What they are all talking about is virtue, the qualities one needs for personal integrity. It is not difficult to see the remarkable cultural consensus that spans centuries and civilisations, and it seems clear that people who follow this sage advice will be naturally disposed to subscribe to the answers given by the same great thinkers to the question of how we are to live together.
Confucius: “To be wealthy and honored in an unjust society is a disgrace.”
Sophocles: “One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: That word is love.”
Marcus Aurelius: “Know the joy of life by piling good deed on good deed until no rift or cranny appears between them.”
Buddha: “Silence the angry man with love. Silence the ill-natured man with kindness. Silence the miser with generosity. Silence the liar with truth.”
Catherine of Siena: “It is surely justice to share our natural gifts with those who share our nature.”
Averroes: “Ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to hatred, and hatred leads to violence.”
Maimonides: “We are obligated to be more scrupulous in fulfilling the commandment of charity than any other because charity is the sign of a righteous man.”
Gandhi: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Again, the cultural consensus is striking, with these great minds elevating truth, justice, and love, the building blocks of integrity, as the qualities essential to the well-being of both individual and community. No one should be surprised that integrity is the key to answering both questions since it is also the foundational quality for leadership.
Yet the great sages experienced the same contemptuous violations of integrity in their own societies as we do today. But at least they recognized and condemned the twin flaws of human nature that distort character and destroy community. Those flaws, hubris, and pleonexia, are the constant threats to personal integrity found in every society in history.
Hubris was understood by the ancient Greeks to be the overweening self-centredness that expressed itself in defiance of the gods. Today, in the form of the Nietzschean will to power, it is endemic, as seen in the emotivism that convinces most people that morality is defined by their personal desires and the deceitful narcissism that undermines relationships at all levels by manipulating and exploiting other people for one’s own selfish desires.
Pleonexia is a concept in classical philosophy that denotes an insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others. This unrestrained avarice is a chronic condition of postmodern society, inextricably tied to hubris, and fueled by a confused worldview based on materialist, utilitarian, and nihilist sentiments.
The two malignant attitudes of hubris and pleonexia are the essential components of the unbridled and malformed ego, the persistent source of all the ills that are destructive of both individual and community well-being. They abandon truth, justice, and love to pursue self-aggrandizement, and demonstrate their ultimate contempt for all relationships. There can be no personal or corporate flourishing while hubris and pleonexia are given free rein because when integrity is compromised, dysfunctional relationships are the inevitable consequence.
Avoiding the two fatal flaws requires in the first instance a commitment to the truth about oneself, other people, and the world at large. That means constantly seeking truth in all areas of life, and then living according to that truth, whatever the consequences might be. That is the essential message passed on to us by the great sages from every culture. And that is the only way we can hope to answer the two existential questions.
The flourishing of the human person, like that of all forms of human relationships, is built on trust, on confidence that people say what they mean, and mean what they say, and on respect, the constant willingness to treat others as we wish to be treated. And human flourishing, that is, the full development of the potential of the individual and the community is the true goal of leadership.
Integrity, personal and communal, is built on truth, justice, and love, transcendental realities that constantly challenge us to rise above human perversity and make a better world by making ourselves better people. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in Dependent Rational Animals underscores these realities, indicating the only way we can provide meaningful answers to the two questions:
‘But genuine and extensive self-knowledge becomes possible only in consequence of those social relationships which on occasion provide badly needed correction for our own judgments. When adequate self-knowledge is achieved, it is always a shared achievement. And because adequate self-knowledge is necessary, if I am to imagine realistically the alternative futures between which I must choose, the quality of my imagination also depends in part on the contribution of others. The virtue that is indispensable for achieving both the required degree of self-knowledge and the ability to resist all those influences that make for self-deception is of course honesty, primarily truthfulness about ourselves, both to ourselves and to others.’