Thomist Josef Pieper on Endurance and Courage

… in the face of dread.

The great modern Thomist Josef Pieper writes,

“Fortitude … does not mean mere fearlessness. That man alone is brave who cannot be forced, through fear of transitory and lesser evils, to give up the greater and actual good, and thereby bring upon himself that which is ultimately and absolutely dreadful. This fear of the ultimately dreadful belongs, as the “reverse” of the love of God, to the absolutely necessary foundations of fortitude (and of all virtue): “He who feareth the Lord will tremble at nothing” (Eccles. 34, 16).

So whoever realizes the good by facing what is dreadful, by facing injury, is truly brave. This “facing” the dreadful has two aspects, which form the foundation for the two basic acts of fortitude: endurance and attack. Endurance is more of the essence of fortitude than attack.

This proposition of St. Thomas may seem strange to us, and many of our contemporaries may glibly dismiss it as the expression of a “typically medieval” “passivist” philosophy and doctrine. Such an interpretation, however, would hit wide of the mark. Thomas in no way means to rate endurance in itself higher than attack, or to propose that in every case it is braver to endure than to attack.

What, then, does his proposition mean? It can mean only that the true “position” of fortitude is that extremely perilous situation described above, in which to suffer and endure is objectively the only remaining possibility of resistance, and that it is in this situation that fortitude primarily and ultimately proves its genuine character.

It is of course an integral part of St. Thomas’s conception of the world, of the Christian conception of the world, that man may be placed in a position to be injured or killed for the realization of the good and that evil, considered in terms of this world, may appear as an overwhelming power.

This possibility, we know, has been obliterated from the world view of enlightened liberalism. To suffer and endure is, furthermore, something passive only in an external sense. Thomas himself raises the objection: If fortitude is a perfection, then how can enduring be its essential act?

For enduring is pure passivity, and active doing is more perfect than passive suffering. And he replies: Enduring comprises a strong activity of the soul, namely, a vigorous grasping of and clinging to the good; and only from this stouthearted activity can the strength to support the physical and spiritual suffering of injury and death be nourished.

It cannot be denied that a timid Christianity, overwhelmed and frightened by the un-Christian criteria of an ideal of fortitude that is activistically heroic, has smothered this fact in the general consciousness, and misconstrued it in the sense of a vague and resentful passivism.

The brave man not only knows how to bear inevitable evil with equanimity; he will also not hesitate to “pounce upon” evil(1) and to bar its way, if this can reasonably be done. This attitude requires readiness to attack, courage, self-confidence, and hope of success; “the trust that is a part of fortitude signifies the hope which a man puts in himself: naturally in subordination to God.”

— from Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues. Emphasis added.

Josef Pieper (1904-1997) was a distinguished twentieth-century Thomist philosopher. Schooled in the Greek classics and in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, he studied philosophy, law, and sociology, and taught for many years at the University of Münster, Germany.

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(1) “Pouncing upon evil,” depending on the circumstances, can I think take many active forms. Sometimes it may indeed be physical and direct; at other times it may mean, as St. Thomas More said when he faced the unjust and dreadful, “using one’s wits” if this can be done without cowardice, guile or injustice. SH.

St. Thomas More:

Comfort in tribulation can be secured only on the sure ground of faith holding as true the words of Scripture and the teaching of the Catholic Church.”

“The times are never so bad but that a good man can live in them.”

“Don’t worry about me no matter what happens in this world. Nothing can happen to me that God doesn’t want. And all that He wants, no matter how bad it may appear to us, is really for the best.” (Cf. Rom. 8:28)

“No matter what happens, remember that the “gates of hell shall not prevail” against the Church (Matt. 16:18). 

St. Thomas More. Thank you to Melissa Guerrero