Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The 9 Noble Virtures

Wisdom: “Our Own Druidry” defines wisdom as “good judgment, the ability to perceive people and situations correctly, deliberate about and decide on the correct response.”
Wisdom is in many ways borne of experience, and it is no fault of the younger person to be less wise than the elder. However, experience does not lead to wisdom automatically. It is the responsibility of each person to live in an active engagement with life and the world that facilitates the increase of wisdom.

In practice, wisdom is the quality that allows a person to make sound decisions, to judge others accurately and to be less likely than the unwise to fall into a trap. Wisdom often works in coordination with other virtues; for example, moderation and wisdom may both come into play as someone makes the wise choice to avoid intoxication when driving.
This is an apt one with which to begin the list, because the other virtues all depend on some measure of wisdom in order to be effective in their application.

 Piety: Piety, at its root, is simply about being mindful of the gods and our relationship to them. We express our love, respect, loyalty and honor of them through ritual and ceremony. But the words and motions of ritual are only the outer form. Piety implies an orientation of the heart and spirit so that the ceremony expresses the internal reality. It isn't piety if it is simply reciting words.

Because of this, while piety is expressed in ritual, it can also be expressed moment to moment in simply thinking about the gods, speaking small prayers to them and, above all, treating them with honor and respect, not as cosmic gumball machines sent to do us favors.

Tradition is part of piety as well, in that our rituals are based on old traditions, brought forward into a new century. One aspect of honoring the gods is understanding how our ancestors honored them and striving to acknowledge them in the ways they prefer to be acknowledged. Wisdom comes into play here in that it guides us toward discerning the better ways to relate to the spirits and away from those practices or motivations that are self-serving.

Vision: “Our Own Druidry” speaks of vision as being aware of one's place or role in the cosmos, relating to the past, present and future. The key point to remember is that one's place may be big or small, depending on the vantage point. As a human being on a planet with more than 6 billion human beings, in a galaxy with a hundred billion stars, I am insignificant. As a friend, lover, son, grandfather – and as a child of Mother Earth – I am important.

One's place in the cosmos is not frozen in time. As the manual's definition specifies, it pertains to the past, present and future. Vision means an ability to see one's place not just today, but next year, next decade and, after a long enough period, as a legacy of one who has moved into the Otherworld.
It also entails an understanding of how one's place in the past affects the present and the future. To see one's own life, or the life of another, with true vision means to appreciate the interconnections of time, space and relationship and how what has gone before affects what is to come.

Finally, remember that vision is not limited to one's self – vision can pertain to another person, an organization, a nation or a world.

Courage: Courage is the balancing point between cowardice and recklessness. It is to do that which is difficult and dangerous in order to achieve a worthy goal. It is to act despite fear, not without fear. Do not mistake recklessness for courage: Courage takes risks and dangers into account, recklessness ignores them. Courage leads to dangerous actions taken for good reason, recklessness leads to dangerous actions undertaken for their own sake.

In the same vein, just as to charge ahead is not necessarily courage, to retreat is not necessarily cowardice. It can be an act of courage to defer taking action when under great pressure to act. But blending courage with wisdom gives one the discernment to determine when taking risky action is warranted and when it would just be foolish.

Courage necessarily entails selflessness. Courage is risk, and in many cases, courage is willingly giving up something for a greater good, as when Tyr sacrificed his hand to aid in the binding of Fenrir.

Integrity: To behave with integrity is to maintain one's ethical principles in the face of temptation. It is to be consistent in character and to put principle ahead of desire. Integrity requires keeping promises, upholding oaths, speaking truth and sometimes sacrificing one's own desires.

Behaving with integrity is not just a matter of public perception. Even when alone, a person of integrity is called on to uphold his or her standards. What is done in secret  (if indeed it is secret from the kindred) will have repercussions into one's wider world. What we do when nobody's watching says more about our true character than what we do in front of witnesses.

Integrity requires other virtues in order to be consistent. It takes courage to do the right thing at personal risk. Wisdom to know what the right thing is. Moderation to resist giving in to passions. The life of integrity can be difficult, but it's also rewarding, not least in giving one a good name (good reputation) to pass down.

Perseverance: Perseverance is the simple act of pressing toward one's goal through difficulties. Simple in concept, often very difficult in practice. Very often, we give up the pursuit of something when it becomes hard. We may even decide we don't really want it any more, the “sour grapes” of Aesop's fable. But of course, we do want it … just not badly enough to endure the challenges that come in the pursuit.

To press on through tough times requires a focus on the desired outcome – physical changes, learning new skills, wooing a lover, getting a good job, or whatever it may be. (Finishing the ADF Dedicant program!) These things are rarely won easily, and a person who sets out to achieve them should be prepared for some tough going along the way. Perseverance is the virtue that makes them possible at all.

Hospitality: The opening section of The Havamal is all about hospitality. The author (tradition holds these are the words of Odin himself) speaks of how weary travelers need food, drink, warmth, fresh clothing after arriving at a home.

Hospitality, in its general sense, is about being a “gracious host and appreciative guest,” as Our Own Druidry phrases it. A host who offers food to the hungry traveler, dry clothes to the rain-soaked visitor, fire to the one coming in from the cold. A guest who does not demand these things, but accepts them with gratitude when they are offered.

There is a more subtle sense of hospitality too, which is about adapting to another's needs without calling attention to it. For example: If there's a point in a ritual when the people are supposed to stand, and the leader notices that some of the participants are disabled and can stand only with difficulty and pain, hospitality might inspire the leader to amend the verbal instruction from “rise” to “rise in body or spirit,” or “stand as you are able.” This is a cue that lets those who are unable to stand know that it is ok not to, making them feel less conspicuous when they don't.
Once again, we see the role of wisdom in the practice of hospitality.

Moderation: The practice of moderation implies balance. While it shuns overindulgence, it does not  counsel asceticism. When one engages in things that are good and pleasurable, but also prone to be pursued to excess – food, drink or sex for example – moderation seeks to find the zone between too much and not enough.

The words attributed to Odin in the Havamal are instructive here:
“Less good there lies than most believe
In ale for mortal men; For the more he drinks, the less does man
Of his mind the mastery hold.”


“Shun not the mead, but drink in measure;
Speak to the point or be still;
For rudeness none shall rightly blame thee
If soon thy bed thou seekest.”

This text contains several stanzas counseling against overindulgence in drink, perhaps a contrast to the popular image of drunken, bawdy Norsemen. But notice that the Havamal, neither here nor elsewhere, advocates abstaining from drink (“shun not the mead.”. It only advises controlling oneself to avoid the consequences of excess.

This is the quintessence of moderation. “Shun not the mead, but drink in measure.” The axiom may be applied in like manner to food, or sex or sloth or exertion. One can easily overindulge in work, and feel oneself virtuous by doing so, without taking heed of the other aspects of life going neglected in the process.

Fertility: I understand from discussions on the ADF Dedicant list that the name of this virtue has been the subject of some debate. Indeed, it does seem to be a wide-ranging concept. According to Our Own Druidry, fertility is “bounty of mind, body and spirit involving creativity and industry, an appreciation of the physical and sensual, nurturing these qualities in others.”

In common parlance, the word can connote a bountiful harvest, human reproduction, fecundity, a prolific creativity and productivity of work, among other meanings. Summarizing it is difficult, but what all of these things have in common is a drive toward creation. Whether the life force expressed in sexual love and, often, pregnancy, or in growing plants for food or beauty, or in writing, art and craft, fertility always suggests a rich vein of result. A person who writes a poem or song once every long while can hardly be called a bard, while one who is always writing, even if much of what he writes ends up deemed unworthy, may well be. A man who plants a flower in a pot is not a gardener, really, but one who is always planting and growing something, even if some of his attempts fail, is indeed a gardener.

To be a virtue, fertility needs to be pursued with deliberate intention. It entails cultivating skills and talents, applying another virtue – perseverance in this case – to soldier on through the less successful attempts and the early days of learning something new when failure is the rule rather than the exception. 

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