Baring the Aegis: Hellenismos
Hellenismos, otherwise known as Greek Reconstructionist Paganism, is the traditional, polytheistic religion of ancient Greece, reconstructed in and adapted to the modern world. It's a vibrant religion which can draw on a surprising amount of ancient sources. Baring the Aegis blogger Elani Temperance blogs about her experiences within this Tradition.
How do you know if you are living an ethical life?
Recently, I read a blog post by Star Foster, whom I admire as a person and writer and whose blog will survive any culling of my blog reader for a long time to come. In this blog post, titled 'Being Human', she questions basic life lessons, including ethical living. From that blog post:
"I’ve been thinking a lot about the Precepts of Solon. So many of these maxims are subjective. What is good character? What is good? What is bad?"
Although the original blog post is in no way limited to this question, this is the part of the post that stuck with me and has been a thorn in my side for the last two days. Why? Because my first reaction was 'you just know', and that is never a satisfactory answer for me. So I have spent the last two days trying to figure out how 'I just know' when I am not displaying a good character, when I am not good, and when I do something bad. Because I do 'just know'.
An example from my own life: yesterday, I came together with some friends who entered a short gossip session about someone who has been frustrating me as well. Not only did I not end the session or remove myself from the situation, I joined in. It wasn't bad, it wasn't hurtful to the other person, even if they had been there, but it was a bad and unethical thing to do. Even if it was a minor transgression. I broke Solon's 'Make reason your guide' guideline, and obviously broke the Delphic Maxim 'Accuse one who is present'.
I spoke about all of this before but in a more academic fashion. Today, I am writing a 'heart' post, not a 'head' post. I think your 'heart' (or the part of your brain that we interpret to be your heart when it comes to your emotions) is what tells you how a person of good character should act, and I also think it's a part of us that we are quick to suppress, reason away, or hide.
In order to live an ethical life, I strongly feel you need to engage in internal radical honesty. You don't even have to say out loud what you have discovered about yourself but when you find yourself displaying certain behavior, you need to be able to reason openly with yourself about it.
Take the gossiping example above: we know we shouldn't gossip. We're taught this by our parents or in school, or when our best friend finds out you have been talking about them behind their backs and ends the friendship. Somewhere, somehow, in our lives, we have learned that gossiping is bad. Yet we do it all the time. It's so easy; you reason it away by saying 'they will never know I talked about them', or you lessen your guilt by saying 'it was just for a moment, it's like the five second rule, but for gossip'. Yet, you still feel guilty, somewhere deep down, you know what you did was unethical. Now you just have the added bonus of the stress of lying to yourself.
What if we, instead, realized what we had done--or are doing this very moment--and just admitted to ourselves that what we are doing is wrong? We would feel guilty, we would be forced to examine our mistake and learn from it. The next time someone gossips, you might not join in, or walk away, or speak up against gossiping.
The point is: living an ethical life is like a muscle; you train it, and eventually it's strong enough to flex in any given situation. And it's okay to fail at it every now and again. I realized right away last night that we had entered the 'gossip' territory, but in all radical honesty, I decided that my own wellbeing trumphed my ethics. Besides, everything I said last night, I had also told the person it concerns prior to the gossip session, because I try not to lie about or bottle up things that really bother me.
One of the things about the pursuit of living an ethical life is that--if you are anything like me--you will find it impossible to lie not just to yourself, but others as well, even though I am really good at lying. I can lie about anything without turning red, without faltering, without giving myself away. For over twelve years now, though, I have made it a pillar of my life to not tell lies. I started out wanting to 'always tell the truth', but I revised it. Now I have vowed to 'not tell outright lies and try for honesty in any situation'. This leaves me a little wiggle room to not answer a question I would be forced to lie on, or to use my words creatively so I tell only a half truth. External radical honesty is a beautiful ideal, but unless everyone practices it, you are going to get feelings hurt, yours or the other person's
We lie a lot throughout the day, I have found. We exaggerate, use the word 'literally' too much, tell white lies, and--most of all, we censor ourselves when we want to say or do something positive. How often have you looked at someone on public transport and thought 'wow, sir/lady, you look incredibly hot today'? How about when you see someone standing alone at a party you are enjoying with your friends and you think to yourself 'I should invite them over', but you don't, because your friends might not like it or you can't be bothered, and who is that person anyway? Is there something wrong with them that they are standing alone? There is that reasoning mechanism again. Yet, the radically honest thing to do is go with your gut feeling (invite them over) and not lie to yourself about why you won't listen to that feeling. You are lying to yourself.
Solon gave the following advice, as is recorded by Apollodorus in his Treatise on the Sects of Philosophers (as written down by Laértios):
(2) Never speak falsely.
(3) Pay attention to matters of importance.
(4) Be not hasty in making friends; and do not cast off those whom you have made.
(5) Rule, after you have first learnt to submit to rule.
(6) Advise not what is most agreeable, but what is best.
(7) Make reason your guide.
(8) Do not associate with the wicked.
(9) Honour the gods;
(10) respect your parents.
Personally, I sum Solon's rules up as: 'practice honesty, and respect, with yourself and others'. Anything that falls short of this mark is not the ethical life you might have envisioned for yourself. Honesty is the foundation of everything, and from honesty comes self-knowledge and self-respect, which become respect and caring for and of the world around you. And when you practice this, you will know when you are not living an ethical life, because you will have to be racally honest with yourself and admit that you have not been living an ethical life. It's scary, and sometimes painful, and it's far easier to go through life without the pursuit of a perfect ethical life... but when I am honest with myself, I know that I would not have it any other way. I am happiest when I am practicing arete, and arete, to me, includes living an ethical, and honest, life.
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