“The study of Nature is intercourse with the highest mind. You should never trifle with nature.” – Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz.



The path to cosmic virtue begins with the attitude or approach one takes to cosmic reality. We have seen that the three dimensions here are Nature, Science, and the Universe. While the virtuous approach to them is similar, the distinctions are significant enough to justify separate analysis.


Determining an approach to nature is complex, starting with the question – are humans and civilization part of Nature or separate from it? According to a literal interpretation of the question, of course human beings and society are simply a portion of the greater world, that is, a part of Nature. In the symbolic sense, the picture is less clear. Nature appears to be guided by chains of conscienceless causation and instinct, while human behavior and creations are the product of reason and rationality. Expansion in Nature is checked by responses within Nature whereas human expansion is virtually unlimited due to our intellectual capacities.

However even if we grant this distinction isreal, the overlap is undeniable – consider domesticated animals and plants. Is your pet dog a part of the human world while the wolf is not even though they are the same biological species? Is a fir tree in my yard part of nature or part of a civilized garden despite being the same genetically as a fir in an uncut wood? Are a wheat field in Kansas, a sunflower farm in France, or a forest of trees planted by a lumber company nature or not as we gaze on their beauty?

I am not sure the philosopher can resolve this issue convincingly, but I suspect most of us would concede that when humans exist harmoniously with other species in the biosphere, they are most a part of Nature, and when they are separated within places excluding most living things and surrounded by manmade structures, they become fundamentally disconnected from Nature.

Now I will risk a philosophical leap – cosmic virtue includes the recognition that we are fundamentally attached to Nature, partly because it is our essence as biological organisms who evolved naturally, and partly because at the end of the day we depend on Nature for our existence and our future as a species. In a sci-fi, futuristic world with no other living things, we will still require clean water, breathable air, and the matter and space the Earth provides for us and our manufactures in order to continue as a species. Still most of us would consider that vision as dysphoric, thus at a minimum we must care enough about other living creatures and the environment to avoid that horrific scenario.

So what attitude should we have given this analysis? I think the answer is the practical philosopher will have reverence for Nature and respect for other living things. Needless harm to either falls within our definition of evil, while exploitation must be limited by meticulous ethical justification. Reverence also entails an aspect of communion with Nature.

(continued next post)


“The source of man’s unhappiness is his ignorance of nature.” – Paul Henri Thiry, Baron D’Holbach.



If the twin goals of human life are happiness and meaning, with virtue as the foundation, and if we accept virtue must be considered in the broadest possible sense, then we must dive deeply into the underexplored region of cosmic virtue. The issues within cosmic virtue are profoundly different than virtue related to self and others, but have analogues at the level of society. Its parameters are dimension and guiding principles, both of which we must untangle prior to a detailed exposition.


Cosmic virtue includes three dimensions that compose the extra-human world. First there is Nature; itself consisting of two components – nonhuman life and the environment of Earth. We immediately stumble over a key metaphysical issue here – whether the distinction between the human world and the natural world is real– a discussion we will take up in the next segment. The second facet is the natural sciences, fundamental disciplines humans use to examine, understand, and fully appreciate living things and the world, and the foundation of most of our material progress.

The third tier is the universe or cosmos, in reality a human idea, which justifies some metaphysical examination as part of evaluating virtue at that level. It requires a highly intelligent creature to condense the multiple elements of creation into a whole and to derive an ethic from that reconfiguration. In brief, the dimensions of cosmic virtue include the immediate – Nature, the abstract – Science, and the expansive – the Universe.  Anything less leaves gaps in our opportunity for the most meaningful life possible.


The second parameter of cosmic virtue is a list of guiding principles which inform virtue in these three dimensions. The first is attitude, that is, what makes for an ethical approach or mindset in general behavior by humans beyond human society. Next is metaphysical and epistemological – the commitment to truth or perhaps more accurately the highest level of certainty in describing Nature, developing science, and understanding the universe.

Third are the categories of action – service and duty – which address issues of interference and exploitation, living in harmony with nature, alignment with the trajectory of the universe, development of ethical norms, and prescriptive and proscriptive human conduct particularly around responsibility, integrity, and reciprocation. Fourth is application of the fundamental code of behavior whereby virtuous action entails the balance of good* over evil or benefits over costs in human actions when seen from the vantage point of the nonhuman world. Last is the exhibition of the four classical virtues – courage, temperance, justice, and prudence – in the realm of cosmic reality.  

Each guiding principle must be defined for each of the three dimensions of cosmic reality in our formulation of a blueprint of cosmic virtue. Join me next time to discuss attitude or mindset with respect to cosmic reality.


*It is worth repeating that for this site good is defined as that which contributes to the happiness, well-being, longevity, pleasure, or knowledge of oneself and others or at least does not diminish these for others; or which promotes existing non-human reality in the universe.


“To live in accordance with nature is to live in accordance with virtue.” – Zeno the Stoic

We have seen that a meaningful life begins with virtue at the level of self, extends to interactions with others, and reaches a higher level of tangibility and magnitude at the level of society. One might therefore expect that humanism offers the greatest hope of a  meaningful life. I want now to expand the horizons of the discussion by considering in some detail the possibility of virtue at the cosmic level.

Let’s begin with a reminder that we defined virtue as the state of a thing which constitutes its particular excellence and enables it to perform its function well, and for humans that is reason and rationally ordered habits. More succinctly, for us, virtue refers to excellence in human conduct.

Next I wish to restate that ‘cosmic reality’ for our purposes refers to that reality not directly observed by the mind or our senses and outside the realm of human relations. Our awareness of cosmic reality is generally dependent on scientific tools, experiment, advanced mathematics, and is circumscribed by the laws that govern the universe and the constituents of matter. It involves large concepts like Nature*, the Earth, and the Universe (in their capitalized forms), but also the fields of physics and chemistry, and science in general.

So the goal of this section is to determine what defines excellence for us as rational beings in our dealings with Nature, the Earth, the Universe, the material world, and science and how that understanding is integrated into a meaningful life.

I will break this topic into the following segments:

1.   Philosophical Features of Cosmic Virtue

2.   Approach to Cosmic Reality

3.   Realms of Cosmic Virtue

4.   The Saint of Nature

5.   The Scientist as Hero

6.   The Genius of Science

7.   The Cosmic Sage

8.   Synopsis

We are treading on ground mostly ignored by traditional philosophers where we must synthesize a thoroughly modern expansion of ethics if we hope to justify our species label, Homo sapiens, or “wise man.’ Join me next time for an analysis of the philosophical features of cosmic virtue.


*Relationship with Nature of course occurs both at the level of proximate and cosmic reality.


“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.


Generally a sage has not only students, but immediate disciples plus later followers. In the case of ancient sages, these individuals often maintained the lessons of the master via an oral tradition or as scribes of his teachings. The Analects (or Lun yü) contains conversations and aphorisms recorded by the disciples of Confucius. Some pearls include the following: 5

  1. “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”
  2. “They must often change who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.”
  3. “What the superior man seeks is in himself; what the small man seeks is in others.”
  4. “When anger rises, think of the consequences.”
  5. “To be able under all circumstances to practice five things constitutes perfect virtue; these five things are gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness.”
  6. “To see what is right, and not to do it, is want of courage or of principle.”
  7. “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.”
  8. “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
  9. “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”
  10. “Silence is a true friend who never betrays.”
  11. “Forget injuries, never forget kindnesses.”
  12. “Have no friends not equal to yourself.”
  13. “A superior man is modest in his speech but exceeds in his actions.” .
  14. “Recompense injury with justice and recompense kindness with kindness.”
  15. “When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not, to admit the fact –this is knowledge.”
  16. “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work  a day in your life.”

Confucius developed a humanism based on several powerful principles of social virtue: li – ritual or social order, jen –human-heartedness or benevolence (or ‘true manhood’), shu – reciprocity, and  Hsiao – a broad vision of filial piety (including respect for society). He often speaks of ritual and music in his understanding of li, a poetic analogy of social order and harmony. He appears to have been unapologetically agnostic. “To give one’s self earnestly to the duties due to men, and, while respecting spiritual beings, to keep aloof from them, may be called wisdom.”6

Confucius shows us the incredible power of the great thinker; influence which extends beyond one’s immediate circle and time. But the sage is more than a thinker; he or she also influences others through actions and conduct. The wisdom of the sage also endures through the periodic reinvigoration of later masters and disciples. In the case of Confucius, about a century after his death, a follower named Mencius appeared expanding and reinforcing his teachings, adding an emphasis on yi or righteousness distinguishing good from right, and asserting an innate goodness of all people, but the challenge to convert it into right actions. Later thinkers such as Tung Chund-Shu and Chou Tun-I blended Confucianism and Taosim to form Neoconfucianism (as a response to Buddhism) and succeeded in making it a national philosophy.

Next time we will integrate the significance of the sage in the meaningful life in our synopsis of this section.

6Durant, Will, Our Oriental Heritage, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1954, page 667.


“The Way of self-cultivation, at its highest level, is a three-fold path: it lies in causing the light of one’s inner moral force to shine forth, in bringing the people to a state of renewal, and in coming to rest in the fullest attainment of the good.”Ta Hsüeh.




In our search for the supreme example of extraordinary societal virtue we have arrived at the sage. I choose for this essay perhaps the most influential sage of all time, Confucius, who is particularly ideal for our purpose as his teachings concentrate on the virtue of men in society. While some sages speak in riddles, Confucius proves that this need not be so; in fact the precepts of Confucius are stated for all to understand, a virtual guide book to living collectively, with particular emphasis on the importance of duty. “The Confucian ideal is always the man who walks on his way shone upon by the approbation alike of the world and of the Divine.”1

Like many sages, Confucius arose in a period of weak leaders, international chaos, armed conflicts, high taxes, and the ebbing of established traditions. As in the West, philosophical response to such a time included communism, sophism, skepticism, hedonism, appeals to brotherhood, naturalism, and the repudiation of civilization. Confucius began as an unnoticed scholar of the more prosperous past and a proponent of the return to a conservative, rational, social order. His philosophy was based on sheer good sense and an appeal to humanism. He rejected metaphysics, mysticism, and the divine, instead preaching an ethical approach based on personal cultivation. We come now to the profound insight of the sage; the emphasis on individual moral perfection results in “the abolition of the distinction between politics and ethics.”  It became the paradigm for the most populous country in the world for most of the next 2500 years.2

Confucius’ methods were also revolutionary. He did not attack other thinkers or offer refutations. He was not a teacher of logic, rather he exposed fallacies in his students’ thinking and encouraged self-questioning. He refined formal rules of etiquette and courtesy and countered the “natural epicureanism of the instincts with the puritanism and stoicism of his doctrine.”3 He served by example declining positions with rulers who would force him into unacceptable compromises stating “I am not concerned that I am not known; I seek to be worthy to be known.”4  Perhaps 3000 men studied under him some going on to important governmental positions.

(continued next post)


1Beck, L. Adams, The Story of Oriental Philosophy. The New Home Library, New York, 1928. Page 347.

2Yutang, Lin (editor), The Wisdom of Confucius. The Modern Library, New York, 1938. Pages 3-8.

3Durant, Will, Our Oriental Heritage, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1954, page 661.



Having established the definition of sage and wisdom, listed some long venerated examples, and distilled out characteristics, now I would like to distinguish them from other thought and idea leaders who fail to generally rise to the recognition of a sage. I list them below in ascending order, the last coming the nearest to the sage, and I concede the designations are arbitrary at worst and opinion at best, but continue the focusing process that leads us to the apex of sagacity in the next blog.

1)     Scholar – a person of profound knowledge derived from study rather than reflection, experiment, experience, or revelation. The consummate example for me is Alcuin, the great teacher of Charlemagne and the agent of a brief renaissance in learning in the Frankish empire.

2)     Prophet or Oracle – mystic or mysterious individual with timely wisdom as counsel to a group, at least part of which involves predictions about the future derived from revelation. The greatest examples of these are Muhammed and the Delphic Oracle of ancient Greece.

3)     Theologian – a venerated, learned, and highly reflective person who mixes religion and philosophy to enhance understanding and offer ethical guidance to others. Here Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are the obvious examples.

4)     Genius – persons of the highest intellectual capacity who discover and expose hidden secrets of the universe, but also offer expanded understanding of the human condition. Noteworthy examples are Leonardo Da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein.

5)     Mystic – individuals who reach deep, but unprovable truths, through meditation and contemplation, but which are limited in practical utility. Plotinus is the great ancient example of a Western Mystic.

6)     Philosopher – individuals who offer multiple insights and discoveries in several philosophical fields – particularly metaphysics and ethics – typically using a rigorous process of reasoning. Prominent examples are Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche.

These great individuals in history are not to be diminished simply because they are not traditionally considered sages. In fact part of the purpose of this exercise is to identify other forms of extraordinary societal virtue based on practical wisdom, some of which are within the reach of the reader. However the enduring power of the teaching of the sages is of such enormity that one additional blog on the ultimate example follows.


“The men who were commonly regards as sages were the following: Thales, Solon, Periander, Cleobulus, Chilon, Bias, Pittacus.” – Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers.





Last time we investigated the philosophical concept of wisdom, distinguishing between scientific and deliberative forms and noting that its pinnacle is their combination in the theoretical or most general field of vision. The possessor and practitioner of this sovereign virtue is referred to as a sage.

Webster’s dictionary defines a sage as “(1) a profoundly wise person; a person famous for wisdom, (2) someone venerated for the possession of wisdom, judgment, or experience.”1 It defines wise as: “having the power of discerning and judging properly as to what is true or right.”2 Interestingly Socrates, arguably the greatest sage of the Western world, challenges the very notion of a sage when he asserts that only God is wise; men can only be lovers of wisdom.

A list of the most recognized ancient sages includes (at least): Lao Tse, Confucius, Buddha, Thales, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Seneca, and Epictetus. Many others would make a more comprehensive list. Later examples of sages are more debatable, but I suspect most experts would include Erasmus, Voltaire, Goethe, Emerson, and Gandhi.



Based on the above, what conclusions can we draw about generally recognized sages? Well first they are all men; a fact I find particularly troubling as it suggests humanity has lost the legacy of half of its sages due to non-recognition or, worse yet, suppression. We can only hope we have matured enough as a species to venerate the wise of either gender.

Second we see that most of them predate the scientific revolution. The implication is science has replaced or undermined traditional forms of wisdom which seems odd since the technology stemming from modern science compels wisdom in its use. Third, each of our sages is a master of speculative philosophy or a spiritualist, typically deploying reason less rigorously than a modern philosopher. Fourth, most or all seem to have revolutionary thinking about the universe, human nature, and life whether it is Buddha on the non-self, Pythagoras on the supremacy of number, or Emerson on transcendental meditation. Fifth, to a large degree these sages are non-denominational or ecumenical rather than dogmatic. Last while all demonstrated clarity of thought, their writing or oral transmissions are more literary or poetic than technical.

(continued next post)


1Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, p.1691.

2Ibid., p. 2181


“Virtue is either wholly or partly wisdom.” – Socrates, in Plato’s Meno.




So far we have seen societal virtue typically comes down to duty and service, while a minority take it to extraordinary limits as hero, saint, or great leader. These unite exceptional unselfishness with one of the classical Greek virtues, in their case – courage, temperance, and justice – respectively. We come now to the highest execution of the last of the four classical Greek virtues – practical wisdom – where the pinnacle is the sage. I would like to explore the nuances of this paradigm.

First we return to Aristotle who distinguishes two categories of virtue– the moral virtues of character and the intellectual virtues or ‘virtues of the mind.’ He further divides intellectual virtue into the ‘scientific’ which contemplates the invariable and the ‘deliberative’ which contemplates the contingent. Aristotle tells us prudence or skill in deliberation appears to be a combination of experience and good sense. Wisdom, in his opinion, fuses scientific and deliberative forms of intellectual virtue, and may be said to apply to any particular field, for example by the great artist. However he considers  general or ‘theoretical’ wisdom the “most complete of all forms of knowledge.”1

The focus of wisdom is not knowledge alone, but the uniting of knowledge and action, particularly the knowledge of good and evil in conduct. Wisdom, then  unlike cleverness, cannot be misused; when we say a person acts wisely, the implication is she acts well.2 The word, wisdom, also has connotations of freedom from fear or want and a quality of calmness and repose. The sage is thus expected to have knowledge, act ethically, and remain calm.

Of course all people need to hone their skills of prudence and maximize their ‘scientific’ knowledge. From that standpoint, study combined with reflection on lessons learned and one’s experience is the minimal level of the virtue of practical wisdom within the societal level of reality. One notch up is the teacher, professor, coach, and spiritual guide who impart their wisdom to others, although typically directly. The subject expert appears to function at the societal level, at least in modern times, projecting his or her wisdom through mass media. The judge deploys wisdom for the benefit of society and represents the overlap of justice and practical wisdom. However, none of these seems to qualify generically as ‘extraordinary.’ That role is occupied by the most respected of all individuals, the sage.


1Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics in On Man in the Universe. Walter J. Black, Inc., Roslyn, N.Y. for The Classics Club, 1943. Page 174.

2Adler, Mortimer J, et. al., The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Volume II, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1952 page 1102


After hearing from Confucius, Thomas Carlyle, and Will Durant on the nature of the great leader, we come now to Rufus Fears, a contemporary professor of history. In his course The Wisdom of History,6 he tells us that a study of history offers lessons from the past that can inform decisions in the present to plan for the future. Ironically the first lesson is that traditionally people have not learned from history and the consequence has been a string of avoidable tragedies across time. History in his opinion is “one great self-help book.”7 He thinks that great nations rise and fall because of human decisions made by individuals, not anonymous social or economic forces. The statesman is distinguished from the mere politician and lesser leaders by four qualities: (1) a bedrock of principles, (2) a moral compass, (3) a vision, and (4) the ability to create a consensus to achieve that vision.

He juxtaposes Woodrow Wilson who failed to get a consensus for American ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations after World War I with FDR and Harry Truman, who not only won World War II but also the peace with the Marshall Plan and the United Nations. He also contrasts Adolf Hitler who had vision and consensus but not a moral compass with Winston Churchill who united not only his countrymen, but also America and the Soviet Union in defeating Fascism and genocide.

Fears is convinced great leaders do not separate private from public morality, citing the Old Testament Book of Samuel and the conduct of George Washington. He contrasts the contemporary belief in moral relativism with the historical experience of universal values such as wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation as the basis for a successful life. There is also cross-cultural agreement on honoring one’s parents, and abstaining from stealing, killing, and committing adultery. He recalls Cicero’s rebuke of ‘passive injustice,’ his term for standing by while another is subjected to injustice (echoed by Haile Selassee’s appeal to the League of Nations after Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s).


Some other lessons from history include not stepping back from destiny (America’s founding fathers), not imposing your values on others (failed democracies in the Middle East) and knowing your mission in life (e.g. Meriwether Lewis). But perhaps the greatest lesson is the dangers of hybris (or hubris) especially thinking we are wise when we are ignorant, the abuse of power, arrogance, and failure to know one’s limits.

Fears ends on a philosophical note. “Ultimately, all things human pass away. What matters is the legacy they leave behind.”8 He closes, “The true wisdom of history is to understand each individual’s uniqueness and ability to make a contribution, great or small, that will leave the world a better place.”9

Fears and the others offer not only ethical tenets for those who aspire to the exceptional role of a great leader, but also remarkably practical guidance on the virtuous underpinning of all societal roles based on the lessons of history. We will come back to this in the synopsis at the end of this section, but first we look at the other extraordinary societal role, the sage.


6Fears, Rufus J., The Wisdom of History. The Teaching Company, Chantilly, VA., 2007.

7Fears, Rufus J., The Wisdom of History: Course Guidebook. The Teaching Company, Chantilly, VA., 2007. Page 185.

8Ibid., page 188.

9Ibid., page 189.