“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)