Tip of the Quill: A Journal
On being virtuous.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of virtues, and what it means to be a good man. Living in Chicago in a fairly multicultural neighborhood is a new and fascinating experience, which makes me feel more reconnected to what it means to be an American, as opposed to the fiercely partisan life that is almost inherent to living in Washington, DC.
(Note: I’ve cleaned up this entry a little bit to break it up into more readable subsections and add ‘friendly’ back into the Scout Law, which I’d inadvertently omitted the first time around. The memory is not what it used to be. Thanks to Bill Coughlan for catching the error.)
George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden and the Scout Law
Once upon a time, I was a Boy Scout. I made it all the way to Star (and was only a merit badge or two shy of Life) before other interests took hold and I moved on to other things. I still remember a lot of the Boy Scout teachings, though – not so much how to tie knots (although a do know to take a tin full of dryer lint along on camping trips to use as tinder in lieu of tiny branches), as the morals and ethics that they try to instill. The eleven points of the Scout Law go something like this: “A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.”
This is a good start for living a virtuous life, but it still seems lacking. It bothers me that nowhere in the Scout Law is there any mention of ambition, intelligence or curiousity. Ambition is a strange element, often spat at others as an accusation, which is strange. Should we not, as Americans, be ambitious? There is a school of thought that says that ambition is often the drive to succeed at the cost of others, but what then is the drive to improve not only your own life, but the common denominator of human existence as well? Is that not ambition? And why wouldn’t intelligence and curiousity be on that list as well?

If you look at President Bush and then consider the twelve points of the Scout Law, he appears to do a decent job on most of them. Yet I cannot look to him as a good example, or any kind of inspiration aside from, perhaps, a cautionary tale.
If you look at President Bush and then consider the Scout Law, he appears to do a decent job on most of these twelve points (excepting, of course, trustworthy – it still bothers me greatly that there’s never been any real, satisfactory answer to the scores of black voters that were turned away from the Florida polls back in 2000). Yet I cannot look to him as a good example, or any kind of inspiration aside from, perhaps, a cautionary tale. Further, our current administration is an excellent example of powers run amok – despite the numerous offenses that the administration has committed, including the aforementioned electoral manipulation, ordering the creation of false evidence to justify the war in Iraq, repeated attempts to dissolve the separation of church and state, laying the groundwork for the reinstatement of the draft, the ridiculous abuse of Presidential power for the personal gain of Halliburton and its employees, and any number of other things that I’m sure Michael Moore will, for better or for worse, trumpet up to the highest skies in Farenheit 9/11, still no Democratic officials in Washington have called for any kind of impeachment hearings or calls of no confidence in the leadership abilities of this administration. This is something I simply do not understand.
The point is that a man can have ten points of the Scout Law pretty much down and still not be really and truly a good man. You can be loyal to your friends, help little old ladies across the street, polite in conversation, refrain from kicking puppies, a good listener, outgoing, smart with money, determined to stand up for what you believe in, wash your hands after every meal, and go to church on Sunday, but if what you believe in is actively detrimental to the common good, your life is doing more damage than good. If you compare Osama bin Laden to President Bush, you see two men that both ardently, vehemently believe that what they are doing is correct, and that they are justified in the killing of other people. Both men have the blood of thousands on their hands. Both men believe themselves to be great leaders, and both men have thousands of people following them, waving flags and cheering at the tops of their lungs every time they say a word.
According to the Scout Law, young men should be obedient. I believe that current events have shown exactly how dangerous obedience can be, when it involves taking orders from a religious zealot, be it Osama bin Laden or President “If You’re Not With Us, You’re with the Terrorists” Bush.
It bothers me even more that it’s not hard to imagine how essays like this could be considered treasonous in our current administration. That bothers me the most of all – that I even need to worry about this kind of McCarthyism in what is supposed to be a free America. “If you aren’t with us, you’re with the terrorists” is not something you should ever hear come from the mouth of the leader of the free world. That mindset is the worst perversion of democracy, the worst form of powermongering – in the name of “Freedom,” our President wants to take away our freedom to think for ourselves and criticize the actions of our government. This is not virtuous behavior, and is definitely not the behavior of someone who should be the greatest, most honorable and most inspiring man on the planet: the President of the United States.
So, instead of getting all worked up into a lather without presenting any preferable alternatives or solutions (like Mr. Moore tends to do), what would be a good set of virtues? What characteristics should the leader of the free world, or any good man, embody?
Benjamin Franklin tried to live his life according to thirteen virtues: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. This could be a better start – ‘industry’ tends to satisfy my previous inclination to incorporate some form of ambition. What Mr. Franklin does not include, bizarrely, are wisdom and intelligence, which is very odd given what we know of Mr. Franklin’s character. Chastity is also an odd inclusion, although one suspects he might not be only referring to it in the sexual sense. And does ‘sincerity’ mean simply meaning what you say, and not to ‘spin’ anything, or does he intend to extend that to include honesty and trustworthiness?
One part Boy Scouts, one part Benjamin Franklin
Perhaps the best solution is to take both of these elements, Franklin’s virtues and the Scout Law, and combine them. Doing so, we get the following:
  • Trustworthy
  • Loyal
  • Helpful
  • Friendly
  • Courteous
  • Kind
  • Obedient
  • Cheerful
  • Thrifty (x2)
  • Brave
  • Clean (x2)
  • Reverent
  • Temperant
  • Silent
  • Orderly
  • Resolute
  • Industrious (i.e., Ambitious)
  • Sincere (Honest?)
  • Just
  • Moderate
  • Tranquil
  • Chaste
  • Humble

To which I would add:
  • Intelligent
  • Wise

There is some room for debate as to whether or not intelligent and wise are even separable; I would argue that it is possible for someone to be very knowledgeable (have memorized a lot of data) but still be utterly unable to determine what to do with it (have no wisdom whatsoever), and that therefore they are indeed two separate virtues.
I have ommitted obedience due to the argument I made earlier. Any great man should, at any point in his life, be free to take a step back, look at the world with as objective a standpoint as possible, and judge for himself whether or not the orders he is being given conflict with his other virtues, most importantly including wise and just.
Another modification that should perhaps be made are to the virtues of reverence and humility. I left both of them in the list because I do believe in God, and I believe that the majority of the teachings of the Bible are a terrific outline for living a life that is productive, happy and virtuous within a society of men. However. I also believe that much the same thing could be said for the teachings of the Torah, of the Buddha, and of just about every religion on the face of the planet. Where everybody runs into trouble, though, is when those religions become co-opted by zealots out to manipulate the masses into following their orders. According to Karl Marx, “Religion is the opiate of the masses” – a virtuous man should be wise enough to also realize when the teachings of his religion are being corrupted and being used to manipulate him. A clue: whenever a religious passage is cited that can in any way, shape or form justify the killing of another human being because of a difference in their religions, skin colors, sexual preferences or backgrounds. As a rule of thumb, the virtuous man should be reverent of the spirit and the wisdom, not of the men preaching it.
Another virtue should, therefore, be something like tolerant or open-minded. I’m not sure what the language should be here – it is such a short jump from tolerant of other cultures to permitting other cultures to exist that I usually refrain from the term ‘tolerant’. What, then? Is it better to say ‘accepting’? ‘Worldly’? Or are all of these simply extensions of the wisdom inherent in not being close-minded? Could one consider not subscribing to the superiority of your own race/sex/sexual preference/religion/country as an extension of humility?
These modern virtues and the American President
Even with these questions, this list seems to be a much more complete set of modern virtues. How, then does our current President stack up compared to this new model of a virtuous man?
Not well, I’m afraid. Here are some hypotheses on how a virtuous man should behave, as opposed to what’s actually been happening.
A virtuous man should not slaughter his neighbors over resources, but should consider the larger picture and embrace those resources not currently being tapped. Instead of going to war over oil, the virtuous man would consider the root problem and fiercely and adamantly pursue new energy programs, such as hydroelectricity and wind turbines.
A virtuous man would never declare, “If you are not with me, you are with my enemy.”
If elected under questionable circumstances, a virtuous man would not further entrench the corruption in the system by squashing the stories in the media and sweeping the whole thing under the rug. Instead, upon being elected he would do everything in his power to examine how and why the problems occurred, and investigate any and all claims leveled against him to determine why and how anyone might have been deprived of their right to vote. A virtuous man would have publicly and openly ensured that such a catastrophe would never happen again.
A virtuous man would never declare, “If you are not with me, you are with my enemy.” A virtuous man would wisely realize that anyone who is not with him could just as well still be undecided – and openly declaring them to therefore be his enemy quickly makes that decision for them. A virtuous man is a uniter, not a divider.
A virtuous man, when met with opposition, calls out differences of opinions and philosophies into the light and discusses them openly. A virtuous man does not order the creation of false evidence in order to support a claim that he may believe to be true but lacks the real, true evidence to support it. A virtuous man, when presented with evidence that contradicts his belief, is open to the possibility that he might be wrong.
A virtuous man, when presented with massive, overwhelming evidence that an action that he had undertaken was in error, would do everything in his power to make things right. A virtuous man takes responsbility for his mistakes. A virtuous man would apologize to the families and friends of the thousands of people whose deaths he had caused through his errors, and do everything he could to make things right, even if that meant resigning his position. He would not scramble to release more fearmongering reports and vehemently insist to the world that he was right, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
A call for a modern virtuous candidate
Given these notions, I cannot in good conscience call our current President a virtuous man. I do not have a firm belief that John Kerry is a virtuous man, either, and that makes me sad. I would like to believe that he is, but so far I have not been convinced by the evidence presented. Nor do I have an overwhelming belief that a truly virtuous man would win a popular election, which makes me even sadder.
I would like to believe that America, if presented with a truly virtuous leader, someone who embodies all of these characteristics, would sit up and take notice. I would like to believe that we are not a country of overweight, greedy followers who will blithely sit by as we arrogantly transform our allies into enemies for the sake of our own bullheaded glory. I would like to believe that America is still the land of the free and the home of the brave.
I would like to see a real, true leader of the free world step up and take the oath of office as President of the United States. If you are out there, please step forward. The world needs you, and it needs you right now.