Wednesday 1 March 2023


We continue looking at the cardinal virtues with the virtue of fortitude or courage.

Very often when we think of truly brave and courageous people we might think of lion-tamers in the circus or matadors in Spanish bullrings bravely facing things that would cause any of us to run for our lives. But the virtue of fortitude is more subtle when we experience it from day to day and it is, in fact, essential for the spiritual life lived well. At times, it may not be what we think it is.

The first kind of fortitude we think of is when someone has to perform a truly brave action. One has to overcome what is preventing us from doing something good, from doing the right thing. Soldiers in battle have to run toward those who would seek to attack them and firefighters have to be ready to run into a burning building when the reasonable course of action would be to run out of it. The thing about fortitude is that it is fitted to special circumstances. For most of us when the fire alarm sounds, the prudent thing is to exit the building calmly, but when you are a firefighter, the right thing to do is to run towards the blaze to tackle it. Soldiers and firefighters go through a period of training, and also having experiences of going on manoeuvres or answering 999 calls that help them acquire the instinct they need to tackle real and present dangers. And so in our life we can acquire the virtue of fortitude through experience, choosing the right thing to do again and again, over and above the dangers or obstacles that make it challenging and hard.

The other kind of fortitude is not one that is acquired through practice but is a grace from God. We call it an infused virtue. St Thomas Aquinas points out that this is not so much about attacking problems, or having the moral strength to run into the fire (metaphorical or real), but rather it is the courage to bear with suffering when it comes, to overcome difficulties of one kind or another with patience. It is a grace, a gift from God which is linked to that gift of the Holy Spirit we don’t often talk about — longanimity. In our life bearing with others, or with suffering, with sickness or persecution takes courage, it requires real fortitude not to let it crush us, and this is a grace God gives us.

So whether it is in practical circumstances or in the depths of the soul, fortitude is essential. Fr Louis Bouyer reminds us that it is where the vigour of the whole life of the soul resides. It is one of the cardinal virtues (from the word for hinge) because the whole moral life turns on being able to use it. Bouyer is right to think that our moral life needs energy to overcome the inertia of not acting, of not striving, and that energy comes from fortitude. It also reminds us that being virtuous is not just about avoiding sin, consisting in not doing bad actions, but rather seeking out the good and despite what might be in the way, using that virtue of fortitude to do the right thing.

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