The Four Virtues
A virtuous person is one who intentionally seeks personal excellence. Of course, what defines excellence has been a topic of contemplation and debate for the entire history of humankind. Plato recognized four virtues: temperance, prudence, fortitude, and justice. Christianity looks to traits such as faith, love, meekness, and chastity as important virtues. Submission to the will of God is the central virtue in Islam. The Buddha extolled compassion. Humanity, filial piety, and loyalty are Confucian virtues.
In all, there are countless traits and actions that world religions and cultures have put forth as exemplars of excellence. Starting with this foundation, psychologist Martin Seligman and his colleagues have outlined a list of human strengths and traits that potentially lead to well-being—knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence, each of which have a sub-list of yet more traits. No doubt research will continue to look into the scope and outcomes of various human traits.
Sacred River offers its own system of four cardinal virtues: Courage, Integrity, Beneficence, and Openness. These are not presented as immaculate virtues in the sense of a divine or revealed ideal. Rather, they are ways of being, both in action and attitude, in service to our central spiritual aim—leading a more meaningful, fulfilling, and joyous life.
Akin to Seligman’s model, these Four Virtues are intended to be broad, holding within them multiple other virtues. At the same time, we want to avoid dictating specific actions as being virtuous since we recognize that context has a significant impact on deciding if a given behavior is beneficial or not. So instead we want to provide a template, a framework that can guide how we act in the world. Well-articulated virtues can also help give us something to aim for in terms of personal growth.
We consider the aspiration to a virtuous life to be a core spiritual practice at Sacred River. This path is articulated in action—it is not enough, say, to feel compassion for others in order to be a compassionate person, one must also act compassionately. It is ultimately up to the individual to decide when and how to embody the Four Virtues.
Further, these virtues are not perfectible. That is to say, no one can be perfectly courageous or open. Therefore, the true aspiration is not towards some state of idealized perfection or grace, but towards becoming ever more virtuous. If one is doing that, then they are on the path of virtue. One could call this our meta-virtue—the steady seeking of virtuousness. For this reason, we also call this the CIBO Path (see’-bow; taking the initials of the Four Virtues).
Although we do offer a discrete model of virtuous excellence, we don’t intend to tell people which things they should or should not accept as virtues; if one considers prudence, for instance, to be an important virtue, so be it. At the same time, some traditional virtues might not fit in well with the overall ethos of Sacred River, such as meekness or faith. Our goal is not to dictate values, but to offer a system of thought and practice that we believe will be personally and socially beneficial.
I hope to show with future essays that the Four Virtues are not arbitrary, but are established with good cause in reference to our goals. This begins with the understanding that if there were but one true aim in Sacred River, it would be Fulfillment. As with the virtues, Fulfillment does not describe a perfect state but an ongoing process of becoming ever more true to oneself, of fully manifesting one’s core values, talents, and dreams in the world. Fulfillment is not any discrete act, but rather a holistic, emergent experience, both an expression and embodiment of one’s Self. Words cannot accurately describe this experience, and so we must depend upon metaphor—in our case, it is the transition from being a Swimmer in the River to becoming the River itself.
Fulfillment requires developing a sense of meaning and results in joyfulness; this is why all three are mentioned. And while all three are discrete things, nevertheless the core aim is Fulfillment. But as we are progressive in orientation, we can say that this aim is twofold—for ourselves as individuals and for all others in society. Yet, it should come as no surprise that both of these are fundamentally intertwined.
This idea of Fulfillment is the context in which we define virtue. From this we can develop social principles or values, as well as what we are calling the Four Virtues, which can also be called personal virtues. The social principles we promote are those underlying the progressive and humanistic movements, such as justice, opportunity, sustainability, and fairness (future essays will address these in more detail). They are things that we fight for in society. But the Four Virtues do not describe large scale social states, but rather individual ways of being. Both sets are necessary, but the distinction needs to be made.
And so we have our Four Virtues—Courage, Integrity, Beneficence, and Openness.
Courage: Courage is the willingness to face that which evokes anxiety. It is the First Virtue because the remaining three all require, at one time or another, plunging willingly into situations that require relinquishing control, being challenged, or feeling unfamiliar. Courage is the virtue that allows us to overcome our natural fear of doing these things. Related virtues include optimism and determination.
Integrity: Integrity lies at the heart of all virtuousness. The foundation of Integrity is wholeness—to be sound and congruent. Having a healthy body, flexible and cohesive mind, and deep connections to others are all necessary for a fulfilling life. To have Integrity is to be true to oneself, embodying traits such as honesty, fidelity, responsibility, and fortitude.
Beneficence: Beneficence begins with a recognition that we are all connected—every human, every life-form, every part and parcel of the planet and the universe. At the heart of Beneficence is empathy and affiliation, from which emerge love, compassion, generosity, goodwill, respect, gratitude, and the willingness to promote well-being, opportunity, and fairness for others.
Openness: Openness refers to the ability and willingness to consider or adopt new ideas, behaviors, attitudes, and perspectives. To be Open is to embrace an orientation of curiosity and expansiveness; it is about exploring possibilities, practicing creativity, adapting to new circumstances, celebrating variety, finding humor, questioning norms and expectations, appreciating beauty, and attempting the novel. Openness can also describe Receptivity, the broadening of one’s awareness, which can play a key role in promoting a sense of connection to the larger world in which we exist.
Obviously these are only the barest of descriptions. We will be soon exploring each of these in much greater detail. In a more distant future, it is my deepest hope that these Virtues can eventually be written into stories, both personal and mythological. It is one thing to discuss virtue as a theory and another to share what it really means to live a virtuous life. I am also hopeful that we will be able to develop programs to help people define for themselves what the Four Virtues mean and how they might be manifested in their lives in meaningful and fulfilling ways. As always, your input is welcome as we explore this vital aspect of spiritual practice at Sacred River.