May 9, 2017

Flummoxed by Simplicity

Although the Golden Rule phrasing is simple, the execution of it has proved to be difficult. Libraries bursting with thousands of books trying to explain how to live a life by simply “loving thy neighbor as thyself.” The phrase’s perfect simplicity flummoxes us.

I realized quickly that the ancients were trying to explain how one could adapt the principle into everyday life, and ancient stories began to describe the special attributes of their great heroes. The stories began to pile up, one after another through time, each identifying great virtues associated with the successes of these great leaders. Looking through history, we see that these enlightened leaders controlled our best societies. That’s what the history books call them: enlightened. What does that mean?

Generally, you’ll find enlightened leaders adhered to a certain set of standards. These standards kept popping up in my reading, and I found them weaving their way through history. I would ask myself, “How do they relate? What ties them together?” I found that there always appeared to be certain sets of virtues related to these high standards of behavior. The simplicity of these sets intrigued me. Virtues such as integrity and honesty were constant in the record. There was the clue, and I ran after it. I began to make a list of the virtues associated with these enlightened eras.


Assisting Hands

Enlightened Individuals

I was looking for reasons why certain combinations of behaviors led to prosperity while others led to depression and despair. Enlightened individuals expressed spiritual truths in their communication, so language, culture, and race played into the way the message was relayed to the listener. Hundreds of different authors delivering the same message in different circumstances won’t always deliver the message in the same way. Just as individuals telling a tale, we won’t always tell it the same way. Our tone can change. Our emphasis on words may change. Writing is no different, and a translation from one language to another will also make a difference. My mission, consider all of these factors.

I found  a ton of words and phrases the philosopher-teachers used to explain how to live one’s life successfully. With all these wise men (and women) recording how this principle works, we have probably hit on a pretty good summary of the best virtues leading to the best results for us individually. These are the modi operandi that create a successful, prosperous, and healthy individual, leading to healthy societies. It is simplicity at its best leading to that single phrase repeated through the centuries. But what specifically were the virtues the teachers described? Are they similar? Do we always arrive at the same (or similar) set of virtues? Yes!

Winnowing Virtures


Statue of Socrates.

A tsunami of virtues! I felt sometimes like I was trying to drink from a fire hose, as the saying goes. At one point, I collected probably fifty or so virtues the ancients espoused. I knew this wouldn’t do in today’s sound-bite world. Finally, I realized I was looking for a specific set of virtues. The list had to be shorter.

Once I developed the large set of virtues, I started trying to see how the various virtues might “roll up” under or into other virtues. For instance, we might agree that honesty and truthfulness could be contained within the virtue of integrity. Going through that exercise, I discovered a set of four virtues. Saint Thomas Aquinas referred these four as the “cardinal virtues”: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. I followed that trail.

And back into history I was thrown once again, because these arise out of the four natural virtues Plato first wrote about in The Republic (ca. 500 BCE), probably spinning out of philosophical discussions with Socrates. This matter brings us back to our moment in history when we were bringing the law of reciprocity to light as the Golden Rule principle. A link back to 500 BCE! Once again we return to that moment in history — the Golden Rule, the Golden Mean, natural virtues, enlightened philosophers, standards set to grow from. Simplicity exemplified!