In this week’s episode of The Habit Podcast, Russell Moore and I talk at some length about fear and the ways that fear prevents us from telling the truth—not necessarily lying (though perhaps that), but at least self-censoring, in order to avoid the penalties imposed in our politicized, polarized culture by trolls and other enforcers of tribal insanity. In his new book, Losing Our Religion, Dr. Moore cites Simone Weill on the subject of Communist totalitarianism; it is chilling how relevant her remarks are to this era’s totalizing politics on both the left and the right:
Simone Weill warned about what happens when everything is politicized by a party system. Those systems come with penalties. “These penalties extend into all areas of life: career, affection, friendship, the external aspect of honor, sometimes even family life,” she wrote. “The Communist Party has developed this system to perfection.” Even for those who don’t sacrifice their inner integrity for such a system, she warned, a change can happen without their noticing it. She gave the example of a person attempting to calculate complex mathematical equations in a context in which he knows “that he will be flogged every time he obtains an even number as a result.” For most people—even strong and courageous people—something inside them will start inducing them to “give a slight twist to the calculations, in order to obtain an odd number at the end.” In such a situation, their attention is divided and compromised, and they may not even know it.
We live in a culture in which the penalties for speaking good sense and nuance can be steep. It’s Orwellian out there. It can require a surprising amount of courage simply to conform to reality, and to say it out loud. I appreciate Russell Moore’s reminder: “The first step in becoming a people of truth is to recognize what makes us afraid, and to ask why, and who benefits from that fear.”
All this talk about fear and courage sent me back to my old favorite, Josef Pieper, and his essay on fortitude. (You can find it in the book The Four Cardinal Virtues.) If you need a little more courage, here are a few important points from Pieper.
1. Fortitude is not the absence of fear. Furthermore, both fear and fortitude are a function of love.
“A person who does not love does not fear either,” writes Pieper. “One who has lost the will to live does not fear death.” Indifference is one way to get relief from fear. Such relief, however, isn’t courage. Indifference leads to passivity, silence, complicity—going along to get along. Fear is not merely a moral failure on your part. Fear is a reminder of what you love, what you would hate to lose. The trick is not to stay there, in fear, because fear makes people do—or agree to—pretty awful things. The same love that induces fear can also be the fuel for courageous action. Pieper writes, “Fortitude presupposes in a certain sense that man is afraid of evil; its essence Iies not in knowing no fear, but in not allowing oneself to be forced into evil by fear, or to be kept by fear from the realization of good.”
2. The virtue of fortitude rescues you from the tendency to love your life so much that you lose it.
Jesus said, “Anyone who loves their life will lose it.” As you grip too tightly to the goods of the world, you inevitably lose them. A large part of fortitude is a soldierly ability to hold onto life a little more loosely. If you can overlook Pieper’s mid-20th-century psychology language…
The lack of courage to accept injury and the incapability of self-sacrifice belogn tot he deepest sources of psychic illness. All neuroses seem to have as a common symptom an egocentric anxiety, a tense and self-centered concern for security, the inability to “let go”; in short, that kind of love for one’s own life that leads straight to the loss of life.
3. A courageous person is patient—and cheerful.
Thomas Aquinas made the case that patience is a necessary component of fortitude. And a necessary component of patience is cheerfulness, though you may have never thought of it that way before. According to Thomas, “The patient man is not the one who does not flee from evil, but the one who does not allow himself to be made inordinately sorrowful thereby.” Pieper adds,
To be patient means to preserve cheerfulness and serenity of mind in spite of injuries that result from the realization of the good. Patience does not imply the exclusion of energetic, forceful activity, but simply, explicitly and solely the exclusin of sadness and confusion of heart.
If you speak the truth, if you conform to reality, you will experience injury. Be of good courage. Be patient. I absolutely love this insight from Pieper: “Patience keeps man from the danger that his spirit may be broken by grief and lose its greatness.”
4. A quick summary.
Here’s a quick summary of how fortitude works, per Pieper:
- You accept insecurity.
- You surrender confidently to the governance of higher powers.
- You risk your immediate well-being (in writerly terms, you choose not to self-censor; you say out loud the thing you’ve been afraid to say out loud).
- You abandon the tense, egocentric hold of fearful anxiety.
I hope that helps. Be of good cheer. Tell the truth. Don’t lose your greatness of spirit.
I don’t think I’m done with this topic. I’ll write more about fortitude, self-censorship, etc. over the next week or two. If you have observations, questions, topics of discussion, etc., please send me an email.