When you study and write publicly about virtues, you risk people’s assumption that you are setting yourself up as some kind of authority, placing yourself on some sort of pedestal. “If you’re such an expert,” you can almost hear them say, “why aren’t you showing us perfect ____” (fill in the blank: Humility, Frugality, Chastity, Fortitude...).
For me, it’s quite the opposite: I need to study these concepts, not because I’m overflowing with virtuous qualities, but because for a while I was on autopilot in my life, and I lost sight of them (and myself). As an exile, I’m drawn to the study of virtues, right now, like a magnet to iron. It’s a way for me to get back in touch with the Divine.
Who am I? I’m a doctor, living in California. My medical career started almost 20 years ago on the streets of New York City, as an AIDS activist. (By the way, my pre-med buddies were wrong: Civil disobedience arrests do NOT prevent you from getting a medical license. You just have to fill out more paperwork. ;-). ) On my path I have made camp in diverse Churches. I have wafted the incense-laden thurible at Roman Catholic vigils. I have sought Refuge in the Three Jewels from a Tibetan Buddhist geshe, and revere them. I have danced in the redwoods around magical Reclaiming bonfires with fellow Earth lovers, incarnate or not. As I get older I worry less about designating a single “home.” On the road, every tool in your kit has value. Increasingly, I treasure them all.
As for so many, the past year has held grievous losses for me. I have at times felt like I am the survivor of a spiritual shipwreck, washed up on a shore I don’t recognize. So I’m setting out to map the territory. I have a compass (Self-Knowledge), which like True North is more a direction by which to orient than a Shangri-La I hope to actually find and claim. I have a steed (Self-Possession). I have a mission, with no specific end in sight.
The appeal of the virtues, in this modern-day world of “values,” is that virtues are true destinations, not mirages. While perhaps not agreeing on anything else, students of the virtues agree the qualities have substance unto themselves. I need that solidity under my feet. The virtues seem as good a way as any to find the World again.
And so, we set off. Will it be a short excursion, or a lengthy expedition? How many virtues does the World offer us? If you asked an Islamic mullah, he would say only one: Tawhid, the sanctified all-pervasive Being that is the Divine. If you asked a Buddhist bhikkhuni, she would tell you two: Sati (Mindfulness) and Sampajanna (Self-Possession, which we will visit next week). If you asked Christian clergy, they might say three: Faith, Hope, and Charity. Ben Franklin says thirteen. The Jains say 15. The philosopher Comte-Sponville says 18. The Hindus say 22; the Jews say 48. The Basilidean Gnostics say 365.
In truth, I think there are many, many. When you factor in nuances of language and inflected meanings, it could very well be infinite. As someone who sees virtues as emanations of the Divine, how could I put a limit on them? So far, for me, it’s been like stargazing: the more I look, the more I see.
So, I’m setting out into the undiscovered country. Today is my 41st birthday, an auspicious occasion for embarkation. (As the Creator has a rumored inordinate fondness for beetles, I admit to one for prime numbers...) Like Marco Polo in the Invisible Cities, I will dispatch tales of the fantastic urbs I visit. The journey will involve a bit of linguistics, dash of comparative religion, a slew of history, oodles of Humor, a fullness of Faith. The road is wide. Join me...