The Path to Virtue

Published on: 2023-06-13 02:45:23

What is virtue? It is a word which almost all of you must have come across in your lives at one point or the other. Live a virtuous life, people say, or civic virtue makes us better citizens, others say. But what is it exactly? And why should we care? That is after all the perennial question, is it not? Why should we care? So join me, as we dive deep into the questions of virtue.

The most common and the closest definition to virtue is simply ethics. When a person is asking you to live a virtuous life, they are asking you to live an ethical life. But for our purposes, this is not enough. I personally define ethics as actions we take and decisions we make but virtue as a state of life. But lets get technical.

Aristotle defined virtue as the ability to do the right thing at the right place at the right time. This is somewhat vague, but we can make this more concrete with an example. Let us assume we are walking down a street when we see a person getting robbed with a gun. The cowardly thing to do would be to run away. The foolhardy thing to do would be walk up and confront the robber, for it puts both us and the person being robbed at risk. The middle ground and one which will take the best of both these approaches will be virtue. In our case, we will be demonstrating the virtue of bravery.

We can call the police, though by then the robbery would have finished. We could rally people around us to strike as one, though even that would take time. We can devise any method to distract the robber, from as simple as throwing a rock at them, to maybe something complex, something which would give the victim a chance to make their escape.

This is what virtue is to Aristotle, the golden mean between excess and stinginess. The virtue of generosity lies between profligate spending and miserliness, the virtue of magnanimity lies between pride and self-deprecation and so on.

Doesn't sound very heroic, does it? We have all grown up on tales of bravery and heroism, where people beat the odds and succeed. We try to emulate those people to reach the very same heights that they have reached. But this business of straddling the middle path does not lend itself well to any story. After all, how inspiring would it be if someone tells a story of you preventing a robbery by calling the police?

But to Aristotle, the main point of virtue was not in being heroic. Let us digress for a brief moment, and discuss heroism itself before proceeding. We all want to be heroic, but at the end of the day, it is because we want to be recognised for who we are. I am much the same, I wanted to be known by everyone. Until a very short while ago, the one thing I wanted most in the world was to not be forgotten after I die. I wished to do things of such overarching achievement that my name would be written in the annals of history. I wished to be remembered. Perhaps, that is where our innate drive for heroism comes from.

We as humans are afraid of oblivion. Show of hands, how many of you think of death on a daily basis. I do not mean, "ugh I have so much work, I wanna die". I mean contemplating the fact that one day we would no longer exist.. That sometime in the future, there would be nothing to perceive, because we would be incapable of thought and perception.. The void, from whence we came and thus we return.

It is from this contemplation that the morals propagated via religion come. Their morals teach us to live ethical and thus by one definition, virtuous lives. They offer us a chance at eternal life, by passing the problem of death entirely, for people who live virtuous lives go to heaven and those who dont go to hell, but in the end all live forever.

But to Aristotle, that wasnt the point of virtue. And indeed, to us, living now, and having recognised that we are bound to oblivion after death, it should not be the point of virtue. We should not be virtuous because it offers us something in return. If we are "good" because we have an incentive to do so, will we then become "bad" if we have an incentive for that?

But back to the topic at hand. As I have said, to aristotle, the point of virtue is not in eternal life. Rather it is in a concept termed "Eudaimonia". Aristotle maintained that we become better at virtue as we practice it, in the same way we become better at table topics as we practice them. And we need to become better at virtue so that we can achieve Eudaimonia.

Eudaimonia is a greek word which is translated now to "human flourishing" It is that feeling when we are living our life to the utmost extent. The purpose of a virtuous life is thus to achieve eudaimonia. It is to flourish in our lives as human beings. But to me, Eudaimonia means something different. It is that feeling when at the end of a long day, you lie down on your bed and sleep is easy to claim you. It is that feeling when you are not plagued by restlessness because you know you have given it your all, because you have lived a full life.

The best way then, to become a more virtuous person is to look at a person you find virtuous and emulate them. We become the person we admire the most. For instance, the people I admire the most are Socrates, the father of philosophy, and Diogenes the Cynic. In both, I admire the fact that they lived what they taught. I admire their genuineness and how they preached by practicing their teachings themselves. I wish to emulate these people and become as virtuous as I perceive them to be.

I am sure each one of you have people you admire the most. People who are virtuous and who you would like to emulate. Well, emulate them. Become the person you want to be. That is how you become better tomorrow than you are today. Certainly, you won't become a paragon of virtue but it is a good point to start from.

If you do not have any person you admire that much, there is still one more way. Sub specie aeternitatis. Act as if each and every single one of your actions will be scrutinized all the way from now to eternity. This was a concept propounded by Baruch Spinoza in his book "Ethica" which, unsurprisingly, deals with ethics.

Another way to go about this would be to imagine any action we do will be the right thing to do for any person in any scenario. In more concrete terms, if we allow ourselves to lie, that should mean it is also allowed for every single person to lie in any scenario. Certainly not a world one would like to live in. This little thought experiment is called the categorical imperative and it was devised by the philosopher Immanuel Kant.

But why? We have talked about what it means to live a virtuous life and how one can start going about it, but why should we be such a person? What do we gain from it?

To this, I have another question in turn. Must we be virtuous only if we gain something from it? The Romans believed it was their civic duty to behave in a virtuous manner. I believe that it our fundamental duty to act virtuously. We should lead an ethical life for the sake of it, and not for any reward.

We should do good things because they are good and not do bad things because they are bad. Any person who seeks justification beyond this is offering excuses to be unethical. Yes, the world is not so black and white, and yes the world is not a good palace, but we should do our part to make sure that it is better. Whether what we do is small or not means nothing. The only thing that should matter is whether we do the right thing. Because, as a wise man in a book once said, we find out who we are when we face the choice between doing what is right and what is easy.

At the end of the day, it is up to us to make this choice between doing what is right and what is easy. So tell me, will you choose the path to virtue? Because at the end of the day, the pursuit of virtue is the only worthwhile goal in life.