<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=1906385056278061&ev=PageView&noscript=1" />
Skip to main content Accessibility feedback


Mark Lowery

Think about all those times in your life when you have been up against really difficult situations—those situations that make you want to just run away. As someone used to say to me, “Stop the world, I want to get off!” But you know you can’t run away, and the world just won’t stop for you. So you plunge in and do the best you can.

There is a special name for that energy at work in you that helps you to plunge in: It’s called the “irascible appetite.” It comes from the same Latin word as the more familiar term irate, and for good reason. Sometimes what makes you plunge in instead of run away is anger (ira). Something about the situation, often some element of injustice, makes you irate enough to “attack” it. The “irascible appetite” is what inclines you to pursue a good that is difficult to attain (or, conversely, to shun an evil that is hard to avoid).

While we all know what it’s like to run away from tough situations, we also know what it’s like to plunge into them in the wrong way, imprudently. There is a special virtue in our philosophic and theological tradition that helps us avoid both extremes: the virtue of fortitude or courage. Fortitude helps us moderate the irascible appetite. It is so important that it is considered one of the four “cardinal” or “hinge” virtues—those central ones on which the myriad of others swing. (The other cardinal virtues are temperance, justice and prudence.)

One of the great things about fortitude, and the rest of these cardinal virtues, is that they can serve to unite people who belong to different religions or even no religion at all. Fortitude plays a prominent role in the Bible (think of David against Goliath), but it is also spoken of by Aristotle and Cicero. In fact, these cardinal virtues are called “natural” virtues because they can be understood and practiced by everyone, religious or not. Members of biblical religions, though, believe that the Bible gives some unique examples of the virtues and that God’s grace assists us in living the virtues.

So all members of the human race should be interested in fortitude, because we all need it. All of us are beset with situations that require the irascible appetite to be rightly directed by fortitude. Here are some typical situations, to which you can add your own unique ones:

1. Your son or daughter has wandered from the faith, setting off in you an incomparable set of emotions (Was it my fault? What should I do now? Whatever I might say may make it worse!).

2. Someone you know has decided to get married in a context that you judge to be very inappropriate. Do you attend the wedding? What is an appropriate gift?

3. A very clear injustice has occurred in the workplace. Trying to remedy it may result in persecution or even loss of the job. Should you fight the injustice?

The conflicting emotions are intense, to say the least. We usually want to run away from these situations—or jump in and fix them quickly! What to do? Understanding how fortitude works goes a long way in dealing with such difficulties, just like understanding how a machine works goes a long way in solving some specific difficulty with it.

Don’t Be Blackmailed by Fear

Difficult situations are by their very nature the type in which other people, whether intentionally or not, want to scare you into being passive. It sounds a bit harsh, but they want to blackmail you with fear. And to combat this you have to develop a kind of “fearlessness” that actually allows you to feel fear without letting that fear get the best of you.

This is not a blind fearlessness based on a naive appropriation of a situation. Rather, this fearlessness actually starts with a genuine fear based on the recognition of evil. It is right and good to feel fear in the face of evil. But then, having legitimately felt that fear, you don’t let it paralyze you—you use its energy to attack the evil. In the words of Josef Pieper, this means “not allowing yourself to be forced into evil by fear, or to be kept by fear from the realization of good.” You “walk straight up to the cause of fear” and do what is good (The Four Cardinal Virtues, University of Notre Dame Press, 126–7).

It is precisely this fearlessness that will keep you from getting trapped into saying, “I’d better not say anything. I’m afraid I’ll hurt his/her/their feelings. I’m afraid our relationship will become even worse.” It is tempting for religious people to use their religion to justify such cowardice: How easy it is to say to ourselves that “enduring suffering patiently is part of our faith, so just quietly and patiently endure.”

Now don’t misunderstand: There is a place in nearly all religions—an enormously important place—for the endurance of suffering. Sometimes it really is best to keep silent. In fact, patient and quiet endurance is the second key act of fortitude. But it comes only after the first chief part of fortitude, which is called “aggression” or “attack.”

Aggression and Endurance

Too often we see the words aggression and attack, and the anger behind them, as inimical to Christianity. But one only has to take a cursory glance at the lives of many religious leaders, such as Moses or Jesus, to realize how much “righteous anger” they display and how they channel that anger into action. They attack evil! St. Thomas Aquinas says that the brave man uses wrath to pounce upon evil (Summa Theologiae II-II, 123, 10, ad 3). Thus fortitude and wrath work directly upon each other.

But we also know that at times our best and most prudent efforts at attacking evil must come to a halt: There is nothing left that can be done. Then, fortitude displays itself in a second mode: the mode of endurance, whereby we put up with various hardships and show patience with wrongdoers (such patience is one of the spiritual works of mercy).

At this point we discover one of the more fascinating, and comforting, dynamics within the virtue of fortitude: It’s a win-win situation. That is, whether you are in the mode of attack or in the mode of endurance, you’re a winner.

This seems impossible, for it seems like you move to endurance mode only after you have lost the battle. For instance, after you have failed to convince your child to stay with the faith, or your sister to marry in the Church, then it seems like you move to the second-rate part of fortitude and endure the long time of difficulty. Or, having failed to convince your friend to fix parts of his disordered life, you move into the less-desirable mode of tolerating him. So, how can one be a winner either way?

A Win-Win Situation

The answer is simple. Successful attack has its own built-in rewards, but endurance is higher and more virtuous than aggression or attack. “To suffer and endure is objectively the only remaining possibility of resistance. . . . It is in this situation that fortitude ultimately proves its genuine character” (Pieper, 128).

To attack is good, and it is the first thing required, but it is not the highest mode of fortitude: “In the world as it is constituted, it is only in the supreme test, which leaves no other possibility of resistance than endurance, that the inmost and deepest strength of man reveals itself.” Note that if there is possibility for resisting evil through attack, it must be seized, but if not, the utmost purity of fortitude gets its chance to shine: There is “nothing else than to love and realize that which is good, in the face of injury or death, and undeterred by any spirit of compromise” (Pieper, 130–1).

So with the virtue of fortitude, you are victorious either way. If the attack upon evil is successful, the victory is readily apparent; if endurance is called for, the victory is within the individual. For Christians, that victory is now closely bound to the fortitude of Christ himself.

If Endurance Is Better . . .

. . . why ever attack? Why not just settle into the mode of patient endurance? If endurance is the supreme test, isn’t attack excluded for the Christian? If that’s the case, doesn’t Christianity fit the critique of Nietzsche and Marx, who condemned Christianity as a religion for weaklings who would rather suffer than fight evil?

Once more we turn to the wisdom of Pieper:

The readiness to meet the supreme test by dying in patient endurance so that the good may be realized does not exclude the willingness to fight and attack. Indeed, it is from this readiness that the springs of action . . . receive that detachment that, in the last analysis, are denied to every sort of tense and strained activism (Pieper, 133).

In a word, only the person ready and willing to endure will be able to attack in the right way. The reason is simple: The willingness to endure makes you detached from the results. Only when you are detached from the results of your activism will your activism be balanced and prudent. Someone too set on “getting results and getting them now” will tend to be impatient, haughty, and overly polemical. The detached person can attack with a certain equanimity.

Practicing for Death

Usually when we think of fortitude, we think of the varied occasions in this life that require attack and endurance. And then we tack onto these the final moment of death, which likewise involves attack (we should resist death) and endurance (eventually we must embrace death).

But in fact every act of fortitude during our lives has death as its reference point or horizon. Whenever injury is done to you, it is ordered toward, or on a trajectory toward, your death. Now those who injure you surely do not seek your death. But they do seek your passivity—they are killing you in a small way. In an ultimate sense, they are seeking your death.

That is why Pieper can say that “every injury to the natural being is fatal in its intention.” The converse is likewise true: “Thus every courageous action has as its deepest root the readiness to die, even though, viewed from without, it may appear entirely free from any thought of death.” Fortitude “reaches down into the depths of the willingness to die.” And that is where its “effective power” comes from (Pieper, 117). As Karl Rahner has noted, all of life is “practicing for death.” That sounds depressing from a purely secular perspective, but from a Christian point of view, there’s nothing better or more important to practice for. After all, we’re talking about an eternity of sheer happiness.


Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission! Donate