In our discussion of social virtue, last time we examined the critical internal characteristics – goodness and honor – and the first two aptitudes – recognition of duties and a moral compass. The third aptitude is fortitude, meaning the will, discipline, and endurance to complete one’s assumed duty or chosen service. The socially virtuous person must have the mental and emotional strength to face the difficulties, adversity, danger, and temptations inherent in such tasks.

An example of fortitude that I find particularly poignant appears on the website which I reproduce here:

While on a missionary trip in remote Africa, Dr. David Livingston had an organization in England that wanted to send him some assistance. The leader of the organization wrote him and asked, “Have you found a good road to where you are? If so, we want to send some men to join you on this mission.” Dr. Livingston wrote back, “If you only have men who will come only if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them. I want men who will come even if there is no road at all.”

The last aptitude essential to social virtue is prudence or practical wisdom, terms that encompass the experience, judgment, intelligence, and know-how needed to complete a duty or fulfill a service for one’s community or nation or for humanity. According to Aristotle, (practical) wisdom is “a union of intuitive reasoning and scientific knowledge; it may be defined as the complete science of the loftiest matters.”5 Following the analysis of the pragmatic Santayana, this acumen then is the ability to assess various choices of maximizing value at the lowest opportunity cost.

Societal virtue has a rich place in the history of philosophy, starting no later than the ancient Greeks with their analysis of the polis, or city state, from which we get our word ‘politics.’ Stoic philosophy (as opposed to Epicureanism) imposes on men obligations to society and proposes a greater human community – the Cosmopolis. The Romans adopt this philosophy as a justification for their empire as does the Roman Catholic Church in the aftermath of the empire’s fall. It follows history into the tradition of chivalry, the great public works of the Renaissance, the scholarship of the Age of Reason, the philosophes of the Enlightenment, and of course into modernity. It also appears in other civilizations as for example in the words of the Bhagavad Gita and in the teachings of Confucius. Arguably, the most decisive feature of human civilization is the expectation of the execution of duties and service by its members. It should be no surprise that these are thus a vital dimension of a meaningful life.


5Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics  in On Man in the Universe. Walter J. Black, Inc., Roslyn, N.Y. for The Classics Club, 1943. Page 174.


“The honor of a gentleman demands the inviolability of his word, and the incorruptibility of his principles. He      is the descendant of the knight, the crusader; he is the defender of the defenseless and the champion of justice – or he is not a gentleman.” – Emily Post, Etiquette.


We have seen that at the societal level virtue involves two main components – duty and service. Now I would like to explore the key inner characteristics and the four aptitudes required for social virtue, and its place in philosophical traditions. The internal characteristics that support social virtue are a commitment to goodness, acceptance of duties to society, and deep integrity. This latter term includes unwavering truthfulness, devotion to fairness or justice, and absolute trustworthiness. There must be an absence of deceit or fraud. Integrity according to Webster’s is a “soundness of moral principle that no power or influence can impair.”1 A community or nation has the right to expect these features of honor in return for the protection and advantages from which we benefit. Therefore the virtuous person does not seek public esteem, but rather to be worthy of it.

With our internal probity ordered, we next need to hone four aptitudes for optimal service to society. The first of these is the recognition of duties. A list is included in Table 1 in the appendix, though it is possible to imagine others. I would add to that table Santayana’s duty from reason that we create the maximum riches for others with the least lost opportunity, that is, limiting production to no more than is useful while avoiding prevention of a greater good.

Second is a moral compass. It is not enough to seek to do good, one must be able to identify good versus evil. As the compass always point north, so the human moral compass must always be directed at true goodness. Immanuel Kant defines the ‘moral law’ as that formula which expresses the necessity of action done from duty in terms of one’s own reflection.2 Others argue for the existence of a ‘moral sense’ meaning a natural “ability to determine the rightness or wrongness of actions.”3 One particularly important point on the compass is the principle that no individual can ever be sacrificed for the greater good; this line once crossed leads down the path to evil as history reveals over and over.4

(continued next post)


1Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, p. 918 (synonym for honor).

2Runes, Dagobert D., Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, New York, 1960, p.202.

3Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, p. 1249.

4I am of course referring to the decision of one person to sacrifice another. One can sacrifice oneself for others for a greater good. It also appears ethical to ask, but not coerce, another to volunteer to sacrifice himself or herself for a greater good.


“Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” – Theodore Roosevelt.



In the search for greater meaning in one’s life, an ethical role in society seems to offer a higher degree of significance than is seen at the level of the self or one’s immediate environment. The basic ingredient of societal virtue is service, by which I mean, helpful activity in the broadest sense of the word, including all forms of employment, public and private, that lead to benefit to others (beyond oneself, family, and friends), and especially to society in the expansive sense. Alternatively we can use Kantian logic to pinpoint service as vocational actions worthy of the gratitude of society (even if unbeknownst to it). Service then is the area of overlap of two components of the meaningful life – virtue and purpose – in the dimension of cultural reality.

You seldom come upon philosophers who offer an analysis of service, but George Santayana devotes a considerable space to it in his masterpiece, The Life of Reason.1 His thesis is simple; civilization offers us three advantages – greater wealth, safety, and variety of experience – all of which are instrumental rather than absolute goods. Service is work which contributes to these benefits of human associations. Needless to say, law enforcement, fire protection, military, political, medical, construction, and food production and distribution personnel offer services that fit into the category of safety. Entertainers, artists, and competitive athletes, add to the variety of experience, but we might also include here educational, recreational, hospitality, restaurant, and some merchandise staff.

However, for those of us who may not quite fit into these groups, and perhaps even for those who do Santayana offers an analytical approach to societal service. His quasi-utilitarian suggestion is that one’s vocation contributes to the maximum enrichment for all. That is, someone (other than yourself) must live better from the fruits of your labor. Prudent service then consist in creating the maximum riches for others with the least lost opportunity; the key criteria being whether one produces more of value than is useful or prevents another good. Santayana feels government is inevitable but becomes good only when it adjusts provisions for all human interests. However, at least for now, man’s societal selfishness may be advantageous; “In pursuing prizes for themselves, people benefit their fellows more that in pursuing such narrow and irrational ideas as alone seem to be powerful in the world.”2

He concludes “If noble and civilized democracy is to subsist, the common citizen must be something of a saint and something of a hero. We see therefore how justly flattering and profound, and at the same time how ominous, was Montesquieu’s saying that the principle of democracy is virtue.”3


1 Santayana, George, The Life of Reason. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1953. Pages 115-148.

2Ibid. Page 147.

3Ibid. Page 148.


“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” —African Proverb



As we ascend the ladder of reality from the self, past the proximate, we enter the cultural realm with historical contextualization, the fixtures of community and nation, and the canopy of humanity itself.  One can imagine a meaningful life absent society, but each of us would struggle to live very long outside it. A clever person can figure out much alone, but no one can develop in a single lifetime even a fraction of the knowledge that is available from the compendium of human scholarship. In addition, beyond basic  necessities and knowledge, society offers devices and conveniences which transform life from stark subsistence to civilized comfort.

Intelligent, ethical people recognize that the reciprocation for society’s benefits is societal virtue specifically service and duty. These are the mortar that cement the individual bricks of human communities. I will not now repeat the earlier section on deontology,1 but urge readers to return to those posts to refresh their understanding as I have myself done. Rather we now address the location of social virtue on the journey to happiness and fulfillment.

We will need to break this into parts; first discussing the the notion and significance of service within society. From there we will investigate features of common or universal duty and the four types of extraordinary social virtue. Along the way we will listen to a historian’s synthesis of superlative social virtue and meet some of his examples from the past.  We will close with a synopsis of this level of virtue in the meaningful life.

Join me next time when we take up the important concept of service.


1See 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.


“An act of goodness is of itself an act of happiness. No reward coming after the event can compare with the sweet reward that went with it.”– Maurice Maeterlinck, Nobel Laureate in Literature, 1911.

After self-mastery, virtuous interaction with others is likely the next most vital prerequisite for happiness and a meaningful life. It emanates directly from inner selflessness, temperance, and commitment to ethical behavior in the world. Many great thinkers believe that the habit of goodness towards others is essentially identical to happiness.

Virtue to others takes on two forms: usual and extraordinary. At a minimum each person must learn to live harmoniously with others, adopting appropriate norms of behavior which we have labelled propriety. This includes etiquette, civil demeanor, respect for others, and wisdom in choosing friends. In addition we must exercise fairness and decency in dealing with others, which we have labelled justice. Aristotle tells us this is a habit of doing the right thing, through deliberation, judgment, and decisiveness such that we reach the end of prudent liberality and magnanimity. It also involves voluntary obedience to legitimate laws, the free choice of proportionate distribution of goods, and virtuous action – pledging oneself to risk suffering injustice rather than committing it.

Exceptional virtue in the realm of proximate reality has two forms – heroism and saintliness. Everyday heroism ranges from the common spontaneous acts of accepting risk in the service of others or deliberate acts such as donating blood to occupational forms such as military service or firefighting. 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 the self for the love of others.

Happiness and meaning in life come through many levels of human experience. The choices we make in our behavior with those around us are powerful determinants of the likelihood of our fulfillment. Propriety, justice to others, courageous action, and personal sacrifice for the good of others are the four key components of enduring satisfaction and meaning in our immediate environment.


“How the devil do I know? Has the question itself any meaning?” – George Bernard Shaw (response to Will Durant on the meaning of life).1



In the last two blogs I introduced a book based on a letter Will Durant sent to prominent individuals seeking solace from the melancholy of the 1930’s and their thoughts on what makes life meaningful. We saw how answers fell into categories of activity in life, domestic affectations, human accomplishments, spirituality, ethics, and Nature. Today we look at the thoughts of Durant himself and a surprising letter he received from a life-term convict.


Using this title,  Durant begins, “I suspect there is some ultimate significance to everything, though I know our little minds will never fathom it.”2 The meaning of anything lies in its relation as a part to a whole making it impossible for us, as parts, to understand ultimate meaning. However humanity’s limits in knowing apply equally to optimistic and pessimistic views of meaning. In the face of uncertainty, equanimity comes from healthy skepticism and even a humorous view of scientific, historical, and philosophical pronouncements. We must recognize that men are mortal but are not machines, vices are vestiges of historic virtues, and progress involves setbacks.

He tells us while “life has no meaning outside of its own terrestrial self…within these limits is still much room to find significance for one’s life and a moderate content.”3 The meaning of life must be “sought in life’s own instinctive cravings and natural fulfillments.”4 The simplest of these are joy in the very experience of living itself, the appreciation of beauty, the love of friends and family, and parenthood. In order to give life greater meaning, one must be part of a something larger than oneself, some cause which becomes “a task which consumes all one’s energies and makes human life a little richer than before.”5 He advises us, “a man should have many irons in the fire”6 – don’t tie happiness entirely to a single outlet. And as a last resort there is always the contemplation of Nature herself.


The book ends on a response received from Owen C. Middleton, a prisoner serving a life sentence. Despite this grim future, Middleton believes his life can be meaningful – as he says “life is worth just what I am willing to strive to make it worth.”7 Truth is neither ugly nor beautiful, but simply truth; and most ‘truths’ are simply beliefs. “Truth tells us that happiness is a state of mental contentment”8 which can be found anywhere, thus “its logical abode must be within the mind.”9  Beyond this he thinks progress like evolution comes from inventiveness, the world is orderly, and life and the universe are like a river moving invariably forward despite the eddies and currents. No man who chooses to continue living can deny life has meaning even if it is only in the hope of the future.

Middleton closes: “How I play my part is all that concerns me. In the knowledge that I am an inalienable part of this great, wonderful, upward movement called life, and that nothing, neither pestilence, nor physical afflictions, nor depression, nor prison, can take away from me my part, lies my consolation, my inspiration, and my treasure.”10


1Durant, Will and Middleton, Owen C., On the Meaning of Life. Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, Inc., New York, 1932. Page 107.

2Ibid., page 112.

3Ibid., page 123.

4Ibid., page 124.

5Ibid., page 129.

6Ibid., page 130.

7Ibid., page 138.

8Ibid., page 140.

9Ibid., page 141.

10Ibid., page 144.


Last time I introduced Will Durant’s 1931 book, On The Meaning of Life, by outlining the letter he sent to over 100 prominent individuals seeking a their thoughts on the melancholic view of the meaning of life in the midst of a world-wide depression.


He does not specify how many responses he received to his letter, but he publishes at least parts of twenty-seven. The categories of perceived meaning in life in order of declining frequency of mention are:

  1. Active function in life – particularly being occupied in something you love, commitment to action or to a cause. As H. L. Mencken tells us, “Life demands to be lived.”2
  2. Domestic affections – family and friends. Gina Lombroso writes, “I think the primordial reason of living is love. Love for the family is the best known and the easiest.”3
  3. Man’s accomplishments – especially knowledge, science, music, and art.
  4. Spirituality with or without religion – or as Gandhi replied, “Religion not in the conventional but in the broadest sense helps me to have a glimpse of the Divine essence.”4
  5. Ethics and morality- or as John Erskine says it, “I believe the divine element in man is whatever it is which makes us wish to lead a life worth remembering, harmless to others, helpful to them, and increasing our own store of wisdom an peace.”5
  6. Nature – expressed beautifully by John Cowper Powys, “The most magical powers, values, sensations of these secrets of life are still to be found in Nature…”6

It is worth noting that several respondents specifically state they see life as meaningful even in the absence of belief in God and immortality. Some also scoff at the question particularly the writers Theodore Dreiser and  George Bernard Shaw and the philosopher Bertrand Russell.

So we see that modern people come to similar answers as the ancient sages: Aristotle (the active life), Christ (the love of others), Epicurus (man’s accomplishments), Hindu wise men ( human spirituality), the Stoics (ethics), the Cynics (Nature), the Skeptics (the absence of an answer). We continue next time with Durant’s thoughts and the thoughts of a life-term convict.


2Durant, Will and Middleton, Owen C., On the Meaning of Life. Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, Inc., New York, 1932. Page30.

3Ibid., page 96.

4Ibid., page 84.

5Ibid., page 41.

6Ibid., page 44.


“The horrible thing about looking for truth is that one finds it.” – Remy De Gourmont.


“I am sorry to say that at the moment I am so busy as to be convinced that life has no meaning whatever…I do not see that we can judge what would be the result of the discovery of truth, since none has hitherto been discovered.” – Bertrand Russell (response to Will Durant on the meaning of life).

For Christmas this year I asked for and received one of the books that I did not have by Will Durant with the intriguing title On the Meaning of Life.  The pretext is simple – Durant prepares a letter in 1931 sent to over 100 famous contemporaries summarizing the melancholy outlook of his generation on the meaning of life and asking for a response. This seemingly naïve endeavor nets a number of interesting replies which make up the body of the book. Durant himself responds to his original pessimistic letter and some of the replies he received in the third section of the book which finally closes with an essay on life’s meaning by a life-term convict.


Durant starts by admitting he is not himself despondent about the value of life, but wishes to confront the “the bitterest possibilities…in such a ways as to guard against the superficial optimism with which men are wont to turn aside the profounder issues of life.”1  He breaks the argument for doubt into 5 categories:

  1. Religion – the failure of hope and faith and the risk of despair in the turbulent world.
  2. Science – diminishing man and his place in the universe and his noble emotions such as love.
  3. History – change without progress and civilizations as futile and often forgotten.
  4. Utopia – a vain hope as man does not change and war destroys all progress towards it.
  5. Suicide of the Intellect – without God, thought including philosophy appears ultimately destructive.

In his letter he freely admits to the recipients that his has been a life of thought and now he seeks answers from persons who have lived as well as thought.

(continued next post)


1Durant, Will and Middleton, Owen C., On the Meaning of Life. Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, Inc., New York, 1932. Page 6.


The consummate example of a saint in modern times seems to be Mother Theresa, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize plus over a dozen other humanitarian awards for her missionary work for the destitute and the dying in the slums of Calcutta and more than 25 countries worldwide. She was canonized in 2015 by Pope Francis and so meets the formal definition as well as the general designation of saint.

In her 1982 book, The Love of Christ, she gives us clues to the inner thinking of the saintly mind. “The work is our only way of expressing our love for God, our love must pour on someone.”3  “We can work, but we cannot do it without God’s help.”4 “One cannot expect to become a saint without paying the price, and the price is much renunciation, much persecution, and all sorts of sacrifices.” 5 “At death we will not be judged by the amount of work we did, but by the love we put into it. And this love must come from self-sacrifice and be felt until it hurts.” 6 She also she tells us of the spiritual side of sainthood: silence is the means to God. “Remain as ‘empty’ as possible so that God can fill you. Even God cannot put anything into what already is full.”7

In brief, for Mother Theresa saintliness depends on charity, faith, love, humility, service, self-denial, suffering, and sacrifice. She offers a beautiful quote by Nath Tagore:

“I slept and I dreamed

that life is all joy.

I woke and I saw

that life is all service.

I served and I saw

that service is joy!”8

The second form of the saint is more secular, emerging in a world of diminished belief in God and formal religions. The absence of divine inspiration and presumed assistance places the secular saint between the traditional saint and hero. Its backdrop is humanism and its force is existential. Absolute freedom entails responsibility which thus underpins the human search for meaning.

Francis Ambrosio offers the example of Simone Weil, an early twentieth century French philosopher and antifascist who defined justice as seeing no avoidable harm is done by any persons. Absolute freedom imposes on us a strict responsibility to do all in our power to meet the needs of body (food, shelter, clothing, physical security) and soul (meaning and value) of every other person. Late in life she admitted to belief in a personal God, but declined to join any religion.9

Ambrosio also considers Martin Luther King a secular saint. While Christian, King draws on Greek philosophy, extracting from Plato’s body-soul distinction the concept of a poverty of spirit characteristic of modernity and the cause of its violence and oppression. His righteous solution, founded on self-mastery and self-respect, is the path of non-violence.10

Ambrosio closes: “the secular saint does not live human questions in terms of their truth of falsehood, but rather in terms of the way his or her participation in the dialogue shapes that one human identity for which he or she alone is responsible, and for the meaning the one life and death that is given to them within the condition of human existence.”11


3Mother Theresa of Calcutta, The Love of Christ. Harper and Row Publishers, San Francisco, 1982. ISBN 0-06-068229-9, page 15.

4Ibid., page 18.

5Ibid., page 21.

6Ibid., page 55.

7Ibid., page 60.

8Ibid., page 59.

9Ambrosio, Francis J., Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life. 2009, The Great Courses. Lectures 30 and 31.

10Ibid., Lecture 32.

11Ibid., guidebook, page 113.


“What makes saintliness in my view, as distinguished from ordinary goodness, is a certain quality of magnanimity and greatness of soul that brings life within the circle of the heroic.”– Harriett Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Having completed our analysis of heroism we proceed to the second of two roles of exceptional virtue in dealing directly with others, saintliness. Both epitomize the inner triumph of unselfishness over self-interest, and although there is substantial overlap, the fundamental virtue in heroism is courage while the fundamental virtue in sainthood is temperance. Both also indicate immense love of others in one’s choice of action.

Webster’s unabridged dictionary defines the word saint as “(1) any of certain persons of exceptional holiness of life, formally recognized as such by the Christian Church, esp. by canonization, (2) a person of great holiness, virtue, or benevolence.”1  Regarding the first definition, in Catholicism, an initial posthumous beatification  of a martyr or of the extremely pious and benevolent, is followed by canonization or designation as a saint only if miracles by the saint are confirmed by Church authorities. We are not particularly concerned with sainthood as decreed by any religious denomination, rather the less forma, more accessible, extraordinary benevolence of an individual, making the second definition more appropriate for our use. We will defer issues of holiness and piety to future posts as well since these fall more into the realm of communion with the ultimate.

Francis Ambrosio adds a further criterion in his definition of a saint as “someone whose identity is based on trust based on the promise made by another, offering the hope of a fulfillment in life that the saint recognizes could only be achieved through the help that the other promises to give as a gift.”2 I can accept this supplemental standard as long as the idea of covenant imbedded in his concept applies to humanity or the universe should one be agnostic or should there be no God. The saint then converts the gift, from Nature or God, of his or her life and faculties into a supererogatory devotion to the good of others at the expense of himself or herself. This synthesis of saintliness then offers a profound sense of meaningfulness and joy to a human life.

(continued next post)