Living a Virtuous Life
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | August 2015
Living a virtuous life is never accomplished in perfection; we integrate ethical standards one small step at a time.
Some appear to be innately good—virtuous. My father’s this way, at least he appears to be. I never seen him struggle over doing the right thing, he just does it. Perhaps, he struggles just like me. Previous generations stoically faced life with grace and secrecy. Being raised during the age of expression, we see what emotional wrecks we all are. For me, and I suppose for many others, doing the right thing is tremendously demanding; just determining what the right thing is can be challenging—and then doing it. Living virtuously requires effort. Often the devil whispers louder than the angel. Our bodies often signal a different opinion on how to act than society, leaving us struggling to what exactly the right thing is, inner urges pushing to act in opposition to widely accepted virtues. We often choose to listen to the pangs of desire and aimlessly drift from ethical principles that keep others in focus.
In Hebrew, the word for virtue (ma’a lot) refers to steps. Being virtuous, therefore, was not an all-or-nothing task but comprised of a series of smaller steps—subtle interior shifts. We never actually achieve a state where we honestly declare, “I’m living a virtuous life.” There is always more work to be done. Those most maligned by selfish desires tend to see themselves as the most virtuous, using their self-righteous valuations to persecute others. This is not virtuous living.
Virtuous Living: Holding to high moral standards, mostly in regards to interactions with others.
Benjamin Franklin devised a plan to achieve personal perfection, working on one virtue at a time. He kept a daily journal of his progress. Once he perfected one virtue, he would move to another. He meticulously kept notes of successes and failures. His conscientious work propelled him to new heights. He even declared perfection of several single virtue and moved then to the next on his list. But when he moved attention to the next virtue, the previously “perfected” virtue would slip. He constantly bounced back and forth, learning, growing and changing; but never fully attaining the virtuous life he desired.
Virtuous living is a never-ending process.
Lao-Tzu named four cardinal virtues: Reverence for all life, Natural Sincerity, Gentleness, and Supportiveness. These virtues identified over 2500 years ago, still offer guidance for a comprehensive a personal virtue inventory today.
Where do you stand?
Do you have reverence for life? Quietly taking in the complexity and beauty? Life, when viewed with reverence, evokes ‘awe.’ The simpleness of our subjective view never fully understands the beauty and complexity of life. A reverence for life reminds of our inability to effective judge value, withdrawing from our sloppy slapping of judgmental labels on others.
Do you have a Natural Sincerity? Are you honest? Trustworthy? Loyal to commitments? If honesty doesn’t smoothly flow, we have work to do. Like Benjamin Franklin, we need to focus attention on our lack and consciously work for improvement. The deepening gulf of partisanship in politics has succumb to end based values. Honesty no longer impresses. We vote for representatives that support the issue most important to us and excuse any improprieties they willfully embrace.
Are you gentle, not a push-over but considerate and kind? We live surrounded by crassness; too many people in a rush, focused on their own needs, ignorant of personal actions that impact others. Mean words and impulsive retaliations color the lives of too many. Social media posts are maligned with callous and malicious comments, not gentleness. Politics have always had some mean-spirited attacks; but the last presidential election was marred with a new level of hatefulness. Have we forgotten how to build self-confidence through achievement, resorting to vicious bashing as the only means to elevate the self? The world needs more gentleness.
Are you Supportive? We must escape the confining shells of our own lives, transcending selfish competitiveness and embracing the wholeness of the world. We need to give back, not just selfishly receive, reaching out to assist both intimates and strangers in this complicated task of living.
Virtues moderate self-focused drives that are blind to the larger whole. Virtues build a community, not an individual. This is healthy living. For most, we are reliant on a paycheck, society protections, and the numerous benefits of group effort; but the benefits of being past of the larger whole is more salient. A few can cheat and not give while still drawing from the resources of the masses. But too many cheaters, withdrawing and not giving, destroys. The fabric of society begins to unravel forcing more and more to become self protected, stingily hoarding resources. We can’t continue down this path of selfishness. We need each other. The world needs virtuous individuals and groups, focusing on the benefits of all.