The study and practice of the virtues is a vast science, containing many things of beauty and wonder for the seeker of the Way. If we approach it in the right manner the subject can open up to reveal the pivotal part they play ‘in the mingled yarn’ of material life, as well as on the spiritual path that leads us home. And though he may appear knowledgeable, the seeker of Truth who doesn’t appreciate the importance of the virtues will fail in his search.
The modern English word for virtue is derived, via the Old French, from the Latin virtus (valour, merit, moral perfection), and from vir (man). It’s defined by OED as ‘a quality considered morally good or desirable in a person’.
Morality is the code of conduct agreed on by society. Each community’s moral code is based on a shared understanding of the principles and values considered necessary to distinguish between good and bad behaviour. The closer our thoughts, words and deeds conform to these underlying moral principles the more we are considered virtuous.
This distinction between the social codes of moral behaviour and the principles or virtues from which those codes are derived is an important one. It indicates the superiority of the virtues to their sometimes imperfect expression in a social context. It confirms that a superficial display of shallow morality is not virtue. To be truly virtuous requires more of us than mere social respectability.
However, a potential pitfall lurks therein. It’s not uncommon for some seekers of the light to feel that they’re somehow different from others, perhaps even special; and this is often true. On the other hand it’s also been known for some of us, for a time at least, to consider ourselves to be more advanced than we really are. We fall into the error of thinking that there should be ‘one rule for advanced souls like us and another for the rest’. Our assumed high status leads us to secretly believe that we’re in some way above or exempt from the norms of expected behaviour; or that destiny has marked us out for experiences which lie beyond the sometimes petty boundaries set by society. This kind of thinking is almost always a lie we tell ourselves in order to excuse our bad behaviour; or sometimes it’s the result and arrogance of assuming a better-than-thou attitude towards our neighbours. Consulting our conscience will enable us to avoid this trap.
Society’s moral rules are a brake on what would otherwise be the unrestrained exercise of lower energies. In civilised societies, whether we believe ourselves to be special or not, following the prevailing moral code will in most circumstances do just fine. Common decency, good manners and a healthy, balanced sense of morality are essential to any society worthy of being considered civilised. History is witness to the fact that the breakdown of moral structures can bring once vibrant and healthy communities to disharmony, crisis and potential disaster. For individuals such a breakdown leads not to the light of heaven, but to the slippery slope that takes us in the opposite direction.
Although not originating with them, much of our western, modern thinking on morality, virtue and similar subjects, has come to us via the ancient Greeks. Consequently it’s worth taking a moment to sketch out one or two of their observations in order to build up a little further what the ancient traditions meant by these things.
Arete, meaning excellence or virtue, is central to ancient Greek ethics, from the early poets through Plato and Aristotle to the Stoics. They considered it a quality necessary for success and the aretai for moral success are the moral virtues. Agathon, meaning good, implies virtue when used to describe human beings, as does kalon, meaning noble or beautiful. Kakon implies the lack of virtue.
In a western context notions of righteousness are also part of the picture. Righteousness means acting in accord with divine or moral law. In Christian thought perfection as an absolute ideal of righteousness can be an attribute of God alone. An individual’s righteousness is measured by the degree to which he conforms to the divine standard. But however much we think of it as a Christian concept as we will see later on the origin of this and similar ideas can be traced to Egypt.
So, in addition to morality, virtue has for many centuries been associated with terms like goodness, excellence, beauty, nobility, success, right, perfection and divine law; and our unpicking of some of these terms can lead us to a better appreciation of why virtue has always been such an important subject for the seeker of the Ancient Way. These brief notes however can only sketch the faintest of outlines, and can in no way replace the meditation and study needed to get to the bottom of what the virtues really are.
Excellence derives its qualities from a closer than normal approximation to what we judge to be the perfect or the ideal. Several ancient traditions used concepts similar to that of the golden mean to arrive at and justify these judgments. For example, it’s not enough, they said, to consider courage as the opposite of cowardice. Everything in the cosmos has its excess and its deficiency; and between these two lies the golden mean, its virtue. Perfect courage therefore, occupies the appropriate point between the excess of rashness, and the deficiency of cowardice. Wisdom is the very rare ability to gauge in every thing the extent to which it’s in a condition of excess or deficiency; and to know how best to bring or restore it to its appropriate balance, its perfection, its virtue.
“…for virtue is the perfection of souls…” (Proclus)
There have been countless classifications of the virtues, as we can find out by consulting any good reference book on philosophy and religion. The various traditions of thought share similar views on what it means to be virtuous, although not surprisingly there are also many differences in emphasis. The Buddhist Bodhisattva is described as someone who has acquired great merit, one who practises the ten thousand virtues,
“…he is endowed with great friendliness, compassion, and sympathy; in his mind has arisen equanimity, and he strives for the weal and happiness of all beings” (Thomas)
The Greeks considered the main or cardinal virtues to be four in number: wisdom (prudence), justice, courage (fortitude), and moderation (self-control, temperance). To these the Christians added three more, the so-called theological virtues of faith, hope and charity (or love) making seven in total. Love is often considered by them to be the perfection of all the other virtues.
There is little agreement between the traditions about the number of virtues that should be considered basic or fundamental. We can find plenty of examples of the main virtues being listed as three, four, six, seven, ten and twelve. Of course each tradition has its reasons for enumerating them as they do. For example there are some very old depictions of twelve virtues representing twelve gates of Heaven. The soul had to be in possession of these to open the gates and enter. It also had to prove that it had overcome the twelve earthly temptations.
There is among some of the Greek thinkers a notion of sevenfold Nature in which each of the seven levels has its own virtues and perfection. The perfect man is he who has within himself the reflections of these ideal virtues in harmonious operation whilst still a man on Earth.
Each tradition places a specific virtue at the top of the tree. If we imagine them arranged hierarchically then each system considers one of them to be the crown and principal of all those below them. As we have already noted many Christians give this emphasis to love, or perhaps to ‘loving-kindness’.
“Through the higher love the whole life of man is to be elevated from temporal selfishness to the spring of all love, to God: man will again be master over nature by abiding in God and lifting her up to God.” (Eckhart)
Others, writing in the Sufi tradition for example, give humility a special place:
“Among virtue the position of humility is a special one – like that of the apex in a triangle…” (Schuon);
But at the same time they also celebrate sincerity, which they rightly assert leads the self to truth. Heraclitus emphasised self-control:
“Self-control is the highest virtue, and wisdom is to speak truth and consciously to act according to nature.” (Heraclitus)
While the Jewish tradition is a rich and varied one, more than a few of its thinkers have considered that the chief virtue and duty of man is to ‘Fear the judgment of God and adhere to His commandments’. On the other hand we can find many examples in the Old Testament that also emphasise love, mercy and compassion among the qualities of God.
Polus believed that justice is essential:
“… ’tis justice which maintains peace and balance in the soul; she is the mother of good order in all communities, makes concord between husband and wife, love between master and servant.” (Mead)
Hopefully even these brief examples are enough to make the point; and more details can be filled in by those who are interested.
Underlying much of the ancients’ thinking about virtue and its allied subjects are beliefs about man’s relationships with each other, with nature, and with God. The virtuous man is one who is in a state of balance and harmony within himself, and so with society, the material world, and with the divine. The ancients considered man to be the microcosm, and the universal creation to be the macrocosm. There is, they believed, nothing in the universe that’s not represented in some way within man. Consequently they saw parallels between the nature of man and that of the cosmos. For the great mystics of the past this is what made the theologies, myths and pantheons on the one hand universal, and on the other, acutely personal. The subtext for them was that they described in a concealed way not only ideas about the rulers of the universe, but also about their representatives in the little cosmos of man too.
The mystics and sages emerged from their meditations to conclude that the virtues are the ruling powers of the inner self, latent, or slumbering until called into wakefulness by the light of the divine principle. They looked within, to the very root of self, and with the inner eye they saw in the virtues all the benevolent gods, the angels, devas, powers and spirits that inhabit the best and purest parts of every myth and angelology known to man. And they saw that like those pantheons and angelic hierarchies the virtues also form kindred structures of great beauty and power. And that they too, like the crowded stars against the velvet-breathing cloth of the mystic Night, in mind-baffling combinations and vast constellations, pour out their light on the world of man, though matter-blinded, he heeds them not. And they knew that behind all these powers, beyond the ‘starry’ gods, as it were, in the eternal day, at the centre of all, was the unimaginable splendour of the spiritual sun, the hidden source of life and light, representing the Divine Author of all that is true and good and virtuous in both man and in the cosmos beyond.
The spirit who frees the virtuous maiden from the evil enchantment of Comus says before returning to heaven:
“Mortals that would follow me,
Love Virtue, she alone is free;
She can teach ye how to climb
Higher than the starry chime.
Or if Virtue feeble were.
Heaven itself would stoop to her.” (Milton)
It is by practising the virtues that we purify the lower self. Each and every vice has its higher counterpart, just as each ailment has its medicine.
“Dawn gives thee the golden bowl, that thou mayest cleanse thyself from thyself. When thou washest thy garments in this basin, draw thy water from the source of the sun.” (Nizami)
It is through the practice of the virtues that we heal, correct and bring to the point of harmony the energies of the lower passions. It is the job of the aspirant to awaken and to balance his latent higher powers, his virtues; and all the best traditions are clear: they must be practised, and not merely theorised about.
When the virtues are strong they both attract and repulse. They draw us up towards God, while radiating a field of protective energy around us, allowing only conditional entry to all other influences.
“Thus we are drawn by the Sacred Trinity with the cords of Power, Wisdom and Love, when we are drawn from an evil thing to a good thing, and from a good thing to a better, and from a better thing to the best of all.” (Eckhart)
But this process cannot begin until we take up the role of good parent to our lower self. Note how the love of the mother for her child, following a divine pattern, sows virtue’s seeds within the babe in arms; how the bond of pure love between the two gently warms the seeds, inducing growth; how throughout its childhood her love protects, nourishes, trains and corrects until the plants are healthy and have vigour of their own. Only then, girt with virtue, is her child ready for the adventure ahead.
The awakening of the higher virtues to vigorous activity means that our inner parent, the master within, has established in our lives the rule of law. From then on Justice and Right will reign and Truth will be as their guiding light.
And of all the virtues surely the purity of Truth is the Crown and the Glory; for as Hermes asserts:
“O Son, Truth is the most perfect Virtue, and the highest Good itself, not troubled by Matter, not encompassed by a Body, naked, clear, unchangeable, venerable, unalterable Good.”
It is the truth in virtue that makes a virtue virtuous. For this is the truth that makes minds wise, hearts good, forms beautiful, and bodies healthy.
“The greatest Sin of which the Mind is capable is Ignorance; for the Mind that knows not the things that are, nor their natures, is blinded, and rushes and dashes against the bodily Passions; not ruling but ruled. This is the greatest mischief of the Mind of Man.
“But Knowledge [of the Divine, ed.] is the Virtue of the Mind, for he that knows is good and worships the All-Being, and therefore he is already half Divine.” (Michaud)
And this, as one would expect, rings with the original and purest pattern, the ancient Egyptian. Of Maat, the counterpart of Thoth, it is said that she demands of the candidate for entry into heaven just this highest of Virtues.
He must be sound at heart. He must have spoken and acted the truth. The word of god must have been made truth by him to be of any avail at the bar of judgment. That was the object of all the teaching in all the mysteries and writings which were held to be divine. The standard of law without and within was set up under the name of Maati or Maat, a name denoting the fixed, undeviating law and eternal rule of right. Hence the same word signifies law, truth, justice, rightfulness, and the later righteousness. The foremost and the final article of the Egyptian creed was to fulfil Maati. This is the beginning, the middle, and the end of the moral law. The deity enthroned by them for worship was the god of Maati, the name, which has the fourfold meaning of law, justice, truth, and right, which are one as well as synonymous. (Massey)
There was for the Egyptian no un-earned redemption; no undeserved wiping away of his faults by a divine death on a wooden cross, nor by the slaughter of any scape-goat or sacrificial lamb. He had to do something about himself. And this too was the case with the later neo-Platonic pupils who could ultimately trace back their teachings to those of the ancient Egyptian priests. Each aspirant had to play to the full his part,
“…so that from this Virgin Womb of Virtue may come to birth the true Man, the child of Freedom, or Right Will, or Good Will…
He had to make himself True, so that in truth it could be said of him,
“…the powers of the cathartic or purifying virtues have descended upon him, so that he now has the power to ‘strike his tent’; or free himself from the trammels of the body of vice, and so rise from the tomb which has hitherto imprisoned his daimonic soul” (Meade)