PURPOSE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – INTERNAL REALITY (continued)

Last time we saw how internal purpose revolves around the tetrad of a good life, self-perfection, happiness, and meaning; and reviewed purpose as seeking one’s preferred life using the example of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. Today we flip the coin over and consider individual purpose in efforts to see one’s actual life in whatever form it happens to take as a good one, where now Epictetus is our guide.

Where Aristotle was part of the aristocratic class, Epictetus was a slave who adopted stoicism and was later freed. For him instruction in the good life begins with the urging “to learn to wish that everything may happen as it does.”3 He does not view self-sufficiency as the provision of the necessities of life, but instead teaches that “a man should be prepared to be sufficient unto himself – to dwell within himself alone, even as God wells within himself alone.” This is done through self-denial and self-discipline “for ascetic ends.” He discourages material wealth and luxuries, suggesting rather that one “fast, drink water only, abstain altogether from desire, that thouest may hereafter conform thy desire to reason.”4 In other words the good life for Epictetus is one of inner tranquility. To this he adds the performance of one’s duties and thinking correctly about one’s self and the world.5

These seemingly diametrically opposed visions of a good life, the one of Aristotle and the other of Epictetus, are not ultimately incompatible, in fact, they potentiate each other and together allow for all possible situations. So it turns out a good life requires the individualized balancing of two efforts; (1) the pursuit of necessities for survival and reasonable leisure, and (2) the proper acceptance and re-orientation to the reality of the circumstances of one’s life. The first offers expanded potential while the second assures every person the hope and method of a good life.

Next time we will look at the other three pieces of individual purpose.

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3Epictetus, Discourse Book 1, Chapter 13 in Great Books of the Western World, Volume 12, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., page 119.

4Epictetus, Discourse Book 1II, Chapter 12 in Great Books of the Western World, Volume 12, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., page 189.

5Magill, Frank, Masterpieces of World Philosophy in Summary Form. Harper & Row Publishers, 1961, page225.

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PURPOSE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – INTERNAL REALITY

“What is my unique gift, my authentic talent?” – Ernest Becker, (on the main problem of life).

Last time I emphasized differences between purpose and virtue, but at the internal or individual level of reality, these seemingly distinct concepts converge. That is to say, the purpose of one’s existence vis-a-vis oneself is, in fact, a confluence of (1) making a good life for oneself, (2) self-perfection, (3) happiness, and (4) meaning- all possibly encompassed by the term ‘self-actualization’ or perhaps ‘enlightenment.’ Purpose at other levels derives from the fundamental efforts one makes towards these four elusive but inescapable goals that constitute a well-considered, subjective understanding of the purpose of one’s life.  Whatever path you follow, secular or religious, this tetrad is governing even though differing beliefs about the other levels of reality guide the specifics.

THE GOOD LIFE

Clearly the most tangible goal of life for the individual is to create a good life for himself of herself. Compared to the other three facets, this is the easiest and most straightforward. There are two routes to the good life: (1) deciding on the lifestyle one believes to be good and pursuing it to realization, or (2) learning to appreciate the quality of life one already has or can easily attain. The former is the basis for Aristotle’s Eudaimonia, and seems to be endorsed by Epicurus, the Enlightenment philosophes, and the modern Protestant ethic. The latter corresponds to the teaching of the Hindus, the Stoics, and Catholic Christianity.

Using Aristotle as our authority on the good life, we learn that we require self-sufficiency for the adequate provision of the necessities of life.1 For most of us this means gainful work that can sustain a minimal or, even better, an optimal lifestyle. Aristotle is no puritan, telling us “… riches are a useful thing,” but reminds us that “the person who makes the best use of anything is one who possesses the virtue appropriate to that thing. Accordingly riches will be best used by the man who possesses the virtue appropriate to property, that is, the liberal man.”2 The lesson is clear – if we seek wealth as the means to a good life, it must be balanced by just spending, saving, and giving.

Aristotle also recognizes pleasure as a component of the good life, but rejects physical pleasure and mere amusement as the aims of the lesser person or of children. Instead he endorses a higher form of pleasure derived from wisdom, thought, and philosophic reflection. He also acknowledges the importance of freedom, leisure time, and the avoidance of vice. On his view, seeking a good life provides individual purpose and is attainable by a mix of gainful work and disciplined action.

Next time we will look at the obverse side of the good life coin when we pick up with Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher.

(continued next post)

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1Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics in On Man in the Universe. Walter J. Black, Inc., Roslyn, N.Y. for The Classics Club, 1943. Page 233.

2Ibid., Page 133-134.

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PURPOSE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – CRITERIA AND PITFALLS

“[Man] has not yet seen the importance of understanding life’s ‘purpose’ and therefore, his purpose individually and collectively, and of understanding where he fits into the evolutionary scheme of things.” – Jonas Salk, The Survival of the Wisest.

We return now to purpose and the meaningful life. Last time we saw how purpose has three nuances: intrinsic or function, subjective or personal, and external or designed. As we collate these dimensions with the five levels of reality, we will need criteria for authentic purpose and vigilance to avoid misconceptions due to muddled thinking.

Beginning with pitfalls, a careless approach to purpose in life diverts one into the other areas of a meaningful life ultimately distinct from purpose, particularly virtue, duty, and contentment. Purpose should not be conflated with other parts of a meaningful life. It is trivial or cynical to say that one’s purpose in life is to be content or experience pleasure. Purpose can  result in coincident pleasure, but has a separate primary mode implied by the word. Thus the primary purpose in creating great art is for the benefit of others or the sublime communication of feelings and ideas, the resulting pleasure for the serious artist is incidental or subordinate. Art done for one’s own satisfaction is not purposeful, but a means to contentment which is the subject of our next chapter.

The same applies to virtue and duty. I have a duty to drive safely on a highway, but it is confused to say my purpose in driving is others’ safety – in theory purpose in this setting revolves around where and for what reason I am driving. Likewise I have a ‘duty’ to make a good life for myself, but purpose is focused on the reasons for the direction my life takes in making it good for me. The crux of purpose in life then is not about what one should do, but why one plans to do it.

This brings us to criteria for authentic purpose. The first is a reformulation of the above points – purpose references action done primarily for a reason or goal, and not merely as duty or virtue, or for pleasure or contentment. The second criteria references magnitude of importance, duration, and desirability. In other words an action contributes to one’s existential purpose if it is not trivial, fleeting, or abhorrent. Last purpose in general should be intended not accidental and recognized by the actor not unrealized. Purpose cannot be claimed by mere hope for a significant impact in random actions.

In closing, purpose is not identical to duty, virtue, or the pursuit of contentment, but is instead primarily goal-driven. It must have magnitudes of importance, duration, and desirability appropriate to the situation. And it must be intended and understood. Using these criteria next time we will begin looking at purpose at the different levels of reality

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1Note the overlap with criteria of meaning as discussed in posts on this site The Meaning of Life – Criteria dated 9/16/21 and 9/18/21.

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CURRENT EVENTS – VIRTUE AND THE COVID-19 VACCINE (continued)

We ended last time recognizing the ethical calculus on receiving the Covid-19 vaccine  applies at three levels of reality – individual, proximate, and societal. The simplest of these is the first or reality at the level of the individual where the decision is both simple and less urgent. If your fear of contracting Covid-19 infection, of suffering temporary symptoms (such as loss of smell and taste), of the small risk of hospitalization, and of the even smaller danger of death (say 1 in 200) is less than your concern of unknown but unlikely dangers of the vaccine (not yet seen after hundreds of millions of doses), you might come to the subjectively sound if objectively dubious decision to hold on vaccination. At this level, the best case against vaccination could be made for children and young people who are at least natural risk.

At the level of proximate reality (those around you and with whom you have contact), your ethical responsibility is not to serve as a conduit for direct spread of the virus to other, possibly more vulnerable, persons particularly family and friends. This too is a risk/benefit decision – i.e. the risk of unintended harm to others including their possible death versus your anxiety about an apparently safe vaccine. While to me it seems selfish for you to risk the health of others for unproven fears, a case might be made to delay vaccination if you have limited or no contact with people (other than those already vaccinated) or if you are willing to commit to vigorous protection by double masking, maintaining distance, and limiting interactions to outside. Perhaps phobic persons might justify this approach.

The crux of the ethical issue however is at the level of society. The body of a person infected with Covid-19 produces billions of new copies of the virus. In the copying process errors are made – called mutations – just as would happen if you were to make billions of handwritten copies of a poem or essay. While most of these mutations are harmless, rarely the mutant virus is more infectious or more virulent (likely to kill). In fact a mutant copy of the virus might not be prevented by the vaccines already available and thus could lead to a new epidemic.

Here I would like to point out that most of us have homes, cars, cell phones, food, clothing, medicines, and so forth that we would not have if not for modern civilization. There are tremendous benefits to living in society. In return don’t we have a duty not to be the source of another pandemic? There is no excuse imaginable for declining a generally available, extremely safe vaccine knowing your own body could be the factory for a new, even more deadly virus that could kill millions of your fellow human beings. Therefore, pseudoscience and conspiracy theories must be rejected; all of us have a categorical duty to be vaccinated until the pandemic is over…period. (Sorry!)

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CURRENT EVENTS – VIRTUE AND THE COVID-19 VACCINE

What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of the plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves. All the same, when you see the misery it brings, you’d need to be a madman, or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague.” – Albert Camus,  The Plague.

In seven earlier posts1 I addressed some of the philosophical issues attendant to the Covid-19 pandemic just then starting and since dominating 18 months of our lives as a species. Starting in late December of 2020 the first of four vaccines was approved for emergency use by the United States FDA and by similar agencies in most other Western countries (Russia and China have also developed their own vaccines). Without getting into the details of the amazing effectiveness and remarkably limited danger of these vaccines, as a physician who has thoroughly reviewed the clinical trials and FDA panel review and monitored the continuously reported data, I can assure readers that these vaccines are every bit as safe and perhaps more effective than any of the other vaccines they have received during their lifetimes. The mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are, in my opinion, scientific advances that will lead to Nobel Prize awards within ten years.

Our emphasis today however is on the ethics of a decision to receive or to decline vaccination. Before we address that, a little review is in order. Covid-19 is a member of the coronavirus group which includes some minor longstanding cold viruses. In 2002 a dangerous form, SARS or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome appeared in China, infected about 8000 persons and caused 774 deaths. In 2012 MERS or Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome appeared in Saudi Arabia and infected about 2500 patients causing 886 deaths.2 Covid-19 which appeared in China in late 2019 was thus the third of these mutated coronaviruses, but this time was much more infectious striking over 178 million people and killing nearly 4 million worldwide. This translates into about a 2.1% mortality, though it likely lower due to underreporting of mild and asymptomatic cases. However the mortality rate varies dramatically by age from less than one in ten thousand for children to perhaps 10-15% in octogenarians. Full vaccination reduces the number of identifiable cases by 95-99% and essentially prevents all deaths. Minor side effects from the vaccines are common, but serious harm or death are less than one in one million, and to my knowledge, no vaccine related deaths have been attributed to the mRNA vaccines.

So what is the ethical calculus on receiving the vaccine or having your child vaccinated? We have seen virtue in general applies to four levels of reality – internal, proximate, societal, and cosmic – of which the first three pertain here. We will explore these next time.

(continued next post)

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1See Suffering – The COVID-19 Pandemic – Parts I-V on this site 4/8/20, 4/10/20, 4/13/20, 4/15/20, 4/17/20, 4/20/20, and 4/22/20.

2See SARS Basic Fact Sheet and MERS Basic Fact Sheet at www.CDC.gov.

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PURPOSE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – DEFINITIONS AND DISTINCTIONS (continued)

The last term for consideration in our lexicon of purpose is “vocation” which Webster’s dictionary defines two ways: “a strong impulse or inculcation to follow a particular activity or career,” and “a divine call to God’s service or the Christian life.”7 This term seems to split the difference between free choice and divine command and between simple occupation and purposive drive. Because of its ambiguity, I will avoid using the word “vocation” in these discussion.

Now a few clarifications are in order. First there is quite a bit of overlap in all of these terms, for example, the role of teacher on the ground as it were may be the result of feeling called to education and by love of children or young people. Lifework, even the same career , can be highly meaningful to some, but dreary necessity for earning a living to others (consider two differently minded teachers).

Second purpose has two qualities of meaning. There is the logical relationship of a role or activity to its implied goal – i.e. all parents have a role or purpose in raising their child or children. Then there is the reflexive meaning where the parent feels an internal impulse to bring a child into the world and raise it as a component of a more meaningful life. Therein rests a key insight – that our work or activity is purpose-based is a subjective impression rather than implied by the specific activity. In thinking about the meaning of life, it is this subjective essence which is central.

Last, so far we have used the word purpose in the existential sense, either as function at the ground level of an existing entity or as the self-directed goals of human agency. There is perhaps a third context of purpose – the intention of the agent responsible for our existence. At the level of our parent, purpose could be a goal our parent or parents had for us when bringing us into the world. It seems this is most likely equivalent to a role, but if subjectively embraced could become a mission or calling. Nonetheless we still choose to fill their intended purpose or not so the distinction is of limited significance.

Alternatively if we, humans in general and ourselves as individuals in particular, were created by a divine power, the implication is that a fixed purpose was intended. Purpose in this setting remains subjective however – we may choose to see ourselves simply filling a role in divine creation or consciously seek to identify and assume the calling of the creator. The same circumstances apply if we assume there is a self-emerging direction to the universe in which teleology is implied in our existence. We will take on these difficult questions in later blogs.

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7Ibid., page.2129.

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PURPOSE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – DEFINITIONS AND DISTINCTIONS

“Man is made for action, not for idleness or pleasure. A man must not retire into solitude and cut himself off from his fellow men. He must be ever active and do his part in the greater whole.” – Marcus Aurelius

Having defined purpose as we will be using it  as “the desirable result, end, or aim of one’s life,” we next take on similar concepts and parse their use and contribution to the answer we seek.

The closest related word to purpose, it seems to me, is “role,” defined by Webster’s as “proper or customary function.”1 This understanding seems to apply to specific circumstances such as being a parent or being a teacher. The purpose of a parent vis-a-vis parenthood is to fill a specific role in raising one’s children to successful adulthood. Similarly the purpose and the role of a teacher appear to be essentially identical, that is, to instruct students in a particular subject matter. Thus just as the purpose of a car’s brake is its role in slowing or stopping the vehicle, in some contexts human purpose is defined by one’s role in a particular situation.

The second term related to purpose is “calling” which seems best defined by reworking three of Webster’s  meanings of the word into  “a vocation, profession, or trade to which one is summoned or for which one feels a strong impulse of inclination.”2 Connotatively a calling then is identifying a course of lifelong labor that is at least subjectively worthwhile and meaningful. we conclude that while role as purpose is in a sense incidental to one’s circumstances or externally defined, a calling is more internally defined and the result of conscious choice or impulse.

A “mission” can be defined as “an assigned or self-imposed duty or task”3 although the word often refers to faith-based activites as in ‘missionary work.’ Missions are also typically group activities as opposed to the individual context of a calling. For example the choice to be a physician or a clergyman is a calling, while the choice to join others in evangelical work in underserved communities is generally considered a mission. Likewise secular and business organizations have missions to provide excellent products or services or to support a particular goal.

Slightly less suggestive of purpose is the word, “lifework” which can be defined as “the complete or principal work, labor, or task of a lifetime.”4 Callings and missions are often lifeworks, but some lifeworks are less consciously linked to the purpose of one’s life. Within the latter group falls the idea of “career” defined as “an occupation or profession, especially one requiring special training, followed as one’s lifework,”5 and “occupation” which is defined as “a person’s usual or principle work or business especially as a means of earning a living.”6 The difference in nuance of these terms is their implicit focus on work as a social responsibility or as the means to sustain oneself and one’s family rather than as providing a definite purpose for one’s life.

(continued next post)

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1Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, page 1667 – definition 2.

2Ibid., page 298 – definitions 2,3, and 4.

3Ibid., page 1231 – definition 16.

4Ibid., page 1111.

5Ibid., page 315.

6Ibid., page 1339.

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PURPOSE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – INTRODUCTION

“Every single man is a new thing in the world, and is called upon to fulfill his particularity in the world.” –Martin Buber, I and Thou.

 

 

We have seen that a meaningful life starts with the decision to choose a life of virtue or moral excellence. However in all likelihood when you ask yourself what is the meaning of life, you intend a query more akin to “Why am I here?” or “What is the purpose of my life?” Perhaps surprisingly, philosophers speak much more of virtue than they do of purpose. I think that is because the word itself is vague, oversized, or implies an intention of a Creator. Today I wish to introduce this topic by clarifying its use on this site,  sorting through some of the nuances of the idea of purpose as it applies to a meaningful life, and then outlining the course we will follow.

Let’s begin with the definition which we discussed in an earlier post on Teleology1. According to Webster’s, “purpose” is “the reason for which something exists or is done, made, or used; an intended or desired result, end, or aim” or loosely “why” we exist. Now for many things the “why” can be determined, for example the brake on your car exists to stop the vehicle, and this could be determined through careful study by any intelligent being who looked closely enough. The same can be said of the car itself; it exists to transport persons or things from one place to another.

When we look at a human being, asking about the purpose of a part, such as the kidney or liver, also appears to be a coherent question – typically answered by a scientific analysis. However it is unclear whether the question of why a human being in his or her totality exists has a scientific answer and indeed many argue the question lacks coherence at all. We will take this up in a later blog.

With regards to the meaning of life, we deploy a modified version of the second aspect of the dictionary definition so that the question of one’s purpose, we hope, is converted into the more cogent question “What is the desirable result, end, or aim of my life?” It is a reply to this understanding that makes up the majority of this section. Also since any answer refers to conduct, the reader sees the necessity of our prior discussion of ethics and virtue in a final answer. The outline of this section follows:

1.     Introduction

2.    Distinctions of terms

3.    Criterial and Pitfalls

4.    Levels of purpose

5.    Factors in choice

6.    Historicity

7.    Teleology and purpose

8.    Divine purpose

9.    Purpose and virtue

10.    The purpose of humanity

11.  Synopsis and Synthesis

Next time we pick up with the distinction of various terms related to purpose such as role, calling, and mission. Join me then.

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1See Teleology – Definitions of Terms on this site – November 4, 2019

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VIRTUE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – SYNOPSIS (continued)

The third level is societal virtue which is founded on the idea that an excellent human being reciprocates for the benefits of society by fulfilling duties and being of service. My list of reasonable duties is listed in Table 1 of the Appendix, though some readers may want to craft their own. An inventory of duties informs those obligations that are inexcusable no matter the personal sacrifice or inconvenience. Regarding service, a good rule of thumb is that such efforts should contribute to the maximum enrichment of all at the lowest possible opportunity cost always factoring in the categorical imperative that every person be treated as an end and never as a means. Key prerequisites are knowledge of goodness, a moral compass, recognition and acceptance of duty, integrity, discipline, and prudence.

Social virtue by all is vital to the function of a democratic state, but there is much to learn from extraordinary virtue in the forms of the saint, the hero, the great leader, and the sage. Each epitomizes one of the four classical Greek virtues; the saint – temperance, the hero – courage, the leader – justice, and the sage – wisdom. Virtue and human purpose overlap and reinforce each other in their shining examples.

The fourth level of virtue in a fully meaningful life is beyond humanity: Nature, the Earth, science, and the cosmos. A reverence for life and living in harmony with other creatures and with our planet is foundational although there are pragmatic limits on our responsibilities. Thus it appears ethical to limit pests in our immediate environment and to consume animal products. However utilitarian rules and some imperatives apply: for example we should not exploit the environment without considering ecosystems nor intentionally cause the extinction of even disagreeable species.

Cosmic virtue also extends to science where human excellence includes careful study and analysis as the means to truth about the physical world and our interactions with it. Open dialogue and freedom of speech permit the voicing of pseudoscience by persons of lesser virtue, but intelligent, moral individuals must learn to reject it and help others see its fallacies. Meanwhile science and technology must be used for ethical purposes and blocked from evil uses.

The final dimension of cosmic virtue is adoption of the cosmic perspective, a term I borrowed from Neil de Grasse Tyson. For me there are two components; first the external actions of study of the universe including perhaps participation as amateur scientist, searching for extra-terrestrial life as a means to expanding our understanding of the cosmos, and exploration and colonization of space. The other component is internal and includes mirroring the order and benevolence of the universe, enlarging one’s worldview, and recognizing our limited but singular role in the universe and our kinship with all things in existence. We can learn the secrets of the cosmos through the examples of great scientists like Galileo and Einstein or great spiritualists like Laozi or Spinoza.

At the end of the day, virtue at these four levels is not just human excellence, but the defining feature of our species. The attainment of a meaningful life starts with the simple decision to choose a life of virtue – to aim for moral excellence and yes even perfection. It depends more on the choosing than on the succeeding. Think about it!

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VIRTUE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – SYNOPSIS

“The happiness of mankind is the end of virtue, and truth is the knowledge of the means.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

The first stage on the journey to a meaningful life takes place on the highway of virtue. Virtue is human excellence manifested as ideal conduct in the world. The foundation of all virtue occurs at the level of the self – a raw gem with irregular surfaces we cut and polish through our lives to produce a shining jewel.  Its facets are self-discipline, self-knowledge, self-improvement, selflessness, recognition of the true self, self-affirmation, and self-actualization. Once accomplished, virtue at the other levels of reality follows naturally as long as we deliberate our actions carefully and make a habit of performing ethically as Aristotle taught us over 2000 years ago. Eastern philosophy and techniques, religious mysticism, and NeoPlatonism offer methods to perfect our internal being, but be prepared for a long and sometimes frustrating course to this inner bliss.

The second plane of virtue in the meaningful life is in our direct relationship to others. It originates in selflessness, and is fed by temperance, and commitment to ethical behavior in the world. Virtue to others takes on two forms: usual and extraordinary. Each person must learn to live harmoniously with others, adopting appropriate norms of behavior or propriety (etiquette, civil demeanor, respect for others, and wisdom in choosing friends). To this we add justice or fairness and decency in dealing with other people, voluntary obedience to legitimate laws, freely choosing proportionate distribution of goods, and electing to suffer injustice oneself rather than commit injustice (summed up in the aphorism: “Two wrongs don’t make a right!”).

Exceptional virtue on this plane has two forms – heroism and saintliness. Everyday heroism ranges from the common spontaneous acts of accepting risk in the service of others or through deliberate acts. Exceptional heroism involves assuming spectacular risks such as probable harm of death in the service of others or unrelenting determination and personal sacrifice in a great enterprise. Underlying heroism is a philosophical dimension, a personal journey to full power over oneself, a final acceptance of one’s finitude and inevitable death, and the dedication to hopeful action and “living the truth of creation.” The second form of exceptional virtue in this realm is the saint – the religious or secular figure who sacrifices the needs and wants of him or herself for the love of others. For some the practice of such goodness towards others becomes identical to happiness.

(continued next post)

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