Tuesday, May 31, 2022

On Living A Virtuous Life

Whatever happened to the idea of practicing being virtuous?

I know, I know - as soon as I have written these lines, there are two likely immediate reactions.  The first is the one where I am accused (perhaps justly) of not understanding the world we live in and what we are facing, the second that I am proposing (yet again) a series of actions and beliefs that do not at all fit into the modern world.

But - if you will willingly suspend disbelief and the immediate reaction - turn the question on its head.  I cannot - indeed we cannot - change the practices of individuals.  Whatever happened to the idea of practicing being virtuous as an example to others?

The definition of virtuous, according to Webster, is:

- Having or exhibiting virtue (no surprise there of course; let us us the concept of virtue as "conformity to a standard of right or moral excellence - see below);
- Morally excellent, righteous;
- Chaste;
- Potent, efficacious.

For the sake of the discussion, let us stick with the idea of exhibiting virtue, a standard of moral right or excellence.

What I suspect the most likely initial response to this will be is simply "It is not appreciated and accomplishes nothing".  Would I agree that it is not appreciated?  I would, the same way I would argue that an exceptionally clean restaurant table  are neither noticed nor appreciated by 90% of the population, but we would all rather have a clean table that one covered with crumbs and those questionable spots of material that might be food...or other things.

Would I agree it accomplishes nothing?  I question that proposition.

Too often I (I will pick on myself here) want a world that is more thoughtful, more rational, more morally upright, more - in a word - virtuous.  But how often do I practice these virtues myself?  How can I expect the world to rise to a standard that I am not willing to demonstrate, let alone keep, myself?  When I am confronted with an opposing opinion presented loudly or someone else's off comment spoken in anger, do I react with the same volume and intensity?  Or do I stop, think on what the actual issue is and what circumstances are contributing to the tone of voice, and answer from there?

Do those sorts of examples matter?  In the world of socially driven and charged media, I do not suppose that they do as much.  Seeing the example of a life lived virtuously does not play well in 10 second videos, memes, limited character entries and - let us face it - limited attention spans.  But in the real world - the world outside of these things - it can, and does.

It is easy to be outraged, to cry out and shake a fist or become rowdy (or worse).  Crowds can be especially prone to this.  What is not as easy is to be outraged at the individual who lives a a virtuous life in practice as well as in word.  One can say their opinion is wrong or foolish or stupid, but one cannot argue that the practice of their lives is.

I wonder if that is one reason that so many people feel safe quoting people like Thomas Merton or the Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Han Julian of Norwich or even the Dalai Lama.  In our secular society, the ideas of these men and women are not something many would claim - but the practice of their lives (three monks and an anchoritess) somehow makes their words credible and quotable, even if people were to find their ways quaint and their underlying beliefs silly or even potentially offensive.

Whatever we proclaim to be the way that a person should be or - in larger practice - a society should be, it is incumbent upon us to first become, believe, and demonstrate that  which we we claim we want to see in the world.  If we do not, we instantly lose credibility because if we ourselves will not practice it, how can we expect that anyone else will?  We have done nothing to demonstrate that it is a workable lifestyle, that a virtuous life remains consistent with the ability to live in any world, even the modern one, as it has remained so throughout history.  The circumstances may have changed, technology may have changed:  the ability to live virtuously has not.

"The greatest way to live with honour," said Socrates, "is to be what we pretend to be".  

24 comments:

  1. Anonymous4:23 AM

    That Socrates quote is an excellent way to put it. Concise and to the point.

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    1. In finding the quote, I was somewhat surprised by the number of quotes that we essentially take for granted as "modern" thinking that are directly or indirectly tied back to Socrates. We only have the words of his students; one wonders what the man was like in person.

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  2. Glenfilthie5:54 AM

    I realize you’re preaching, TB, and it’s a good sermon.

    But There comes a point when the guy that plays by the rules when no one else is … becomes a sucker. These days the rules change with the wind, and the people that propose and enforce them do not abide by them. I get similar virtue lectures from women that are fighting for the ‘right’ to murder their own babies, homosexuals, corporate HR fatties…you name it. The fact is, I am the wrong skin colour, the wrong gender, and the wrong age so I am therefore incapable of virtue by the new ideology, and my faith is anathema for at least 50% of my countrymen.

    I know what you’re trying to say, and virtue signalling is what preachers do… but there are others in that game, they’re gaining traction and unless you are insulated from them somehow, speeches like this become meaningless.

    In my world you have to pick and choose where you exercise your virtue - and with whom.

    I don’t like it either.

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    1. Virtue signaling Glen? Perhaps I am. A sucker? Most likely - it would not be the first time that I have been accused of it, or naïve. Both of those things said, ultimately I am responsible for how I live and the example I give (for those that are Christian, this is actually what Christ expects of us. Nothing less. And to be clear, He never promised the Church a temporal victory. For those that doubt, spend some time on that verse "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you" , not "Love your friends, and condemn all those who disagree with you, or even hate them". To quote C.S. Lewis, "How unlike our Master".). Am I persuading people by my life and actions that what I propose as a method and mode of living is credible and ultimately leads to the greatest good for the greatest number?

      Everyone has to ultimately answer the question both how they feel they can best effect change and how they can best live within the dictates of their conscience. And perhaps not only their conscience: The Judgement of God (for those for whom it is a factor) or the judgement of history (for those for whom it is not) or simply judgement of human kindness and good sense (really, for everyone) come after the actions in question - sometimes many years after the actions in question. History is quite full of examples of people who thought they were doing "the right thing" that turned out to be doing very wrong things indeed.

      Socrates, ultimately, was condemned to death for the crime living by his ethics and conscience - yet he continues to live on in example and thought today; his accusers are nothing more than a footnote in historical trivia of the post-Peloponnesian War. Who, I wonder, had the greater impact?

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    2. I don't intend any of this to be mean or personal, TB. Perhaps I chose my words poorly too. Virtue signalling is done by guys that talk the talk but don't walk the walk, and I don't think that describes you. No offence meant. I don't mean to condemn anyone, and I suspect this debate probably goes back to the time of Christ himself, and was argued by much more virtuous men than us.

      On Blab yesterday, a black pastor went to the wall in defense of one of her parishioners. The boy was a juvie headed to prison, whose life was the typical horror story you see of such kids. The lady interceded with the authorities, got the kid out of the system, and was going to give him a new start at her own expense. He stabbed her to death two days later. I see stories like that on Blab every DAY. That woman got murdered for nothing. I can only take Blab in doses these days.

      The treasure hunters are always finding stashes of Roman gold coins left by men in desperate times during a collapse - who never lived to come back for them. The moral and civil codes of the day had corroded beyond any redemption, and history just had to run its course. Things only turned around when the church IMPOSED order and virtue. The classical enlightenment and renaissance could not have occured without the church doing that.

      God does not speak to me or move through me and I cannot claim to speak for him. If we were to debate scripturally - I would point out that the bible also calls an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth... which, interestingly enough, is confirmed through modern Game Theory.

      You might have made this argument 30 or 40 years ago; but the fact is it doesn't hold today. The churches are emptying out, our kids are being indoctrinated in school, and our civilization rewards vice and actively suppresses virtue... and the writing is on the wall. You lost - ages ago. People that would turn their backs on God and their own families will not be swayed one whit by people like you. They will actually see your virtue as a threat and move against it. It is my contention that if Christ came back today, the ignoratti would have him back up on the cross and dead before he could get a word out edgewise.

      And again - not trying to be mean or nasty. But until we reverse that and start rewarding virtue and punishing sin... you are pretty much wasting your time with empty gestures. There is a saying in there about casting pearls before swine, if I recall, and shaking the dust from your sandals, and they are there for a reason too. Having said all that - best of luck to ya, TB. I admire your virtue and efforts all the same.

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    3. Glen - The words "impose order" always leave me a bit queasy. The same church mindset that imposed the order that made renaissance possible also enabled the Sack of Constantinople, the Albegensian Crusade, the Inquisition, and the trial of Galileo (to be clear, these are historical facts and the Catholic Church has walked them all back). The concept of imposing order can be stolen by any group at any time for the justification of actions against society.

      The story you relate is a sad one, and I could say "not all that uncommon", except I do not know that to be true. At the same time, we have all likely had - in obviously much less significant ways - people fail us when we extend kindness or understanding. And yet, just as often it happens that we do such things and people respond. I have experienced it in my own family and my own circle. Even in serious situations, it is not a given.

      The eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth was issued in the Old Testament as a limit to the then-extant codes of justice to limit punishment at the time, not define a maximum. And even then in the New Testament, Christ says speaks of turning the other cheek, going two miles instead of one, and surrendering more than is threatened to be taken from us. Christians disagree on what the extent of that is - from the complete non-violence of the Quakers to the more "muscular" response of Protestants and the US Founders - but what no-one seems to disagree on was that Christ was talking about the matter in the way the Old Testament did.

      Is what you are saying is true in terms of the movement of society? Demographics seem to bear you out. But again, the calling of virtue is not to change just because the environment no longer values virtue nor the calling of the Church to change just because society turns against it. The calling in both cases is to be true to that to which we are called. If that constitutes and empty gesture, so be it.

      To quote Luther, Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.

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    4. Not trying to convince you otherwise, TB. We all gotta stand somewhere, and if you're good with where you are, then that's all that counts. But if you don't impose your order and your virtue, someone else will impose theirs. It is the story of mankind and we are seeing it play out before our eyes. I was rather hoping that you could convince me to change my mind. and using you as a foil to bounce some dark thoughts off of. I hope you don't mind.

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    5. Glen, of course I do not mind. You know the rules and you stay within them. And that really is one of the points of this, at least from my point of view: being able to talk about things in a polite and respectful way. It of course does not mean that we will always come to a similar conclusion.

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  3. I think virtue is something that collects slowly but is easily destroyed. There are people of great virtue that I know but only after many many years of being around them. It is quite easy to write off a few virtuous things but eventually it becomes enough that it makes me take notice. Occasionally though, one of those people will do something that will bring down the tower of cards quickly, never to be rebuilt again.

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    1. Ed - You are right, it is the most fragile things. I wonder if perhaps that is why it is not practiced more, as it is very much prone to internal dissension and collapse.

      Honestly, I think one of the great secrets to practicing virtue is simply to do it, and not draw attraction to it. To create a stir about how "virtuous" one is is simply to ensure that one's hypocrisy and faults will be all the more searched out (I say this, knowing my faults all too well and how many they are).

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  4. If for no other reason "Virtue is it's own reward". I have found this to be incredibly accurate. Even if it has no effect on the world around you, it has an amazing effect on you.

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    1. Mountain Rat - An excellent point, and one that I probably should have emphasized more. While I was focused primarily on the outer focus of virtue, the inner benefits may indeed outweigh them. Knowing that one is doing right and practicing virtue can be a strong tonic, especially in a world that neither values neither.

      Thank you for stopping by!

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  5. Back in the dim, early days of the internet, there was the Spam page. It was a piece of Spam that was allowed to rot. Pictures were posted every day, and it never changed. They placed other food around it, and it appeared as though there was a force field around the Spam. Fruit that was near the Spam would rot on the far side, but not the side nearest the Spam. It was really interesting to see. Virtue is like Spam. It affects what's around it. I protects the virtuous and those closest. But as you say, there is an eternal component. It isn't lived for what you get here, but what you are expecting post-retirement years.

    Ed's point reminded me of a joke. " I'm Mario, I was the mayor of a small town in Italia. Imma good man. I give-a to the church. I take-a care-a my momma. I help-a the orphans. I don't chase-a the women or drink-a too much wine. Do people call me Mario the chaste? Do people call me Mario the good? No! Have-a sex with one-a little goat...." And you get judged wanting by people that abuse their mom, drink to excess, carouse, and have fleets of goats. I quit caring what anyone thinks about me for the most part. I aim to do what I know is right and struggle against my baser instincts. I guess I really am working to be what I pretend to be.

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    1. STxAR - Sadly, we will always be judged by others. That, I cannot help. More and more what I am trying to learn is how to judge myself correctly. Ultimately I report to a Single authority, not multiple ones.

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  6. Your children will show the impact of leading a virtuous life. You are their blueprint.

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    1. Glasslass - I hope so. I am the beneficiary of the lives of virtue that my parents lead - although to be fair, I was a very slow learner and still do not live up to the model they provided. Hopefully my children are more on point than I was, at least for anything good I have to offer.

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  7. I love this post! It is uncannily similar in flavor to the one I have mostly written. "Be an example of what you want to see." I could crow with you on this but will simply say, "Well done."

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    1. Thank you Lady Locust!

      I wonder if so many of us are thinking of this separately due to the need of it desperately in the modern world.

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  8. The Marvelous Marcus A. said it well: "Your vocation is to be a good man."

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    1. John - It has been years since I read The Marvelous Marcus but he is due for a revisit on my travels through Stoic-land, as is Seneca. We desperately need their wisdom more than ever.

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  9. Anonymous9:29 AM

    Thank for your thoughtfulness towards this matter of virtue. Your exchange with the great Glen Filthie was a good read as well.

    Franknbean

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    1. Thank you Franknbean. I am grateful for your words.

      Glen and I are old sparring partners. We often do not come to the same conclusion, but we can at least talk through the differences. Again, why I am such a believer in the Social Internet.

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  10. Anonymous8:50 AM

    Well TB I’m in an airport catching up on blog reading and can’t seem to comment as anyone other than Anonymous… so this is Bob. Nothing to add other than I enjoyed your post as usual and the thoughtful exchanges among you and your readers. I wish I could stay more current but it simply
    doesn’t happen. I am today challenged to live virtuously as best I can. I’m glad I stopped by. — Anonymous Bob

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    1. Bob - Anonymous or not, you are always welcome. I am gratified you enjoyed the post. And yes, the exchange is the sort of thing we should actually have more often - again, the power of the Social Internet.

      Good luck on your travels!

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