Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Womanly Fortitude

One of the interesting shifts in the history of thought about the virtues is the way in which the virtue of fortitude has been understood. The Greek word andreia literally means 'manliness', and the Greeks tended to think of it in precisely those terms. When Callicles in Plato's Gorgias says that the superior people are those with the andreia and phronesis to rule the city, his view can be almost perfectly summarized, using a more crude and modern expression, by saying that he thinks the superior man is the one who has the balls and brains to get what he wants.

This association is reduced somewhat when the ancient Roman philosophers like Cicero translated andreia as fortitudo, which literally means strength or mightiness, but it's still there; it's often associated with virility or manliness.

When the idea enters the realm of Christian thought, however, it changes quite a bit, and while the association with manliness never completely goes away, Christianity broadens the associations of the virtue considerably. In the pagan philosophers, the paradigmatic person of fortitude was the soldier. For Christians, however, the paradigmatic person of fortitude was the martyr. And many of the martyrs, of course, were not men at all; many of the most popular and prominent martyrs were women. Thus Christianity shifts the paradigmatic examples to a field in which women, in the form of virgin martyrs, had a very prominent place. People like St. Agnes and St. Lucy had become the most obvious examples of the virtue of fortitude.

This goes quite far. If you look at the works of St. Bonaventure, for instance, both his philosophical and theological works, it is quite clear that most of his main examples of fortitude are women. He talks at great length about the fortitude of the Virgin Mary; martyrs like St. Felicity and St. Perpetua come up; and more abstractly he often considers the Strong Woman of Proverbs 31 (who he argues also represents the Church itself). The importance of Felicity and Perpetua is particularly interesting for seeing how Christianity reshapes the landscape of fortitude. Perpetua and Felicity were both mothers: Perpetua, a noblewoman, was nursing an infant and Felicity, a slave, was pregnant. One of the ancient stories about Felicity, which remained very popular, was that because pregnant women could not be legally executed, her execution was delayed, and she was going to be separated from the other martyrs. But as she was in prison she went into early labor. It was a very rough labor, extremely painful, and one of the guards sarcastically commented that if she could not handle the pain of labor, she would never be able to handle the pain of being torn apart by lions. And to this, St. Felicity is said to have replied that today she was enduring the pain by her own strength or fortitude; tomorrow she would be enduring it by the strength or fortitude of the one for whom she was dying.

With the Renaissance, the associations with manliness seem to become much stronger again, due to the Renaissance's back-to-the-classics culture, but the broadened associations also never completely fade. And one can argue, I think, that the most important and profound examinations of the virtue of fortitude in the modern period are found in the works of Jane Austen, who makes the virtue a central element in the plot and characterization of Persuasion (under the name 'fortitude') and Mansfield Park (under the name 'constancy'), and gives it important subordinate roles in other works, most notably Sense and Sensibility. There is a long road, and a wide gap, between the andreia of Plato's Callicles and the constancy of Austen's Fanny Price. But there is still a thread linking the two.

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