by Kelvin H. Chin
With the recent college admissions scandal dominating the 24/7 news cycle in the U.S., I was reminded once again about the idea of “virtue” that has been contemplated and preached about for millennia.
At first blush, one might think that virtue was totally lost in the minds (and hearts) of those (so far) 50 defendants indicted on March 12, 2019 in this $25 million (so far) scheme to gain access to elite colleges in the U.S. And from a certain point of view, I would have to agree with you. However, I think there is another perspective at play here.
A more insidious one that we as a culture should be aware of. Because self-awareness is the first step to change. And recognizing the need for change is the next step in doing something about it. Perhaps even doing something that is more aligned with one’s inner desires that may, at the same time, actually result in less harm to others — simply put, a more enlightened approach.
What do most of us think when we think of the idea of virtue?
I think we think “doing what’s right,” “following the rules of the game,” “being a good person.” Things along those lines. Right?
I think that is a fair definition — at least that is the way we generally have thought of virtue in the past 2,000 years. In the times of Jesus, the idea of “sin” was really meant to be “not following the Jewish rules,” or “not following or obeying the rules of God, the Ten Commandments,” etc.
However, about 500 years earlier, around 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece, the idea of virtue meant something deeper, more intimate. It included the idea of “self-knowledge,” knowing oneself — so it was a more inward way of looking at the concept of virtue. I would argue that it was a more practical way of discussing virtue.
Because rather than arguing over whose rules about the world were right and wrong — and how closely you followed them — to determine whether you were a “virtuous person” or not, the Greeks in 500 B.C. instead looked within. They “turned within” and asked each person to candidly ask themselves what did they find. Did they like what they saw? Did they see anything that needed change? Did they do anything about changing it? Did they “love” what they saw? Did they embrace “who they were” from the inside out?
It was an approach of valuation that was “self-knowledge” focused. Internally focused. Not externally focused.
And yes, while it was most certainly subjective, it did cause people to pause, reflect, go inside, and be introspective. I think there was something healthy about that process that the wider Greek culture benefited from.
Fast forward to today, 21st century planet Earth, and specifically 2019 U.S. culture.
Today, I think we find ourselves valuing money and wealth accumulation above all else.
We used to value innovation and education more so, and wealth was sometimes a side effect of those pursuits. However, I think in the past 50-60 years or so — starting in the late 1960’s — especially when executive compensation started becoming more tied to stock prices because their compensation was more and more based on the liquidation of their stock options, we have gradually moved more towards a valuing of money and the accumulation of wealth over all else.
We now value “who we are” — our personal identity — based on money and accumulated wealth — whether real wealth or just “perceived” wealth.
A few in our culture have “real” accumulated wealth — hedge fund managers, professional athletes, “A-list” TV and movie stars, CEO’s of Fortune 1000 companies, a handful of big law firm partners, and former U.S. Presidents. But most of us are not that. Most of us just have “perceived” accumulated wealth — driving a Mercedes on a 3-year lease, living in a 5,000 square foot house with a $10,000 a month 30-year mortgage, or maybe living in a 400 square foot studio apartment but carrying a $3,000 designer handbag. That is perceived accumulated wealth. Not real.
But it represents the aspirations of our culture. It represents the values of our culture. To be “seen” as wealthy because “accumulated wealth” means “respect.” It means “I am somebody” in our current U.S. culture.
“I am important.”
At any cost.
Because we have become a culture of “the ends justify the means.”
Anything goes. Even paying people to take your child’s college entrance exam, or photoshopping her pics to send to the universities feigning your child’s ability and even interest to be on the coveted school athletic teams! And I bet that many more than 50 parents are guilty of having done so — I would guess the number is much closer to 100,000 nationwide. Not all wealthy like the celebrities, hedge fund CEO’s and law firm partners in the current criminal lawsuit. But many more parents from the next tier down. That is my guess.
Because it is a reflection of the values of our 2019 culture. Money has become the metric to measure the “value of a human being.” Not their wisdom, moral compass, kindness, or their ability to bring happiness to others.
A New “Virtue” Going Forward
Yes, even in ancient Greek times, money and wealth accumulation existed. There definitely was an aristocracy — the wealthy and the working class, and even slaves. But virtue in terms of “looking inside” each Greek, regardless of social or economic status, was also highly valued as an integral part of the culture during much of that period.
Even 400 years later, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius — who was an avid student of Greek history and philosophy and fluent in Greek himself — eschewed his aristocratic birth and in his youth chose to sleep on the floor as was the habit of Stoic philosophers. “Turning within” was an integral part of his life, not just as a child but throughout his adult life.
I think today we need to get a grip on who we are as a culture, and as human beings as a whole. Because we have lost touch with who we are. We have externalized “who we are” and “how we value ourselves” so much that the college admissions scandal we are mesmerized by now is simply a symptom of a deeper disconnect.
A disconnect within.
We are who we are on the inside — regardless of color, wealth, nationality.
We are not our $650 per month Mercedes sedan. We are not defined by which elite university our kids graduated from.
We are defined by who we are inside, which determines the types of actions and behavior we execute on the outside.
And to make those types of choices more in alignment with our desires that are less likely to hurt others, we need to “turn within” and develop ourselves from the inside out. That is the “virtuous” path that feeds us, that nurtures our souls, and that helps others in their quest for happiness.
A new — yet ancient — definition of “virtue” going forward is what is needed.
Kelvin H. Chin is an Author and Speaker. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College, Yale University, and Boston College Law School. He can be reached at www.OvercomingTheFearOfDeath.org or www.TurningWithin.org.