Thursday, August 20, 2015

Becoming What We Do

[This piece first appeared in my "A to Zen" column in the July/August 2015 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced her with permission.]

They lived thousands of miles apart on different continents, in different centuries – two men that would go on to become the most influential philosophers in history. They never met, but they shared a common question. What are the mechanics of moral transformation?

In 6th century B.C.E. China, Confucius taught that action precedes internal transformation. We become what we do. Confucius believed that human nature was essentially good, but our innate goodness existed only as potential. In order to actualize our potential, we need to cultivate three primary virtues: shu, ren, and li.

Shu is the consciousness of empathy; the imaginative understanding of how our actions impact others. For Confucius it came down to one simple rule: “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.”

On this empathetic foundation one then cultivates ren or kindness, the willful decision to work for the good of others with no thought of what we might receive in return. Moving from quid pro quo toward altruism, Confucian morality favors duty over self-interest.

Still, the seeds of shu and ren bear no fruit until they are embodied in the actions of our everyday lives.

Li means proper behavior or decorum – all of the little rituals of life that demonstrate our care and respect for one another. For Confucius, human excellence, like any other art form, is realized through conscious choice and willful practice, in the same way one masters the violin. You don’t get good at violin by thinking about it, or admiring it from afar. You have to pick it up and play. After a lifetime of practice, virtuous behavior becomes internalized and unconscious. What began as rote repetition attains graceful naturalness in time. Our innate goodness is externalized through action. We become good. And everyone benefits.

A century after Confucius and half a world away, a young student at the Platonic Academy in Athens began to formulate his own ethical theories, eventually emerging from the shadow of his famous teacher Plato. Like his mentor, and in a curious alignment with Confucius, Aristotle taught that humans were by nature good, but our goodness was a seed that would flourish only with proper cultivation. For a human being to reach their full moral potential, four things would have to happen: education, reason, habit, and character.

Education is essential because it trains our faculty of reason, and reason is required to discern the good. Then the good must be practiced repeatedly until it becomes habit. And habit constructs character. As Confucius argued a century earlier, we become what we do.

For example courage.

For the ancient Greeks, courage was the most important virtue because without it none of the other virtues are possible. One must be brave to be compassionate. But how do we zero in on courage? How can we tell if we’ve stopped short in cowardice, or overshot into rashness? For Aristotle only reason can make this determination. Critical thinking and rational deliberation are requirements for moral action because they correctly identify the Golden Mean, the virtuous middle point between the vices of excess and deficit. On this Aristotle and Confucius agree – we cannot become good without first developing keen discernment and an iron will.

From the Confucian and Aristotelian perspective, the mechanics of moral transformation are fairly straightforward. Correctly identify the good. Practice it until you embody it – act courageous until you embody courage, choose compassion until you embody compassion. Watch old habits fall away, replaced by new habits that give full expression to your innate goodness. Thus is the good, both individually and communally, realized.

We aren’t talking about mere conformity to arbitrary norms or obedience to whatever fleeting laws currently hold sway – we’re talking about becoming who we really are.
In the end, by embracing transformation and embodying virtue we become integrated, no longer in conflict with ourselves. Our thoughts and actions align with our innate higher nature resulting in serenity, freedom, and happiness. For Confucius and Aristotle, the fully realized life is natural, joyful, and deeply rewarding. Who doesn’t want that? And it begins with action.  

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