A Car­di­nal Virtue

Let us look togeth­er at one of the great car­di­nal virtues — for­ti­tude. But before we get to for­ti­tude I need to say a lit­tle about virtue, try­ing, if I can, to redeem the word for you. 

Unfor­tu­nate­ly virtue tends to get asso­ci­at­ed with many bad feel­ings and atti­tudes; like per­fec­tion­ism or legal­ism, or like the kind of snob­bery where oth­ers are con­stant­ly look­ing down their noses at all the rest of us. In fact for many peo­ple the very men­tion of virtue makes them feel like some­one is snoop­ing around their lives to see if they are hav­ing a good time and try­ing to stop it.

But virtue has noth­ing to do with any of these things. Sim­ply put, virtue is good habits that we can rely upon to make our lives work. (Con­verse­ly, vice is bad habits we can rely upon to make our lives not work.) When the old writ­ers spoke of a vir­tu­ous life”, they were refer­ring to a life that works, a life that func­tions well.

Now, the car­di­nal virtues are called that because they are the hinge” virtues, that is, those qual­i­ties of life that swing open the door onto a good and ful­ly func­tion­ing life. (“Car­di­nal”, in Latin, means hinge.) And for­ti­tude is a key car­di­nal virtue. Indeed we can­not prac­tice any of the oth­er virtues very long with­out bring­ing for­ti­tude into play.

A Dou­ble Meaning 

For­ti­tude actu­al­ly has a dou­ble mean­ing, or per­haps two dis­tinct aspects of one mean­ing. First, it means courage, brav­ery, val­or, hero­ism. You know, all of those qual­i­ties that are rather out of fash­ion in our day, but which we sure hope the per­son next to us has when the chips are down. The sec­ond mean­ing is endurance, tenac­i­ty, per­se­ver­ance. It is that abil­i­ty to stay with a task in the midst of every con­ceiv­able dis­cour­age­ment and set­back. Courage and endurance — it’s this great com­bi­na­tion that is summed up in the virtue of fortitude.

One of the finest ways we have of under­stand­ing for­ti­tude is by study­ing exam­ples of it in var­i­ous set­tings and from dif­fer­ent angles, evi­dent in the lives of peo­ple such as Née To-sheng (Watch­man Née) of Chi­na, Eber­hard Arnold of Ger­many, Rosa Parks of the Unit­ed States, Alexan­der Solzhen­it­syn of Rus­sia, Karol Wojty­la (John Paul II) of Poland, and Dorothy Day of the Unit­ed States. And the vari­ety of angles and set­tings of their sto­ries serve to deep­en our understanding. 

Grow­ing Together 

How do we prac­tice for­ti­tude? In one sense we don’t, real­ly. It is much more a qual­i­ty of life than it is par­tic­u­lar actions. God is far more inter­est­ed in peo­ple of a par­tic­u­lar sort than he is in par­tic­u­lar actions. And, in real­i­ty, all of the virtues are aimed at devel­op­ing a cer­tain kind of per­son, a per­son who will nat­u­ral­ly respond to life’s sit­u­a­tions with love and joy and peace and patience and kind­ness and gra­cious­ness and faith­ful­ness and gen­tle­ness and self-control. 

Hav­ing said that, let’s con­sid­er a few exer­cis­es which can at least help us think about for­ti­tude more. 

1. Reflect on an expe­ri­ence in your past where for­ti­tude would have been a great asset to you. Maybe it was a time of real fear or dan­ger. Or per­haps you quit too quick­ly in a sit­u­a­tion where per­sis­tence would have brought a bet­ter result. Think about that expe­ri­ence with God”. Maybe con­fes­sion is need­ed. Per­haps God can help you to live beyond the regrets of the past. What prepa­ra­tion or life expe­ri­ences would you have need­ed in order to respond dif­fer­ent­ly when you were in the sit­u­a­tion? What could you be doing now so that the need­ed resources are yours for when a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion arises? 

2. Iden­ti­fy one per­son in your life that best exem­pli­fies for­ti­tude to you. What is it about this per­son that makes him/​her such a ster­ling exam­ple of this virtue for you? Does this per­son act or behave in a par­tic­u­lar way? Is it a spe­cial qual­i­ty of char­ac­ter? Is it that you can almost instinc­tive­ly trust this per­son to be there when you need him/​her? What is it specif­i­cal­ly that you admire? Now, con­sid­er how this per­son came to be this way. What set of cir­cum­stances influ­enced his/​her life? What teach­ings? Was there a par­tic­u­lar kind of com­mu­ni­ty or church life that con­tributed? Are these ele­ments that are miss­ing in your life? If so, are there things you can do to make up for the lack? 

3. In cer­tain sit­u­a­tions courage and per­sis­tence is not exact­ly the right response. Some­times we can jump into a sit­u­a­tion think­ing we are being hero­ic when we are real­ly being bull­head­ed and we only make the sit­u­a­tion worse. Or we may stick with a project long after we should have aban­doned it; we thought we were being per­sis­tent when we were only being impru­dent. Can you think of a sit­u­a­tion like this in your past? Were there any sig­nals which you ignored that, if heed­ed, would have helped you to see that your actions were mis­guid­ed? What lessons can you learn from this past experience? 

4. We all know that habits are strength­ened and deep­ened through prac­tice. So then, con­sid­er what habits of life will incline you more toward courage and endurance. Begin with endurance; it is the eas­i­er of the two to think of in terms of habit devel­op­ment. Write out one or two dai­ly prac­tices that would help devel­op a per­sis­tent spir­it. A dai­ly rou­tine of serv­ing a neigh­bor per­haps. Or a reg­u­lar act that is gen­er­al­ly unknown and unap­pre­ci­at­ed by peo­ple at large. Next, con­sid­er courage. Try to find an action that helps you to stand up to some dai­ly fear. Or con­sid­er stand­ing for a mat­ter of jus­tice in your work­place which will not auto­mat­i­cal­ly make you look good. Things like these will help devel­op pat­terns of life that will incline us toward fortitude. 

5. For­ti­tude is not a high­ly sought-after virtue in our day. It is sel­dom some­thing that will get some­one on the evening news. Few today even think about for­ti­tude, not to men­tion earnest­ly seek after it. Why is this the case today? Give some ener­gy work­ing on that ques­tion. Are there cul­tur­al forces which make for­ti­tude less desir­able now than in oth­er eras? Are there ways the church­es have become a part of the prob­lem? Am I part of the problem? 

6. The pres­ence of for­ti­tude (in the dou­ble sense of courage and endurance) is essen­tial for the good of any soci­ety. Where do you see today’s world lead­ers exhibit­ing courage? Where do they exhib­it a lack of courage? Is for­ti­tude a polit­i­cal asset or a liability?

7. For­ti­tude is one of four clas­sic car­di­nal virtues, the oth­er three being jus­tice, tem­per­ance, and pru­dence. Which of these four is the less famil­iar to you? Which might be the one you need to work on the most? What plan can you put in place that will sub­stan­tial­ly increase both your knowl­edge and expe­ri­ence of these virtues by this time next year?

We’re glad you’re here!

Help­ing peo­ple like you abide with Jesus is why we post resources like this one. Always ad-free, Ren­o­varé is sup­port­ed by those who know soul-care is vital. Would you join us?

Donate >

First pub­lished in Per­spec­tives, 2001.

Originally published July 2001