Practical Virtue: Maturity and Humility

Practical Virtue: Maturity and Humility

March 3, 2017

Being virtuous can be tricky. In our efforts to reflect our core virtues and values in our daily thoughts and actions, we often encounter strong forces opposing our ideals. Circumstances, or others, always seem to get in the way. What then? How can we display tolerance in the face of intolerance? How can we practice harmony in the face of wilful dissonance? When our values are challenged, how should we respond? Do we 'turn the other cheek‘ to repay discourtesy with courtesy? To those who betray us, do we reward their disloyalty with loyalty? And to those who hate us, do we show love and forgiveness? To what extent, therefore, are personal virtues dependent on the actions and attitudes of others?

These are questions that resonate through the pages of history, religious texts, and philosophical tomes. Some hold the view that all virtues must be tested. For example, we prove the true worth of our tolerance, by exercising it in the face of intolerance. A Daoist perspective might suggest that virtues are not unipolar: love cannot exist without hate; they exist in a balanced dichotomous pair. As such, opposition is to be expected. Not all virtues, however, create the same dilemma. Oddly, while some may feel justified emotionally by repaying hate or disloyalty in kind, ignorance is not typically advocated as the correct response to ignorance. Thus, putting virtue into practice challenges us on many fronts.

A further complication is that if we transcend the inferior pettiness of the 'small person‘ (小人) to become a superior person (君子), we run the risk of being perceived as arrogant, a vice which might be defined as an attitude of assumed superiority and self-importance. By striving to become a better version of ourselves, we run the risk of becoming something much worse, at least in the eyes of others.

Inferiority and superiority therefore present something of a Daoist paradox. In seeking virtue, we display vice. Both are at war within us. On the journey between ignorant vice and virtuous enlightenment, we must find peace with the choices we make. These are choices that are not dependent on others. In making our choices, we act; in acting, we experience; in experiencing, we mature; with maturity, we find peace to reveal our inner selves. This is not for the insecure, immature, or the faint of heart.

The Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, through one of his characters, Varsonofiev in 'August 1914‘, observed:

It’s a universal law: arrogance is the main symptom of immaturity. The immature are arrogant, the fully mature become humble…but, nothing is more precious to a man than the order in his own soul (Solzhenitsyn, 1992 [1971], pp. 321-322).

We are not engaged in a contest of virtue, the outcome of which is our comparative superiority over others. Our journey towards a more mature and highly educated state results in greater humility and, perhaps, a more 'ordered‘ soul.

Dr. Malcolm Pritchard
Head of School

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