‘Dangers to Virtue’

16 Mar

Mahatma Gandhi once described seven dangers to human virtue:

1. Wealth without work

2. Pleasure without conscience

3. Knowledge without character

4. Business without ethics

5. Science without humanity

6. Religion without sacrifice

7. Politics without principle

As we reflect on these words, the first thing that occurs to me is how unusual it is today for someone to speak of human virtue. Does anyone want to be ‘virtuous’? What do we imagine that might mean? It has a very unusual overtone, perhaps of moral superiority—and at least in Australia no one would claim that—lest they be ‘cut down’ by the ‘tall poppy’ syndrome.

Still, if we go beyond the word ‘virtue’, there is a lot of insight and wisdom, as well as challenge, in this statement. Let’s think of it in terms of our goal or objective: to live a good life, a worthwhile and healthy life. And that means a good life together, not just as an individual. So this is a vision of the good society, a community worth working towards and trying to preserve. What would it be like?

Well, Gandhi lists many of the things people value and strive for: wealth, pleasure, knowledge, business, science, religion and politics. We might think of them a bit differently, but in essence these 7 things sum up so much of what is going on in our society, and I think he means to imply that they can all be good things. In fact we might suggest that in some way they are all necessary things—even if some might debate whether  ‘religion’ is necessary or even a good thing. Others might say that about wealth or even politics!

Still that’s not Gandhi’s main concern. His concern is that all of these good things actually need to be moderated. Wealth without work is a real danger to human flourishing: especially if that wealth is gained through other people’s work, but not our own!

We could go down each of his list and see how the 7 positive goods can be undermined by the lack of a moderating element.

I’m intrigued, though, by the suggestion of ‘religion without sacrifice’. I wonder what he meant by that. Religion that costs nothing—like Bonhoeffer’s idea of cheap grace? I can affirm that point. But I think I would suggest that religion without grace is the great danger: religious doctrines and attitudes that focus upon ‘virtue’ but without compassion, including towards oneself, here is a real danger.

I am glad I came across this great saying of a truly wise teacher. I think it’s good to consider these ‘dangers’.These are things we should avoid, if at all possible.

But I am always keen also to know what is the positive message here. In my view, we need to add to this great statement some vision of what will make possible this human ‘virtue’ or flourishing we might all wish and pray for.

Here the Christian faith offers the idea of a ‘spirit’ of life, a personal reality with whom we can engage, indeed who indwells our lives as individuals and as communities. This spirit works not to negate our own thinking and desires, but actually evokes within us courage and hope, wisdom and love.

The apostle Paul, in the New Testament, described the human community as a garden in which the spirit is working to produce fruit. Together, guided by the spirit, we may grow some virtue and avoid some of those dangers, and live a joyous and quality life.


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