The Cardinal Virtues: Fortitude

Fortitude, Pietro Perugino

In exploring the cardinal virtue of fortitude, it is helpful to follow the schema of St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae (II, IIae, qq. 123-140), where he treats it expansively. Because I am summarizing a large amount of material here, I have not included references for each specific point below. Please allow the previous citation of the Summa to serve for the entire post.

Not only is fortitude a cardinal virtue, it is also one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit, of course, elevates this natural virtue to something greater and more directly rooted in faith and in God. In today’s article, we will consider fortitude as a cardinal virtue and therefore ponder it primarily as a natural and human virtue.

The cardinal virtue of fortitude enables us to withstand even great difficulties that hinder us from attaining our true goal. A chief feature of fortitude is being able to see an act or decision through to the end despite obstacles. It is not merely being brave in the face of danger or sallying forth into battle; it is also being steadfast in the face of difficulties and enduring without sadness or loss of faith.

In its strictest and loftiest sense, fortitude is the virtue that enables us to face the danger of death; in this sense it is at the root of martyrdom. However, fortitude is operative at every level short of mortal danger as well. By it one endures in order to overcome not merely physical dangers, but spiritual ones as well, which are enemies of our soul and impediments to our salvation. Therefore, the chief and most common act of fortitude is enduring in order to see a thing through despite obstacles, hardships, persecution, and any number of other difficulties.

As we have noted before, “every virtue observes or consists of the mean” (omnis virtus in medio consistit). Virtue is the middle ground between excess and defect. Fortitude is no exception. There are two vices opposed to fortitude:

Timidity or cowardice is the defect. While there are proper fears which teach us to shun or flee what we ought, timidity or cowardice leads us to avoid what virtue requires of us. It is especially serious when such fear leads us or makes us willing to violate divine law in order to avoid what we fear. As a defect of fortitude, timidity makes us indisposed to endure hardships or difficulties and influences us to give up easily or to refuse to do what is reasonably required of us.

Insensibility to fear or foolhardiness is the excess. As noted, there are some things we should reasonably fear and avoid. Insensibility or foolhardiness causes us to rush into danger when not required. As a result, this excess amounts to a form of stupidity, pride, impulsiveness, and/or presumption.

Thus, fortitude as a virtue stands in the middle between cowardice and foolhardiness. It regulates our tendencies to these extremes.

Just as the seven deadly sins have related sins which spring from them (which St. Thomas calls “daughters”), the virtues have what St. Thomas calls “parts.” These parts are different aspects of the virtue that help us to describe it or recognize it in action.

  1. Magnanimity – This word literally means “large-minded” and it refers to pondering great things such that we are inspired to yearn for or pursue them. Magnanimity helps us to comprehend with our mind things that are great, honorable, virtuous, and worthwhile. By it we he lay hold of a kind of vision for our goals; we are inspired to reach for them and are willing to endure difficulties and obstacles to attain them.
  2. Magnificence – This word literally means doing great things. With magnanimity we consider great, virtuous, and honorable things to pursue; with magnificence we set about accomplishing them, overcoming difficulties and being willing to make sacrifices to do so.
  3. Patience – This 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 excessive sadness or anger. Patience helps us to endure painful or difficult things without weakening in our faith or in our commitment to the truth and the pursuit of our spiritual goals.
  4. Perseverance – This helps us to pursue good purposes steadily in spite of difficulties, delays, fatigue, and the common temptation to eventual indifference if results are not quickly forthcoming. Many worthy goals take a long time, even generations, to accomplish. Perseverance keeps us steadfast.

Fortitude is rightly numbered among the cardinal virtues. The word “cardinal” is derived from the Latin cardo/cardin, meaning hinge. Many of the other virtues swing upon the hinges of fortitude.

Fortitude is more than mere bravery. It is a beautiful virtue that considers great things, enduring difficulties to attain to them, but doing so via the middle path, avoiding both cowardice and foolhardiness.