This site uses cookies...
Cookies are small text files that help us make your web experience better. By using any part of the site you consent to the use of cookies. More information about our cookies policy can be found on the Terms of Use.

A thousand and one Fortitudes

· ​The ethic of the virtues ·

As the Latin root ‘fortis’ suggests, ‘fortitude’ has something to do with strength, firmness, and force. Aristotle associates ‘andreia’ (Gr.) with strength and force on the battlefield (bravery). For him and other Greek philosophers, the role of this disposition is to deal with two passions, fear and confidence. Not dealing well with either of them can result either in cowardice or foolhardiness. St Thomas Aquinas includes spiritual as well as physical battles in the domain of fortitude. He recognises that human beings get emotionally muddled and tend to be pulled towards things that are attractive but are against the good of reason. To ensure that we don't retract we need fortitude.

St Bernard of Clairvaux saw the strength of Mary’s character in the episode of the Annunciation (the illustration shows Caravaggio’s interpretation of this scene, 1608)

What are we to make of fortitude today? To answer this question, it is crucial to clarify some obscurities associated with this virtue. First, although the noun ‘fortitude’ is female, the word itself in many languages is translated as ‘manliness’ – the Greek word ‘andreia’ comes from ᾰ̓νήρandανδροςmeaning a male adult. The Latin root fortis refers to strength and firmness which are non-gender specific. Interestingly, the English synonym of fortitude, ‘courage’, comes from the Latin word for heart (cor). While Aristotle was concerned with manly fortitude, Christianity began the tradition of applying cardinal virtues to both men and women, especially martyrs. St Bernard of Clairvaux finds fortitude in the character of Virgin Mary during Annunciation. Remarkably, he sees it in relation to the way Mary preserved her virginity. Today we would say that it was Mary’s ability to overcome various types of fear (of disapproval, rejection and the unknown) and carry on with her mission (to become the mother of God) that signify her fortitude.

Secondly, fortitude today can be applied to a variety of situations. In the social sphere, cases of whistleblowing, activism, even civil disobedience could be considered as displays of fortitude. In the personal context, taking care of a disabled child or an aged parent, overcoming addiction or enduring the pain of illness could be expressions of fortitude. In the professional domain, fortitude is no longer reserved to the military.

What complicates the understanding of fortitude is the multiplicity of its contemporary synonyms. In English, there are terms such as courage (with its different types such as ‘moral’, ‘civil’, ‘collective’ and ‘professional’ courage), bravery, valour, daring, boldness and audacity. In Polish, ‘odwaga’ means męstwo, dzielność, smialość and waleczność and in Italian, we have words such as coraggio, animo, valore, ardimento and arditezza for fortitude. It is because of this diversity of terms and the ambiguity of their meanings as well as the connotations with manliness and war that some scholars see fortitude as a redundant concept. Moreover, there are other conceptual problems: what one describes as courageous, someone else may see itas fanatical or cowardly. Yesterday’s heroes can be today’s villains. It is not easy to see which fearless acts express the virtue of fortitude and which promote bad ends. A terrorist can be described as courageous when he or she overcomes fear, faces danger even death when confidently detonating a bomb. Feeling fear and confidence and being able to negotiate between them (conditions of fortitude) can be done for a variety of seemingly good reasons. Because of these complexities, some thinkers prefer to concentrate on aspects of fortitude such as resilience and endurance. For Peter Geach, ‘no virtue can exist in due development without courage’.

There is a renewed interest in fortitude thanks to new developments in virtue ethics and positive psychology. Linda Zagzebski in her Exemplarist Moral Theory explores different types of exemplars and their virtues. Fortitude is exemplified by the hero. She analyses the case of Leopold Socha, a Polish sewer worker and former thief, who helped some of his fellow Poles (both Christians and Jews) to escape death during the Nazi occupation. This story (powerfully portrayed in Agnieszka Holland’s film ‘In Darkness’) shows how it is possible to find inner resources in order to change morally and act fearlessly for the sake of others.

Acting for the sake of others or, more broadly, for the sake of the moral good or human flourishing (Aristotelian eudaimonia or Thomistic blessedness) is the goal of fortitude. In the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching human flourishing is connected to the common good. To put it simply, I cannot be happy if others around me are unhappy. On this account, murderous terrorist actions or acts of daring for their own sake can never be judged as fortitudinous.

Rosa Parks in a photograph taken in the mid-1950s (with Martin Luther King in the background). In Alabama in 1955 she refused to give up her place on a bus to a white man. Her disobedience sparked the beginning of the civil rights movement.

Fortitude is difficult as there are always obstacles in us (disordered desires and fears) and in the world outside (political systems and social realities that have oppressive elements). Speaking out when others are silent, as in the case of the 42-year old Rosa Parks on 1 December 1955 in Montgomery, requires fortitude. Parks’ disobedience caused a revolution in the race relations in USA and began the Civil Rights Movement. What she did was daring. It ultimately made her a hero.

It is not easy to think of ourselves as capable of fortitude. Yet, our daily life is the platform for taking risks, confronting and overcoming anxieties, enduring pain and becoming vulnerable for the sake of the moral good. The strength and firmness (fortis) in fortitude is first and foremost about having a firm mind and resisting pressures to conform. Fortitude overcomes negativity and destructive forces even if it doesn’t always win. When fortified by trust in God, fortitude gets a different dimension. As Julian of Norwich, the fortitudinous English mystic, suggested: ‘with regard to our essential being we are in God and God in us’. The awareness of being in God and God being in us is what we (as Christians) find ultimately consoling and what makes fortitude a heavenly rather than military force.

Anna Abram
Anna Abram is Principal of The Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, in Cambridge, United Kingdom. 




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 19, 2019