By Dr. Russ,
This essay is the first entry into a series of articles on the subject of optimism and virtue. First, I address the question: What is the relationship between optimism and virtue?
Virtue is defined as striving to live the good life not for the sake of some extrinsic reward or avoidance of punishment, but instead for the intrinsic value of goodness for goodness sake. We can never achieve a state of perfect virtue, because God is the only perfect being and since God is limitless, so too is virtue. Thus, the goal is not to become virtuous, but to learn to engage in a continuous process of self-improvement and becoming.
Optimism is defined as a view or perspective that no matter what circumstances of life we encounter, we believe we can find a way to make progress by building on positive events and solve the problems inherent in negative ones. Like virtue, optimism is a continuous striving to improve and make our lives better.
The “good life” of living virtuously could be defined based our own personally derived sense of what is “right living,” or we could look to a spiritual source for the characteristics of the “good life.” In these essays, I use the Bible and the life of Moses as depicted by 4th century scholar Gregory of Nyssa, as the standard for virtuousness.
I will argue that in order to live a life of optimism in each and every moment, i.e., viewing each and every moment of life as an opportunity for growth and self-improvement, we must be pursing goals of learning to live virtuously as set forth in the Bible, particularly, the life of Moses as characterized by Gregory of Nyssa.
First Lesson of Optimism and Virtuous Living
Development of virtue can only occur in an environment of change. Gregory of Nyssa argues the Pharaoh’s decree to kill all first-born males sets the stage for change as a constant in Moses life and demonstrates how his response to change created opportunity after opportunity to learn more virtue.
Application of Lesson to Politics and Change
At the close of the Republican National Convention and on the eve of the Democratic National Convention we are being bombarded with calls for the need for change. Romney argues that his plan will bring prosperity and Obama asks for four more years to complete the changes he has begun. Everyday, no matter where I go, I come upon a homeless and down and destitute person looking for some help with their dire economic circumstances.
How are we to maintain a perspective of optimism in light of all of this change? The first step is to focus on the goal of virtue and not leading the “good life.” The “good life” is one of wealth and accumulation of material stuff. Virtue is pursuing some good for its own sake.
Doing good for its own sake requires us to stop looking at our own welfare and start working toward improving the welfare of others. Trying to discern what is or might be beneficial to the welfare of others in the context of today’s political climate and economic circumstances is truly a challenge, but a much more worthwhile endeavor for enhancing optimism than trying to figure out how to “feather our own nest.” The key is in the trying and striving toward better and better service toward others.
In conclusion, do not be disheartened by the constant change and challenge of day-to-day living in our modern American society because it gives us the continuous opportunity to improve in our ability to maintain an optimistic perspective and simultaneously pursue a virtuous lifestyle.
As we live through the daily changes of the next two months leading up to election day, we have two ways to pursue optimism and virtue and rise above the fray of negativity: 1) We can simply ignore all the rhetoric and go out and do something to help someone in difficulty of less fortunate. I guarantee that when you make that effort, you will feel both positive and good about yourself, in a way that lasts. 2) You can demand from whichever candidate you support that whether they are going to give tax brakes to the rich or middle class, they find a way to make sure every monetarily enriched individual gives back the money, 2 to 10 fold, in kind or service, for the betterment of society and the less fortunate.
[Note: The key reference for defining and illustrating virtuous living is: Gregory of Nyssa, The life of Moses (Harper Spiritual Classics; trans. A.J. Malherbe and E. Ferguson; San Francisco: Harper, 2006].