The Pursuit of Virtue
Our mind’s greatest treasures will live longer than we ever will. Plants rot, animals decay. We are no exception. But there is a part of our spirit that transcends who we are. In fact, it is greater than who we ever will be — we cannot exist without it. It permeates our identity and effectively discerns between what is right and wrong. We must rediscover its importance and its purpose.
Virtue is cornerstone of our existence.
The concept of humanly virtue has been on the minds of the world’s greatest thinkers since humanity’s inception. It continues to be the basis behind our beliefs and ideologies today. Our virtues, or values, sit at the top of the world of ideas.
We are the sum of our convictions. No human being can achieve full potential when one fails to adhere to virtue and instead chases the fleeting pleasures of life, or when one falls victim to vice. This is what separates us from other animals: to the best of our knowledge we are the only thinking, conscious animals that can reflect on our choices and appeal to a higher sense of understanding and values. The most human thing we can do is acknowledge our drive to be with virtue and apply it to every aspect of our lives — our relationships, our governments, our professional lives, and so forth.
Virtue grants us calm and tranquility. When we act in harmony with virtue, we are at peace with our decisions and provide a valuable service to our planet. A lack of concern for virtue may lead to cognitive dissonance as our mind struggles to connect our behavior with our deeply ingrained values. This “feeling” is merely a distressed cry of our mind’s inherent pursuit of what has been called “the good life”. There is a reason why we strive to live a life with a foundation for what is right and wrong. When we stumble, the consequences are dire and threaten the basis of our human essence.
One may describe virtue as what is “right” in life. Virtue has no exceptions — we are fully capable of expressing our values in all of life’s situations. Common words that come to mind that radiate the human concern for what is right are justice, fairness, and equality. These are more than just ideas; these words cornerstones of existence. If humanity disappeared tomorrow, these values would still exist out in nature, as they do not need the thinking human mind to conceive of them in order to exist. In fact, we do not even need human language to define what they are, as these pillars of existence can be understood without a word to “define” them. Any human being, on the basis of being a rational creature, can perceive what they are.
One may consider it a novel idea to consider our values to exist in nature beyond the scope of humanity. But all that is necessary to consider this natural phenomenon is a trip out in nature among the presence of animals, the landscape, and the cosmos. A deer seeks a berry in order to nourish itself. A mountain erodes to peacefully give way to a waterfall that will provide health to an array of life around it. The stars reliably appear each night in an extraordinary act of consistency and honor in that they never fail to provide a shelter from the sun and a spectacular insight to the universe beyond an observer on Earth.
The three struggles presented above — the struggle to survive, to change, and to find purpose are equally present within our lives as humans. However, we are also completely able of recognizing how humans wield the potential to destroy their paths in their desire to answer these problems. Rather than existing in balance with life around them, humans have the choice to destroy in order to survive. Rather than adapt our mindset and surroundings, humans have the choice to neglect the lives of others — sometimes violently — in order to pursue what they desire to change and order as to what they see fit. Rather than using what is available to create an (in)complete picture of purpose, humans have the choice to create their own narratives and expect others to follow suit.
The key word in the human dilemma is choice. Humans have a choice to act and whether their actions are in harmony with nature. This is not to condemn ourselves for what is completely natural when we have the conscious ability to choose, but instead an earnest reminder of what we are capable of — virtue or vice. It is just as human to choose virtue over vice as it is to choose vice over virtue. And this is certainly visible in our everyday lives.
Does the deer have a choice to starve itself in order to let the berry survive? Does the mountain have a choice or not in whether to make room for the waterfall? Do the stars have a choice every night whether to appear or not? No, as they do what is natural to them. But rational, conscious humans can choose. We are a part of nature and strive to act in accordance with it.
“Virtue” may henceforth be succinctly considered to be what is right.
Emotion and Virtue
One thing that virtue certainly is not is emotion. Emotion can exist only with one that experiences it. The essence of existing does not have emotion. It simply is. There is no emotional deliberation over whether it is right or not, because it simply is there regardless of whether it is something that the observer desires it or not. It is necessary to separate our desires and feelings from our understanding of nature, as feelings are highly subjective and make the strongest case to those who feel them in that moment. This is a biological phenomenon connected to life, but not to the entirety of nature, because nature may exist whether or not life exists. Additionally, no single feeling is the same, and thus cannot be understood in the same way that a value with no emotional connection can.
Yet virtue is not inherently anti-emotional. If it were, then it would not be able to be grasped by emotional beings like ourselves. In a practical sense, meaning what confronts us on a daily basis, we apply emotion to carry out our decisions. Virtue does not call for us to be emotionless creatures, just ones that can strive for what is right after practically considering the emotional implications.
Alas, it is not expected that every person agrees on the extent or existence of every virtue. This initially appears contradictory to the essence of virtue, which is to be understood widely throughout nature. But through the individual experiences in life, we come to appreciate certain virtues in different ways. The experience of life clouds our ability to reason objectively, as we will always be influenced by what we feel and what we experience around us. This is a natural obstacle for any conscious creature that strives to live in accordance to virtue.
But virtue does not exist for human minds to debate each other on whether it is right or not. It simply is there, and what truly is virtue will be there even after the debate ends. It does not need us to effectively decide what it is and why our neighbors should grasp the same idea. It only demands to be executed through its actors — us in nature.
The best way to exhibit virtue is to act in harmony with it. Indeed, humans will debate and reason with each other until the end of time, and this is welcome and expected. The insights provided by another thinking mind may reveal to us an aspect of virtue we did not see before (this does not imply that everyone has an individual version of virtue, because virtue does not have “versions” for different people that live in the same nature.) We arrive at new understandings and discoveries with the help and guidance that we find in other other people, the universe, and ourselves.
Perhaps, if one’s actions that are taken to reflect the true essence of virtue demonstrate what is right, then humanity may arrive at a similar conclusion of virtue. But with currently over seven and a half billion thinking minds on this planet, this is highly doubtful. And there is absolutely no issue with that; that is only human.
Despite this, this does not mean that every person’s understanding of virtue is flawless. There will be people with whom we express stark disagreement over what is right and wrong. If their thinking minds do not open to our insight, then virtue is still best expressed through the actions which bring us closer to nature. The same can be said for them if we refuse to open our minds to learning. Our emotions and other practical concerns may tell us otherwise, some which should understandably so, but remember that what is right needs no emotional attachment in order to be right.
As stated earlier, virtue has no connection to removing all ability to feel emotion. We are firmly grounded in our human reality, which includes practical considerations that we create for ourselves in society and manage in our interactions with others. Demonstrating virtue certainly does not translate to becoming a cold-hearted machine. One can still retain a sense of what is right and wrong and how virtue should be implemented while maintaining our human identity.
Emotion does not determine virtue, but it is paramount in how we go about exemplifying virtue. Change in favor of higher values may be best expressed in manner that fosters discussion and encourages debate among others. An honest declaration of the principles we find to be true, spoken with an underlying compassion for those who do not initially see what we perceive, may be what the situation calls for. Forgiving those who recognize their past regressions (which may include ourselves) is one of the most human and difficult actions we can do. But it sometimes may be necessary.
Yet we must not forfeit our values in order to achieve a goal in our lives (or submit to vice, which would be even more destructive.) It would go against nature to deceitfully renounce virtue in order to appease those who are less concerned with being in harmony with the principles of existence. In an extreme case, one may even have to risk death in order to defend what is right. If we are dearly concerned with expressing virtue, then this may be a painful, but necessary step to propagate what is right.
There is also a practical benefit to wisely considering emotion in our actions: we lessen the risk of alienating other fellow feeling people, and may open their eyes and hearts to what we have to say. As long as we are consistent with our actions and vocal about how they reflect virtue, then we not only may encourage others to follow our example, but also maintain the esteemed dignity of doing what is truly right even if others do not. That does not require others to approve of our value-focused actions, just as it does not require us to berate those who differ in their understandings of virtue or choose vice. Virtue is unconcerned with other people’s actions, because it does not need to be validated by others to be right.
Nevertheless, it is imperative to keep an open mind and engage in productive discussions. As mortal individuals we may never be able to all agree on what is right and true, but we can learn from others to shape the values that we deem to be true. When it comes to resolving practical matters, our best human judgement is required to assess how, knowing what is right, we should act.
Virtue for the Modern Day
The values that we find to be true today would be equally applicable if we were alive thousands of years ago or thousands of years in the future. This is due to the fact that nature will exist beyond our time and understanding — nature is existence.
It is easy to forge our principles in favor of a short-term objective. In reality, our entire life is the “short-term”, because values exist beyond our lives — this must be noted. When we adhere to them, we may not gain an immediate personal benefit. But choosing virtue simply means choosing what is right; there are no extra provisions guaranteed by nature when you act in accordance to it. The act of choosing what is right, however, is the greatest strength available to those who have the choice (us). It is stronger than any weapon or word. We have nature on our side, and we cannot go wrong when nature acts — because nature cannot by definition be unnatural. There may be practical implications that hinder the victory of virtue, which we must confront as mortal beings who face this choice on a daily basis. That is our unique responsibility as human beings.
Keeping in line with values will connect us to those who came before us and those who will come after us as we all strive to act on behalf of shared principles. The problems that we face today, whether on a personal or global level, cannot be solved without the presence of a higher understanding of virtue. To be human means to be trapped in a lifelong struggle from the womb to the grave — where we go, there will be room for mishaps, failures, and crisis that we must address. Regardless of where we are or where we go, virtue will be our greatest ally while we live through the joys and despairs of the human condition.