The Virtue of Virtues
They who disbelieve in virtue because man has never been found perfect, might as reasonably deny a sun because it is not always day. ~Augustus William Hare and Julius Charles Hare, Guesses at Truth, by Two Brothers, 1827
Merriam Webster defines virtue in several ways: 1. a conformity to a standard of right and 2. a beneficial quality or a power of a thing. With that in mind, tonight I want to talk a little bit about the beneficial quality of the conformity to a standard of right – said another way, the virtue of virtues.
In Freemasonry, we are taught to “practice the Masonic virtues,” but they are not specifically enumerated, nor are they further explained within our Pennsylvania ritual. If we seek more light and do some research, it is generally accepted that the Masonic virtues are the four Cardinal Virtues of Fortitude, Temperance, Justice and Prudence. Why did our Masonic forbears find these virtues of particular importance?
These days, the words fortitude, temperance, justice and prudence are used very infrequently. To modernize the whole conversation, let us refer to the Cardinal Virtues as the Principal Virtues. Let us call them courage, restraint, equality and wisdom.
C.S. Lewis said “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Perhaps that is why it is first among the virtues. At every point when your ethics are tested and you are given an easy choice and the right choice, it takes courage above all to see you through. Courage is often thought to mean physical bravery, but as a Mason, it refers to doing what is right, not necessarily what is popular. As a Lodge leader as well as in life, sometimes it is far more appealing to be liked by your peers than to have to make a tough decision.
For example, courage may require the raising of the dues when the Lodge is in the red – even if it makes you unpopular. The Masonic Renaissance is making changes to many aspects of how we, as Lodges, operate. It is probably a safe bet that every one sitting in this Lodge disagrees with some aspect of the Renaissance. That’s okay. It just requires brave leaders to say “We’re going to try it anyhow.” As leaders and members you must come together. Unanimity isn’t as important as consensus. You may not agree with certain aspects of the Renaissance, but you do irreparable damage to your Lodge if you don’t do all in your power to help it succeed. So courage in our leaders means making decisions that not everyone agrees with. Courage in our members then, means stepping up to help even though you may not like what you are helping with. You must set aside your differences and row with the others in the boat, not against them.
That brings us to restraint. Let’s say, for example, that you aren’t fond of the idea of the One Day Masonic Journey. You could do several things. Not tell any of your friends about it – friends who are busy and don’t have the time to leave the house in the evenings. You can refuse to help with it. You can even stand up in your Lodge after it’s over and boldly proclaim that you don’t see a single new member sitting there with you. You could do all those things or you could exercise self control. You could give the brochure to your busy friend and vow to make his experience so good, he will rearrange his evenings to start attending Lodge. You could also volunteer to be a mentor to those who come it through that class and teach them with months of one on one dedication what you think it means to be a Mason. You could also not stand up in Lodge and make such a statement. Be a stepping stone, not a stumbling block. Realize that there are several paths you can walk from the same starting point to the same destination. Always remember to restrain that part of you that wants to build barriers. Build Temples instead.
Justice, or equality, from a Masonic perspective has less to do with punishing the wicked or rewarding the good than it does with treating each and every person you contact with fairness. Equality means that regardless of your chosen profession, you are a child of God and entitled to be given all the dignity and respect one would give to anything of His making. It also means that we too, as Masons, need to treat everyone that way. We must remind ourselves that we meet everyone “on the level” and that our interactions with our fellow man reflect back on our character. Knowing that justice should be afforded to all should make committing acts of kindness not just easy, but necessary. There is now a portal on the Grand Lodge webpage that catalogues those actions taken by your Brothers around the state. Logon and see exactly how we’re helping make life better. Post your deeds there as well. Not for admiration or accolades, but as a challenge to others to do the same.
Justice should make us realize that it is our duty to adopt residents at our Masonic homes. It is our duty to care for those who have placed their confidence in our ability to do so. We should support the families of our Soldiers by giving generously to the Help for the Heroes Program. A few spare coins at the end of a meeting is nowhere near the sacrifice that they are making for us, but it can mean so much to them and their families.
The last of the virtues is wisdom. True wisdom comes not only from knowledge, but also from experience. Gautama Siddharta said “To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue.”
If wisdom is the light, then we need fuel. That fuel is education. Whether it is the formal education of schooling, or informal education – the examination and questioning of the known and applying it to the unknown, matters not. Education is not just for the young. We can always learn if our minds are open to it. Brother Mark Twain is credited for having said “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” Intellectual and emotional enlightenment should always be our aim. And remember, wisdom is a journey, never a destination. A wise man anticipates changes and adapts to them. He meets new challenges head on and is every ready to grow based on new experiences.
As our Fraternity faces the challenges of the 21st Century, we cannot rely on the solutions of years gone by. We must adapt to the needs of the men who are joining, not the men who founded the organization. I ask each of you to get on board with the Renaissance. Volunteer to lead one of your Community Service Projects; take the lead in adopting a resident of the Villages; call those Brethren who are delinquent to keep them from being suspended from this great Brotherhood; become a Mentor – it may help you learn a few new things too.
Most of all, realize the virtue of our virtues. Know that the practice of them makes you a better man and your world a better place. Leave here excited and proud to be a member of the Craft. Take a brochure home and vow to give it to a worthy man. Better yet, take five brochures home and invite deserving men to share in the great gift to mankind that is Freemasonry.