Fortitude as one of the gifts from the Holy Ghost is a supernatural virtue, and passes beyond the Aristotelian range.
(1) Manliness is etymologically what is meant by the Latin word virtus and by the Greek andreia, with which we may compare arete (virtue), aristos (best), and aner (man). Mas (male) stands to Mars, the god of war, as arsen (male) to the corresponding Greek deity Ares. While andreia (manliness) has been specialized to signify valour, virtus has been left in its wider generality, and only in certain contexts is it limited, as by Caesar when he says: “Helvetii reliquos Gallos virtute praecedunt”. Here the writer was certainly not taking the pious outlook upon virtue, except in so far as for primitive peoples the leading virtue is bravery and the skillful strength to defend their lives and those of their fellow-tribesmen. At this stage of culture we may apply Spinoza’s notion that virtue is the conservatory force of life. “In proportion as a man aims at and is successful in pursuing his utile, that is his esse, so much the more is he endowed with virtue; on the other hand, in proportion as he neglects to cultivate his utile or his esse, so much the greater is his impotence” (Eth., IV, prop. 20). “Virtue is that human faculty, which is defined only by the essence of man, that is, which is limited only by the efforts of man to persevere in his esse” (prop. 22). The idea is continued in Propositiones 23, 24, 25, 27. The will to live — der Wille zu leben — is the root virtue. Of course Spinoza carries his doctrine higher than does the savage warrior, for he adds that the power preservative and promotive of life is adequacy of ideas, reasonable conduct, conformity to intelligent nature: finally that “the highest virtue of the intellect is the knowledge of God” (lib. V, prop. xlii). Spinoza usually mixes the noble with the ignoble in his views: for a rude people his philosophy stops short at virtue, the character of the strong man defending his existence against many assaults.
Aristotle does not say that fortitude is the highest virtue; but he selects it first for treatment when he describes the moral virtues: eipomen proton peri andreias (Eth. Nic., III, 6); whereas St. Thomas is at pains to say explicitly that fortitude ranks third after prudence and justice among the cardinal virtues. The braves in a warrior tribe and the glamour of braverie in knight-errantry, the display of pomp by modern armies on parade, were not objects to disturb the sense of proportion in the mind of the Friar Preacher. Still less could etymology deceive his judgment into thinking that the prime virtue was the soldier’s valour commended on the Victoria Cross. Neither would he despise the tribute “For Valour” in its own degree.
(2) To come now to definitions. If we consult Plato and Aristotle we find the former comparing man to the god Glaucus who from dwelling in the sea had his divine limbs encrusted beyond recognition with weeds and shells: and that represents the human spirit disguised by the alien body which it drags about as a penalty. The soul in its own rational nature (for our present purpose we fuse together the two terms psyche and nous, distinguished by Aristotle, into one — the soul) is simple: man is compound, and, being conflictingly compounded, he has to drive a pair of steeds in his body, one ignoble — the concupiscences — the other relatively noble — the spiritual element, in which is “go”, “dash”, “onslaught”, “pluck”, “endurance”. Upon the latter element is based fortitude, but the animal spirit needs to be taken up and guided by the rational soul in order to become the virtue. It is in the breast that ho thymos, to thymoeides (courage, passion) dwells, midway between reason in the head and concupiscence in the abdomen. Plato’s high spirituality kept him from speaking too exaltedly of fortitude which rested on bodily excellence: consequently he would have wise legislators educate their citizens rather in temperance than in courage, which is separable from wisdom and may be found in children or in mere animals (Laws, I, 630, C, D, E; 631, C; 667, A).
Although Aristotle makes animal courage only the basis of fortitude — the will is courageous, but the animal spirit co-operates (ho de thymos synergei) — he has not a similar contempt for the body, and speaks more honourably of courage when it has for its prime object the conquest of bodily fear before the face of death in battle. Aristotle likes to narrow the scope of his virtues as Plato likes to enlarge his scope. He will not with his predecessor (Lackes, 191, D, E) extend fortitude to cover all the firmness or stability which is needful for every virtue, consequently Kant was able to say: “Virtue is the moral strength of the will in obeying the dictates of duty” (Anthropol., sect. 10, a). The Platonic Socrates took another limited view when he said that courage was the episteme ton deinon kai me (Laches, 199); hence he inferred that it could be taught. Given that in themselves a man prefers virtue to vice, then we may say that for him every act of vice is a failure of fortitude. Aristotle would have admitted this too; nevertheless he chose his definition: “Fortitude is the virtue of the man who, being confronted with a noble occasion of encountering the danger of death, meets it fearlessly” (Eth. Nic., III, 6). Such a spirit has to be formed as a habit upon data more or less favourable; and therein it resembles other virtues of the moral kind. Aristotle would have controverted Kant’s description of moral stability in all virtue as not being a quality cultivatable into a habit: “Virtue is the moral strength of the will in obeying the dictates of duty, never developing into a custom but always springing freshly and directly from the mind” (Anthropol., I, 10, a). Not every sort of danger to life satisfies Aristotle’s condition for true fortitude: there must be present some noble display of prowess — alke kai kalon. He may not quite positively exclude the passive endurance of martyrdom, but St. Thomas seems to be silently protesting against such an exclusion when he maintains that courage is rather in endurance than in onset.
As a commentator on Aristotle, Professor J.A. Stewart challenges the friends of the martyrs to make a stand for their cause when he says: “It is only when a man can take up arms and defend himself, or where death is glorious, that he can show courage” (p. 283). Here the disjunctive “or” may save the situation: but there is no such reserve on p. 286, where he adds: “Men show courage when they can take up arms and defend themselves, or (e) where death is glorious. The former condition may be realized without the latter, in which case the andreia would be of a spurious kind: the latter condition, however, cannot be realized without the former. Death in a good cause which a man endured fearlessly, but could not actively resist could not be kalos thanatos (glorious death).” Does Aristotle positively make this exclusion? If so, St. Thomas corrects him very needfully, as Britons would admit on behalf of their soldiers who, off the coast of S. Africa in 1852, nobly stood in their ranks and went unresistingly down in the sinking ship, Birkenhead, that they might give the civilians a better chance of being saved. As specimens of courage not in the higher order Aristotle gives the cases of soldiers whose skill enables them to meet without much apprehension what others would dread, and who are ready to flee as soon as grave danger is seen: of animally courageous men whose action is hardly moral: of courage where hope is largely in excess over dread: of ignorance which does not apprehend the risk: and of civic virtue which is moved by the sanction of reward and penalty. In the above instances the test of oi andreioi dia to kalon prattousi — “the exercise of fortitude is virtue”, a principle which is opposed to the mere pragmatism that would measure courage by efficiency in soldiership — fails. Aristotle says that mercenaries, who have not a high appreciation of the value of their own lives, may very well expose their lives with more readiness than could be found in the virtuous man who understands the worth of his own life, and who regards death as the peras — the end of his own individual existence (phoberotaton d’ ho thanatos peras gar). Some have admired Russian nihilists going to certain death with no hope for themselves, here or hereafter, but with a hope for future generations of Russians. It is in the hope for the end that Aristotle places the stimulus for the brave act which of itself brings pain. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (“It is sweet and noble to die for one’s native land” — Horace, Odes, III, ii, 13): the nobility is in the act, the sweetness chiefly in the anticipated consequences, excepting so far as there is a strongly felt nobility (Aristotle, Eth. Nic., III, 5-9) in the self-sacrifice.
(3) St. Thomas keeps as close to Aristotle as he may, departing from him as to the dignity, perhaps, which is to be found in the passive martyr’s death, as to the hope of future life, and as to the character of virtue as a matter mainly of fine conduct aesthetically. He calls the specific virtue of fortitude that which braves the greatest dangers and therefore that which meets the risk of life in battle. Fortitude is concerned not so much with audacia as with timor: not so much with aggredi (attack) as with sustinere (endurance): which means that the courageous man has to attend rather to bearing up against terrifying circumstances than to mastering his impetuosity or else to arousing it to the requisite degree: principalior actus fortitudinis est sustinere, immobiliter sistere in periculis, quam aggredi. Seneca as a Stoic also attacks Aristotle’s use of anger as an instrument in the hand of virtue; he treats the passion as bad and to suppressed. In the onslaught is displayed the animal excitement, the battle rage, which St. Thomas calls the irascible passion: and of this St. Thomas says, what Aristotle says of thymos, that it is an agency to be used by the rational will within due limits. Anything like a malignant desire to slaughter a hated enemy out of vengeance or out of savage delight in blood-shedding should be excluded. For the endurance (sustinere), says St. Thomas, the irascible part is not demanded, since the reasonable will suffice, “as the act of endurance rests only with the reason per se“. As a cardinal virtue, which is a consideration not taken up by Aristotle, fortitude is treated by St. Thomas from the aspect of its need for ensuring the stability of the virtues in general: Cardinales principales dicuntur virtutes, quoe proecipue sibi vindicant id quod pertinet communiter ad virtutes. Virtues in general must act with that firmness which fortitude bestows (II-II, Q, cxxiii).
(4) Fortitude as one of the gifts from the Holy Ghost is a supernatural virtue, and passes beyond the Aristotelian range. It is what, as Christians, we must always have in mind in order to make our actions acceptable for eternal life. But we still keep hold upon the natural principles of fortitude as those whereon grace has to build. In the spiritual life of the ordinary Christian much that Aristotle has said remains in its own degree true, though we have to depart especially from the master’s insistence upon the field of battle. Our exercise is mainly not in war strictly so-called, but in moral courage against the evil spirit of the times, against improper fashions, against human respect, against the common tendency to seek at least the comfortable, if not the voluptuous. We need courage also to be patient under poverty or privation, and to make laudable struggles to rise in the social scale. I requires fortitude to mount above the dead level of average Christianity into the region of magnanimity, and if opportunity allow it, of magnificence, which are the allied virtues of fortitude, while another is perseverance, which tolerates no occasional remissness, still less occasional bouts of dissipation to relieve the strain of high-toned morality and religion.
(5) The physical conditions of fortitude are treated for instance by Bain in “The Emotions and the Will”, and they are such as these: “goodness of nervous tone which keeps all the currents in their proper courses with a certain robust persistence; health and freshness; tonic coolness; light and buoyant spirit; elate and sanguine temperament; acquired mastery over terror, as when the soldier gets over the cannon fever of his first engagement, and the public speaker over the nervousness of his first speech” (Chap V, no. 17). These physical matters, though not directly moral, are worthy of attention; there is much interaction between moral and physical qualities, and our duty is to cultivate the two departments of Fortitude conjointly.
By John Rickaby
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APA citation. Rickaby, J. (1909). Fortitude. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved May 1, 2012 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06147a.htm
MLA citation. Rickaby, John. “Fortitude.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 1 May 2012 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06147a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Robert B. Olson. Offered to Almighty God for the gift of fortitude for all members of His Holy Catholic Church.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. September 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.