Did you see the story of the French police officer who exchanged himself for a female hostage in a terrorist incident last Friday? Sadly, he perished in the subsequent events. But who cannot but admire someone willingly risking his life for another? As Jesus said: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) How great a love, then, for one risking his life for a stranger … admirable in the extreme. Courage, strength, personal honor—all valued as supreme virtues since Mankind has walked the planet.
I picked up Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” recently—a long-languishing book on my table that I hope to actually finish someday—and began reading the section on moral strength and weakness. Having grown up in the macho ranching culture of west Texas, served in the USMC, worked in the oilfield and now in my vocation as priest, my inner self shudders at the very thought of weakness—not so much physical weakness, which we all suffer as we age, but rather moral weakness. After all, moral and physical strength do not necessarily correlate; Mr. Universe might be a moral weakling, while I’ve known little old ladies you couldn’t tempt to evil with a canyonful of gold … they evidently recalling: “…what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Matthew 16:26)
Moral weakness. Gag. When wavering, I hear whispered with appropriate “Cool Hand Luke” intonation: “What’s the matter … boy? You too weak … boy?” … the conscience assailing me as I’m lured toward wrongdoing. Grrrrrrr. “NO! I will not yield!!” is the hoped response … strengthened by a favorite quote: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13) And, especially when I remember my privilege of being a Christian minister: “My son, if you come forward to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for temptation. Set your heart right and be steadfast…Trust in him, and he will help you; make your ways straight, and hope in him.” (Sirach 2:1-6)
I know, I know … simple, but not easy. We all know resisting temptation can be quite difficult.
In the Marines we would often hear/say during strenuous physical training: “Pain is weakness leaving the body!” which both challenged and encouraged us carry on through difficulty, knowing the temporary discomfort led to enhanced capabilities, enabling us to carry out future missions successfully. Likewise, with moral strength and overcoming temptation: we may experience temporary pain of immediate deprivation of some bodily desire or appetite, but such exercise of self-control strengthens against future moral weakness. As ol’ Aristotle says: “Moral strength consists in mastering” (Nic. Eth., Book 7), and we remember that the strongest person is the one who rules successfully over himself, for “…whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved.” (2 Peter 2:19)
Dogged determination to do the good—come what may—is the essence of combatting moral weakness and building moral strength. We find that peer pressure is often one of the greatest dangers to this—the desire to be liked, be popular, for comradery, etc.—so we steel ourselves for the challenges, and ally ourselves firmly with the good to be steadfast.
Young people, especially, I advise to cultivate strength early and make moral strength not an extraordinary and infrequent occasion of victory, but rather a persistent and continual habit of virtue. To be blunt, kids, if your friends are consistently trying to persuade you to do wrong, maybe you need new friends; even St. Paul wrote: “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’” (1 Corinthians 15:33).
And yet, when you advance in moral toughness and steadfastness, such acquaintances may also provide opportunity to good … provided you are strong enough. You may, like Jesus, “dine” with those who are morally lax and be for them an example of strength and fortitude to lead them to virtue … recalling Aristotle’s own (perhaps self-evident) admonition: “…moral strength is a characteristic of great moral worth, while moral weakness is bad.” In referring to moral weakness, he cites a rather crass but memorable quote, which may aid resistance to temptations against reason and good judgment: “The Milesians are no stupid crew / except that they do what the stupid do.” So, you young ‘uns … don’t lapse into such a category, but rather: “Excel in all that you do; bring no stain upon your honor.” (Sirach 33:22) … for, as we age, few remembrances are as painful as our past moral lapses … few things as dreaded as the danger of such lapses in the future.
As we Christians celebrate Passion, or “Palm”, Sunday this weekend (“Passion” from the Latin “passio” meaning “suffering”, and the “palms” recalling the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem not long before His unjust conviction, suffering and death), we recall Jesus as the very embodiment, epitome and model of that moral strength and courage we ourselves seek, submitting Himself to crucifixion and death for the salvation of all humanity. His courage and strength of will is that to which we all so imperfectly aspire. This is a reason for the cross and the crucifix—to remind us of perfect virtue … perfect love.
Yup … peace through strength: peace of conscience through moral strength. That’s the only way such real peace will find us, and how the conscience finds its long-desired rest.