I glanced over at the copy of Vanity Fair my wife was reading and noticed a pull quote: “Jon has lots of fortitude.… This is good when life requires being resilient, but it’s bad when it requires change.”

Fortitude! Not a word you see all the time, and the particular sentence struck me as a bit odd. How often do we say that this or that person has fortitude? I almost rather think is strong or, perhaps, is fortitudinous would be more expected. But beyond that, to have lots of fortitude – right next to each other you have a very colloquial term, lots of, and a rather formal, erudite, poetic, or at the very least officious term, fortitude.

The article, by the way, is on Jon Corzine, former head of Goldman Sachs, former governor of New Jersey, most recently in charge of the brokerage MF Global in its $40 billion meltdown. The actual text in the article is just slightly different from the pull quote: “‘He has lots of fortitude,’ says someone who has worked with him. ‘The winds don’t buffet him. This is good when life requires being resilient, but it’s bad when it requires change.’”

And that’s a nice little gloss of fortitude: “The winds don’t buffet him.” He’s not the sort of guy who dives for cover at the first sign of opposition. I am put in mind of Major Chaterjack from Spike Milligan’s World War II memoir Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall (page 99):

He was this kind of man. Autumn morning – the early sun had melted the night frost, leaving glistening damp trees. Battery parading – small wafts of steam are appearing from men’s mouths and noses – the muster roll is called – B.S.M. is about to report to Major Chaterjack: ‘Battery all correct and present, sir!’ The roar of a plane mixed with cannon shells all over the place – M.E. 109 roof top, red propellor boss – panic – Battery as one man into ditch – not Major Chaterjack, M.C., D.S.O. – stands alone in the road – unmoved – produces a silver case, lights up a cigarette. He is smoking luxuriously as well all sheepishly rise from what now feels like the gutter. He addresses us: ‘Very good – you realise you did the right thing and I the wrong.’ What can you say to a bloke like that?

I can tell you what you say of the other sort of bloke, the kind who dives for cover when his neighbour sneezes: the stock term is lack of intestinal fortitude, and in fact intestinal is the word that goes most often with fortitude now. (Post-traumatic stress disorder is a whole other matter, of course, and has often been mistaken for lack of intestinal fortitude – as happened later in the war to Milligan, too.) Intestinal fortitude doesn’t mean you can survive a bowl of five-alarm chili – well, it may mean that too, but it’s not a literal reference to your bowels. It’s really a fancy, often jocularly fancy (perhaps jocular in that army way), way of saying “guts” – in the figurative sense.

Fortitude, anyway, by itself, is stiff upper lip, “keep calm and carry on,” but it’s more than that. It’s courage, moral strength, but specifically the strength to endure pain or adversity, as opposed to the strength and courage to take action. It’s actually one of the four cardinal virtues (did you know there were four cardinal virtues?): prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude.

Is it me, or do three of those four sound quite reserved, cautious, and conservative? What about kindness or helpfulness or cheerfulness? Are the “cardinal virtues” the virtues you most seek in a person? Does it make a difference whether you’re evaluating the person as a role model or as a friend? Edmund Burke, in On the Sublime and the Beautiful, certainly thought so:

Those virtues which cause admiration, and are of the sublimer kind, produce terror rather than love; such as fortitude, justice, wisdom, and the like. Never was any man amiable by force of these qualities. Those which engage our hearts, which impress us with a sense of loveliness, are the softer virtues; easiness of temper, compassion, kindness, and liberality; though certainly those latter are of less immediate and momentous concern to society, and of less dignity. But it is for that reason that they are so amiable.

Heroes are great for doing great things, but are they the sort you want to hang out and party with? Grim, stoic determination hardly seems like great dinner company. But on the other hand, a sort like Major Chaterjack shows you can combine fortitude with amiability and wit.

Fortitude is, of course, from Latin for “strength”; the root fortis “strong” shows up in quite a lot of places. Fortitude could have been an expensive synonym for “strength” in the literal sense, and in fact it formerly was used that way; however, it’s useful to have separate terms for inner strength of endurance and for physical strength, and that is how it has developed – indeed, it has developed to the point that even in the figurative senses it has split a bit from strength, so that you can even find references to having or needing the strength and fortitude.

The word’s bare phonetics don’t carry a whole bunch of intrinsically “strong” sounds; /f/ is the softest fricative, and /t/ the lightest voiceless stop, and the whole of it taps lightly along in three steps. Words like guts and strength may be said to have a bit more basic oomph to them. But on the other hand, fort is well associated with strength and strongholds, so the word comes on stronger with that.

As for other echoes, fortitude carries ones of such words as attitude and other tude words as well as fainter ones of more distant arrangements such as ratatouille, but the one that comes first for me is the one that says fortitude is what you need when others are at sixes and sevens and problems are multiplying – after all, six multiplied by seven is forty-two.

One response to “fortitude

  1. Reminded of the story that Dr Johnson told to Boswell about his time at university.

    His tutor, Mr. Jorden, fellow of Pembroke, was not, it seems, a man of such abilities as we should conceive requisite for the instructor of Samuel Johnson, who gave me the following account of him. “He was a very worthy man, but a heavy man, and I did not profit much by his instructions. Indeed, I did not attend him much. The first day after I came to college, I waited upon him, and then staid away four. On the sixth, Mr. Jorden asked me why I had not attended. I answered, I had been sliding in Christ-Church meadow. And this I said with as much nonchalance as I am now talking to you. I had no notion that I was wrong or irreverent to my tutor.” BOSWELL. “That, Sir, was great fortitude of mind.” JOHNSON. “No, Sir, stark insensibility.”

    By ‘sliding’, I think he meant on the ice in the flooded meadow, which is perfectly flat. This was in October 1728, and world was not yet out of the Little Ice Age of the 17th century, so that frost was likely in mid-autumn.

    Also of Operation Fortitude, that great and glorious deception of the Second World War, in which the Allies misled the Germans into thinking that there was a huge American army in southeast England, waiting to invade France via Calais and Boulogne, and that the D-Day landings in Normandy were a mere diversion. This kept huge numbers of German troops bottled up far to the east of the real invasion. So successful was this ruse that the Germans still believed in it in September 1944.

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