Gotta love Google Books. This past weekend I was strolling the virtual aisles looking for a book or article from sometime in the 19th century. I know it may seem odd to many, but when researching a timeless topic I like to read from the point of view of earlier writers. They of course come with their own prejudices and blind spots, but they are not my prejudices and my blind spots. Somehow I find that it helps my overall view of the topic to look at it through different eyes.
Anyway, I came across a book that was a bit earlier, but still useful for my purposes, An Historical View of the English Government, by John Millar written in 1787. There was one particular section that I zeroed in on. It dealt with the difference between Courage and Fortitude.
Courage and fortitude are virtues, which, though resembling each other in some of the principal features, are easily and clearly distinguished. They are called forth on different occasions; and they do not always exist in the same persons. Courage consists in a steady resolution of submitting to some great evil, which is in some measure uncertain, and takes the name of danger. Fortitude consists in bearing a present pain or uneasiness with firmness and resignation. Courage supposes an active and voluntary exertion. Fortitude, a mere passive suffering. The exertion of courage is opposed and often prevented by the passion of fear, which magnifies and exaggerates all uncertain evils. The exercise of fortitude is counteracted by that weakness of mind which destroys the power of reflection, and renders us incapable of counterbalancing our present pain, by the recollection of any agreeable circumstance in our condition.
Great calamities, and such as are of a personal nature, seem to be the objects of courage; and the most conspicuous triumph of this virtue appears in conquering the fear of death. But fortitude may frequently be displayed in supporting the long continuance of small as well as of great evils; in suffering ridicule, shame, and disappointments, and in submitting with patience and alacrity to the numerous train of vexations ” which flesh is heir to.”
Both courage and fortitude are promoted by every circumstance which leads to the exercise of those virtues; for here men are, by the power of habit, inured to such exertions and sufferings as at first were formidable and difficult.
Writing about the classical virtues requires a certain facility with the definitions, but this left me curious. I have been thinking of fortitude as basically synonymous with courage. Perhaps I need to rethink my own definition. Or perhaps the definitions have simply changed somewhat over the past 200+ years.
Fortitude encompasses more than a singular meaning.
Regardless of whether I completely buy Millar’s argument or not, thinking about the two types of virtue described therein does help me to delve a bit deeper into the overall idea of Fortitude. There are, according to Millar, two types. The first is courage in the face of grave and immediate danger. The second is a more stoic acceptance of one’s station. The latter appears to be of a longer duration and is quite possibly the one more of us will require in our daily lives.
God willing, most of us will not face life and death peril too often, but we will often need to deal with “suffering ridicule, shame, and disappointments, and in submitting with patience and alacrity to the numerous train of vexations ‘ which flesh is heir to.’”
I now have a new avenue to explore, that of the stoic’s view of the classical virtues. Millar seems to support a stoic approach to fortitude, so it will be interesting to find out the view someone like Epictetus takes on it.