Tag Archives: Virtue

Philosophy Tempered with Music

Sarita's Cave

This drawing was done by Sarita Worravitudomsuk from Thailand. She was one of the lovely students I was privileged to teach during my years in Japan. At the end of one semester, Sarita presented me with this gift. I was amazed to see that she had depicted Plato’s Cave with the upward ascent being a scale of piano keys. Ever since, her drawing hangs by my bed.

Sarita reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from Plato’s Republic, BK 8, 549B, that  I find at once enigmatic and illuminating.  In this passage, Adeimantus asks Socrates what is the best guardian of virtue, and Socrates answers “Logou mousike kekramenou ( Λόγου μουσικέ κεκραμένου).”

The Loeb Classical library observes in a footnote that “logos” and musike” are untranslatable, but goes on to translate it this way:  “Reason blended with culture, which is the only indwelling preserver of virtue.”

Francis Cornford tries this: “the only safeguard that can preserve [character] throughout life is a thoughtful and cultivated mind.”

Alan Bloom has it this way: “Argument mixed with music. It alone, when it is present, dwells within the one possessing it as a savior of virtue throughout life.”

And finally the classic translation by Benjamin Jowett: “Philosophy tempered with music, who comes and takes her abode in a man, and is the only saviour of his virtue throughout his life.”

Combine these translations with the Gospel of St. John, “In the beginning was the Logos…” and we have five meanings: Reason, Mind, Argument, Philosophy, and Word.  In the same way, “musike” can mean music in the modern sense, or any of the arts–hence “the muses.’

However we parse these words that are so difficult because they are so richly evocative, it is clear that Plato sees Logos tempered with Musike as the guardian of virtue that is indwelling and life long.  He suggests that true virtue unites with and colors the soul just as dye seeps into woolen fibers.    Rather than being an abstract adherence to rules, the Greek notion of virtue (Arete) is liberating.  It simply means flowing into life–every day, every moment–from one’s broadest accumulated Wisdom, with a clear mind, a heart unencumbered by fear, and a sense of wholeness and focus, such as Parker Palmer’s living “divided no more.”  It is this living every moment from the best in ourselves that the Greeks saw as ” human flourishing,” or eudaimonia which is often translated as “happiness.”

Eudaimonia is derived from “eu” and “daimon,”  that is, having a good spirit guide.  Socrates credits his inner voice, or Daimon, with cautioning him to refrain from harmful actions.

Seen in this light, virtue is highly practical and something to which we all aspire. As with any living organic growing thing, our human flourishing needs cultivation.   Plato suggests the interplay of logos and musike is the Way (another meaning of logos) toward wholeness. Philosophy is a love of wisdom, a longing for awakening, that broadens the beliefs with which we create our world.  Music, the arts, quiet the mind’s chatter and ushers us into the silent chambers of the heart.  It is not either/or, as Dawna Markova so beautifully sees: “Perhaps, when you allow your heart and mind to pay attention to each other in a clean way, when silence becomes a loom, the still, small voice that is your soul can reweave the pattern that is the purpose of how you are living your life.”

For me, Sarita’s picture captures all of these elements in Plato’s and Markova’s vision: the symbiotic journey of the mind/heart toward our most lovely unfolding, and the well tempered mind rendered sensitive and compassionate by the soulful power of art.  Finally along the way, our tender fragility will be nourished by the silence that awakens a gentle and attentive listening to the guidance that whispers in the recesses of our deepest selves.

Shoddy Virtues

 

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In his Log from the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck writes these iconoclastic lines:
“Perhaps the most overrated virtue in our list of shoddy virtues is that of giving. Giving builds up the ego of the giver, makes him superior and higher and larger than the receiver. Nearly always, giving is a selfish pleasure, and in many cases it is a downright destructive and evil thing…It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding.  Receiving, on the other hand, if it be well done, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships. In receiving you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well.”

The notion of “shoddy virtues” is at once unsettling and resonant. Steinbeck clearly has a point. Jesus taught that it is better to give than to receive, but Steinbeck is adding that giving is also easier. We have all experienced how difficult it is to allow someone else to pay the check at a restaurant, or even to open the presents given to us at Christmas. It does take great humility to receive with grace.

In modern times, the notion of virtue has become restrictive and dull. Virtuous people are kept from doing things they would like to do, mostly sexual. It has sometimes been used as a subtle denigration of women. Have you ever heard of a man of easy virtue, or of a man losing his virtue? For all the lip service we give to virtue, the truth is that many think of it as bland, boring, and unprofitable. Joseph Campbell once said that “we live in one world, and babble about another.”

For the record, this recognition of virtue’s dual nature has a long pedigree. In the Republic, Plato says “The most surprising fact of all is that each of the gifts of nature which we praise tends to corrupt the soul of its possessor and divert it from the love of wisdom. I am speaking of courage, sobriety, and the entire list [of virtues]” (Rep., Bk. VI, 491). Plato thought that materialistic cultures are incubators of a perverse caricature of true virtue. Professions that offer money, prestige, or power have the ability to seduce the truly talented away from careers that serve the spiritual growth of oneself and others. He is especially decrying the profession of Philosophy, or University Professors in general, who are often fifth-rate poseurs who have little true Love of Wisdom. Cleverness poses as Wisdom, authoritarianism poses as courage, and self-righteousness poses as integrity. If ego drives our natural and acquired gifts, they do indeed become shoddy.

In the East, Lao Tzu makes the same point with his characteristic simplicity as he distinguishes between higher and lower (shoddy) virtue in verse 38 of the Tao Te Ching: “1. Superior virtue is unvirtue. Therefore it has virtue. Inferior virtue never loses sight of virtue. Therefore it has no virtue. 2. Superior virtue is non-assertion and without pretension. Inferior virtue asserts and makes pretensions.” I read this as saying that virtue, aware of itself, is self-inflating and therefore ultimately self-defeating. Jesus talked about the person who gives money at the temple only when he is sure of an audience. “Look at me. Aren’t I good?” Inferior virtue, to be sure.

It seems to me that Steinbeck, Plato, and Lao Tsu are all saying that our most beautiful gifts of mind and heart can be diverted to the service of the ego and thus become powerful tools of self-centered, self-congratulatory selfishness. It is quite easy to see how such attitudes as Giving, Forgiveness, Temperance, and even Sexual Restraint can feed a rigid superiority, full of pretension and assertiveness, if not aggression. The self-righteous often speak warm words that ride on cold breath.

William James noted that the human being is “a bundle of habits.” These habits are channels worn into our minds and hearts and bodies by our quotidian choices and actions. Habits of thinking, feeling, and moving become ingrained, and either imprison us in fear and ignorance, or open us to autonomy and growth. Sadly, the habits that most of us carry into adulthood are narrow and distorting, and inhibit the flow of life. Like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, they make the mind and heart two sizes too small. The ancient Greeks called these crippling habits “vices.” Because of them our minds and hearts are literally caught in a vise, and the smallness of our resulting worldview produces suffering for ourselves and others. The mark of the fool, Socrates taught, is that he is ignorant of his own ignorance. He is a “know-it-all” who stagnates in the backwater of his cognitive illusions. In perhaps his most powerful image, Plato depicts humankind as chained by fear inside the cave of its own disordered (or overly-ordered) and rigid mind.

For Plato, the purpose of human life is to undertake the dramatic journey out of the dark cave of the closed mind. It is a journey toward a mind open to wonder, aware of the provisional nature of what it thinks it knows; and it is a journey toward a courageously vulnerable heart. On this journey, new patterns of thinking and feeling are assimilated into our nature (Aristotle calls this ‘second nature’) by repeated choices and their attendant actions. These new channels that enable us to be the people we long to be–wise and brave, kind and compassionate–are what Plato calls the “Virtues” (arete in Greek). The English word comes from the same Latin root as the word ‘virile.” It means to be strong, powerful, independent. In sum, the virtues are qualities of mind and heart that empower us to live life with vigor and joy. The virtues, the qualities that allow us to function at our best, are in fact prisms through which one’s love flows into the world. Shoddy, ego-serving virtues go by the same names, but they dam the flow of love.

I want to take care, therefore, that the soaring ideals of religion and philosophy do not themselves become self-serving. The virtues of wisdom, compassion, courage, and equanimity are truly real only if they are conduits of love in the ordinary, daily unfolding of life. If I can be kind to my children, supportive of my friends, and truthful with my wife; if I can honor the Divine light in everyone I meet; if I can cherish the inexpressible beauty of the natural world, then perhaps I might be approaching true virtue. I aspire to live the Taoist ideal of gracious action without any sense of being “virtuous.” In the realm of higher virtue, as Hayden Carruth observed, “Now I am almost entirely love.”

The Beauty of Aging

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Some Mature Cherry Trees in Kyoto–and a couple of maturing folks in front of them.

May you walk in Beauty
An Ancient Navajo Prayer

May the Beauty we love be what we do
Jellaudin Rumi (1250)

To speak of aging and beauty in the same breath might seem to be hopelessly naive. The physical and mental debility of aging leads only to the grave, and it seems a vicious joke that all our dreams and hopes and efforts should end in the disgraceful and ignoble mire of old age. Moreover, in western countries, the cult of youth marginalizes those of us with white hair. We are certainly not a sought after demographic. A recent advertisement for a job at the United Nations warned that those over 58 need not apply. Many universities are looking for excellent young teachers because the image of the old dried out professor reading from his yellow notes is deeply engrained in the collective imagination. Many of us go through our days experiencing new and mystifying pains, being shocked by the person we see in the mirrors and windows we happen to pass, and either being ignored or patronized by the vigorous young people around us who are going about the important business of life. On this far side of Middle Age, I find Robert Frost’s couplet particularly apt: “Oh Lord, if You forgive my little jokes on Thee, I will forgive Thy great big one on me.” We put on a brave face, but in our heart of hearts, we know the terrifying truth that the game is up.

Or is it?

Continue reading

Living the Love of Wisdom #1

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It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly.
Epicurus (341-270 BCE)

The URL of this blog is “Love of Wisdom,” and in a previous essay, I lamented the fact that not many university professors live lives of wisdom lovers. But just what is this “wisdom” we philosophers are supposed to love? And what difference would this love make in the perspectives, attitudes and behavior a person realizes in each moment of every day? What does it mean to live a wise life?

I find these questions essential to the calling of Teacher of the Love of Wisdom. As with most seemingly simple and obvious questions, however, they open a doorway to a lifetime of wonder—and this, I think, is a beautiful thing. In this essay I would like to offer a provisional reflection on the nature of Wisdom and the implications it has for the character of one’s life, with the hope that we might gain some insight into the fascinating challenge of living a pleasant, honorable, and just life.

According to Aristotle, Wisdom is a Virtue. The virtues are qualities of excellence (arête) that invigorate the mind (wisdom) and the heart (courage), and engender wholeness (temperance and justice). These qualities empower us to be the people we long to be, and to lead fulfilling lives.

I cannot claim to be an expert on the living a virtuous life, but I am very familiar with living a life inhibited by their opposite qualities, called “vices” by the Greeks. I have been foolish far more often than wise. Instead of dealing with life’s challenges with a thoughtful and conscious mind, I have often labored under the veil of illusion and irrational beliefs (see Albert Ellis). Instead of courageously moving through fear, I have allowed it to paralyze me or to act defensively (see Charlie Brown’s failure to ever kiss the little red-haired girl). The opposite of temperance (to be “in tune”) is a lack of integrity, or wholeness, that manifests in a dithering mind and an ambivalent heart. Finally, the unjust life is one of selfish egocentricity.

The virtues are mutually interdependent and complementary, existing together or not at all, and serve to form a mature human character. Wisdom tells us what is truly worthy of fear, while courage gives us the strength to break out of the prison of illusion. Similarly, integrity allows us to focus our energies wisely and courageously, while justice urges us to go beyond the protective walls of ego.

Aristotle goes on to say that “Happiness (eudaimonia) is activity in accord with virtue.” The capstone of human flourishing (eudaimonia) is not simply being virtuous, but acting virtuously. This means setting a firm intention to live life from the very best in oneself: from one’s highest wisdom and most loving heart, from one’s harmonious integrity and a sense of empathetic fairness.

Wisdom, then, might be placed in a nexus of qualities whose pursuit gives value and direction to an entire lifetime. It therefore seems best to think of the Love of Wisdom as a longing for perspective and compassion, balance and fairness, that evolves through an authentic commitment, renewed daily, to pursue and nurture the most empowering dimensions of one’s mind and heart. This evolution takes the form of a widening spiral of growth that leads toward ever deeper Wisdom and ever more effective loving in the world.

In tomorrow’s post, I will reflect upon the Dynamics of Transformation.