Fortitude and Emotional Well-Being

Doug McManaman
September, 2003
Reproduced with Permission

The Need for Fortitude

The emotions have an innate need to be guided by reason. An emotionally healthy life is one in which the emotions are moderated by right reason. It follows that emotional stability and well-being are the result of a certain structuring in which the emotions of the concupiscible and irascible appetites are subject to a will that in turn is subject to reason.

An emotionally unhealthy life is one in which the emotions dominate our will and reason. In this case, the emotions are not governed at all, or they are governed by a mind not rectified by reason via the intellectual virtues, such as wisdom and prudence, which we will speak of later.

There are a host of emotions that were not dealt with in our treatment of temperance and its various parts, namely the emotions of the irascible appetite, which include fear, daring, hope, and despair. Life brings with it all sorts of difficulties, and it is through these emotions that we relate to them. To relate to these difficulties well requires that these emotions be moderated by the appropriate virtues, namely fortitude and its parts.

Now the greatest achievement of love is to learn to love the other as another self. Man's perfect good is that he know and possess God. A perfect love of another is one that wills that the happiness of knowing and loving God befall another. Human life is a quest for the Supreme Good, it is a willing of the good, which is what love is. In other words, human life is about learning to love.

But love is difficult to achieve. It is difficult in general, only because love is channelled through virtue, and virtue is difficult. And it is difficult more specifically because special difficulties arise that become obstacles in the quest for the good. Hence, the need for a host of virtues that will enable us to remove these obstacles.

Emotional health, in other words, demands that we aspire to something higher than ourselves and our own personal comfort. It demands that our life become a quest for the Supreme Good, that is, for God. It is this quest that brings movement and meaning to human life. It is true that any goal endows our life with movement, and thus a certain meaning. But a truly good life is one that aspires after what is truly good. Thus it is not possible to achieve an emotionally healthy life unless one aspires after what is truly good and truly larger than ourselves.

The typical hedonist today does not aspire to anything larger and higher, but settles for "feeling good". Such a life does not require fortitude. But a truly meaningful life, one whose meaning (direction) is determined in regards to man's true end -- which is the knowledge and love of the greatest good -- does indeed require a host of virtues belonging to fortitude. The virtue of temperance is thus not enough for emotional well-being, since temperance deals with the greatest pleasures, not the greatest difficulties. Rather, it belongs to fortitude to remove the obstacles that withdraw the will from following reason on account of difficulties that give rise to fear and/or daring.

Fortitude in the Midst of Battle

Fortitude binds the will firmly to the good of reason in the face of the greatest evils, and the most fearful of all bodily evils is death. And so the very idea of fortitude presupposes that there are certain things we should love more than our own lives, certain things we ought to be willing to die for. We hold that the human person ought to love what is larger than himself, namely truth and justice. In other words, he ought to love the good of the entire civil community and greater goods besides, so much as to be willing to expose himself to the danger of death for their sake, and we would argue that he ought to love God (who is Truth) more than himself, and be willing to expose himself -- not others -- to the dangers of death for His sake, that is, for His cause.

Fortitude is the virtue that moderates the emotions of fear and daring in accordance with right reason. It is not, as some are wont to believe, extraordinary daring, as we see on Fear Factor, for example. Sitting in a bathtub with a bunch of deadly snakes, or jumping from one speedboat to another, are acts of daring, not acts of fortitude. Had the person been attempting to rescue a little girl trapped in a pit of snakes, or a man unable to steer the speedboat as a result of a heart attack or stroke, we could speak of fortitude. But not without a pursuit of the good. Thomas writes:

Fortitude strengthens a man's mind against the greatest danger, which is that of death. Now fortitude is a virtue; and it is essential to virtue to tend to good; wherefore it is in order to pursue some good that man does not fly from the danger of death. But the dangers of death arising out of sickness, storms at sea, attacks from robbers, and the like, do not seem to come on a man through his pursuing some good. On the other hand, the dangers of death which occur in battle come to man directly on account of some good, because, to wit, he is defending the common good by a just fight. (ST. II-II. Q. 123, a. 5)

The willingness to fall in battle is not by any means limited to the context of an actual war between nations. There are "private battles", as in the case of a court judge who refuses to yield to death threats and delivers a just judgment nonetheless. John the Baptist is a perfect example of a man of fortitude with respect to a "private combat", for he did not refrain from speaking out against Herod for repudiating his first wife and marrying his brother's wife while Philip was still alive. This eventually led to his death. Similarly, St. Thomas More refused to take the oath enacted by Parliament. To do so would contravene the judgment of his conscience. As a result, he too lost his head and won the crown of martyrdom.

More current examples of fortitude might include a bishop or priest's refusal to provide a funeral mass for an unrepentent mafia boss, despite death threats from family members. Certainly the threat to court judges is still a very real possibility. Politicians who choose to take a firm stand on certain issues, in favor of justice, might very well risk assasination, especially in parts of the developing world. A fireman rushing into a burning building in order to save lives, knowing that there is a very good chance he will not come out alive, is indeed an instance of fortitude.

Fortitude is not fearlessness. Some people perform acts of apparent fortitude, that is, without the virtue. This occurs when they tend to what is difficult as though it were not, a behaviour due either to ignorance, that is, they are simply unaware of the extent of the dangers involved. Sometimes a person has so often escaped dangers in the past that on the basis of that experience he is rather confident of overcoming current dangers. Or, a person might possess a certain skill which leads him to think little of the dangers of battle, thinking himself more than capable of defending themselves against them. Sometimes a person will act through the impulse of a passion, such as excessive anger, or sorrow, of which he wishes to rid himself.. These are not acts of fortitude precisely becuase no moderation of fear is involved.

The truly brave man does not suppress his fear. He really experiences it, but holds fast to the good, moderating the fear of which he is fully cognizant. The principal act of fortitude is to endure, whereas aggression or attack is its secondary act. For enduring fear is more difficult than attacking evil through daring.

Cowardice and Self-Loathing

We are what we love, and it is really only by loving that which is larger than ourselves that we actually become enlarged and enriched. It is the direction towards the sovereign good -- which is unlimited -- that brings meaning to human life, and it is the pursuit of this great good that makes one's life great.

Now goodness is a property of being, just as growth is a property of living things, or as malleability is a property of iron. Just as whatever is living grows, so too whatever has being is good. Goodness means fullness of being. Accordingly, evil is a privation of being, a lack of something that ought to be. A physical evil, for example, is a deformity of some kind. Think of a bird with only one wing. It is lacking what it ought to have, namely another wing. From a physical point of view, the bird does not enjoy fullness of being. It suffers from a physical evil.

Now the human person is both physical and moral. As a moral agent, the human person is capable of bringing about moral evil. He does this by choosing a certain way. And since evil is a privation of being, a lack of something that ought to be there, an evil choice is one that involves a deficient will, one that lacks an order that it ought to have. For example, if I owe a person one hundred dollars, and I only pay back ten, my will that he be given his due is deficient and lacking. Thus, my will is bad or evil, which is to say, lacking what it ought to have.

Now a moral agent (a human person) is what he chooses. We become what we choose. Our character is established by the choices that we make. In making an unjust choice, I become an unjust man. In choosing to lie, I become a liar, a person who is untrustworthy. In choosing to kill, I become (am) a killer. In short, in choosing deficiently, I become deficient, that is, my character is deficient.

Now at the risk of sounding like a dualist, let's just say that the evils of the soul are more to be feared than the evils of the body; for the body is destructible, while the soul is not. For example, it is better to have good character and missing fingers than to have all ten fingers and a morally bad character. Moreover, the evils of the body are more to be feared than the evils of external things. Hence, it is better to lose all four tires than all five fingers. And so it follows that it is unreasonable to incur evils of the soul in order to avoid bodily evils, such as a physical beating or even death, or worse, evils of external things, such as the loss of money or popularity. So too it is unreasonable to endure bodily evils in order to avoid the loss of money or honors from those of questionable character.

But the one lacking fortitude loves "external goods" and the goods of the body (temporal goods) more than his character, more than the common good, and more than the sovereign good, namely God. His love is thus disordered.

Now, the object of the will is the good. The will is drawn to something only because it sees it as a good. You and I are basically good, insofar as we have being. That is why we have a natural love for ourselves. But if we begin to make choices that are morally evil (deficient), we establish ourselves as deficient. But we do not love what is deficient. If we have any love for something, it is only insofar as it is good. I might love my new car as far as it drives well and has good gas mileage, but the break lights are smashed and there is a large dent in the passanger door, and it is missing a back seat. Consequently, I am not entirely happy with it. Similarly, as morally deficient, we are not entirely happy with ourselves, and the more we plunge into moral depravity, the more unhappy with ourselves do we become, that is, the more our self-loathing increases. Thus, the one who lacks fortitude cannot but loath himself from the very depths of his conscience. What he loathes is his small moral stature. That is why he can never enjoy the peace that he seeks to maintain by refusing to endure the difficult and the fearful. He has allowed his fear to veer him away from the course that reason has layed out for him. He is dominated more or less to some degree, by fear. And as his fear is not moderated by reason, it does not receive the perfection it requires, leaving him emotionally out of kilter. It is in this way that those who lack fortitude and do nothing about it set themselves up for a low grade depression, a profound dissatisfaction with themselves, that they will have to endure later if not sooner.

Certainly temporal evils are to be feared to some degree. Love of temporal goods can be reasonable, that is, when they are loved not so much for their own sake, but for the sake of higher goods. It is reasonable to fear the loss of one's house, because a house can be instrumental in attaining higher goods, such as the goods of virtue or things that pertain to the Divine love. It is true that I love my body for its own sake, but from another angle I also love my arms and legs insofar as they are instrumental in attaining higher goods, namely virtue.[1] But our love for bodily and external goods should not be so great as to hinder us from serving higher goods, and they are not to be despised in so far as they are instrumental towards attaining goods of the soul.

And so we ought to learn to moderate the emotion of daring, which moves us to attack difficult evils that loom on the horizon. What is needed when faced with a thretening situation is a carefully thought out battle plan, one whose ultimate aim is, again, to serve higher goods. Inordinate daring (foolhardiness) can needlessly expose us and others to the loss of external goods that are instrumental to these higher goods. True fortitude attacks evil at that point when not doing so would endanger greater goods. Consider, for example, the bishop or priest who chooses to significantly lighten the weight of his preaching at a particular time for fear of bringing down upon himself the wrath of the state, thereby allowing members of the Church to remain in ignorance, or allowing a portion of the Church to be scandalized. This is to love temporal goods too much. Or consider politicians who choose not to uphold what they know to be true and just for fear of losing office. It is often the case that people allow their moral and political views to be shaped by the zeitgeist, that is, by what is current and popular, in order to minimize friction and the chances of finding oneself friendless or unemployed. Much less are such people willing to die for what is true and just. But one must be willing to attack evil, despite temporal losses, in order to preserve virtue in others.


Anyone who has worked with teenagers knows that the happiest and most emotionally healthy of them are those who aspire after great and honorable ends. And certainly not all of them do. It is not uncommon to see hordes of teenagers loitering every night at the local Donut shop or mall, doing very little with their lives if anything at all. This rather pusillanimous existence is by no means limited to teenagers. Many adults have settled for a very small existence, which usually includes but does not seem to go far beyond a house with a well manicured lawn, a colorful garden, a cottage perhaps, and sometimes a life that deliberately excludes children, but not pets. These things are not evil in themselves. Rather, it is the lack of aspiration towards what is worthy of great honor that is small and deficient. The emotion that suffers in this case is the emotion of hope; for the virtue of magnanimity perfects hope and involves a stretching forth of the mind to great honors. There is no emotional wholeness without such a stretching forth to the great.

Many people are under the false impression that striving after great honors is about the pursuit of financial success or great wealth. The reason is that financial success is what our culture tends to honor most. In a hedonistic culture in which pleasure is regarded as the principal good, a life in pursuit of wealth is the only life that makes any sense; for wealth buys pleasures.

We honor great athletes, but athletic achievement is not great -- , at least not absolutely. A great athlete is not necessarily a great man. Neither is an intelligent and well educated man necessarily great and worthy of honor. But magnanimity is about the pursuit of great honors, because honor is the greatest of external things. But persons are honored principally on account of their virtue. Moral excellence is greater and more worthy of honor than is athletic and even academic excellence. Magnanimity is thus not so much the pursuit of olympic gold, or musical stardom, or financial success, much less fame and international repute, as it is the pursuit of great moral achievement.

Magnanimity aspires after moral excellence, and since generosity, gratitude, and benificence savor of excellence, the magnanimous man is ready to perform acts of great generosity, tremendous gratitude, and extraordinary beneficence. The magnanimous do not have such a high regard for external goods or a fear of evils such that they are inclined to give up the pursuit of justice or any other virtue. Thus, they do not conceal truth on account of fear, nor are they given over to complaining. Bellyaching betrays a defect of magnanimity in that the mind gives way too readily to external evils. Such vices are contrary to moral excellence.

But neither do the magnanimous despise wealth or great repute. They regard them as useful for accomplishing deeds of virtue. That is why they do not love them so much that they are willing to forgo virtue for their sake. Hence, an emotionally healthy and truly magnanimous person is neither very joyful at obtaining such goods, nor terribly grieved at their loss.

Now every virtue brings a certain beauty to human character, but magnanimity adds a certain luster over and above the others, giving them an added greatness, thus raising the stature of human character. That is why the magnanimous have beautiful character that, by virtue of the unity between matter and spirit, manifests in the countenance.

Magnanimity and its Excesses (presumption, vainglory, ambition)

In order to refine our understanding of this virtue and better appreciate what it is and isn't, let's glance briefly at its excesses. Firstly, magnanimity is not incompatible with humility. Magnanimity involves the recognition in oneself of something great which comes from God, namely divine grace and one's natural gifts; but the magnanimous recognize their own defects and the weakness of human nature, that is, their inclination to sin andcomplete dependence upon divine grace. The magnanimous are inclined to deem themselves worthy of great things in consideration of the gifts they hold from God. But humility allows them to keep their own deficiency at the forefront of their minds. As St. Thomas Aquinas writes: "Humility makes us honor others and esteem them better than ourselves", for we see some of God's gifts in them, gifts that we don't have.

Confidence in oneself and others is a part of magnanimity, but confidence in oneself can be inordinate by way of excess. This is presumption, and it is rooted in an inaccurate assessment of oneself. The presumptuous tend to what is above their power. Their hope in themselves is disordered, because their love for themselves is disordered. That is why presumption tends to go hand in hand with personal pride, the inordinate love of one's own excellence.

Having absolutely no confidence in anyone is certainly not a sign of emotional health. The other extreme, overconfidence in others, stems from a lack of sound observation, an inability or refusal to see the defects of others. This flaw can sometimes be disguised as virtue, that is, as a "positive disposition". But there is nothing virtuous in being positive about a situation that has not been properly assessed, just as there is nothing virtuous in being negative when there is much to be confident about.

The quest for honor is inordinate when a person desires the recognition of an excellence that he does not have, thus wanting more than his fair share of honors, and when a person desires honor for himself without referring it to God. The latter amounts to a lack of gratitude, which is a part of justice. Finally, the quest for honor is inordinate when it is pursued for the sake of being honored, as if to rest in the honor itself. This is ambition. But the truly magnanimous do not love themselves more than others; rather, they love the other as another self, and for God's sake. They desire the recognition of their own excellence only to the degree that it would profit others. But the heart of the ambitious rests in honor itself, without reference to the profit of others.

Vainglory is the inordinate desire for glory (to be known by others). Such desire for glory is inordinate when it is desired for its own sake, rather than as being useful for something greater, for example, that God may be more known and loved by others, or that human beings may be made better on account of such knowledge. Mother Teresa, for example, was very well known, but she did not desire such reputation, and yet her renown made innumerable people better.

Vainglory is particularly dangerous in that it renders us presumptuous and too self-confident, and presumption blinds us to the need to seek counsel from others. That is why vainglory begets disobedience, boastfulness, hypocrisy, contention, obstinacy, discord, and interestingly enough, the love of novelties. The vain strive to make known their excellence by showing that they are not inferior to others. And they do this in a number of ways. Since intellect is the most superior power in man, the vain will strive to show intellectual superiority. Thus, they do not readily give up their opinion when confronted with evidence of its weakness and inferiority. This is obstinacy, an excessive or stubborn attachment to one's opinion. And since the will is also a superior power, the person who strives to make known his excellence will exhibit a stubborn attachment to his own will. Such a person rarely agrees with others. This is discord, which begets quarreling or contentiousness. And a contentious person can hardly be expected to obey the commands of his superiors. Thus, he is inclined to disobedience. Finally, vainglory begets a love of novelties. For the vain wish to stand out from the rest, so they are given over to novelties which tend to grab our attention and call for greater admiration.


A right relationship to one's money is critical for emotional well-being. Emotional health demands that we stretch forth to that which is larger than the self, and so it demands of those with great wealth that they aspire to do something great with it. Only a person of great wealth is capable of doing great things with that wealth, and it is magnificence that intends the production of a great work at great expense. There is no end of human work that is as great as the honor of God. And so the magnificent man looks for opportunities to do a great work that God may be more honored. This is how magnificence is connected to genuine love. Recall that genuine human love wills that the happiness of knowing and loving God befall another. Hence, this love seeks the honor of God, desires that God be glorified and thus more loved. Thus, charity in the heart of one who has wealth is magnificent.

Now things that pertain to my own person are certainly good, but better than my private good is the good of the civil community at large; for it is a larger good. But better than both are things that pertain to God. That is why a magnificent person, who aspires to the largest and greatest, will not choose, first and foremost, to be lavish towards himself; for doing so is not particularly great.

The virtue of religion is the most perfect part of the virtue of justice, as we will speak of further on. Religion seeks to render to God the honor and thanks we owe Him. Thus one cannot be truly magnificent without the virtue of religion, and by the same token, one cannot be emotionally healthy without the entire spectrum of human emotion subordinated to a will disposed by the virtue of religion.

But the magnificent man will also intend a great work at great expense for the honor of a person deserving of great honor, or for the honor of the entire state. The defect of magnificence is the mean or miserly heart whose intention is principally focused on spending the least amount possible. He does not shrink from producing a measly work so long as he spends little.

Once, while admiring a beautiful old Church in a poor area of a small Canadian town, a friend remarked how magnificent the Church was. And yet there is a Church that was recently built in one of the wealthiest towns in the country, a Church that is anything but magnificent. In fact, it is less than ordinary, and its appearance almost suggests a kind of miserliness, as if the principal intention was to reduce cost rather than build a great Church that speaks of the greatness and majesty of God. The excess of magnificence, however, is waste or wastefulness, wherein expenditure exceeds the value of the work.


Life brings with it all sorts of hardships, many of which are inflicted by others. Things rarely go our way, and human beings are continually developing psychologically and emotionally. We can be very difficult to put up with at different times throughout our lives. We are often the cause of great sorrow to others, and others to us. Hardships lead to sorrow, and sorrow in turn can beget anger. Anger can beget hatred, which in turn can lead to unjust injury, either verbal or physical. That is why the emotion of sorrow needs to be moderated according to reason. In this way, we allow sorrow to move us towards a more complete realization of the good, just as moderated anger helps in the execution of reason's response to injustice. A patient teacher, for example, will allow her sorrow to move her to find new and improved ways of teaching a lesson so as to be more easily understood by those students that are not learning.

The virtue of patience is that habit by which we endure hardship so that we maintain the course of action set out by reason. The patient man is not inordinately saddened by the things which cause him hurt. The defect of patience is, of course, impatience, which is an inability to bear hardship, and which involves a loss of self-possession. This results in the forsaking of the good on account of the sorrow caused thereby. Many people have begun to regard Robert Latimer as a courageous man because he had "the nerve" to murder his handicapped daughter and face the justice system to have the euthanasia law changed. He was a daring man, but not a man of fortitude. Latimer's actions could never have been a matter of fortitude, because murdering a handicapped child is intrinsically unjust, and his decision to murder her bespeaks a lack of patience, an inability to deal with the sorrow caused by the hardships of raising a handicapped child.

It is not inconsistent with patience to rise up against one who inflicts injustice. Patience is not spinelessness, the excess of meekness. The excess of patience is impassivity. The impassive do not allow themselves to be moved by sorrow. They endure it when they should not, thereby allowing the situation that is causing the hardship to perpetuate -- a situation that isn't necessarily unjust, but one that requires effective remedy. Moreover, there is nothing praiseworthy about "patiently" enduring harm against others, against the common good, or the divine honor. Such "patience" is merely a front that disguises a cowardly and unjust spirit.

Longanimity is the virtue that moderates hope in that it bears upon a good that is a long way off. The delay of the hoped for good causes sorrow, which is difficult to endure, and so in this sense longanimity has something in common with patience. Perhaps we can call its defect "brevanimity". The "brevanimous" might include those who begin projects enthusiastically, but leave them undone, or those who seem to always need a change. And perhaps the excess of longanimity is a kind of impassivity in which one fails to do what is required to bring about the good that is a long way off.

Constancy is the virtue by which a person endures the toil involved in persistently accomplishing a good work. It belongs to perseverance to persist in good for a long time until the end.  Perseverance moderates the emotion of fear as it regards weariness or failure on account of the delay. It differs from constancy in that constancy makes a man persist firmly in good against difficulties arising from external hindrances.

The defect of perseverance is effeminacy or softness, which describes one who is ready to forsake a good on account of difficulties which he cannot endure. Effeminacy differs from delicacy in that the latter regards the cause that hinders plearue, for example toil, whereas effeminacy regards the lack of pleasures. The excess of perseverance is pertinacity, which exceeds the mean of perseverance appointed by reason. The pertinacious man persists inordinately in something against many difficulties. He desires the end too much. The pertinacious and the effeminate have something in common, for the pertinacious shun the pain involved in not realizing the pleasure of the end that he loves and pursues inordinately.


1. Aquinas writes: "those things that are desired for their own sake, some are desired for their own sake alone, and never for the sake of something else, such as happiness which is the last end; while some are desired, not only for their own sake, inasmuch as they have an aspect of goodness in themselves, even if no further good accrued to us through them, but also for the sake of something else, inasmuch as they are conducive to some more perfect good." (S.T. II-II, Q. 145, ad. 1)