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
Ching : Book of Changes
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 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.
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.
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 behaviour, and understanding, and
which is expressed in scientific endeavour and contemplation.
According to Aristotle, moral virtue is
expressed, in 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.
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 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 appear 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.”
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
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
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
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
Good cheer, which disposes to
moderation in sports, games, and jests, in accordance with the dictates of
reason, taking into consideration the circumstance of person, season, and place.
causes 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
Perseverance, which disposes to
continuance in the accomplishment of good works in spite of the difficulties
attendant upon them.
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
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.
“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 Brihadaaranyaka Upanishhad
(prior to 500 BC) expresses moral virtues in three words:
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;
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 good will, unity and harmony with one another,
family, and community, which, as every Initiate is taught, is the Masonic way of
life. Pursuit of Masonic Light and Masonic understanding extends beyond
catechism and Ritual work and there many lessons to be learned and incorporated
through the daily practice of moral virtues.