“A man’s indebtedness… is not virtue; his repayment is. Virtue begins when he dedicates himself actively to the job of gratitude.” – Ruth Benedict, American anthropologist, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, 1946.
If the term, ‘the meaning of life,’ denotes significance that is both tangible and of maximal impact, the stage for it is most likely at the level of societal reality. In the last 10 blogs we have seen that virtue at this level involves fulfilling recognized duties* and providing service to society. If Santayana is correct and the main values of civilization are greater wealth, safety, and variety of experience, and if Confucius is correct that reciprocity is one of the greatest social virtues, then it is incumbent on all of us to scrutinize our individual capabilities and the world we live in find our specific role. That role according to Santayana must meet the crucial pragmatic/utilitarian test of contributing to the maximum enrichment for all at the least cost of lost opportunity. Our guardrails on the road to virtuous service are goodness and a moral compass, acceptance and recognition of duty, integrity, fortitude or discipline, and prudence.
Social virtue by all is essential to the function of a democratic state as we have heard from Montesquieu, but we can learn much from those of extraordinary virtue. These take four recognizable forms though of course there is some overlap: the saint, the hero, the great leader, and the sage. Each of these personifies one of the four classical Greek virtues; the saint – temperance, the hero – courage, the leader – justice, and the sage – wisdom.
In this section we looked specifically at the potential of leadership in all of us through fairness and unselfish concern for a group, while the great leader in Thomas Carlyle’s opinion pilots the chaotic course of history in a worthy direction. Rufus Fears tells us that the leader’s tools are a bedrock of principles, a moral compass, a vision, and the ability to create consensus. The meaning of the leader’s life then is in the legacy of his or her efforts towards that vision.
We also looked at the extraordinary virtue of the possessor of wisdom, the sage. The sage is measured by both his knowledge or teachings and his actions. Those teachings are often speculative or spiritual, but readily understandable and some portions are revolutionary. Confucius is the paradigm of the humanist sage at the level of cultural reality. Nonetheless there are many intermediate levels of extraordinary wisdom or intellect including the scholar, prophet, theologian, genius, mystic, and philosopher. Note that all socially responsible persons of extraordinary intelligence and wisdom share their knowledge with others directly and with society and humanity indirectly through oral or written records.
We will come back to social virtue when we take on the large area of purpose in the meaningful life. But first we need to analyze cosmic virtue in our search for greater meaning.
*See posts on this site titled Societal Duty Parts I and II (12/21/2018, 12/24/2018, 12/26/2018 and 12/ 28/2018) and the Table of Duties in the Appendix.