Why Strength of Character is Needed to Lead a Good LIfe

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

We must now consider the problem the individual faces when the circumstances of his life are such that he must take into account the effects of both good and bad fortune. Before I suggest how this problem is to be solved, let me clarify its terms.

By fortune, I mean any aspect of our lives that is beyond our own control — the things that happen to us, the accidents that befall us, for good or ill. By bad fortune or misfortune, I mean the accidents or circumstances that are adverse or unfavorable to making a good life for one’s self. And by good fortune, I mean the opposite — the accidents or circumstances that are facilitating or favorable.

In an earlier chapter, we saw that a life can be ruined at birth or in infancy or childhood by extreme misfortunes of one kind or another. What is true of these early years is also true of the middle and later years of life. Extreme misfortune can be ruinous. We also saw that an individual can be adversely affected — we sometimes say “spoiled” — in his early years by an excess of good fortune. While this extreme is not likely to be as ruinous if it occurs later, it is still possible for excessive good fortune to be a serious impediment, for it involves highly seductive temptations. The individual who earns a bare subsistence by work that is drudgery is sorely tempted to fill the rest of his hours with diverse forms of sleep and play. At the other extreme, the individual who is surrounded by luxuries or who has the means of obtaining them is also subject to strong temptations that may have as adverse an effect on his life as deprivation has on the life of the unfortunate.

By normal circumstances, then, I mean circumstances that lie in the middle range between the extremes of good and bad fortune. By abnormal circumstances, I mean circumstances that tend toward either of the two extremes, yet fall short of the limiting cases that are so extreme that no individual could be expected to surmount the obstacles they present.

Here, then, is the problem. If it is hard to make a good life for one’s self under normal circumstances, and harder still when the circumstances are abnormal, what resources do we have within ourselves to cope with the extremes of good and bad fortune, as long as they are not so extreme as to be beyond anyone’s power to cope with them?

I do not claim that common sense can offer a satisfactory solution to this problem. What it does have to say will certainly be relevant, and may be satisfactory as far as it goes. If it does not go far enough, that will be because what it recommends is easier to understand than to accomplish.

Let me deal with bad fortune first — the things that can happen to us which are adverse or unfavorable to our effort to make a good life for ourselves. These include such things as protracted ill-health or disability; the inability to make or get a decent living through no fault of one’s own; serious personal injuries suffered at the hands of other men or imposed by organized society as a whole; the loss of one’s friends or loved ones and, for that reason or any other, loneliness; the effects upon one’s own life of war, or of civil disorder and violence; and, last but not least, the effects upon one’s self of a culture that, by its scale of values — the things it esteems and disesteems — is inimical to one’s making and carrying out a plan of life that so orders its component activities or parts that a good life will result.

I have omitted from this list the misfortunes of birth, infancy, and childhood because they occur before the individual begins to cope with the problems they create for him — such things as deficient schooling, a deficient home environment, inferior native endowments, and other deprivations. However, they, too, can and should be considered, but only with the proviso that they, like the unfortunate circumstances that may occur in later years, are not so extreme as to be insurmountable.

How can the individual cope with bad fortune? The commonsense answer is, in a word, by strength of character. The Latin word for this is fortitudo — in English, “fortitude.” It simply means having the moral strength or will-power to overcome adversities of all sorts. There are two reasons for calling fortitude or strength of character “moral” rather than “physical.” One’s physical strength is, for the most part, a natural endowment, and although the individual can, perhaps, enhance it a little, it is not something he can attain entirely by choice or effort on his part. In contrast, moral strength belongs in the sphere of things that can be acquired by individual initiative and effort. The second and deeper reason for calling fortitude moral strength lies in the use to which it is put. It has the moral connotation carried by the word “virtue” only when the individual exercises his willpower to overcome obstacles that stand in the way of his making a good life for himself.

It is conceivable — more than conceivable, it is unfortunately only too familiar to us — that a man may have the strength to overcome obstacles that stand in the way of his success, where what he is aiming at is not a good life, but a bad one — a life of crime, a life of ease and idleness, the life of a playboy, a life filled with luxuries to the exclusion of other goods, and so on. He would appear to have the same kind of will-power or strength of character that is possessed by the man who, aiming at a good life for himself, is not deflected from that goal by adversities. If, as a matter of common sense, we would not consider such a man virtuous or a man of good moral character, that is because of the end at which he aims and the use to which he puts his inner resources when confronted with obstacles in his way. The will-power he manifests may look like the strength of character exercised by the man who is striving to make a good life for himself, but because it is not directed to the same end, it does not have the same moral quality. It is a counterfeit of the fortitude that is an element of good moral character or an aspect of virtue.

Whether or not fortitude is indispensable to making a good life for one’s self depends on whether any human life is ever, during its course, totally exempt from serious adversities. If not, as common sense and common experience would testify, then some degree of fortitude would seem to be a necessary ingredient in the process, for it to succeed.

This answer is satisfactory as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. Common sense does not tell us how to develop the degree of fortitude required for the adversities we may encounter. No one knows enough about how a good moral character is formed to be of much help to anyone needing guidance in this respect — parents, preceptors, or the individual himself who, having understood why fortitude is desirable, seeks to develop it. The result, of course, is a profoundly unsatisfactory state of affairs, but no one, to my knowledge, has found a remedy for it.


Let us turn now to the other side of the picture, in which we see the individual beset by an excess of good fortune, an excess that is bad because of the solicitations and seductions it engenders — temptations to make it easy to waste time, to overindulge in the pleasures of the passing moment, to luxuriate in extravagances of all sorts, in short, to have a good time from day to day rather than make the effort, often difficult and sometimes painful, to lead a good life. How can the individual who understands the difference between a good time and a good life and who makes the latter, not the former, the goal of his efforts — how can such an individual cope with the excess of goods that fortune sometimes bestows?

The answer common sense offers is the same as before — strength of character or will-power. Only now the relevant aspect of a good moral character has, in everyday parlance, a different name — not fortitude, but temperance or self-control. In everyday speech, we call a man temperate when he is able to restrain himself from over-indulgence in pleasures of one sort or another, or when he can avoid excess in the acquisition of things that, while genuinely good, are good only in moderation. (Thus, it would take a temperate man to turn down the job that offered a very large income but involved little or no leisure in the work to be done.)

Temperance is not asceticism, not in the least. It does not eschew the pleasures of life; it does not despise the gratifications of play; it does seek to pare life down to its bare necessities, so that all the time left free from obtaining them can be sedulously devoted to personal betterment. Based on the common-sense truism that you can often have too much of a good thing, temperance consists in the will-power to resist the kind of good fortune that makes an excess of such goods available. Like fortitude, it is strength of character, and like fortitude it is an element of good moral character or an aspect of virtue only when it is developed and exercised for the sake of leading a good life, and for no other reason. As two related aspects of virtue, both of them giving a man the moral strength he needs to lead a good life, fortitude and temperance differ in that the one is a settled disposition or attitude toward adversities, difficulties, or pains, and the other is a settled disposition or attitude toward excesses of the opposite kind — toward blessings, facilities, or pleasures.

The same reason that makes fortitude indispensable applies in the case of temperance, though perhaps less obviously because the excesses of good fortune do not seem to afflict every human life, as serious adversities do. Yet no human life is free from the seductions of pleasure or from the temptation to substitute having a good time for what is much harder — leading a good life. As the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius observed, it is difficult but not impossible “to live well even in a palace.”

To this, first of all, must be added the observation that even apart from the extremes of good or bad fortune, we need strength of character — we need fortitude and temperance — to carry out a plan for our whole life, precisely because that plan requires us always to weigh the interests of the moment against the interests of our life as a whole. The temptations of a good time, of pleasure in the passing moment, are great. It is so easy to want more wealth than we need. It is so easy to shirk or wish to avoid the pain and effort involved in doing leisure-work. What is required to make the moral choices we ought to make in order to work for the end we ought to seek — a whole life that is really good because it involves all the things that are really good for a man, all of them in the right order and proportion — is moral virtue, which is nothing but a habitual disposition to prefer a good life to a good time, to choose what is really good in the long run over what is apparently good here and now.

Insofar as all pleasures are things of the moment, they have an immediacy and vividness of appeal that give them great force in competition against the wish to make our whole life good — a goal not only remote, but one we can never actually experience or enjoy as we can the pleasures of the moment. Even if the circumstances of the individual’s life are normal rather than abnormal, he still needs the strength of character that is temperance to forego or limit immediate pleasures for the sake of a greater though remote and ineluctable good — the good of his whole life. On the other hand, sleep, play, and idling are easy, while serious leisure-work is hard, and often painful and fatiguing. Since the plan for a good life calls for the employment of one’s free time in as much leisure-work as is consonant with having a reasonable minimum of idling, play, and sleep, the strength of character that is fortitude is needed to endure the pains or difficulties that may be attendant on making a good life instead of just having a good time from day to day.

A second additional consideration concerns the bearing of the pathological weaknesses of mind or character that we call mental illness. Irremediable organic infirmity or disease can be so disabling as to constitute an insuperable obstacle to making a good life; the same is true of incurable mental illness — the types of insanity that require hospitalization and usually receive forms of treatment that fall short of restoring the patient to normal life. But those of us who are not so unfortunate may, nevertheless, be subject to neurotic disorders that tend to incapacitate us from making the choices a virtuous man would make. We may not be able to acquire or exercise the will-power or self-control that is requisite for choosing one course of action rather than another in order to make a good life for ourselves. The remedy is medical not moral. What is called for is the recommendation of some form of psychotherapy, not hortatory remarks about virtue or a good moral character. Some of us need help to overcome neurotic tendencies that may prevent us from being or, at least, make it more difficult for us to become, masters of our own lives.

But when the medical problem is solved the moral problem remains. The removal by therapy of an incapacitation for making the right choices does not automatically confer the power of making them. The person who has been cured of a disabling neurotic disorder is in exactly the same boat as the rarely fortunate individual who grows up without being subject to such disabilities. Each must somehow acquire and exercise virtue — will-power, self-control strength of character — to choose what is really good for himself in the long run as against what is only apparently good from day to day.

In the third place, it must be added that the inner resources required by the individual for making a good life for himself include more than strength of character — more than temperance and fortitude. Common sense recognizes the indispensability of another power or disposition — usually called “sound judgment” and sometimes “prudence.” This is a disposition of mind rather than of character. Action always takes place under particular circumstances, and insofar as it is voluntary and involves choice, the relative merits of particular alternatives must be judged — judged not only for their immediate value but also for their value in the long run of a whole life. Sound judgment is required for weighing the merits of competing alternatives not only in terms of what they offer in the way of gratification here and now but also in terms of long-range consequence as against present gratifications.

Finally, let it be said, as emphatically as possible, that these dispositions of character and of mind, which are virtuous insofar as they are employed in making a good life, cannot be formulated in rules or guidelines for action. If the exercise of virtue consisted in putting a set of rules into practice, then virtue could be taught and learned, as any art can be taught and learned by putting its rules into practice. But that, as we have seen, is not the case. In this most fundamental respect, making a good life for one’s self is radically unlike all the arts, in which rules can be formulated to guide the practitioner. Not so in the business of living. A plan is needed, yes, and that is the point of resemblance between making a good life and turning out a good work of art; but there the resemblance ends, for in the arts there are rules of technique and procedure for carrying out the plan, whereas in making a good life, the virtue requisite for carrying out one’s plan takes the place of rules.

(This essay is taken from The Time of Our Lives: The Ethics of Common Sense, Chapter 7.)