The virtues (meaning merit, valour or moral perfections) are in essence what good character is made of. These timeless qualities have been talked of for millennium. Coming to historical notice in the west through the works of Plato and Aristotle. These virtues have been endlessly repeated with the stresses placed on each one varies depending on the proponents’ Purpose. Be they in the form of the chivalric codes, the seven virtues and deadly sins or right here. For us, as our worldview is much more similar to that of the ancients than to the pre-modern Christian mind, we will be best served by the original (agnostic) virtues. We will discuss each virtue in order of their importance and discuss how you may implement them in your life.
Honour is a word not used much these days though it was the unwritten basis for civilisation itself throughout much of human history. The word honour means ‘the quality of knowing and doing what is morally right’ and ‘to hold in great esteem’. For what we aim for in describing the good character necessary for the achievement of the Individual Purpose, nothing could be so apt.
Before we can start acting rightly, we must first know what act is right and what is wrong, and before we will act rightly, we have to want to. We must believe that in acting in the ‘right’ way, we will benefit ourselves somehow. This selfish requirement is doubly so when the act in question is difficult or unpleasant. Consider how the world’s major religions explicitly offer this exchange to their devotees. Follow the injunctions of the faith and do what you are told is right, and in return, you will receive eternal life, escape from suffering, reincarnation higher up the hierarchy of life, etc.
It is an inescapable fact of existence that we only act when we see a benefit to ourselves. This being as it is, use it to your advantage. Seek through personal contemplation and the study of wisdom to understand and internalise the importance of your Purpose. Seek to understand how, by living in harmony with your life’s Purpose, you will find that elusive good known as ‘happiness’. Then hold the Purpose up as your aim and seek to build your personal honour around this aim.
Determine for yourself what actions in your life are helpful and what are harmful and work on consistently meeting the standards you aim for. Cultivate in your own mind an image of the person you want to be and hold yourself to account when you fail. Honour is, in essence, a personal conception of dignity, though the implied judgement of others much strengthens it.
Therefore, once you have deliberated on the standards you wish to judge and be judged by, do not keep them to yourself. Tell others so that they can hold you to account. This is essential as we often find that it is easier to maintain our intentions when there is external accountability. Who among us has not told themselves, “I’ll start exercising tomorrow” or “I’ll quit ‘X’ next month” or I’ll keep to that ‘diet’ next time, etc.? We fail in these well-meaning assertions because, when it is just us, we always have an out. ‘No one knows’, we reason; therefore, we can break our word to ourselves without consequence. This weakness is true of all of us so, therefore, do not give yourself an out, tell someone.
Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French and Post-war president of France, was by all account a very self-disciplined man, yet he seems to have known this secret. De Gaulle was like many people in the 1940s, a heavy smoker. In 1944, he decided to quit. As anyone who has tried to quit smoking will attest, this is not easy to achieve. De Gaulle announced his determination to the word and quit. When asked about it later, he said, ‘It was very hard to quit and I would have smoked again except I was unwilling to be seen to break my word’. If a man such as he can benefit from the accountability of strangers, then so can we.
Therefore, of all the virtues, honour is the most important. With wisdom, it is the base on which everything else is built. And the package in which all the other virtues are contained. To have honour is to know and do what is right to achieve the Purpose which we hold to be good. To accomplish this and be accounted as honourable, we need the other virtues as well. Our aim should be to be able to truly and without qualification judge ourselves as honourable. To do this, we need the courage to start down the road to virtue.
Courage is the second of the virtues that we will discuss. Courage in the sense we use it here means more than simply the ability to do something frightening. It is to be understood as Aristotle describes it in his ethics. ‘The virtue of action in the face of danger that is guided by wisdom being proportionate to the situation sitting between recklessness and cowardice”. This definition means that courage means to act even when there is danger in a way that harmonises with the Purpose. Courage is necessary as we would be incapable of making any decisions or making any move where there was resistance without it.
Courage is not always about facing death; it can be about taking on a new challenge, changing jobs, deciding to change a harmful habit, or even believing something unpopular or controversial. Like all the virtues, Courage requires practice as Aristotle succinctly puts it, ‘A man becomes what his habits are. If he never stands his ground, he becomes a coward, if he never gives way, he becomes rash’. Therefore, seek to use your judgment and stand for what is necessary to achieve your Individual Purpose, i.e., that which promotes your family and community’s long-term welfare. Equally, though, refrain from actions that you cannot prevail in and which would only harm your family and community’s welfare.
In this sense, courage is synonymous with prudence. Picking only those fights that you can win and biding your time where you cannot prevail. Or as Sun Tzu said in the Art of War, “Who wishes to fight must first count the cost”. Our aims are not figurative or speculative; they are concrete. We aim for the good of our families and communities. This aim means that, at times, we will be forced to choose the least bad outcome for our families and communities. Sometimes acting courageously will require warlike actions and aggression. Yet other times, it will require humility, and for us to act in a way that others may judge as cowardly.
Take Adlai Stevenson’s example in the film ‘Thirteen Days’, when the US cabinet is discussing an invasion or blockade of Cuba as the only two options: “There, uh, there is a third option. With either course we undertake the risk of nuclear war, so it seems to me that maybe one of us in this room should be a coward… so, I guess I’ll be it. A third course is to strike a deal”. This courageous action was what the situation required, and while presented in a film, it mirrors Adlai’s actions in real life. Adlai was considered a coward by many after the crisis though as he said, “I know that most of those fellows will consider me a coward for the rest of my life for what I said today, but perhaps we need a coward in the room when we are talking about nuclear war”.
Courage, as touched on before, is required in the small crises of life as much as in the big. It is a virtue built on consistent and conscious action. It is the second of the virtues as it is required to allow us to change. We must develop the courage to utilise our wisdom to determine right from wrong and to set the Purpose that we have discovered as the basis for our personal honour. It requires courage to change or do things differently from those around you; it is not easy to walk against the crowd. If you find that the truth is different from what you had believed it to be, you need the courage to follow that truth to where it leads. It may require you to renounce your faith in what your family believes. It may lead you to act in ways that others see as wrong or just misguided. In each case, courage is essential. To practice your courage, force yourself to do what you believe to be right, to speak (with wisdom) the truth and focus your actions on your family and community’s welfare. Be safe but do not allow fear to control you.
However, as with honour and wisdom, courage is not enough alone in building a worthy character. If we are to live a life that will promote our families’ and communities’ welfare, then we also need to develop the virtue of truthfulness or honesty.
Honesty is the attribute of speaking and acting honestly, i.e. acting in a non-deceptive way and speaking in such a way as the truth can readily be discerned from it. Aristotle defines honesty or truthfulness in a way that aligns substantively with that of our aims. In his ethics, Aristotle defines honesty as a ‘mean state between that of the exaggeration of the bragger and the devaluation or false modesty of the reserved‘. I.e. honesty is the claiming of what is one’s own and not what is someone else’s. An example of this is the common occurrence at work where your success in a particular project or crisis is due in part to the idea or help of another. Being honest is claiming the rightful recognition of your efforts while ensuring that the one who helped you is acknowledged as well. By contrast, honesty is not claiming all the credit or claiming no credit; it is only claiming the credit due to us as judged by an impartial observer.
For many of us, this is hard to do. Especially if you have been raised in a British influenced society such as the UK, Australia, New Zealand, or Canada, you will likely have been raised to show modesty and downplay your achievements. This modesty is well and good, but there is a difference between being modest and refusal to accept praise stereotypical of the English upper class.
To be honest, therefore, is to seek to judge yourself and others impartially. Taking care to act and speak truthfully. We have covered why lying, stealing, and deceit are harmful in the chapter on morality. As such, we will not go over the same ground here except to reiterate that lying, deceit, and theft harm our families and communities by increasing the costs and risks in every act and exchange.
Some may counter that little so-called white lies are far from being harmful and serve a positive social function. They say that when we lie and say that we are busy when we’d rather stay in alone, we spare the feelings of the one we lie to. When we lie at work and say we have done the task and then rush off to do it, we are protecting ourselves. To these objections, I say that they are misguided. Far from being harmless, these little lies are the foundation for dissolution.
Now, I am not saying that we should act boorishly and without consideration for the situation or of others’ feelings, only that we should be truthful while exercising wisdom. Consider our two examples. What do you really gain by lying to your friend? If you really don’t want to go out this one time, will they really not understand that you just want some time alone? And if the real reason is that you just don’t want to go out with them, will they be any less perturbed if you put them off endlessly compared to if you just tactfully told them you have different interests? The lie, while the easier option, will not benefit you much if it is not discovered, but it will destroy your credibility if it is discovered.
With the example of the undone task, the lie is even more harmful than with the lie to a friend. By lying, you first harm yourself. You give yourself an excuse to not do the task or not to do the task as well or as promptly as you could. You allow yourself to do a worse job than you could and you attempt to hide your failure through deception. Consider if you forced yourself to be truthful. Would your boss really punish you for telling the truth and saying that you hadn’t started it and would do it now? If they would, surely you are at fault for delaying when the consequences are so dire. Consider also what would happen if you were caught in the lie. If you found out your employee had lied to you about something so small, could you ever trust them again? Again, the risk is far greater than the transitory reward. Instead, preserve your honour and seek through your actions to demonstrate your integrity. Save that most valuable commodity for when it may be needed to protect your family and community. For as with everything generally wrong, there are exceptions.
As to ourselves, honesty is necessary to the development of character as it will force us if we practice it and incorporate it into our honour code to judge ourselves honestly. Where we are deficient and where we are superior both require the practice of truthfulness. We must utilise our hard-won wisdom to judge what is right and wrong, be courageous enough to pursue it, and be honest enough to recognise where we can improve and where we have failed. Do not give yourself an out. Keep track of your promises and keep them. If you fail, admit it, apologise, and do better next time. The next virtue we need to develop a character worthy of emulation is patience.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines patience as “The ability to wait, or to continue doing something despite difficulties, or to suffer without complaining or becoming annoyed”. This virtue is the fourth of our virtues, and it is vital to the achievement of character. If you are a mortal like all of us, then you will fail at some time. You will make a mistake, misjudge the situation, or simply tire of the exertion of becoming better, of deliberating to identify the best action to promote the welfare of your family or community. Or you may simply, without thinking at all, go astray for a while. What is sure is that even if it is not you, it will be others. Patience is indispensable in catching yourself, your friend, or your loved ones having gone astray and turning back to the correct path. It is indispensable in simply restraining yourself when you are confronted with those who still act without reason be they great or small. Whether it is the individual driving too fast in the parking lot or the person who will not let you merge on the freeway. Your boss making a decision which seems close to madness or the government of the day acting disgracefully. Or perhaps it was you getting drunk, gambling, or doing any of the things you have decided to be harmful. In each case, patience is needed either with yourself, others, or with the vicissitudes of fortune.
The patience to restrain the frustration of the moment and seek after the reason. The patience to get up the next day and try again. The patience to persevere with what you know to be right even when everyone gives up. You can have wisdom, honour, courage, and honesty for a time, but without patience, you will not possess them in the long-term. Life is a procession of chance events—some good and some bad. No matter how wise we are or how carefully we lay our plans sometimes, things go poorly (for there is always the chance of disaster). Those in possession of real character will recognise this and wait patiently for the wheel of fortune to turn in their favour once more. Never despairing, but maintaining their honour and their hope.
To practice this virtue, remember ‘vos can tatum control te’, or you can only control you. This maxim, as held by the Stoics such as Roman Emperor Marcus Arillus and by the former slave, Epictetus, is meant to remind us that we only control our reactions to the world, not the world itself. In a real sense, we are only as unhappy as we choose to be. To build your patience and enhance your happiness, try biting back your frustration when that ‘person’ cuts you off when you are reversing, and instead of calling them a name, ask yourself a question such as “why are they in such a hurry?”. If the car won’t let you merge on the freeway, derail your anger by asking, “I wonder why they chose to do that?”. Getting angry will not do you any good, you are not going to chase them down and punch them (and would be wrong to do so), so instead, ask yourself why that person did what they did. It may have been a mistake, they may have misjudged the situation, maybe they were distracted, or perhaps they were angry that someone had done the same thing to them. In any case, it is doubtful that you have not ever done as they have done.
By asking these questions, you will preserve your serenity and happiness, build your patience, and free yourself to live better, instead of being angry and perhaps inadvertently doing another wrong like that which angered you. You will be calm and can, therefore, set the example you want. You will be able to allow others to merge in traffic, be able to happily wait for people to back out of their parking spots and even to maintain a serine detachment when your boss does something you disagree with, or the government messes up.
The benefits you will see will grow as your patience improves. You will be happier; you will be able to influence your children or partner, workmates, or bosses positively. If you doubt this, think back to your childhood, did you ever listen to your parents when they were angry? And, just as importantly, you will develop the strength needed to preserve in your pursuit. The next virtue we will discuss is temperance. This virtue, as with the rest, requires the virtues that go before if it is to be borne.
Temperance or moderation in action is the fifth of our virtues. It is the fifth virtue as its exercise depends on the possession of both wisdom and the first four virtues honour, courage, honesty, and patience. While temperance is associated in the modern world with vices such as drinking, gambling, and the like, we use it in a broader sense. When we talk of temperance, we talk of the pursuit of pleasure or goods that are surplus to that which is required to achieve the Purpose. We are talking of vices such as drinking, the use of drugs, gambling, sex, the pursuit of wealth, of honour, or of power. Each of these things can, in certain situations, be positive as with wealth, honour, power, or sex where used for procreation or the mutual pleasure of partners. However, when used or pursued to excess or in a harmful way to your family or community, they are harmful and hateful to the individual and society.
The virtue of moderation is the exercise of wisdom in conjunction with the previous virtues to determine the proper limits that one should place on everything. The appropriate limits to each are different for everyone. Some people can drink socially, and some cannot. The limits for each differs in quantity but not the effect. Once the act begins to harm your family or community, it is time to reconsider it. The same holds for those things which are generally considered goods such as earning money or chasing success.
Unless you have been exceedingly fortunate, you will need to work. We generally work for economic reasons rather than for any love of the task. It’s a necessary sacrifice, and to a point, it is an integral part of achieving the Purpose for at least one of the partners in any family. However, it is common for this necessary good to be taken beyond its bounds and to begin to harm the family and or the community. This exceeding of the proper bounds of a good is the case for workaholics who, mistaking the correct bonds for their labour, continue working past the point where they start to harm their families through their absence. They wrongly believe that the more money they earn, the better they are doing their role of providing for their family. Temperance here is to understand that economic work is a means to an end of providing for the long-term welfare of their families, not the end in itself. By working without absolute need past the point where it begins to harm their families, they are failing in their duties.
Remember that your duty to your family is not to provide them luxuries, but merely to ensure that they are protected from harm, clothed, fed, and supported emotionally. If while trying to give them more you work beyond what is proper, you achieve in providing for their material needs but fail in providing for their emotional needs. Your failing is in prioritising one thing to the exclusion of all else.
The same also applies to those who are driven by greed. The greedy make the mistake of thinking the path to provide for their families’ welfare lies solely in the possession of wealth. In pursuing this good, they often harm others in their communities. Destroying all who stand in their way and disposing of their workers and colleagues when there is a profit to be made. In trying to benefit their families, they harm them by removing their best support, that of the community. In their misguided pursuit of profit above all, they lose sight of what is essential, and in the end, they suffer for it. This criticism is not to condemn entrepreneurial endeavour, quite the opposite. Wealth, be it the possession of it, or especially the creation of it for yourself and those in your community, is laudable. However, it is good only as with all other things to the point where it begins to harm yourself, your family, or your community. Temperance is the exercise of wisdom to know when enough is enough.
As with wealth, so it is with power. Power is a tool by which the aspirant wishes to set wrongs to right. Yet as has often been noted, ‘power corrupts’. In this case, temperance is to set a guard on yourself and ask if the price of power is worth it. If the action will harm, is it essential to the Purpose or not? If it is not essential, then decline the honour or the power. Wisdom is to prefer right over power and the good of your family to that of worldly glory. If you doubt this, then consider how few of those accounted great can claim the success which the humblest family man can, that of the continuation of his family or their happiness. Napoleon had but one child who did not survive to adulthood, Julius Caesar died without issue (adopting his nephew, Octavian). Winston Churchill had many children who lived and died unhappily. The same unhappy tale seems to be the lot of the families of those who the world accounts as great, be they kings or prime ministers.
Surely, we who aim for our families’ good would do well to carefully consider the costs of power and exercise restraint to avoid the harm to our families, which so often is the corollary of power.
Therefore, if you would achieve your Individual Purpose, cultivate temperance in all your actions. If you would drink, drink but not to the point of harm and stop if you can’t. When you work, seek to keep sight of the reasons you work and the costs you bear. We would be wise to be cautious of power and if we are called to it, to seek carefully to do what is right and to place it down as soon as we are able to do so. In essence, we would seek to have just enough to fulfil our duties, being happy if more comes to us yet not chasing it. Being as content in private obscurity as in the halls of power and always placing the good first and always if we possess power seeking to be just.
Justice is the sixth of our virtues, and it is perhaps the most obscure of the virtues. Of course, we have all heard of ‘justice’, and perhaps we even think that we know what it is. It is generally thought of as a form of fairness or giving to each what they deserve, setting inequality to rights, etc. This definition is both correct and incorrect in our conception. Justice is indeed about fair, consistent, and impartial treatment, but it is not about acting fairly or for the involved parties’ interest. It is instead about acting in the interest of the community.
This conclusion may seem paradoxical. Surely justice is the same no matter whom it concerns. But this is not true. What is just for one is often unjust for another. Consider the case of a bankrupt. It would likely be just to the creditor to ensure that their money is returned in full, however, providing that the debtor has not acted fraudulently, would it be just to them? The debtor would likely feel that they have suffered more and that it would be just to allow them a second chance and free them from the debt. It would seem that whichever way the judge decides, one of them will be treated unjustly. This outcome is the same, even if the justice is consistent and impartial.
What is missing is the consideration of the commonweal. Instead of asking what is just for the individual, we should instead ask what is best for the community as a whole. In this particular case, does the loss of an investment by an investor involve worse harm than the impact which harsh bankruptcy laws have? Without delving into the economics of the problem too deeply in general, it has been found that allowing more generous treatment to bankrupts not involving fraud would seem to offer greater benefits to the community compared to prioritising the investor. Justice is not limited to the legal sphere; indeed, it is a virtue as it is general in nature.
We should show justice in acting fairly, consistently, and impartially in all things. We should exercise justice in the hiring and firing of employees, in the judging or playing of games, in the disciplining or rewarding of our children, and in the imposition of laws and rules. In each situation, we should determine what standard to enforce based on the achievement of the Individual Purpose and enforce it uniformly. This virtue is based on the reality that nepotism or the favourable treatment of people based on their prior relationship to you or other non-relevant traits while appearing to offer benefits is, in fact, a harmful imposition on your, your families’, and the communities’ welfare.
This is because of the random nature of reality and the inevitable turning of the wheel of fortune as well as the interconnectedness of our communities. For every benefit gained by nepotism to the one with power, harm is done to another in their community. Nepotism appears to benefit those who practice it as they and the other insiders form a tight group and share out the benefits. Over time, as this group becomes more insular and focused on maintaining and enhancing their privileges, and less on maintaining and achieving excellence, they go into decline and are eventually destroyed. The harmful effects of nepotism are as relevant in a small business as in a great state. When we are unjust, we plant the seeds of our own destruction.
Of course, as with all virtues, justice requires the exercise of wisdom and the virtues. It takes wisdom to determine what is just based on the community’s needs, courage to make the just decision even if it costs you friends or position. The honesty to examine your motivations to keep them focused on the true Purpose and not be distracted by illusionary gain. The patience and moderation to persevere and to know the right limits and to not exceed them. I.e. to punish enough to dissuade others but no more than is necessary or when harm must be done to know how to as little as or as much as needed but no more and finally to be magnanimous in power or success.
Magnanimity is held to be different from generosity by Aristotle in that it is to do with great things while generosity is held to be to do with small. This is but a semantic difference which we will abandon. When we talk of magnanimity, we mean it to mean a generosity of spirit, especially in triumph. We hold it to be part of generosity as to be generous is synonymous with superiority of some form. Consider the act of charity, is it not termed generous to give precisely as those to whom charity is given are held to have less? The same is often said of a leader who credits their success solely to their team; they are termed generous with their praise. Magnanimity is, therefore, the virtue of being generous when in possession of good fortune.
This magnanimity of spirit is a virtue as it is natural when fortune is smiling on us to mistake her favour as being settled when it is but transitory. Or as Boethius laments in his Consolation of Philosophy, “Mad Fortune sweeps along in wanton pride, Uncertian as Euripus’ surging tide; Now (she) tramples mighty kings beneath her feet; Now she sets the conquered in the victors seat. She heeds not the wail of hapless woe, But mocks the griefs which from her mischief flow. Such is her sport; so proveth she her power; And great the marvel, when in one brief hour, she shows her darling lifted high in bliss, then headlong plunged in misery’s abyss.” Magnanimity is primarily the wise remembrance of this age-old truth. Generously ignoring past insults and harms, and instead seeking after the Purpose with wisdom and virtue. Recognising that ‘Sic transit gloria mundi’ all glory is fleeting and that just as you are up in the moment, so they may be up when you are down.
This tendency does not apply just to those who experience great fortune. It applies equally to each one of us. If you see a person who is struggling, help them up without the expectation of reward. Imagine it was you who was down and act accordingly. This obligation is as valid if the person’s misfortune is their own fault or not. Each one of us is where we are due at least in part through the agency of chance. One different roll of the dice and we may have ended up as the homeless or the addicted. Don’t risk your welfare or that of your family, but within your ability’s limits, help where you can and be generous to others. Especially, as you judge them, remember it is easy to blame but hard to get up once you have fallen.
The eighth and final virtue that we will discuss is that of friendliness or being a friend to others. This virtue should be understood as a willingness to initiate and act as a friend to those whom you come in contact with. What is meant by this is that we should treat everyone we meet as we would a person we were or at least wanted to be friends with.
This virtue means that we should make the effort to be genuinely interested in them for no other purpose than as a person, or as Kant said in his foundations of ethics, ‘Treat each person never ever merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end in themselves’. Approach each person from the position that they might prove to be a friend for often people simply will consciously or unconsciously mirror how they are treated. If treated with respect and care, they will generally do the same.
The virtue of friendliness demands more than merely the reflection of others. It requires us to put ourselves out there and to utilise all the other virtues we have discussed to seek to be a friend to those around us. If you are naturally shy, be courageous. If you are reluctant to do so, be honest. Why? Is it because of the legitimate reasons for discrimination or is it simply because of some less noble reason? Be patient and moderate in your judgements; not everyone is like you, and not everyone will prove to be a friend but be just and give them a chance. If they prove to be unworthy of your friendship by acting in a hurtful or harmful way, be magnanimous and move on, don’t hold their ignorance or foolishness against them. If you judge it as wise, give them another chance. If not, just let them be. The virtue is in the honest attempt. But I assure you, more often than not, the person you might have hesitated to approach will turn out to be worth the effort. For as Galileo is supposed to have remarked: “I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn’t learn something from him”.
Friendliness is, in essence, the willingness to be a friend to others. To teach what you know if requested, to help where you can, but more than anything, simply be open to others. It is not a suggestion to let strangers into your home or place yourself in dangerous situations but simply to be available. If you see a person in danger, be a friend and help them. If you see someone sad, then lend them an ear. If someone is struggling, help them. In short, be the friend or person that you would want to approach you if you found yourself in a similar situation.
With this, it is time to move from the issues which primarily are of the individual to the issues which pertain primarily to the community. Of course, there is much overlap between the two areas and what applies to the community also applies to the individual and vice versa.