery

       But this is not to say that Fortitude is mere boldness, even though boldness may appear to be a noble defiance of some present danger. The virtues seek the mean between extremes, so if Fortitude equips us to face our death with equanimity, it also obliges us to "watch out," and to care for ourselves to whatever extent that is possible.

       If we ignore danger through pride, disregard for ourselves, or simple ignorance we are not practicing Fortitude; in fact, we are ignoring the virtue and doing nothing more than courting unnecessary harm. In one of his homilies, St. Ambrose eloquently described the genuine, appropriate calm that accompanies the virtue of Fortitude,

    The brave man is not unmindful of what may be likely to happen; he takes measures beforehand, and looks out as from the...tower of his mind, so as to encounter the future by his forethought, lest he should say afterwards: This befell me because I did not think it could possibly happen (ST II-II, 123.9. obj.2).

       Fortitude disposes us to face unexpected - and unpleasant - contingencies, but the perfection of this skill, like that of any virtue, requires repetition and practice.

       Thus, the more we train ourselves to face bravely the hard work or dangers we can foresee, the more apt we are to act bravely - by "second nature" - when some unexpected threat presents itself. Fortitude gives us a certain perspective. If we can school ourselves to face the fact of our death with calm, the many other, lesser, challenges that confront us will assume their proper dimensions.

The Fruits of Fortitude

       Allied to Fortitude are Confidence, which preserves in us a hopeful spirit when we face some large undertaking, and Accomplishment, by which we use our reason (and the virtues we have developed and honed through practice) to achieve the end we propose. Patience disposes us to put up with difficulties so that we can accomplish some good thing, even when our goal seems long in coming, and Perseverance helps keep our energy focused on some well-considered plan. These secondary virtues are ultimately designed to help us face the prospect of our death, but they also come to our everyday assistance, when we face fears less daunting than the fear of death.

       The greatness of heart we name "magnanimity" is another close ally of Fortitude. It gives us the will to reach out for great things precisely because they are great, and, therefore, often quite daunting. Honors are given to those who accomplish heroic acts, but our greatness of heart - while it is not unaware of honor - is (or should be) more moved by the noble act to be done than the rewards that may accompany it. As with all the virtues, Magnanimity seeks the middle path between extremes, cautioning us not to begin tasks we have no hope of completing, yet urging us to spend our money and our strengths where they will accomplish the most for the common good.

Vices Opposed to Fortitude

       Opposed to Fortitude, by way of excess, are Presumption, which deludes us into imagining we can accomplish something without the aid of another, specifically God; likewise Ambition, which is an excessive love of honor. We encounter further defects in Fortitude when we allow unreasonable fear to prevent our doing some good thing, e.g., when we refuse to spend either the money or the effort suitable for a good work, or when we waste our resources and pay more than an effort is worth. These vices may seem oddly contrasted to Fortitude, but they are contrary to the parts of Fortitude that encourage us to take calculated risks to accomplish some noble task.

The Blessing of Fortitude

       In the Sermon on the Mount Our Savior said, "Blessed are they that suffer persecution for the sake of Justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:10). St. Thomas Aquinas links this beatitude to the virtue of Fortitude, for Fortitude equips us to cling to truth and justice in the face of assault. St. Thomas, not surprisingly, applies the beatitude particularly to the martyrs who are the heroes of our faith, but our everyday experience reveals many situations in which we are called to face persecution, even if it does not result in our death.

       The Church's Catechism reminds us that the everlasting happiness we seek through our words, habits, and actions, is our reward for making decisive moral choices. We must love God above all things. Fortitude commands us to use our lives and our resources to foster the common good. We must dare to be great, without desiring fame and, once reason has determined us on a course, we must follow it without counting the cost. Fortitude is our guide in the quest for the day to day heroism Christ calls us to demonstrate, if we are serious about following Him.

An Example from the Saints

       The brief life of St. Therese of Lisieux is an example worth considering in this regard. She committed herself, she said, to doing "small things," a vocation we completely misunderstand if we imagine this meant she planned to spend - or waste - her time on inconsequential projects.

       What St. Therese demonstrates is a determination, in spite of temptations to the contrary, to see Christ in every atom of creation. "To pick up a pin for love," she said, "can save a soul." The challenge, obviously, lies not in picking up the pin; the effort is to find Christ's love hiding behind such an insignificant act. Fortitude prepares us for greatness, and we find the opportunities for greatness wherever we find need.

Our Call to Greatness

       The virtues dispose us to behave rightly in specific circumstances, and most of us will not be called either to a life of cloistered heroism (like St. Therese) or to offer our lives in witness to the truth, as were the martyrs. Nevertheless, Fortitude calls us to be resolute in our faith, and demonstrates that heroism is the tool that equips us to discern opportunities for greatness, however apparently inconsequential they may seem, and to embrace our vocation to face it with care, freedom, and calm.

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