The Life of Virtue – Fortitude

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

Robert Gay OP

Fr Robert Gay is Prior of the Priory of the Holy Spirit, Oxford, and he is also a lector in moral theology at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford.