Men of Valor: Tacitus and Thomas Aquinas on Virtue
by Christopher Morrissey
When it played in the movie theaters, the terrific movie Act of Valor (2012) earned notoriety for two reasons. First of all, for its casting it used real-life warriors instead of some Hollywood actors. This lent a certain unusual authenticity to the dramatic enactment, even if the acting seemed a bit stiff at times. After all, acting is indeed a craft that is at its best when it is done by practiced professionals, or at least amateurs who are gifted with an innate charisma. Still, I didn’t mind putting up with the limitations of the acting ability of the real-life heroes over the course of the movie. The theme of the story was sacrifice and honor, so it was somehow most appropriate to have them playing the main roles in this tribute to fallen comrades. I wouldn’t want this to become a regular thing in the movies, but it is certainly a mark of distinction for this particular war movie, and it really sets it apart from other cinematic attempts to do artistic justice to the fallen.
Second of all, the movie was notable for its use of live ammunition during battle scenes. Again, this was another mark of rare authenticity for the usually fictitious world of moviemaking. When you know this fact about the film before watching it, you are even more impressed when you see the gunfire unleashed. It makes you appreciate how dicey it is to place a human in harm’s way in these types of situations. It may be all in a day’s work for a real warrior, but an actor or other civilian watching the film will gain a new appreciation for the seriousness of military affairs when they try and imagine being on set, trying to do those scenes with real bullets. I think such actors will be glad to stick with fake guns and fake bullets for the rest of their acting career. Indeed, Act of Valor offers one of the most vivid lessons in “don’t try this at home” for movie watchers. Truly, with respect and honor, this is exactly what we should leave to the trained professionals who alone are competent to wield such weapons with courage.
There is also a third aspect to the film that makes it especially notable for me. At a key moment, a most excellent quotation from the Roman historian Tacitus flashes upon the screen:
In valor, there is hope.I confess I was thrilled to read these classic words. I was unfamiliar with this particular translation, and so my immediate impulse when the film was finished was to leave the movie theatre and head straight for the library to track down the original source of this quotation. I wanted to read it in the original Latin. What was the word being translated as “valor?”
This was no small piece of trivia. The movie had been titled “Act of Valor,” after all. The central meaning of the film seemed to hang on this word, “valor,” and so I was most curious to see the exact vocabulary originally used by Tacitus.
I quickly discovered that the translation was rendering three simple words:
Spes in virtute —Tacitus Annals II.xxThe word being translated as “valor” in English was the Latin word for “virtue.” I found this quite exciting, because indeed the original meaning of the word “virtue” is military courage, or “valor,” if you want to use the best word to describe military courage. A valiant man is a man who displays valor. In Latin, “vir” literally means “man,” and so “courage” as a kind of root virtue tying together all other virtues indeed reflects the original Roman military notion that “manliness” (the literal translation of “virtus,” the Latin word for “virtue”) is that height of virtue that a valiant man can show in battle.
The four key (or “cardinal”) virtues of courage, temperance, justice, and prudence are discussed at length by Thomas Aquinas in a number of his works. These four species are the four “hinge” specimens of the entire genus of virtue. These four cardinal virtues, the “hinges” upon which all the other virtues turn, get their most classic, lengthy treatment by Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae. Aquinas, of course, is riffing off of Aristotle’s original classic treatment in the Nicomachean Ethics, and developing Aristotle in a more detailed and systematic way for Christian theology.
At the same time that I had seen this film Act of Valor, oddly enough, I was also looking at a shorter discussion of Aquinas: De Decem Praeceptis, “On the Ten Commandments.” I was trying to come up with the best possible translation of the Latin words therein. Aquinas sometimes uses “virtus” in its generic sense, meaning “virtue,” but he also uses it in the specific sense of “courage,” i.e., as one of the four cardinal virtues. I was trying to decide how best to render Aquinas’ discussion into English.
Thanks to the movie’s Tacitus quote, I had the beginnings of my answer. When the cardinal virtue of courage was being discussed, I could render it as “valor.” And also, as with the movie’s chosen translation of the Tacitus quote, I could have the option of rendering virtue in the generic sense also as “valor.”
In the end, I chose to stick with using “virtue” in English to render the generic sense of “virtus.” When “virtus” was used in the specific sense of “courage,” however, I chose to render it as “manliness,” and to render “fortitudo,” the Latin synonym for the cardinal virtue of courage, not as the boring English word “fortitude,” but rather with that classic world for military courage: “valor.”
With all this in mind, it is interesting to read how Aquinas in De Decem Praeceptis interprets a verse of Scripture (Matthew 22:37). We may recognize that his discussion is structured by the four cardinal virtues. First, he begins by stating the verse, and identifying the four words in it that he is going to associate with the cardinal virtues. “Heart,” “soul,” “mind,” and “valor;” these are the four words he will go on to interpret in light of the four cardinal virtues of “temperance,” “justice,” “prudence,” and “courage.” So here’s how I decided to translate the beginning of his discussion:
A man owes God four things: his heart, his soul, his mind and his valor. And thus it is said (Mt 22:37): You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all manliness, i.e., your valor.
Debet enim homo Deo dare quatuor: scilicet cor, animam, mentem et fortitudinem. Et ideo dicitur Matth. XXII, 37: diliges dominum Deum tuum ex toto corde tuo, et ex tota anima tua, et ex tota mente tua et ex totavirtute, idest fortitudine tua.Let me skip over his discussion of the other three cardinal virtues in relation to the Scripture passage, and fast forward right to the end, where he discusses courage as the virtue tying the discussion together. It is interesting to see how he again uses “virtus” as synonym for “fortitudo” at this point. He cites the Scriptural passage as his authority for concluding that the other three cardinal virtues alone are not enough.
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