This week, I’ve sat down three times to write about Being Virtuous. I’ve gone to various books to find inspiration – Brendan Myers’ The Other Side of Virtue, Emma Restall Orr’s writing, ADF’s articles on their Nine Virtues, the Irish triads, and (just to get above myself) references to what the ancient Druids may or may not have done… All in aid of the ADF Dedicant Path and its substantial segment on virtues.
I had almost a full post written before I realised that I didn’t actually know what Virtue meant to me. I was trying to work why I care about Virtue, when a friend posed a question, in good Socratic tradition: “Do you care about it?”
Yes, I care about Virtue.
Three things which the upright will gain: worldly sufficiency, peace of conscience, and unending happiness.
You won’t be surprised that my interest in ‘living right’ began in Christianity. But not in the way you might think. It was in liberal Christian churches that I learnt about fair trade, human rights, the destruction of the environment, and how young boys in Congo do incredibly dangerous work in tin mines for a pittance so that we can have mobile phones. At the time, I put it all through ‘God’s world’ filters. Today, I realise that it’s about living in *the* world, with all the huge responsibility that comes with that.
The concept of taking responsibility for myself and my actions is a streetlight along my path. I believe that all life is connected, but responsibility still has to start with me. That means looking at my impact – on my community, on the environment, on all the other life that crosses paths with mine (which includes people as far away as Congo). I think this falls under what ADF calls “the process of examining one’s life”.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. A lot of the time, looking at the mountain I have to climb called ‘responsibility’ makes me inclined to lose the plot and go back to bed. I started using biodegradable hair products in an attempt to put a bit less rubbish into the water system, and immediately noticed how much cleaning fluid I pour down the drain. We started eating meat less and buying local produce, and then I realised that in order to do that properly, I’d have to go to farmers’ markets that aren’t accessible to me and use energy that I don’t have. (And I don’t just mean I’d quite like more energy. I mean that it’s a straightforward choice between working and going to farmers’ markets, and trying to do both could mean ending up in hospital. That wouldn’t be an ethical way to treat myself.)
Sometimes I start thinking about responsibility and I can’t stop – all I can see is the damage I’m doing. Virtue is a focus on creative action, instead. It helps me to stop beating myself up and start taking action. It’s about steps in the right direction.
Why All the Structure?
As a Christian, someone else was always telling me what to do, whether an archbishop, another member of the church, or God. For at least ten years I tried to find my own voice, my own song, and got shushed when I did. I was given an actual prophecy from another Christian once – it essentially I said I was on this earth to break the rules. I liked that, but I went one step beyond it. I realised I didn’t need rules made by someone else at all, whether divine or human. Now that I’ve found a path that allows that, though, there’s a lingering sense of exactly what do I do with all this freedom?
Taking responsibility doesn’t have to mean re-inventing the wheel. I’m very glad for people who have the highly developed ethical good sense necessary to come up with their own answers to the puzzles of living responsibly. But I have a brain that doesn’t work quite like other people’s brains (just trust me on that one), and I need structure and guidelines. Structure’s not a dirty word, at least not to me. I’m fond of saying that I’m religious, not spiritual. It’s not always meant as a self-mocking comment.
ADF has a suggested structure for approaching ethics. Each of their Nine Virtues addresses a different sphere of life, where responsibility, ‘right relationship’ and ‘excellent action’ are relevant. In each of these spheres of life, our decisions and expectations come into contact with community and other life. The decisions about how to tackle each virtue are still up to me, but I can take them one at a time, ideally without being swallowed by despair along the way. And the list includes unfashionable values like ‘piety’ and ‘moderation’, along with the more romantic ones like ‘wisdom’ – which makes me very happy.
ADF’s Nine Virtues:
- Wisdom, including good judgement
- Piety, including duty to ourselves, others and the gods
- Vision, or broad perspective
- Courage, including action in the face of danger
- Integrity, including honour, fairness and being trustworthy
- Perseverance, including drive and motivation
- Hospitality, including acting as a gracious host and honouring “a gift for a gift”
- Moderation, or indulging in neither excess nor deficiency
- Fertility – or, as I’d rather think of it, creativity – the enjoyment of abundance and appreciation of sensuality.
I really like most of these. Not all, but we’ll get there.
Why Not Keep it Simple?
Right action, right relationship, responsible ethics – it doesn’t always need that much structure. It can be kept as simple as Emma Restall Orr’s key ethical concept, ‘honour life’. All these principles are starting-points. I suspect that everyone’s starting-point will vary, depending not least on their path. I need inspiration that works for me, personally.
Brendan Myers’ concept of Virtue is based on offering an ‘excellent’ response to the randomness of fate. While Myers translates Aristotle’s concept eudaimonia as ‘the worthwhile life’, I understand that it more literally means something like ‘having the favour of the gods’. In the end, that’s an idea – a metaphor, if you like – that works rather well for me. I will work towards the favour of the gods. You?
Three things must be united before good can come of them: thinking well, speaking well, and acting well.
It’s that mystery of acting well, of acting responsibly in light of my connection to all of life, that I want to explore. Starting by working through ADF’s list of virtues and adding a few of my own, from my other places of inspiration, including the Gaelic myths.
Next week, C is for Courage.
All triads from John F. Wright’s collection A Compilation of Triads, Volume 1. http://wolf.mind.net/library/celtic/triads/triads.htm#Page
 Restall Orr, E., Living With Honour: A Pagan Ethics, Moon Books, 2008.
 Myers, B., The Other Side of Virtue, O Books, 2008.