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Virtue in Literature (5) – Carry on Mr. Bowditch: Fortitude (5th Grade)

“It’s easy to fight when you’re winning;

It’s easy to slave, and starve and be brave,

When the dawn of success is beginning.

But the man who can meet despair and defeat

With a cheer, there’s the man of God’s choosing;

The man who can fight to Heaven’s own height

Is the Man who can fight when he’s losing.”

  -From “Carry On!” by Robert Service

The ancients had a couple of different words to describe the virtue of courage and we have retained this distinction in our words courage and fortitude. Courage tends to denote bravery in the face of fire. It brings to mind images of rushing into a burning building or diving into a raging river. But there is a second sense of this virtue, one that is found not in the moment, but rather in a consistency of character in the midst of hardship over a long period of time. We see this in the man that not only does the brave thing in a moment of battle, but who refuses to cave over the course of a long siege or war. We see this in the woman that endures years of chronic illness. We call this virtue fortitude, but we could also refer to it as perseverance or long-suffering.

This virtue was exemplified in the life of Nathaniel Bowditch, which was retold by Jean Latham in Carry on Mr. Bowditch. Nathaniel Bowditch is a historical figure that lived in the late colonial period through the early years of the American republic. As a child he was incredibly bright and gifted, but circumstances forced him out of school and into indentured servitude at a very young age. Though many told him his hopes of achieving his dreams were lost and that he should give up, Nathaniel sought excellence in his work. He was a model employee that improved the business he worked for. In his free time he continued his studies.

Nearly every success he met with was followed by multiple obstacles. For example, Nathaniel was a gifted mathematician, but soon ran out of English texts to study from. There was a copy of Newton’s Principia in his town, but this text was written in Latin. Undaunted, Nathaniel taught himself Latin so that he could continue his mathematical studies.

Time and again when faced with a challenge Nathaniel refused to give up. When given the opportunity to compromise he refused to compromise in any way and instead did the right thing, even when success looked impossible and good people told him it was prudent for him to give up or compromise. He called this “sailing by ash breeze.” The reference is to ash oars. When there is no wind and a ship is “becalmed” the sailors must get out the oars and row. It is exhausting and cannot be done forever, but time and again Nathaniel got out his “oars” and rowed and rowed, refusing to quit, refusing to give up.

For example, when circumstances forced him to find employment as a common sailor, he brought books along and studied whenever he had a free moment; there is a great passage that relates how he sat in the gun powder room working out complex equations while his boat took enemy fire. Making a virtue of necessity, he taught himself multiple languages on his voyages and learned navigation. And he put these skills to work for others: in his studies Nathaniel realized that the standard navigation texts, texts created by some of the world’s greatest mathematicians, professors in England’s most prestigious universities, had a few errors. He corrected these and devised an accurate way to navigate when there was less available data (due to clouds). In so doing he saved the lives of innumerable sailors. 

Lord willing our children will not endure the same the level of hardships and privations that Nathaniel Bowditch did. But they will face hardships and it is great to have an example of a young man that refused to give up and whose perseverance and fortitude were ultimately used for his good and the good of others.