A Man’s Life Takes Courage

by Tim Gray

The four cardinal virtues are Prudence, Justice, Fortitude (i.e., Courage), and Temperance. There are also the three theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity (Love).

For this article, let’s take a detailed look at just one of these, the virtue of Courage. St. Thomas Aquinas understood that courage is the form of all the virtues, for to practice any virtue consistently takes the firmness of character that comes with courage.

To be honest requires courage, especially when telling the truth is difficult. Of all the virtues, courage is the one that is often particularly associated with men. Men are to be tough and strong, and therefore courageous.

Too often, however, this association gives us a narrow picture of courage, a picture that sees courage as simply for fighting. Undoubtedly, soldiers need to be fortified with courage, but courage is bigger than the battlefield.

Courage is required in a variety of ways that we seldom realize. For example, do you realize that to be generous with our money and material goods takes courage? The things that require the virtue of courage can range from taking care of someone with a serious illness, taking a plane trip, or simply studying.

Indeed, the virtue of courage is so basic that we need it to exercise all of the other virtues.

What is courage? Courage is the strength of will that enables us to conquer fear. It often happens that we know what we ought to do, but we’re afraid to do it because of the consequences we may suffer as a result. Fear makes our will disinclined to follow our reason because of some difficulty. Courage ensures that we will have the firmness of mind and will to overcome our fear and do what is right and good regardless of the difficulties.

Thus St. Thomas Aquinas says that “fortitude of soul must be that which binds the will firmly to the good of reason in face of the greatest evils.“

Courageous to the End

Courage also entails that we be ready to die for the sake of what is right. Our Christian faith makes it clear that we must be willing to die rather than sin. This is what the martyrs have done in laying down their lives for Christ.

A classic example of this aspect of courage is found in the story of Eleazar (cf. 2 Mac. 6:18-31). During a pagan persecution of the Jews, an old man Eleazar is told to sacrifice to the gods and eat pork, which is forbidden to Jews.

The narrative says that Eleazar took courage as men should and refused to break the law of God, even under threat of death and torture. Some of the officials give Eleazar the option of faking his homage to the gods, but he replies:

“For even if for the present I should avoid the punishment of men, yet whether I live or die I shall not escape the hands of the Almighty. Therefore, by manfully giving up my life now, I will show myself worthy of my old age and leave to the young a noble example of how to die a good death willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws“ (emphasis added).

Eleazar is an exceptional model of how even the good of this life must not be held dearer than God and his law.

To navigate well the stormy seas of our lives, we need the firmness of character that comes through the virtue of courage. Without courage we will shrink back from acting, and our many fears of wind and waves will keep us from persevering in our arduous journey. Values will not keep our minds and hearts steeled against the storm, but the habit of courage will give us the strength to sail ahead, come what may, by God’s grace.

This article is excerpted from Lay Witness Magazine (June 2000).