Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Life of Virtue - Fortitude

In normal, everyday situations, the process of deciding how to act involves our emotions, the use of reason and the will. Making good decisions means making sure that our emotions do not run away with us. This means that we need to make sure that they are tempered by the will and reason, so that decisions are made in a balanced and sound way. This can be hard enough at the best of times, but what about extraordinary situations, extreme situations, where the emotions are likely to be very strong, say in the face of extreme danger or death? The virtue of fortitude is one which we require in such situations. In most situations where we face possible death, we obey our emotions and take flight. If we are in the middle of a road, and a large lorry comes around the corner at speed, we are clear as to what we should do. But what if there was a small child standing in the middle of the road a few meters away? Clearly, leaving her to be run over by the lorry would not be in accord with the good; it would not be in accord with preserving life. Running towards the danger momentarily to save her is then making a decision to act in accordance with the good, even though it involves an increased risk of death for us.

This is an example of fortitude, and St. Thomas Aquinas explains what is happening in this situation as follows: 'fortitude of soul... binds the will firmly to the good of reason in face of the greatest evils' - i.e. fortitude is the virtue that allows me to act to save the girl, which is what my thinking tells me I must do, despite the fact that I may die myself. St. Thomas counts fortitude amongst the cardinal virtues, placing it third of the four in terms of rank. It belongs to the cardinal virtues because it is a virtue concerned with steadfastness of reason in the most extreme of situations, making it important in safeguarding the good


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This doesn't sound right. Saving the child sounds like pretty much an on-the-spot decision, while fortitude surely implies some sort of determined resolution over a period of time.

12/8/09 7:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is wrong, which from one of the domini canes is a worrying to say the least.
Br Gay talks about split second decisions in "extraordinary situations, extreme situations" which mean that we momentarily increase our risk of death.
But that is not fortitude, 'the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of good.' This is a virtue that enables us to face the possibility of death, as Christ himself did, to endure persecutions, to 'sacrifice one's life in defence of a just cause' (Catechism, 1808).
I think this entry in an otherwise excellent series may need to be reviewed.

12/8/09 9:28 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating, It sounds like Robert Gay OP isn't thinking of fortitude at all. His emotion methinks overcomes his reason. Perhaps the child didn't really need resuing either - th edanger of our emotions overcoming us (and the emotion may not be the protection of the woman's child).

13/8/09 6:49 am  
Anonymous Quentin said...


With all due respect, I think that those who want to say that something in Godzdogz is actively 'wrong' should have the fortitude to identify themselves, and not hide behind a cloak of anonymity.

That said, may I with some diffidence (I am not a notable Aquinas scholar, unlike the Student Master who checks the posts on Godzdogz) suggest that fr Robert has got it absolutely right ?

Aquinas says that 'it belongs to fortitude of the mind to bear bravely with infirmities of the flesh' (II-IIae,123,i).

As timidity - which is what might prevent us saving the little girl - is an infirmity of the flesh, it surely follows that the Virtue which helps us overcome that timidity is fortitude : and it seems to me that this is what CCD1808 actually says - that Fortitude 'enables one to conquer fear, EVEN fear of death, and to face trials ...' (emphasis added).

So Fortitude is not only about overcoming the fear of death, but about overcoming fear in general; and one might think that it is more notably active in overcoming reflexive fears - such as that instanced by fr Robert - which one does not have time to conquer by rational thought.

13/8/09 10:06 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For me, fortitude is gritting one's teeth and biting back the blistering reply that arises all too frequently in my work with emotionally disturbed teenagers. It is enduring the comments and the deliberate attacks on a daily basis. It is saying "Your hair looks great" and offering to share my crisps with a girl who has taken delight in showering me with hurtful personal insults on a daily basis.
Not as heroic as saving a life, but wearing and exhausting, and requiring a daily decision to go on doing one's perceived duty. I would think that religious life mirrors this on a daily basis (though hopefully not the foul language and the aggression!), but the endless pinpricks which tempt us to give up. I think of the hymn "Lord for tomorrow" and this sums up fortitude for me.

13/8/09 10:49 am  
Anonymous Quentin said...

that sounds to me exactly what Aquinas had in mind !

13/8/09 6:32 pm  

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