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An exploration of Moral Virtues as applicable to Freemasonry

The Course of Empire: Destruction painting by Thomas Cole

Preamble

A great person conforms his virtue with that of Heaven and Earth, his brilliance with that of the sun and moon, his order with that of the four seasons, his fortune with that of the spirits.

–     I Ching : Book of Changes

 

AN EXPLORATION OF MORAL VIRTUES AS APPLICABLE TO FREEMASONRY
by Bro. Prof. Dr. U. Gauthamadas
Lodge Prudentia No.369
Grand Lodge of India

A Freemason is informed, during his initiation, that the practices of moral and social virtue are the foundations of Freemasonry that distinguish it from other institutions. He is constantly urged, to practice the principles of moral virtue and develop a character of moral uprightness. He is entreated to be true to his convictions, always follow the Masonic virtues, and to resist the pressures of the world to lower one’s own standards. Thus, it is necessary, for Freemasons, to understand clearly, the principles of moral virtue.

However, the terms “moral” and “virtue” are used rather loosely today. Both the terms are sometimes used narrowly to apply to a person’s conformity to righteous behavior – as in “he is a man of poor morals and cannot be trusted with money”, or “he is a man of poor virtue and philanders” – or loosely, as when a TV compere praises a film star as “one with morals or many virtues”.  So what exactly is Moral Virtue? I could find no ready definition of the term or concept, with several overlapping definitions of “moral” and “virtue” and so I began delving into available literature. 

Greek Thinkers

The earliest reference to virtue in European literature is found in Plato’s (428 – 347 BC) The Republic, in which he put together a system of four virtues, developed upon further by him in The Laws. According to him, the four virtues are Wisdom and Temperance both of which unite with Courage to give birth to Justice.  Aristotle ((384 – 322 BC), concurs with Plato but differentiates them into two systems viz Intellectual virtue and Moral virtue.

Aristotle considers virtues as a subset of people’s good qualities, which, therefore are not innate, but are acquired by practice and lost by disuse. They are abiding states of character that find expression both in purpose and in action, and differ from momentary passions such as anger and pity.  He considers Wisdom, the key Intellectual Virtue which governs ethical behavior, and understanding, and which is expressed in the scientific endeavor and contemplation.  According to Aristotle,  moral virtue is expressed, for good purpose, for action in accordance with a good plan of life.  It is exemplified by Courage, Temperance, and Liberality and is expressed in actions that avoid both excess and defect, taking a middle ground due to a need to feel a good balance. A temperate person, for example, will eat well as he is sufficiently interested in eating, but avoid eating or drinking too much, or too little because he does not “feel” greedy or disinterested in food.

Roman thinkers

Cicero (106 – 43 BC) coined the term moralis to refer to “proper behavior of a person in society”. The term virtue predated Cicero and is derived from the Latin virtus, referring to “strength, manliness, valor, excellence, and worth”.  So, the two terms together would refer to “ proper behavior of a person in a society that indicates excellence or worth”.

Cicero wrote that “virtue may be defined as a habit of mind in harmony with reason and the order of nature”. He agreed with Aristotle on the composition of moral virtues with just one difference, adding Fortitude:  “Each man should so conduct himself that Fortitude appears in labours and dangers: Temperance in foregoing pleasures: Prudence in the choice between good and evil: Justice in giving every man his due”. These four were adopted later by St Ambrose (330 – 397 AD) who wrote, in his Commentary on Luke, “And we know that there are four cardinal virtues temperance, justice, prudence, fortitude.” 

Christian theology

The cardinal virtues were expanded upon by the famous Catholic philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274 AD), also referred to as St. Thomas, who derived them from the subjects, or faculties, in which they reside and which they perfect: Prudence in the intellect; Justice in the will; Temperance in the sensitive appetites restraining pleasure; and Fortitude in the resistance to fear which would deter a person from strenuous action under difficulties.

According to St. Thomas the cardinal virtues are also derived from their formal objects or the perceived kinds of rational good which they generally seek. The rational good as an object for the action of intellect demands the virtue of Prudence; The rational good as on object for the dictate of prudence, when communicated to the will for exertion in relation to other persons, gives rise to Justice (giving to every man his due). The order of rational good imposed on the appetite for pleasures demands the virtue of Temperance; and as imposed on the appetite which is repelled by fear-inspiring tasks, it demands Fortitude.

 In 1819 James Stalker wrote The Seven Cardinal Virtues in which he added Faith, Hope, and Charity, which he described as “theological virtues”, to the four defined by St. Thomas.  This brings us to the question, are the cardinal virtues of St. Thomas, also moral virtues?

 According to later Christian theology, the moral virtues are those which perfect the appetitive faculties of the soul, namely, the will and the sensuous appetite. The moral virtues excel the intellectual because they give not only the facility but also the right use of the facility, for well- doing. Christian theology expands further on the four moral virtues annexing further characters to each.

Justice regulates man in relations with his fellow-men. It disposes us to respect the rights of others, to give each man his due. Among the virtues annexed to justice are:

Religion, which regulates man in his relations to God, disposing him to pay due worship to his Creator;

Piety, which disposes to the fulfillment of duties which one owes to parents and country (patriotism);

Gratitude, which inclines one to recognition of benefits received;

Liberality, which restrains the immoderate affection for wealth from withholding seasonable gifts or expenses;

Affability, by which one is suitably adapted to his fellow-men in social intercourse so as to behave toward each appropriately.

Temperance restrains the undue impulse of desire for sensible pleasure and is that moral virtue which moderates the desires and pleasures of the sensuous appetite in accordance with reason. It includes abstinence, which disposes to moderation in the use of food; sobriety, which inclines to moderation in the use of spirituous liquors; and chastity, which regulates the appetite in regard to sexual pleasures; to chastity may be reduced modesty, which is concerned with acts subordinate to the act of reproduction. The components virtues of temperance are:

Continence, which according to the Scholastics, restrains the will from consenting to violent movements or concupiscence;

Humility, which restrains inordinate desires of one’s own excellence;

Meekness, which checks inordinate movements of anger;

Modesty or decorum, which consists in duly ordering the external movements of anger; to the direction of reason.

Good cheer, which disposes of moderation in sports, games, and jests, in accordance with the dictates of reason, taking into consideration the circumstance of person, season, and place.

Fortitude causes a man to be brave when he would otherwise shrink, contrary to reason, from dangers or difficulties. Fortitude removes from the will those obstacles arising from the difficulties of doing what reason requires. Hence fortitude, which implies a certain moral strength and courage, is the virtue by which one meets and sustains dangers and difficulties, even death itself, and in never through fear of these deterred from the pursuit of good which reason dictates. The component virtues of fortitude are:

Patience, which disposes us to bear present evils with equanimity; the patient man is one who endures present evils in such a way as not to be inordinately cast down by them.

Munificence, which disposes one to incur great expenses for the suitable doing of a great work. It differs from mere liberality, as it has reference not to ordinary expenses and donations, but to those that are great. Hence the munificent man is one who gives with royal generosity, who does things not on a cheap but magnificent scale, always, however, in accordance with right reason.

Magnanimity, which implies a reaching out of the soul to great things, regulates man with regard to honours. The magnanimous man aims at great works in every line of virtue, making it his purpose to do things worthy of great honour. Nor is magnanimity incompatible with true humility. “Magnanimity”, says St. Thomas, “makes a man deem himself worthy of great honours in consideration of the Divine gifts he possesses; whilst humility makes him think little of himself in consideration of his own short-comings”.

Perseverance, which disposes to continuance in the accomplishment of good works in spite of the difficulties attendant upon them.

Prudence, Christian theology observes, is called a moral virtue, not essentially, but by reason of its subject matter, inasmuch as it is directive of the acts of the moral virtues.

Islamic theology

Having examined the philosophical and theological literature from Europe, I was curious to find out what Islamic literature, closer to home, had to say.  Islamic ethics also define the four distinct powers of the human soul: Intellect, Anger, Passion, and the Power of Imagination. The purification and right training of every one of these powers will result in the emergence of a particular faculty in the human being. The purification and rightward training of the Power of Intellect will result in the development of knowledge, and subsequently Wisdom, in a human being. The purification of the Power of Anger will result in the emergence of the faculty of courage, and subsequently Forbearance. The purification of the Power of Passion and desire will result in the development of the, faculty of chastity, and subsequently Generosity. And the purification of the Power of Imagination will cause the emergence of the faculty of Justice in a human being.

Thus, according to Islamic ethics the moral virtues are: Wisdom, Courage (Fortitude), Chastity, and Justice. Wisdom means possession of an understanding of the objects of the world which concurs with the reality of things. The presence of courage and chastity means that the powers of anger and desire are entirely at the command of the intellect and completely free from the bondages of concupiscence and egoism. As for justice, it refers to the condition when the Power of Imagination is completely under the command of the Power of the Intellect. This implies the regulation of all the powers of the soul by the Power of Intellect. In other words, the presence of the faculty of justice in the soul necessitates the presence of the other three faculties of wisdom, courage and chastity.

So, are we clear now about all the principles of moral virtue? During our initiation, we are told that the virtue that is the distinguishing character of a Freemason’s heart, is Charity. And charity does not feature in the virtues discussed above. Also, being Freemasons of Indian origin, and Indian Freemasonry being distinct from Freemasonry in the rest of the world, we would be remiss to conclude without delving into Indian concepts of moral virtue. 

Vedic Literature:

“Sacrifice, study of scriptures, charity, penance, truth, perseverance, forgiveness, non-covetousness-this is the eightfold path of Moral order (Dharma). The first four are practiced out of vanity, the other four exist in supreme souls The Mahabharatha

The Brihadaaranyaka Upanishhad (prior to 500 BC) expresses moral virtues in three words:

Dāmyata: In Sanskrit Dāmyata means, ‘restrain yourself’. Dāmyata comes from the word Dam, to restrain. Subdue your senses. Do not go too much in the direction of the enjoyment of the senses.  (Exercise self-control), in other words, Temperance;

Dātta: This means ‘give in charity’. Do not keep with you more than what you need. Do not take what you have not given. Do not appropriate what does not belong to you. All these are implied in the statement – be charitable. Charitable not only in material giving but also in disposition, in feeling, in understanding and in feeling the feelings of others.

Dayadhvamh: This stands for ‘be merciful’. Do not be cruel and hard-hearted. Be compassionate.  both components of Fortitude.

The higher phase of self-control is detachment. Not only do we have to overcome what is evil in life, we must also become independent of what is good. For instance, our love of home and friends is good in itself, but unless we expand it to include everything in the universe, it will be a shackle, what if it is golden. Detachment does not imply disinterest in the changing world: it merely shifts a person’s frame of reference to the Reality that endures forever, making his perception more objective, making him better equipped for life. However, the Upanishads being allegorical, are open to different interpretations. So I searched for a clearer  definition of the principles of moral virtue in Indian literature.

Buddhist Literature

Since moral virtues may be defined as character traits that motivate a person to objectively right actions in specific situations that are considered morally right, the best annotations, of such, can be found in Buddhist Literature. In Buddhism, the pāramitās refer to the perfection or culmination of certain virtues.

The term pāramitā (pronounced paaramithaa), commonly translated as “perfection,” derives it from the word parama, meaning “highest,” and can be found in the Madhyāntavibhāga, where the twelve excellences (parama) are associated with the ten perfections (pāramitā). In established Theravāda tradition the pāramīs are not regarded as a discipline peculiar to candidates for Buddhahood alone but as practices which must be fulfilled by all aspirants to enlightenment and helping the aspirant to live an unobstructed life, while reaching the goal of enlightenment, and are, therefore, in keeping with Masonic charges.

In Mahāyāna Buddhism, the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundarika), lists the six paramitas as:

Dāna (Daana) pāramitā: This is the quality of unconditional generosity, charity, giving, and offering  of our love, compassion, time, energy, and resources to serve the highest welfare of all beings. Our giving should always be unconditional and selfless; completely free of any selfish desire for gratitude, recognition, advantage, reputation, or any worldly reward. This is not accomplished simply by the action of giving, nor by the actual gift itself., rather by the motivation of genuine concern for others. In addition, the practice of giving should be free of discrimination regarding who is worthy and who is unworthy to receive.

Śīla (sheela) pāramitā : This is the enlightened quality of virtuous and just  behavior, morality, self-discipline, impeccability, personal integrity, honor, and harmlessness. Thus it equates and goes beyond Justice, which term has its root in the Latin Justitia meaning righteousness or equity. Its essence is that through our love and compassion we do not harm others; The practice of generosity must always be supported by the  practice of justness.

We should abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, gossip, greed, malice, and wrong views. Following these precepts or guidelines is not meant to be a burden or a restriction of our freedom. Rather, we achieve greater freedom, happiness, and security in our lives, as we are no longer creating suffering for ourselves and others. We must realize that unjust behavior is always the cause of suffering and unhappiness. By practicing justice, we are free of negativity, we cause no harm to others by our actions, our speech is kind and compassionate, and our thoughts are free of anger, malice, and wrong views. When our commitment is strong we are at ease, naturally confident, without stress, and happy because we are not carrying any underlying sense of guilt or remorse for our actions; we have nothing to hide.

Kṣānti (Shaanthi) pāramitā : This paramita is the quality of patience, tolerance, temperance, forbearance, and acceptance. Its essence is the strength of mind and heart that enables us to face the challenges and difficulties of life without losing our composure and inner tranquility. We embrace and forbear adversity, insult, distress, and the wrongs of others with patience and tolerance, free of resentment, irritation, emotional reactivity, or retaliation. We cultivate the ability to be loving and compassionate in the face of criticism, misunderstanding, or aggression. With this temperance, we are neither elated by praise, prosperity, or agreeable circumstances, nor are we angry, unhappy or depressed when faced with insult, challenge, hardship, or poverty. It is not a forced suppression or denial of our thoughts and feelings. Rather, it is a quality of being which comes from making an active effort to see the goodness and beauty in others. In this practice, we never give up on or abandon others — we help them cross over the sea of suffering. We maintain our inner peace, calmness, and equanimity under all circumstances, having enduring patience and tolerance for ourselves and others.

Vīrya (Veeraya) pāramitā : This is the quality of energy, vigor, vitality, endurance, diligence, enthusiasm, continuous and persistent effort. Its essence is the fortitude, courage, energy, and endurance to continuously practice the first three paramitas of generosity, just conduct, and patience in the face of difficulties. With viriya, we do not get sidetracked, or disillusioned when we meet with adverse conditions. Firmly establishing ourselves in this paramita, we also develop self-reliance, and this becomes one of our most prominent characteristics. We regard failure as simply another step toward success, danger as an inspiration for courage, and affliction as another opportunity to practice wisdom and compassion.

Dhyāna (Dhyaana) pāramitā : This is the quality of concentration, meditation, contemplation, samadhi, mindfulness, mental stability. Our minds have the tendency to be very distracted and restless, always moving from one thought or feeling to another. Because of this, our awareness stays fixated in the ego, in the surface layers of the mind and emotions, and we just keep engaging in the same habitual patterns of behavior. The perfection of concentration, means training our mind so that it does what we want it to. We stabilize our mind and emotions by practicing meditation, by being mindful and aware in everything we do. When we train the mind in this way, physical, emotional, and mental vacillations and restlessness are eliminated. We achieve focus, composure, and tranquility. This ability to concentrate and focus the mind brings clarity,  equanimity, illumination. Concentration allows the deep insight needed to transform the habitual misperceptions and attachments that cause confusion and suffering.  This can be also achieved through understanding and practicing Masonic rituals and applying their principles in our daily life

Prajñā (pragnyaa) pāramitā : This is the enlightened quality of transcendental wisdom, insight, and the perfection of understanding. Its essence is the supreme wisdom, the highest understanding that living beings can attain—beyond words and completely free from the limitation of mere ideas, concepts, or intellectual knowledge. It eliminates all false and distorted views permitting us to perceive the essential nature of reality with utmost clarity, going beyond the illusive and deceptive veils of material existence.

Through Prajñā, we develop the ability to recognize the truth behind the temporary display of all appearances. It is a result of contemplation, meditation, and rightly understanding the nature of reality. Ultimately, the full realization of prajna paramita is that we are not simply a separate self trying to do good. Rather, virtuously serving the welfare of all beings is simply a natural expression of the awakened heart. We realize that the one serving, the one being served, and the compassionate action of service, are all the same totality—there is no separate ego or self to be found in any of these. With this supreme wisdom, we go beyond acceptance and rejection, hope and fear, dualistic thoughts, and ego-clinging.

Application to Freemasonry

Freemasonry teaches us to render every kind office of justice or mercy to others, and to practice a prudent and well regulated course of discipline. It entreats us to let be directed by Prudence, chastened by Temperance, supported by Fortitude, and guided by Justice in all our actions, and to carefully maintain Benevolence and Charity.  However, it leaves it up to every individual mason to learn for himself, how this can be practiced in daily life.

After a study of available Latin, Christian and Islamic literature I could generate some idea about the principles of moral virtue. While the Latin thinkers defined the four cardinal virtues which were elaborated upon as moral virtues by Christian theology, Islamic theology takes a mix of Aristotelian principles and adds one more, Chastity. Yet, I am unable to get a clear direction on the practice of these principles in thought and action in daily life.  

The Pāramitās now come to my rescue. It is significant that, like the principles of virtue in Freemasonry, Dānaa is considered primary among the Pāramitās. Dānaa extols the true essence of the Christian concept of Charity but goes beyond it. Charity is not just giving pennies to the poor, as it is interpreted today. It has its origin in the Latin root caritas,  meaning “valued” and stands for unattached generosity, boundless openness, unconditional love, open heart, open mind, open hand all of which, and more, are contained in Dānaa.  The Dāna pāramitā gives us clear guidelines on how to practice this moral virtue.

The six pāramitās contain within them clear guidelines on the practice of Charity, Justice, Temperance, Fortitude, Acceptance, Persistence, Mindfulness, Prudence, Wisdom (Insight) and much more as detailed above. A  Freemasons we should approach any event in daily life with the application of the first three Pāramitās viz., generosity (Dānaa), just conduct (Śīlā), and patience (Kṣāntī), without fail in the face of all difficulty (Vīryā), and contemplate on the outcome of the actions that result thereof (Dhyānā), and the insights that evolve (Prajñā). Prajñā is itself a three-stage process of development.  The first stage, Sruta Prajñā (Study), is based on being open to new information and gathering knowledge on a day to day basis. It includes observation of daily events through all the senses and gathering knowledge about them through discussion and reading. Once knowledge is gathered we move on to Cintā Prajñā (Reflection) in which we continually question what we have perceived/observed, looking at it from different angles, and taking time to explore it till we get to the point where we can express the daily learning in our own words. This culminates in Bhāvanā Prajñā (Contemplation) in which the learning is internalized and reflected in our daily life and behavior.

In conclusion, Brethren, it is my humble submission that, to the best of my limited exploration, the Pāramitās outlines the essence of moral virtues that we, as Freemasons, must practice in order to develop an attitude of goodwill, unity, and harmony with one another, family, and community, which, as every Initiate is taught, is the Masonic way of life. The pursuit of Masonic Light and Masonic understanding extends beyond catechism and Ritual work and their many lessons to be learned and incorporated through the daily practice of moral virtues.

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