"...If there is anything virtuous, lovely,
or of good report or praiseworthy,
we seek after these things."
--The Wentworth Letter, Joseph Smith Jr.
Virtue Systems Ancient and Modern
In 1935, American historian, philosopher, and writer, Will Durant published the first book of an 11 volume set of books to be called "The History of Civilization." The first volume of the set is called, "Our Oriental Heritage." In the very first chapter, he defines what civilization is:
Civilization is social order promoting cultural creation. Four elements constitute it: economic provision, political organization, moral traditions, and the pursuit of knowledge and the arts. It begins where chaos and insecurity end. For when fear is overcome, curiosity and constructiveness are free, and man passes by natural impulse towards the understanding and embellishment of life.I love the idea that all civilizations--in a state of prospering, growing, and thriving--share commonalities. In the same chapter, Durant states, "civilization is the habit of civility." There's that word again--habit. A habit indicates that a system is present and civilizations are built on systems of all kinds. But what is at the root of civilization? What habits create flourishing civilizations, societies, families, and personal lives?
A civilization is made up of the sum of its parts--us! Humans are the individual parts that makeup civilization. We all contribute to or detract from the civilizations in which we find ourselves. We become co-creators. What do our habits of thought and behavior indicate about our modern civilization? Is it in a state of health or decay, and why?
The past is full of examples, constructive and destructive, of the rise and fall of civilizations. The roots of the current American civilization are found in both ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman systems. How did they see virtue? What did they value, and why? What have we, as Americans, borrowed from them?
The Hebrew Definition of Virtue
As I tried to understand the Hebraic definition of 'virtue,' chapter 31, verse 10, of the Book of Proverbs in the Bible's Old Testament came immediately to mind: "Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies." Over time, the definition of virtue has become condensed to refer to sexual purity and is primarily attributed to women. Based on my findings, this is an extremely insufficient definition.
According to the writer of the article, "Virtuous," at the website, herroyalroots.com, the Hebrew word for virtue used in Proverbs 31:10 is "Chayil." The author continues:
This word is spelled with a חיל. This word is used 243 times; translated in most lexicons as:
“army” 56 times, “man of valour” 37 times, “host” 29 times, “forces” 14 times, “valiant” 13 times, “strength” 12 times, “riches” 11 times, “wealth” 10 times, “power” nine times, “substance” eight times, “might” six times, “strong” five times, and translated miscellaneously 33 times. (Source: http://www.herroyalroots.com/wordstudies/virtuous)Based on this list, the idea of virtue is clearly ascribed to both men and women. It actually bears a strong military connotation. Life can often feel like a battle, a tug-of-war between opportunities, desires, social pressures, financial demands, personal roles to fill, and more. But the battle the "virtuous woman" of Proverbs 31 is engaged in, is a battle she wages to prosper her family economically, to build up the reputation and influence for good of herself and her loved ones, to generously give to those who are less fortunate, to work hard and smart both physically and mentally, to create with her resources at hand, to make plans and prepare for future needs for her entire household. Though the subject of chapter 31 is a woman, these works can be accomplished by all. But I do love that a woman gets to embody these principles in ancient scripture! I think this definition is so much more complex, developed, and relevant than the narrower meaning given to virtue today. We can change that.
This definition of virtue--as character traits and beliefs that inspire action--is deeply rooted in another Bible event: the exodus from Egypt of the 12 tribes of Israel.
When the nation of Israel was led out of Egypt under the leadership of Moses, they needed direction, counsel, and government. As a nation, they lived for 400 years in differing forms of bondage in a system foreign to their value systems having been driven there initially by a famine. Now, as a newly liberated people, they needed to regain fundamental principles by which to govern their lives as they sought to found a new civilization outside the traditions of their captors. As a nation, they needed restoration. Ultimately, Moses, through revelation, brought the twelve tribes of Israel 10 "sayings" or "words" to provide guidance on how ethical humans should live and interact with one another politically, economically, and morally. The modern Christian world now knows these as The Ten "Commandments" based on a translation of the Geneva Bible 51 years before the King James Version was published in England in 1611 AD. (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Commandments)
According to Exodus 20:1-17 in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, the "Ten Commandments" are these:
20 And God spake all these words, saying,2 I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.7 Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.13 Thou shalt not kill.14 Thou shalt not commit adultery.15 Thou shalt not steal.16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.King James Version (KJV), Public Domain
When the Puritans landed in Cape Cod on the Mayflower in 1620, they had the Geneva Bible with them. They promoted literacy in their children using Biblical principles of moral and ethical behavior based on the ten commandments in textbooks called primers. Of these primers, the Encyclopedia Britannica says the New-England Primer was:
the principal textbook for millions of colonists and early Americans. First compiled and published about 1688 by Benjamin Harris, a British journalist who emigrated to Boston, the primer remained in use for more than 150 years.Literacy was vital to these early colonists. The name they gave themselves, "Puritans," reflected their intention to purify the old religious system of England which they believed to be corrupt after reading and interpreting the Bible for themselves. The Puritans wanted their children to be able to gain spiritual discernment, too, so they made literacy laws:
As early as 1642, Massachusetts law required literacy instruction to all children, servants, and apprentices. The 1647 Old Deluder Satan Act—in order to ensure that “learning may not be buried in the grave of our forefathers”—required every township of 50 households to hire a teacher. Towns twice that size were mandated to set up schools that would prepare students for Harvard. (Source: https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-New-England-Primer)The Bible, in particular, the ten commandments, greatly influenced the core principles embraced by colonial immigrants in the early 1600s. However, Biblical influences with its virtue systems and examples were not the only influence. The Greco-Roman system also played a large role in the development of the modern concept of virtue that has traditionally framed American systems.
Let's take a break for now though. I'm going to save that discussion for another day. This is plenty to ponder and consider today.
Come back next time for part II of "The Core Principles of Beautiful Living: or The Principles of Virtue-Centered Living." I'd love to include you in my list of followers! To do this, please click on the blue 'follow' button to the left of this article. And please invite a friend to share these articles with. They can help spark important discussions about the nature and meaning of Beautiful Living. You'll get to know your friends and yourself better. Until next time...
Founder and CEO of Beautiful Living Systems