Virtue! When was the last time you heard that word? Perhaps it was in Catechism Class or Sunday School or spoken by some preacher 40 years ago. Now days, unless you are 50 or 60 years old, you would not know about virtue. I would guess, young people today do not know the meaning of the word. These days no one that I can hear, speaks or cares to know about virtue: not teachers, or preachers, nor parents. Most of us expend our mental and physical energy around ideas of, economic gain, sensual pleasure or entertainment of one form or another. Who in their 21st. Century right mind, would be caught wasting their time either thinking about virtue or becoming virtuous?
However, it was not that long ago, 50 years or more, that the idea of virtue and its practice was culturally valued. At age 11, I started working-out at the local YMCA. As soon you walked through the door you would see plaques hanging on the wall with words such as, courage, honesty, fortitude. This was not an extraordinary sighting. Schools, public places, even factories had these kinds of displays of virtue. Back then, virtue was so much in the cultural consciousness that it was included as a part of the curriculum of public and private, elementary, high schools, colleges and universities, in the form of Common Courtesy and Civic Responsibility. Virtue, as a cultural aim is not some aberration. It has ancient roots. In ancient China, for instance, under Confucianism justice and peace was its foundation. The ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome were centered around the virtuous ideas of impersonal justice and trained reason.
Although virtue in our society is not generally proclaimed or openly pursued, it is not dead. If we pay close attention to the news papers, magazines, books, or TV news programs, you will find acts of virtue being displayed every day and every where. Acts of courage, were a stranger risks his or her life to save the life of an unknown accident victim. Wisdom, from a fifteen year old, who's death by disease is eminent, but transcends his misfortune by sharing his wisdom of life and coming death with others. Humility, from an athlete who credits her success to her god, her parents, family and friends. Virtue is not dead, but for the majority of us there is little interest for its awakening. We are obsessed with "getting and spending," which is the lowest quality of our mind use. Therefore, we have lost sight of the bases of virtue and cannot call it up. What is the bases of virtue?
When the ancient sages explained virtue they related it to soul. The soul, they said is the vehicle of the energy-consciousness that makes up our being, and to any consciousness and its corresponding soul, there are three qualities or characteristics. The first quality, (moving from highest to lowest), is light or truth. The second is passion or desire. The third is indifference or darkness. The first quality by reason of its lucidity and peacefulness attaches to knowledge and pleasure. The second produces thirst and propensity, imprisoning the Ego through the consequences produced from action. The third is the offspring of the indifference in nature, and is the deluder of all creatures and imprisons the Ego in the body through heedless folly, sleep, and idleness. These three qualities run through out the web of Nature, each participating of the nature of the other, yet each one possessing its predominant quality or characteristic. However not one of these three can be considered apart from the other two. When the higher quality prevails over the lower two qualities then virtue is ignited and expressed. When the lower qualities prevail over the highest then vice is ignited and expressed. Simply then, we have lost our virtuous sight because we have allowed our lowest qualities to bend away from our highest quality and allowed their dominance.
Forty or fifty years ago, the higher quality of our mind was inspired to virtue out of a conviction fostered by Christianity that an almighty, personal god demanded, under pain of eternal punishment, compliance to a moral code of conduct. This particular moral code spelled out prescriptions necessary for its achievement through virtues. For instance, Christianity teaches the three Cardinal Virtues: faith, hope, and charity. In St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, he writes, ..."the Spirit produces: love, joy, peace, patients, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." All religions the world over, have some where in their teachings describe, according to their own religious point of view, virtues; prescribing specific habits of conduct as a necessary ingredient for heavenly rewards. For instance, in the Dhammapada (the teachings of Gautama the Buddha), the Buddhists teach, The Noble Eightfold Path: 1. right insight, right understanding, right vision, 2. right aspiration, right thoughts, 3. right speech, 4. right action, 5. right livelihood, right living, 6. right effort, 7. right memory, right mindfulness, 8. right concentration.
Over the past 4or5 decades the high mind quality of virtue has slowly been supplanted by the lower qualities. Scientific theories about the genesis of human beings, and our solar system began to challenge the religious teaching of creation and to erode the idea of an almighty, personal god. Therefore the moral bases ( the religious truth and belief in that truth) upon which virtue stood began to waver, giving the lower qualities a foot hole. Now days the truth has a more secular, relative moral bases that takes on new ideas issued forth from science, sometimes blending the new idea with an accepted truth or entirely discarding the old truth and replacing it the new. Under this relative moral bases, conduct has the freedom to float around and find its own level of truth. Because there is no moral tether, conduct fluctuates allowing the lower qualities to dominate bringing thirst and propensity aiming at vice in all its forms, and also brings an indifference, an apathy making it easy to comply to the low desire.
If you widen your view about the appearance and expression virtue you might find that virtue like all things revolves; times and conditions unfold to foster the expression of virtue and also to restrict its expression. Currently we seem to be cycling out of a restrictive phase of virtue. For the last decade or more our lower qualities have taken root in an ultra conservative environment created by strict moral Christian truth. Empirically you would think this kind of an environment would be fertile ground upon which virtue to grow, but because of its extreme agenda motivated out of the fear from 9/11 restricting our liberties, a strong backlash deflated its momentum. Now the sounds of virtue are vibrating through our nation and the world-hope, charity, and unity; "...together we stand, divided we fall"...
Virtue should be placed upon the highest truth, then walk the middle path so as to keep the extremes at bay. That all humans are the Face of God in essence, and that they have come into these spheres of matter for purposes of universal work, and that they are failing in their duty, they are failing in their relationship to their own higher essence, if that duty be not accomplished. Living under this universal truth, if you told a human to be good because it is good to be good, the knowledge of his divine essence allows his higher self to understand truth, and he will do good because it is right. The "right" action becomes the innermost law of being , he does "right" not because it pays or avoids self-injury, but because, beyond all argument he must. When a human realizes that he or she is one with all that is, inward and outward, high and low, not merely as members of a community are one, not merely as individuals of an army are one, but like the molecules of our own flesh, like atoms of the molecules, like the electrons of the atoms-not a mere union but a spiritual unity-then he or she sees truth; and from that vision has a living bases for morality; and from that bases can confidently and with purity practice virtue.
I will end this blog with ideas about virtue from Gautama the Buddha, one of the greatest spiritual teachers who ever walked our earth, as written in the Dhammapada, Canto IV:
"The fragrance of f lowers does not travel against the wind, be it that
of sandalwood, tagara, or jasmine. But the fragrance of a virtuous man
travels even against the wind. The virtuous man pervades all directions.