There is an important interplay and balance between the virtues that many modern minds set in opposition to one another. False dichotomies often prevail when the subtlety of virtues are lost or their meanings are grasped in simplistic or inaccurate ways.
Consider three virtues that are related and which enable and moderate one other: fortitude, patience, and meekness. To most people, these virtues seem more opposed than related. Today, fortitude conjures up an image of a fearless warrior in battle or an intense prophet fearing nothing of the opinion of men. Meekness seems to be thought synonymous with weakness and conciliation. Finally, patience in modern parlance often means either not acting at all or acting indecisively and without courage.
There are, of course, many problems with this thinking; the modern understanding of these words is quite different from their biblical or scholastic meaning. So part of our task is to recover a more accurate understanding of these words, but another aspect is to see how these virtues balance and moderate one another.
Fortitude – Consider first that fortitude is the virtue that enables us to withstand even great difficulties that hinder us from attaining our true goal. A chief feature of fortitude is being able to endure difficulties and see an act or decision through to the end. It is not merely being brave in the face of danger or sallying forth into battle; it is also being steadfast in spite of obstacles and enduring without sadness or loss of faith.
As with any virtue, there are certain sins that may emerge (by excess or defect) in relation to fortitude. Timidity, pusillanimity, faintheartedness, and softness are defects of fortitude. There are also excesses related to fortitude such as being foolhardy, presumptuous, overly ambitious, vainglorious, and headstrong (pertinacious).
Thus, patience and meekness are aspects of fortitude, especially in helping to govern excesses related to fortitude. While the modern mind considers them to be in opposition to fortitude, they are actually integral parts of it, because they not only moderate fortitude but are ways of living and expressing it.
Patience – This is perhaps the most frequent form under which fortitude is exercised in the face of the difficulties of life. St. Thomas Aquinas said that patience is attached to fortitude because it helps us to resist giving way to sadness and to bear up under the difficulties of life with a certain equanimity or steadiness of soul. By it, we do not give way easily to emotional sadness or excessive anger. Thus patience is an act of fortitude, because it bids us to endure painful or difficult things without weakening in our faith or our commitment to the truth. With patience, we are steady in the face of the vexations and contradictions of life.
Sadly, many in our culture equate patience with weakness. However, to be patient and to endure is a great strength. As St. Thomas points out, Endurance is more difficult than aggression … because endurance implies a length of time, whereas aggression is consistent with sudden movement (Summa Theologica IIa IIae q. 123, a. 6).
The fact is that many troubles and contradictions last for a long time. Not all (or even most) things can be changed for the better simply or quickly, so patience and suffering are often necessary acts of fortitude; they require great strength and brave endurance. Jesus said, In this world you shall have tribulation, but have courage, I have overcome the world (John 16:33). St Paul added, Through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God (Acts 14:21).
While fortitude will often summon us to face danger bravely, to proclaim the faith, and to do what is right; while it will rebuke cowardliness, faintheartedness, and softness; it will also enable us to endure difficulties without sadness, fear, depression, or excessive anger. In all these ways there is strength and courage to be found. While the modern mind does not often connect patience with fortitude, it is in fact one of its most common manifestations.
Meekness – Even more so the modern mind does not connect meekness with fortitude. The average person today does not even know the real definition of the word “meekness.” Most consider the word to be associated with being a pushover or a doormat. In this flawed sense, meekness is despised as weakness and fearfulness.
But meekness, in its traditional and theological sense, is anything but weakness. The meek are those who have authority over their anger, who can command and control its power, moderating and directing its energy to good rather than destructive ends.
Aristotle defined meekness as the proper middle ground between too much anger and not enough. Anger has an important place in the human psyche but it must be mastered and moderated, for it is unruly. The meek are those who have mastered their anger and know how to use its creative power to set things right.
In our culture, an “angry prophet” gets some credit as he denounces the powerful and vents his anger, but a prophet who is merely angry is not a true prophet. True prophets love God’s people; their anger results from the love of God, His truth, and His people. Beware mistaking true zeal born out of love with angry zeal, which sermonizes indiscriminately. The angry prophet preaches in order to get something off his chest and vent his anger. The true prophet speaks out of zealous love and from a meekness that gives him authority over his anger and zeal.
Fortitude without patience and meekness is like fire with nothing to contain it. Such a fire spreads wildly and destroys what it should illuminate and heat; it destroys what it should purify and transform.
Therefore, patience is not opposed to fortitude but rather is itself an act of fortitude because it courageously resists discouragement when the battle seems long and fierce. It enables fortitude to act over a long period, consistently and persistently, to attain an end that mere zeal would impatiently forsake in the absence of immediate results.
Similarly, meekness is also not opposed to fortitude but is also a form of it, by authoritatively governing the anger directed against injustice and error. The meek person is ultimately at peace deep inside, even while engaging in a struggle on the outside. This, of course, is essential for fortitude to reach its goal because reaching a goal (say, of establishing the truth, refuting error, or restoring justice and respect for life) is nearly impossible for a soul consumed by anger. Meekness, therefore, is the courage of fortitude along with the control that helps focus anger, zeal, and brave action.
Thus, as with so many things, we ought not to separate what God has joined, in this case fortitude, patience, and meekness. Scripture says, be angry but sin not (Eph 4:26). With respect to our virtues we might add this: have the courage and zeal of fortitude, but be not foolhardy, presumptuous, or headstrong.
Have the courage and zeal to enter the battle. Don’t be like so many people today who are soft, cowardly, and indiscriminately conciliatory. Conversely, enter not with wild, ungoverned fortitude (which isn’t really true fortitude at all); enter with a fortitude that is patient and willing to endure through what may well be a long battle. Enter with a fortitude that is authoritatively mastered and stabilized through meekness.
By God’s grace, true fortitude will win the day.