- “All the gold which is under or upon the earth is not enough to give in exchange for virtue.” (Plato, philosopher)
The idea of virtue can feel a little scary. Surely no-one can be such a worthy human being as to do no wrong, show courage at all times, and be full of generosity and kindness with everybody? To do good all the time doesn’t feel like the real me. I suspect few people feel they are born like this and I certainly don’t. And what is virtue anyway? Do we have to be so extremely good in order to show virtue? Is this not an excessive expectation?
Virtue in contemporary spirituality
Modern spiritual writers are interested in universal ideas common to different traditions. For example Roger Walsh encourages the reader to recognise and cultivate higher values. Examples are justice, altruism, beauty, the sacred and understanding truth.
Walsh contrasts these with lower values such as money, possessions, bodily pleasure, power, and fame. He finds virtue in the higher values. In contrast, he says neglecting spiritual principles and focusing on lower values can result in a lack of well-being. You are more likely to suffer from boredom, craving, cynicism, alienation, stress, and lack of meaning in your life when you prioritise lower values unrelated to virtue.
Virtue as understood in ancient Greece
The way the ancient Greeks thought about virtue is of relevance. Plato thought that virtue is associated with being wise.
Similarly, Aristotle wrote that virtue is excellence at being human and thus involves understanding what is right for the situation.
“At the right times, about the right things, towards the right people, for the right end, and in the right way, is the intermediate and best condition, and this is proper to virtue.” (Aristotle, philosopher)
In other words virtue is taking into account rational considerations when being courageous, generous, or kind according to the circumstances. I think Aristotle is saying doing what is worthy and good doesn’t necessarily mean behaving in an excessive way.
“Exactness and neatness in moderation is a virtue, but carried to extremes narrows the mind.” (Francois Fenelon)
Virtue could thus be said to be acting in between two extremes in a rational light.
For example courage is a virtue that lies between cowardice and foolhardiness. You can foolishly throw away your life by thoughtlessly doing something beyond your ability.
Generosity is between miserliness and being recklessly profligate with one’s money. You can imprudently neglect your own needs, and the needs of your own family, by being overgenerous.
I see kindness as between indifference and doing too much. Fixing things by solving problems doesn’t enable children to learn things for themselves. Doing too much for the elderly can foster unnecessary dependence.
There is no virtue in taking things too far by mindlessly not considering consequences for what you do.
Virtue in tradition of Western World and Middle East
The ten commandments are less well known these days and are often regarded as old hat. Some of them are however the basis for our criminal law. We might want to bring our understanding of them up to date. If we look for a spirit of virtue within them, do these rules also require wisdom for their practice?
Arguably, the command ‘Do not kill’ is saying don’t become hateful or violent. Perhaps the spirit behind this is urging us to enhance life by nurturing, protecting, showing kindness and being useful. However, is it going too far to never get angry even when such a response is justified?
The command about not bearing false witness is about not telling lies. A deeper understanding of this might be being honest with others and with oneself. Also keeping promises and living with integrity. But could one unwisely take this command to its extreme? For example, by being too honest, tactlessly pointing negative things out to others at the wrong time, or ruminating on one’s own trivial mistakes.
There is a command about not committing adultery. Isn’t the spirit of this law to do with nurturing the family bond by being loyal to one’s partner and not acting seductively with others? Taken to extremes, one condemns and avoids all expressions of sexuality in the arts or in normal leisure contexts.
One command ‘Do not steal’ in effect tells us to respect the property and ideas of others, and give credit for them. More extreme than this would be to maintain upright respectability with false modesty about one’s own law-abiding citizenship.
“Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.” (Grover Norquist)
In other words, what is good in these rules can be distorted because of a lack of wisdom in their application.
Wisdom and virtue
One can point to a distinction between what is naturally and spiritually good. With the former there is no truth of wisdom.
“People … whose good is merely natural can be carried away by falsity as easily as by truth, provided that in outward appearance the falsity looks like truth. They can also be led as easily by evil as by good, provided that the evil is presented as good. They are like feathers in the wind.” (Emanuel Swedenborg, spiritual philosopher)
In other words, true virtue is a developed quality of character rather than the impulse of one’s natural disposition. It is a rock in the face of the winds of life.
We may not naturally have much in the way of virtue – forgiveness, kindness, courage, humour, generosity, humility, contentment, or honesty. However, I conclude that doing good in an enlightened manner leads to a sense of well-being and feeling energised by life. I would say, virtue is achievable, as long as you seek the wisdom of rational thought needed to make use of good inclinations.
Copyright 2017 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems