Thomas Aquinas, Fortitude, and the Green Berets

August 22, 2019 Updated: August 22, 2019


The virtue of fortitude has been something I’ve been reflecting on recently, as I become ever more convinced that this attribute is one of the key elements that divides those who thrive under fire from those who will collapse inwards upon themselves like a dying star with the slightest application of pressure.

In his philosophical masterpiece, the “Summa Theologica,” St. Thomas Aquinas defines fortitude as a firmness of mind that is required to do good and endure evil. He goes on to say that “fortitude strengthens a man’s mind against the greatest danger, which is that of death. … [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.”

It’s what we called “intestinal fortitude” in the U.S. Army. Yet, fortitude isn’t truly an offensive action. In its most pure form, fortitude is the strength to stare down the things that are on the offensive against you, without blinking or faltering.

“The principal act of fortitude is endurance, that is to stand immovable in the midst of dangers rather than to attack them,” writes Aquinas.

By choosing to endure in the face of overwhelming odds, you are choosing to repress your fear in the face of an opponent or opponents that may be stronger than you. That’s the heart of what it means to have fortitude.

In the closing lines of the original version of the Special Forces Creed, Green Berets vow that “I will not fail those with whom I serve. I will not bring shame upon myself of the forces. … I will never surrender though I be the last. If I am taken, I pray that I may have the strength to spit upon my enemy.”

The defining act of fortitude is to endure. It’s not enough to accept danger and risk; it’s also the act of holding on and seeing the mission completed and the job done. Aquinas writes that the two fruits of the gift of fortitude are “namely patience, which regards the enduring of evils; and longanimity, which may regard the long delay and accomplishment of goods.”

Fortitude is based on reason; the willingness to place oneself in danger if necessary isn’t the same as seeking out danger for danger’s sake. To rush into situations that threaten your life doesn’t demonstrate fearlessness or fortitude, but only illustrates reckless foolishness. In other words, “My goal is to succeed in my mission—and live to succeed again.” There is no greater love than to lay one’s life down for one’s friends; there are few greater transgressions than to carelessly throw it away.

Yet, fortitude isn’t just a virtue that can only be exercised on a literal field of battle. Fortitude can and should be leveraged in the wars we wage in our daily life, against the enemies that seek to weaken us and ruin our souls.

Fortitude is how we find the strength to act bravely, to act justly and with dignity in spite of those who would demand that we sacrifice our dignity. Fortitude is facing our fear without turning away. Ask yourself what you would do with your life if you weren’t afraid? Fortitude is what can give you the strength to actually do those things.

The best news is that virtues can be worked on and developed. You need only commit to enduring through the sometimes painful process of cultivating this virtue in your daily life.

If you seek to develop the strength in the face of adversity and a more consistent approach to seeking that which is good in life, then the most basic action you can take is living out the heroic virtue that is fortitude. There are three basic steps you can start taking today in order to grow in your personal fortitude.

Practice being patient—especially when you don’t want to. We “lose” our patience when we find ourselves facing difficulties that tax our ability to maintain our logic and reason. By choosing patience over our emotional responses, we are training ourselves to overcome obstacles in the future that pose a much greater threat to peace of mind.

Second, find the good that matters in the tasks at hand and exercise constancy. When you focus on keeping constant, remaining unchanging in the things that truly matter to you, you’ll begin to develop the peace of mind that allows you to remain steadfast and faithful to those things when you are performing under stress.

Finally, you have to be willing to strive for greatness. It’s easy to become complacent and content with a small existence that values the shallow and easy station in life that is the “reward” of embracing mediocrity. If you want to grow in fortitude, you must first reject the temptation to settle for lesser things. The only life worth living is a life of consequence. There’s no fulfillment to be found in living for a pretty lie or an empty shadow. Don’t be afraid to set ambitious goals; do not fear failure.

As you commit to growing in this virtue, you’ll find that with each obstacle you overcome and each difficulty you push through, you’ll become stronger in all aspects of your life. It’s not easy to choose true strength over easy weakness. However, as you see above, you can indeed learn how to embody this magnanimous mindset.

I leave you now with the final line of the aforementioned Special Forces Creed: “God grant that I may not be found wanting, that I will not fail this sacred trust.”

Chris Erickson is a combat veteran and former Green Beret, with extensive experience deployed to various locations across the world. He now works in the communications industry. You can follow him on Twitter @EricksonPrime.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.