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May 2009

The Eight Virtues

In my article, Return to the Empire, I wrote about the features of the fictitious empire that is the setting for The Reincarnation Cycle. Among other things, the article talks a bit about the religious beliefs in the Empire. One of the items is a list of the eight great virtues. In the the Reincarnation Cycle one’s virtue determines one’s next life.

The eight virtues are mostly Confucian in character. That is, they are mainly concerned with how one should behave as a citizen in society. They were created as a literary prop, but they are well worth taking seriously. Below are the eight virtures. My original text is in red. Additional commentary is in black.

Knowing one’s place
The first virtue is knowing one’s place in the world. For each station in the world there is a set of appropriate behaviours. For example, it is not appropriate for a cockroach to try to better itself. The nature of a cockroach is to live in filth and spread disease. Similarly it is not appropriate for a peasant to aspire to be a noble. Ambition is right and proper, but only within limits.

Do not confuse “knowing one’s place” with being subservient. It means being aware of the groups and relationships that you are involved in, your part in them, and acting accordingly. It is a virtue to know what others expect of you, regardless of whether you mean to meet those expectations or not.
The second virtue is morality. This covers the usual sins such as greed, cruelty, and dishonesty.
Morality comes in four flavors. It can be positive or negative, i.e., “thou shalt” vs “thou shalt not”. It can be external or internal, i.e., be concerned with deed or with thought. Morality here is negative and external; it can be summarized in the Silver Rule:

Your behaviour should not harm yourself or others.

The third virtue is holiness. This is distinct from morality though one cannot (ordinarily) be holy and immoral.
What is meant by being holy? We might recognize it in others, but what are we seeing. One way to think of it is like this: Most people have experienced the sensation of being in the presence of the sacred, or at least a combination of peacefulness and awe. To be holy is to internalize the sacred.

Clarity of self
The fourth virtue is clarity of self. This is an aspect that is mostly relevant for those well on the path to enlightenment.

It is relevant for the rest of us as well. Clarity of self implies that one is not ruled by your appetites; rather they serve their natural function and are part of a harmonious whole. Clarity of self implies that one’s mind is not continually distracted by tangential, irrelevant thoughts. Clarity of mind implies that mind and body are at ease with each other.

The fifth virtue is dedication to one’s art or craft. This is the virtue governing artists and artisans.

It is in the nature of things that one spends a good deal of life participating in one’s vocations and avocations. Not to care about these activities and not trying to do them well is not caring about yourself, about the use of the your time, nor about what you have achieved.

The sixth virtue is wisdom. Foolishness is a fault; wisdom is a virtue. However no more wisdom of one is expected than can be found in one’s station in life.

Wisdom can be described as sound judgement in the affairs of life. Too often people act and speak without reflection beforehand, and thereby find themselves in the midst of folly. The wise know that there are times when one should act and think in the moment as the heart moves you; they also know when to look before you leap.
The seventh virtue is caring and kindness. One can be good and moral and yet be indifferent to others.
This is the positive counterpart to morality. Morality is negative; it says what not to do. Effective caring is positive; it says to be concerned for others, and express that concern in an effective way.

True caring has three aspects, concern for others, kindness, and compassion. Without concern for others, people are not even people; they are just things. Without compassion, one can care and yet again, people are just things. Without kindness, good is an accident that might not happen.

The eighth virtue is respect for the universe, the gods, the tao, for the order of society, and for one’s ancestors.
Christians and atheists, being united by believing in one God at most, might cavil at “the gods”. However “the gods” can be taken two ways. The first is to have respect for the beliefs of others. The second is to take “gods” as metaphors for powers greater than one’s self.

Respect for one’s ancestors is not simply ancestor worship. Those who came before us created the world we live in. We owe them a debt that can never be repaid to them, for they gave us both life itself and the world we live in. All we can do is honor those who came before us, and pass on the same blessings to those who come after us.

This page was last updated May 1, 2009.

Richard Harter’s World
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May 2009