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.
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.
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.
Fortitude 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 of fortitude.
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.
The 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 daring.
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.
Certainly 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.
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 excellence.
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.
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.
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.
McManaman, Douglas. "The Virtue of Fortitude." (February 2006).
Reprinted 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
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