|Just as treasures are uncovered from the earth, so virtue appears from good deeds, and wisdom appears from a pure and peaceful mind. To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue. --Buddha|
The Enduring Power of Virtue--by Kentaro Toyama, syndicated from theatlantic.com, Dec 21, 2011
Virtue, not technocratic solutions, is what I claimed our world needs more of, but I'm not saying anything new. Virtue goes back at least two-and-a-half millennia.
Western accounts of virtue start with Aristotle, but let's go back instead to Confucius. Depending on what you paid attention to in school, you might remember Confucius by the Silver Rule ("Do not do to others..."), his exotic concepts (e.g., filial piety), or a series of grammar-challenged jokes ("Confucius say...").
I'd go even further. Virtues are paramount because they're the ultimate cause of good consequences, at least among those causes within human control.
For example, following the 9.0 earthquake in Japan, Nicholas Kristof blogged about the Japanese virtue of "gaman," a kind of self-control. He predicted stoicism, self-discipline, and minimal looting behavior on the streets. Japanese culture, after all, was influenced by Confucius.
Sure enough, Japanese people have weathered the continuing crisis with a unique brand of collective self-control. (Positive stereotypes might be as dubious as negative stereotypes, but I invoke the clause where gross generalizations about your own heritage are permitted!)
I happened to be in Tokyo during the quake, and my father told me that at his hospital in the coastal city of Kamogawa where he works, they had evacuated people to the upper floors, even going so far as to sew up some patients mid-surgery. (Luckily, the tsunami there was minor -- hospital and patients were untouched.) The evening of the quake, commuter trains were shut down, and the sidewalks of Tokyo were crowded with people calmly walking home from work. The radio featured one man who had walked three hours already and needed to walk another three more to get home. Just yesterday, the New York Times reported that people are voluntarily conserving enough electricity that some planned power outages have become unnecessary.
Of course, Japanese people have their flaws, too. What the earthquake aftermath shows, however, is the remarkable power of virtue, even in the absence of any explicit legislation or enforcement. Virtue works without TIPS (technologies, institutions, policies, and systems), even though the converse isn't true.
Modern psychology research is confirming the power of virtue, as well, and the work on self-control is representative. Walter Mischel's famous "marshmallow experiment" shows that the ability of 4-year-olds to delay gratification is a good predictor of better adjustment and SAT scores in adolescence. A study by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman suggests that self-discipline is more important than IQ in academic performance for middle-school girls. Roy Baumeister and his colleagues find that self-control correlates with greater academic achievement, less addictive behavior, higher self-esteem, and better interpersonal relationships among college students. These studies don't establish the causal link definitively, but the evidence is accumulating.
Baumeister wrote in an e-mail that self-control allows human beings to alter their own behavior according to rules and standards. He summarized elsewhere, "Self-control, then, is one of the crucial mechanisms that had to improve in humans, to enable culture to succeed."
And that takes us back to Confucius, who in referring to ancient role models wrote: "Because their persons were cultivated, their families were in order. Because their families were in order, their states were well-governed. Because their states were well-governed, the whole kingdom prospered. From the sovereign down to the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides."*
The root of everything besides! Yet for such a grand idea, virtue is often met with mockery, indifference, or hostility, and in the next post, I speculate as to why.
(*) Adapted from this translation: Legge, James, Confucian Analects, The Great Learning, and The Doctrine of the Mean (New York: Dover Books, 1971; o.p. 1893)
This post originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com and is reprinted with permission from the author. Kentaro Toyama is working on a book tentatively titled 'A Different Kind of Growth: Wisdom in Global Development.' You can follow him on Twitter.
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