It’s been said more than once that human beings are governed by three key motivators: money, power, and sex. Certainly we don’t have far to look for confirmation, the media chock full of daily tidbits and then there is our own recall of people who have failed us and, more humbly, the strength of these tempters in our own lives. I am reminded of the biblical injunction, “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.”
But fortunately, this isn’t the whole story. The vast majority of us have a capacity for thinking and doing the right things. The other day, I read of a man finding $40,000 and turning it in; a few months earlier, of a man who donated his kidney to a complete stranger. I’m sure you have your own stories to tell. One thing I always marvel at is the abundance of altruism unveiling itself in every disaster such as the recent tornado in Joplin, with stories of individual heroism, sacrifice, and mutual caring. When we listen to the news, we rarely glimpse this positive dimension, the news feeding on the aberration, ultimately distorting our perspective as to the norm.
If there does exist a diabolic trinity for wrongdoing and, yes, downright evil, I would counter there also exists a trinity of salient potential in human beings for truth, beauty, and goodness, those classical verities of what make for an ordered civilization and happy living.
By truth, I mean our quest for the meaningful life, or as Tolstoy would have it, “For what should I live?” I write in Aristotelian mode, holding that truth is learned rather than innate, the aggregate of empirical witness via observation and correlated experiences. Truth, however, is more elusive than ever in our contemporary era, given the shrinking of temporal and spatial boundaries in the Information Age, digital driven, with a resulting conundrum of universals washed away by a tsunami of alternatives. Abetting ambiguity, is the rise of Post Modernism with its relegation of certainty to the landfill of relativism, truth simply personal perspective. Me, I think what matters is that we are engaged in trying to find truth, at least for ourselves, truth not subject to our personal whims, truth validated by thorough, unbiased research, truth ready to be shed should we find tomorrow we believed yesterday’s falsehood. As the poet Browning put it, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for.”
By beauty, I mean not simply what excites because it’s “pretty” or makes me happy. That’s Hollywood stuff. I mean something in the classical sense possessing wholeness, proportion, and the insightful. Beauty is related to truth. A sad story, a tragedy if you will, can still transcend pathos when it depicts life wholly, or with verisimilitude, free of sentiment and need for closure. If I leave off a book somehow made wiser, then I have found beauty. Keats had it right when he wrote at the end of his “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty--that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
By goodness, I mean something akin to what the Greeks called ethos, which I equate with integrity--the giving of one’s highest measure, a workman never ashamed. Of the trio of classical virtues, this is the most neighborly, the one most consequential for the social, or interpersonal, since it implies our responsibility to be mindful of others. It’s the glue holding society together. As the term suggests, it’s the virtue embracing the ethical. Whatever I do when no one’s looking, or in anonymity, I test my ethos, or caring and social responsibility. I still stop at the stop sign, even though no one’s there. I still pay my taxes and do so honestly. I do not cheat in the class or on the time clock at work. I do not forego fidelity to my spouse or betray a friend. I think of the chaos of a world where each of us played by our own rules.
The Greeks had a marvelous word for the coalescence of these virtues: arete, or wholeness. Together they provide balance, the secret to the elusive happy life.