Today I listened to a talk given by a friend on the virtue of fortitude. The subject of this talk reminded me of Sandro Botticelli’s depiction of Fortitude (1470), which is in the Uffizi in Florence. While it’s displayed in a set with six other paintings of virtues, this panel is the only one in the cycle that was painted by Botticelli.
It has been suggested that Fortitude appears first in the series because her “gaze is intended to literally and figuratively watch over the other virtues as well as the viewers. Without strength, one can never fathom taking on the other six virtues.”
My friend’s talk centred on Josef Pieper’s analysis of fortitude in his book The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance. In it, he discusses how “the virtue of fortitude protects a person from loving his life in such a way that he loses it.” This means that fortitude protects a person from attachment both to disordered affections but also to certain goods that are meant to be subordinated to higher ones.
I have isolated these several quotations that draw out the meaning of fortitude in Pieper’s book:
“Fortitude presupposes vulnerability; without vulnerability there is no possibility of fortitude. […] To be brave actually means to be able to suffer injury. Because man is by nature vulnerable, he can be brave. […] Readiness proves itself in taking a risk.”
“To be brave is not the same as to have no fear. Indeed, fearlessness namely the sort of fearlessness that is based upon a false appraisal and evaluation of reality.”
“Under the direction of prudence, the good of man becomes compellingly evident.”
“The suffering of injury is only a partial and foreground aspect of fortitude. The brave man suffers injury not for its own sake, but rather as a means to preserve or to acquire a deeper, more essential intactness.”
“If the specific character of fortitude consists in suffering injuries in the battle for the realization of the good, then the brave man must first know what the good is, and he must be brave for the sake of the good.”
Considering these dimensions of fortitude can help us analyze whether we are cultivating this particular virtue:
– Do I recognize my natural vulnerability?
– Do I see it as the condition for taking a risk that requires bravery?
– Having checked my own conceit and evaluated reality, is the risk that I am taking prudent?
– What/who is my risk for the sake of?
– Is it worth it?
My favourite question my friend posed during her talk was this: “If we can’t endure in a moment when we have a lot of comforts – there’s not a ton of physical suffering, there’s mental and emotional suffering, but we’re not without resources – then how can we tell ourselves that, in a moment where everything else was stripped away and all we had to cling to was God, that we’d be able to if we’re not able to endure in this moment?
This reminded me of a section from Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity in which he’s discussing one of Paul Claudel’s plays in which a Jesuit missionary is shown as the survivor of the shipwreck. After his ship has been sunk by pirates, he’s drifting on a piece of wood through the raging waters of the ocean and says:
“Lord, I thank thee for bending me down like this. It sometimes happened that I found thy commands laborious and my will at a loss and jibbing at thy dispensation. But now I could not be bound to thee more closely than I am, and however violently my limbs move they cannot get one inch away from thee. So I really am fastened to the cross, but the cross on which I hang is not fastened to anything else. It drifts on the sea.”
[Ratzinger then reflects:] Fastened to the cross-with the cross fastened to nothing, drifitng over the abyss. The situtation of the contemporary believer could hardly be more accurately and impressively described. Only a loose plank bobbing over the void seems to hold him up, and it looks as if he must eventually sink. Only a loose plank connects him to God, though certainly it connects him inescabably, and in the last analysis he knows that this wood is stronger than the void that seethes beneath him and that remains nevertheless the really threatening force in his day-to-day life.”
Those passages were precisely what came to my mind when considering Pieper’s words: “Enduring comprises a strong activity of the soul, namely a vigorous grasping of and clinging to the good; and only from this stout-hearted activity can the strength to support the physical and spiritual suffering of injury and death be nourished.”
May we know the good worth clinging to, so that we can grow in fortitude. And may our growth in fortitude protect us from losing life in the only way that counts ultimately.