The Christian Soldier

In the Offices, Cicero observes that no virtue is more extolled among men than courage; so much so, in Rome, that “almost all statues are done in the habit and garb of a soldier.” When all is said and done, the peculiar virtues of the politician or the sage are not as compelling as the simple devotion of a brave man. Though Ronald Reagan has been criticized for a kind of theatrics during his State of the Union addresses in calling attention to public heroes in the gallery, he nevertheless recognizes that the courageous man represents a moral value that transcends the legitimacy people give to political office. Indeed, this attitude is so deeply ingrained in the minds of men throughout the world, that many politicians cannot resist the temptation to wear a uniform.

Yet, in his examination of the virtue of courage, Cicero goes on to warn: “But that sort of courage which is seen in the dangers and fatigues of war, unless a man be governed by the rules of justice, and fight for the safety and good of the public, and not for particular ends of his own, is altogether blamable; and so far from being a part of true virtue, it is indeed a piece of the most barbarous inhumanity.” The criticism of courage without justice is found in the writings of virtually all the ethicists of antiquity, from Homer to St. Augustine.  St. Ambrose, for instance, stated the point sharply when he said that “fortitude without justice is a lever of evil.”

It is not difficult to understand why, of all the natural virtues, fortitude should as often be the subject of admonition as it is of the panegyric; and why, however much we disdain the effeminate character of the coward, there is good reason to fear the aggrandizement of the bully who is only concerned with his own bravery. Courage that is cultivated simply for the sake of itself, and without regard for the well-being of others, not only corrupts itself but destroys the common good. If the courageous exercise their strength without regard for the common good, who is to protect us against the courageous? Plato insisted that the first item of business in the Republic is the task of insuring that the souls of the warriors be bred in justice, lest they view the social order as a convenient stage for perpetual war in which to display their courage and exercise their wrath. It is precisely because the virtue of courage is so fetching and exhilarating that it has to be qualified by the other virtues. As he observed his men pursuing the retreating Federal army at Fredericksburg, Robert E. Lee remarked, “It is well that war is so terrible, we should grow too fond of it.”

Having seen in our own century efforts to organize society around the purpose of spirited wrath, and the subordination of all social goods to a military caste seeking to display its courage, many young men are being urged to prefer pacifism to the brutal prospects of bravery run amok. But what makes pacifism something other than effeminate cowardice, if not the virtue of fortitude itself? Strange as it might seem, the pacifist and the soldier have a stake in the same virtue. Does the pacifist believe that the fortitude of pacifism without justice is likewise a “lever of evil”?

Joseph Pieper has pointed out that the virtue of fortitude is something more than a readiness to attack. “Endurance,” he argues, “is more of the essence of fortitude than attack.” By endurance, he means the moral strength of clinging to the good in the face of danger. Hence, for its integrity, fortitude requires both patience and hope. These are the moral qualities so often praised by pacifists. Christian pacifists, in particular, suggest that only pacifism gives proper expression to the kind of faith and hope in divine providence to which all Christians are called. Nonetheless, in the tradition of Catholic morality, the life of fortitude, patience, and hope are subordinate to the other-regarding virtues of justice, and preeminently, of charity. The pacifist should not be allowed to be exempt from the same moral criteria used in criticizing any soldierly fortitude that lacks justice and charity.

If the soldier can be tempted to an indifference to anything other than his own bravery, so too the pacifist can be tempted to subordinate the just needs of others to the perceived good of his own fortitude. In either case, it is the indifference to the common good that is blamable. In the history of the military profession, for example, stoicism has been very attractive, for stoicism taught a stout-hearted in-difference to the immediate suffering and injustice at work in the flux of human affairs; it taught the individual to cultivate his own virtue, and then to take a higher view of human events according to Fortune or Providence. All of the misery, injustice, and vicissitudes of the world notwithstanding, the only thing that is morally good or bad is the individual will. But Christianity teaches that one must love others in their concrete circumstances, and therefore there is no higher perspective of a moral nature than justice and charity. There is no virtue in the readiness to endure the evil done to others.

The logic of absolute pacifism requires a readiness to endure the injustice done to others, for it stipulates in advance that there are certain evils which cannot, morally, be prevented. This is a notion of fortitude that divorces the good of the private effort from the communal end. If we are to regard every exercise of deadly force as wicked, then there is no alternative but to fall back on one’s fortitude, suffer evil, and hope that in Providence everything will come out in the wash. The secular form of this perspective was articulated by the most notorious of modern stoics, Immanuel Kant, who argued, in effect, that while no individual is morally authorized to sully his virtue for the sake either of his own or another’s happiness, he may hope that Providence works in such a way that good will eventually come from all the misery and evils of human history. “It is of the greatest importance,” he said, “to be content with Providence (even though it has marked out for us so toilsome a road through this earthly world), partly so that we can always take courage under our burdens and fix our eyes on that fact and not neglect our own obligation to contribute to the betterment of ourselves.” But again, Christianity compels one to take an active interest in the well-being of others here and now, and never authorizes one to mortgage their well-being to some future state of affairs. As St. Augustine stated, “the virtues do not lie.” The charity exercised in this world is the same charity enjoyed in the next; it is this charity that governs fortitude, patience, and hope.

Why do we criticize the merely self-regarding fortitude of either the soldier or the pacifist? Because they make an absolute good of a private virtue, and in doing so they divorce their own good from the rest of us who have goods which also require protection. It is precisely because courage is so valuable to the common good that everyone has something to lose if this virtue is corrupted. This is not to say that the value of courage consists in being a mere “means” to other goods; rather, it is to say that a just fortitude is indispensable if our basic human goods are not to be arbitrarily subordinated to private passions and designs, or sacrificed on the altar of “world-historical” forces. Ethicists will continue to debate the systematic aspects of moral issues, just as politicians will continue to make claims about where, and to whom, justice is due; but most people know that all of this is superfluous talk unless someone has the courage to protect the innocent, to restore goods unjustly taken, and in general, to be ready to sacrifice personal well-being for the common good. This is why most people will not be seduced by a Christianity that is unmindful of soldierly courage. It is why, for the most part, statues will continue to be built to honor soldiers rather than moralists.


  • Russell Hittinger

    Russell Hittinger is the William K. Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa.

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