Real Men Choose Virtue

by Tim Gray

The virtues give us a blueprint for being a man. Indeed, the very term virtue comes from the Latin word for man, vir.

For the ancients, to be manly was to be virtuous. The term virtue in Latin (virtus ) signifies power, strength, and ability. Thus the virtues are habits that give us the power to act in a manly way, with strength sufficient to do what is right.

Without virtues we will neither be godly nor real men. Virtues are the building blocks of character, and without them our moral lives will eventually collapse under the pressures of the world.

Virtues are essential to living well and, even more, to living the Christian life well. St. Peter exhorted the early Christians about the vital role of the virtues saying,

Make “every effort to supplement your faith with virtue” (2 Pet. 1:5). A few verses later he tells us that practicing the virtues will keep us from being “ineffective or unfruitful” in following Jesus Christ. In other words, our lives will only be as effective, meaningful, and fruitful as we are virtuous. No wonder St. Peter admonishes us to “make every effort” to obtain virtue.

Values or Virtues?

Our society assumes that values are the key to morality. Values-based moral education programs exemplify the modern conviction that morality is nothing other than the art of making good choices, which are guided entirely by one’s values. One could critique this approach to morality on philosophic grounds, but my criticism is simple and to the point.

The bottom line is that values do not make men moral. That may sound radical, but let us look at some commonsense examples.

I can value sailing, but that does not make me a sailor. Likewise, many men can value fidelity in marriage, but that does not make them faithful. Indeed, most men who have committed adultery valued fidelity, but despite their values they tragically abandoned their vows.

Having good values is a fine thing, but the battle of morality is not so much about knowing what is right as it is doing what is right. The difference between wanting to do good and actually doing good is tremendous.

For example, I can value flying, spend countless hours as a passenger, and be the most avid aviation fan around, but that does not enable me to fly a plane. In order to fly, one must have the skills of a pilot. Many people want to fly, but few have the ability.

If our moral life is to get off the ground, we must acquire the skills necessary to “fly”.

Many men want to be good husbands and fathers, but if this wanting is not supplemented by the virtues – the skills for successful moral living – then a successful landing will be unlikely. To guide the ship of our moral life to port we must be men who are seasoned in the virtues, and so possess the habits that will enable us to live the values we profess.

Values alone will not suffice. A Man’s Life Takes Courage

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."


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