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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ULTIMATE VIRTUE

“Revere the ultimate power in the universe … but similarly revere the ultimate power in yourself; this is akin to the other power.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.

 

Before we prepare a synopsis of virtue, the first key ingredient of a meaningful life, I would like to pause briefly to consider virtue in the context of ultimate reality. In an earlier blog I defined ultimate reality in as the highest reality inclusive of all being and all ideas or as the logically first being from which all other beings and cosmic law are derived. I also noted that for strict materialists, cosmic reality is ultimate reality and thus virtue for them has been covered in the 41 posts on that subject.

At the end of the day, I would like to ask the reader to entertain the notion that there may be something beyond the physical and mental realm experienced by human beings that fits into what is traditionally called the spiritual realm. Now this should not be an artificial reclassification of a portion of the material world or mental activity, but a genuinely distinct dimension of reality. For theists this dimension includes God, perhaps other divine entities, spirits, mystical experience, miracles, and so forth. Skeptics and physicalists call this superstition, imagination, delusion, suggestion, and even scientifically explainable. For the disbeliever, the leap to deny or discount ultimate reality risks the danger of possibly missing out on the most powerful level of a meaningful life. Thus I suggest we bracket its actuality while we think through what makes for excellence in our conduct with regards to it.

However this does not seem to be the ideal place for a detailed analysis. Rather after considerable thought I believe one’s interaction and experience of ultimate reality fits into its own class and can therefore be rolled up in a future dedicated section. For today, I wish to list some generic approaches to virtue in the realm of the ultimate as listed below.

  1. Identification and definition of the nature of ultimate reality.
  2. Clarifying the linkage with the three other components of the meaningful life – virtue, purpose, and contentment.
  3. Fulfillment of supererogatory duty.
  4. Defining the ideal form(s) of direct interaction with ultimate reality, for example prayer, meditation, and contemplation.
  5. Immersion in the ultimate.

Should one recognize its distinction from the cosmos itself, ultimate reality differs from the others in that virtue, purpose, and contentment coalesce in finding meaning therein. Further details will make up the chapter that follows the next two: Purpose and Contentment. Before we start on them, next time I will present a synopsis on virtue as the first ingredient of the meaningful life.

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COSMIC VIRTUE – CONCLUSION (continued)

Continuing with conclusions on virtue regarding nature beyond animals brings us to ‘land ethics’ with its fundamental tenets: (1) treat Nature as a series of interconnected ecosystems, (2) use evidence-based decision making, (3) balance human needs treating individuals as ends not means, (4) seek natural or organic sources of food (5) learn from Nature by direct observation and scientific means, and (6) recognize the value of myth, symbols, and the lore of elder native peoples. From these we outlined a virtuous course of behavior regarding the environment. Limit human impacts on atmospheric degradation and climate change. Avoid overfishing or consuming overfished species and conserve fresh water by simple practical methods. Preserve soil, recycle non-fuel minerals, and expand renewable energy. Expand or protect nonhuman spaces for animals and future people.

The next dimension of cosmic virtue is the discipline of science. Virtue here is the commitment to study, validate, and filter science in order to extract the most reliable facts about the world. Objectivity is key. Pseudoscience must be identified, rejected, and exposed. Science and technology must be used for ethical purposes and blocked from evil uses. These principles are even more incumbent on experts who in addition ought to clearly distinguish evidence-based facts from unproven theories and opinions.

The final dimension is the cosmos itself where virtue is based on having, in the words of Neil de Grasse Tyson, a ‘cosmic perspective.’ While the philosopher may contemplate metaphysical features of existence, he or she must still acknowledge the truths of astronomy and astrophysics in the pursuit of cosmic virtue and construct an ethical program based thereon. Externally directed or active virtue is 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 space exploration and future colonization appropriately funded preferably as an international effort.

The other aspect of the cosmic perspective is internally directed and includes mirroring the order and benevolence of the universe. By it we enlarge our worldview and increase our appreciation of humanity, other living things, and Earth itself. We uncover a wisdom founded on recognizing our limited but singular role in the universe and our kinship with all of existence. We see its power in the lives and thoughts of Laozi, Galileo, Jane Goodall, and many others. Yes, one can see the greatness of the universe as proof of our smallness and thus our insignificance. But we have a choice; we can also align ourselves with its direction and so hitch a ride on its unimaginable majesty and future. As Laozi tells us, “If you stay at the center [of the Tao] and embrace death with your whole heart, you will endure forever.”

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COSMIC VIRTUE – CONCLUSION

“The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.” – Steve Weinberg, Nobel Laurate in Physics, 1979.

For most of the last three months we have been immersed in the surprisingly complex area of cosmic virtue in its three dimensions – nature, science, and the universe. Historically philosophy has imposed only limited ethical obligations on humans with regards to this realm, and casual consideration might suggest few duties apply. Deeper contemplation upends that position finding that virtuous behavior or human excellence at the cosmic level is vital in the quest for a meaningful life.

We saw the five guiding principles of ethical action here are (1) attitude or mindset, (2) devotion to truth in one’s beliefs, (3) service and duty, (4) a fundamental code of behavior based on balance of good over evil, and (5) the exhibition of the four classical virtues – courage, temperance, justice, and prudence.

The virtuous attitude or approach to cosmic reality seems to me to be (1) recognizing that we are fundamentally attached to Nature and should have reverence for it, (2) committing to the understanding, study, and love of science, and (3) having such awe of the universe that we wish to live in harmony with nature and align our lives with the course of the universe.

Using a series of carefully outlined axioms and general principles, we found that virtuous behavior at the level of animals – the first component of Nature – can be defined. The right to limit pests is justified when based on evidence not aesthetic considerations, although never to the point of extinction. Animal euthanasia is ethical for relief of animal suffering but not for mere human convenience. Service animals are reasonable as long as the human benefits clearly exceed the apparent negatives and no unnecessary suffering is permitted. Hunting and fishing are endorsed by the final lawgiver, Nature, as long as for sustenance and also appear reasonable when done to control populations in the absence of sufficient nonhuman predators, although again not to the point of extinction.

Food livestock seems to be an ethical if somewhat unsavory choice as long as there is no unnecessary suffering in raising or slaughter of food animals. Conversely the choice to eat domesticated animals for optimal nutrition obliges one to reciprocate with the greatest contribution possible to the preservation of Nature, and to serve as best one can the trajectory of the universe, so as to mitigate this theoretically avoidable evil.

Recreational animals (e.g. racehorses, zoo animals) represent a borderline case, but may be justified if the entertainment or educational value is maximized and cruelty is minimized. We also recognize that habitat preservation is an unquestionable ethical duty of civilized people.  And finally, limited humane scientific or research use of animals is likely ethical when no  satisfactory alternatives exist and when based on utilitarian criteria.

(continued next post)

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EXTRAORDINARY COSMIC VIRTUE – THE  SCIENTIST SAINT

“I feel it is important to draw attention to the fact that the work which Jane Goodall has done…has been so important as to necessitate a complete review of scientific thought about how to define man himself.” – L.S.B. Leakey1.

 

 

 

 

In our exploration of the dimensions of cosmic virtue we next happen upon one of the greatest and most inspirational stories of modern science, the life and work of Jane Goodall. This remarkable woman developed a deep love for animals in her childhood, but due to financial and perhaps gender restraints in the middle part of the 20th century went to secretarial school rather than college. She worked first for Oxford University and then a documentary company before waiting tables one summer to save money for a trip to Kenya. There she boldly contacted the famous paleoanthropologist, Louis Leakey, who saw the potential in this novice scientist, offered her temporary employment, and assisted her in raising funds to study living primates first hand, a most unusual course for a woman of the 1960s.

Her signature work on chimpanzees done at the Gombe Stream Game Reserve in modern Tanzania was unprecedented. Living in the wild at incredible personal sacrifice and with painstaking patience, she was eventually accepted by a troop of chimpanzees where she learned previously unknown secrets about their behavior, especially their making of tools, a characteristic previously thought to define the human species. Over the next decade she wrote over a dozen books on chimps and other wild species while earning a PhD in Ethology at Cambridge University. Her funder, National Geographic, sought to focus on a somewhat different narrative – Jane herself – in their words: “a modern scientific zoologist” and “a charming young Englishwoman.”2 p 47

She found the focus on herself as the main story distasteful but accepted it as the necessary price to save the chimpanzees. In her words, “Surely it is up to us to do something to ensure that least some of these fantastic, almost human creatures continue to live undisturbed in their natural habitat.”3 51 We hear her transformation; simple scientific curiosity and love of animals becomes personal mission. For the rest of her long career, Jane used her fame and accomplishments to mentor the next generation of scientists and to promote conservation in the developing world especially in regard to chimps. In her, cosmic virtue and individual purpose merge into a meaningful life.

Next time we will review the last 39 blogs comprising the subject of cosmic virtue and its place in the meaningful life for all of us.

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1National Geographic, October 2017, ISSN 0027-9358, pages 30-51.

2Ibid., page 47.

3Ibid., page 51.

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EXTRAORDINARY COSMIC VIRTUE – THE HERO SCIENTIST (continued)

Following Galileo’s failure to persuade the Pope on the Copernican system, he promised submission to the Church, but persisted in his publication of the facts of his scientific observations on the heavens. With the publication of Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1629 with its blatant contempt for theological arguments against his interpretations of the evidence, he became a victim of the Inquisition in 1633 and his books were banned from Catholic countries. While he eventually abjured in his beliefs out of fear for his life, he was confined to house arrest for the remainder of his life, during which time he restricted his research to the safer field of physics rather than astronomy until blindness, deafness, and eventually death intervened.

Galileo was called the ‘monarch of the universe’ by his friend Giovan Francesco Sagredo,3   and ‘the greatest mind of all time’ by Hugo Grotius.4 He seemed to express his significance and insignificance in the poignant words of his incarcerated frailty, “This universe that I have extended a thousand times…has shrunk to the narrow confines of my own body, Thus God likes it; so I too must like it.”5 His works continued to be published and discussed in Northern Europe but the treatment of Galileo meant science and philosophy were displaced to Protestant lands. Nonetheless, in the end, the Church withdrew his works from its Index of Prohibited Books in 1835 and virtually adopted his explanation of the need for Biblical simplification of the motions of heavenly bodies for its original primitive audience in the  papal encyclical Humani Generis in 1950.5 As the Durants tell us “The broken and defeated man had triumphed over the most powerful institution in history.”6

The significance of Galileo’s heroism cannot be overstated. He was a first-rate scientist who single-handedly initiated telescopic study of the cosmos, proved the Copernican model to be correct, and made contributions to physics in many areas, some of which displaced the entrenched 2000 year old Aristotelian understanding of reality and anticipated Newton’s laws of inertia and motion. In a larger sense he devised the scientific method of reliance on reproducible observations and experiments premised on the consistency of the natural world. He was one of the first to write in his native language (rather than Latin) in order to bring science to the layman. He risked and lost everything including his own liberty not only for scientific truth, but for freedom of speech. It would be 150 years before the United States would become first nation to adopt that freedom as an inviolable right.

In short, Galileo was nothing less than the heir of Socrates and one of the fathers of modern thought. He remains a model of cosmic virtue writ large for all time.

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1Drake, Stillman (translator), Galileo: Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1967. Page xvii (foreword).

2Durant, Will and Ariel, The Age of Reason Begins. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1961. Page 607.

3Drake, Stillman, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo. Douleday & Co., Inc., Garden City, NY, 1957. Page 67.

4 Durant, Will and Ariel, The Age of Reason Begins. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1961. Page 612.

5Drake, Stillman (translator), Galileo: Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1967. Page xxiv.

6 Durant, Will and Ariel, The Age of Reason Begins. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1961. Page 612.

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EXTRAORDINARY COSMIC VIRTUE – THE HERO SCIENTIST

“The leitmotif which I recognize in Galileo’s work is the passionate fight against any kind of dogma based on authority. Only experience and careful reflection are accepted by him as criteria of truth.” – Albert Einstein1.

Returning now to cosmic virtue in its extraordinary form, we come upon the great hero scientist, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). He grew up in Renaissance Italy which was still shaking off the intellectual inertia of the Middle Ages and still subjugated to Roman Catholic dogma itself inexplicably shackled to ancient Greek knowledge (especially Aristotle and Ptomely). Intended for medicine by his father, he switched to mathematics while at the University of Pisa writing his first essay on hydrostatic balance at age 22 and being made professor of mathematics there at age 25. At about this time he showed his contempt of unquestioned authority, challenging the teaching of Aristotle that the speed of falling objects varies according to their mass, by reportedly dropping two balls of different weights off the leaning tower of Pisa.

He moved to the university at Padua (Venice) in 1589 where he invented to a type of thermometer, the first astronomical telescope, and a geometric compass. With his telescope he documented the four large moons of Jupiter, the “ears” of Saturn, the roughness of the surface of the moon, sunspots, and the phases of Venus – thus challenging the Earth-centered cosmos and the unchanging perfection of the celestial realm. He visited Rome in 1615 where he was received favorably, but his attempts to persuade the Church to accept the ‘Copernican’ sun-centered solar system were rebuffed. He may have been warned then that asserting that the sun is unmovable would be considered heresy. But he refused to yield, then taking the critical step in all scientific discovery – declaring an observationally or experimentally confirmed theory is no longer an hypothesis, but a scientific truth.

In in a letter to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany published in 1615 his virtuous attitude regarding cosmic reality is fully revealed, “Nature is inexorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men. For that reason it appears that nothing physical which sense-experience sets before our eyes, or which necessary demonstrations prove to us, ought to be called into question (much less condemned) upon the testimony of Biblical passages which may have some different meaning beneath their words.”2

(continued next post)

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EXTRAORDINARY COSMIC VIRTUE – THE COSMIC SAGE (continued)

Dao is not only the universe of human concerns – particular entities we move into the foreground (positive space) – but also the background cosmos (negative space). Laozi expresses the mystery of the relationship of the emergent positive and the primordial negative. One is reminded of matter and antimatter or perhaps physical entities versus space, even dark matter and dark energy. Laozi sees beyond the veil of prescientific conceptions of the cosmos into the very structure of the universe. But he also sees the existentialist reality; dao is wu or non-being. “All things in the world come from being. And being comes from non-being.” (40)  And “Heaven and Earth are heartless, treating creatures like straw dogs.”

Each universal opposite is dependent on the other. Our assigning value of only one is arbitrary and distances us from the truth of reality. By attending to the background we are freed to “recover a spontaneous engagement with the entire matrix” thus recognizing ourselves as participants in the “vast array of processes” and our achievements as “consequences of the confluence of a vast causal network of which we are just one part.

The second half of the Daodejing is concerned with de, which is usually translated virtue but alternatively as integrity, purity, excellence, or innate human strength. We are told that following dao brings us freedom, serenity, and longevity. Laozi emphasizes the potency of inaction and non-intervention, and the power of wu-wei meaning effortlessness action and virtuosity. Wu-wei then is a paradoxical characteristic – a paring down of oneself to the level of nature rather than a building up of one’s skills. By living in unity with Nature, maintaining humility, shunning ambition, embracing material simplicity, we come to the tranquility of the sage.

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page 7 The Way of Lao Tzu)

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EXTRAORDINARY COSMIC VIRTUE – THE COSMIC SAGE

“Of all things that are, the most ancient is God, for he is uncreated.

The most beautiful is the universe, for it is God’s workmanship.

The greatest is space, for it holds all things.

The swiftest is mind, for it speeds everywhere.

The strongest is necessity, for it masters all.

The wisest, time, for it brings everything to light.” – Attributed to Thales by Diogenes Laertius.

In earlier sections we have considered extremes of virtue at different levels of reality, for example, the saint and the hero as extraordinary examples of virtue towards others and the great leader with his or her staunch moral compass as the paradigm of societal virtue. We also analyzed the role of the sage and I proposed as the standard, perhaps the most influential man in history, Confucius.

A second Chinese sage, Laozi (previously Lao Tze or Lao Tzu), represents for me the archetypical cosmic sage. His teachings embodied a protest against the times he lived in; particularly the poverty and starvation resulting from the poor decisions of contemporary rulers whose greed, wars, desire for power and wealth and glory brought destruction to society. Whereas Confucianism in general faults to the goodness in man and a humanistic view, Laozi emphasizes the harmony of nature and a cosmic perspective. Life for Laozi is best when it is simple and unregulated allowing things to perfect themselves naturally.

To summarize Laozi’s Daodejing (previously known as the Tao Te Ching) is arguably a disservice to the reader given on-line versions of this brief work are readily available, and it defies even a skilled writer’s effort to match the beauty of the original words (my skill being limited in any case). Nonetheless some comments are essential to understand the profound wisdom of Laozi for those who may forgo it. For those who have the time to read the text, I urge you to skip the rest of this blog and the one that follows and proceed immediately to it.

Daodeching literally means the book of dao and de – reasonably but arguably translated as ‘the way’ and ‘virtue’ respectively. But Laozi is very subtle, warning us that any definition of dao is suspect, even specious. To some experts it refers to reality, to others being, and to still others the universal order. Clearly, at a minimum, he uses the word to refer to the way of nature and the universe ruled by a self-enforcing law of uniformity and manifested in a binary realm of opposites. His approach is mystic and best understood through paradoxes. The  Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth; The Named is the Mother of All Things.”1

(continued next post)

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1Yutang, Lin, The Wisdom of Laotse. The Modern Library, New York, 1976. Page 41.

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