Personalities and virtues

We underestimate the power of personality when we ascribe our ethics and behavior to a system of belief and not to the complex of will and spirit that makes up our very being. Believers will live moral lives because, they will tell us, their belief system requires it. But this does not explain the conduct of fellow-adherents, which may differ by degrees or be outright reprehensible. Supposedly such believers share the same belief system and proscriptions, the same faith and tenets, but the morals are so different as to defy explanation. Unamuno puts it succinctly:

Virtue … is not based upon dogma, but dogma upon virtue, and it is not faith that creates martyrs but martyrs who create faith. There is no security or repose — so far as security and repose are obtainable in this life, which is so essentially insecure and unreposeful — save in conduct that is passionately good.

This is why people without a metaphysical creed may be decent, while those with a religious belief may be monstrous — and the other way around.

Looking carefully at people, we can see that the metaphysical insecurity to which Unamuno refers is also a built-in uncertainty as far as the nature of people. While we may dismiss as hypocrites those believers who practice contrary to their belief, we are not on safer ground dismissing the beliefs, which, as the quote suggests, are a kind of epiphenomena of their tortuous personalities. We are on safer ground simply abstaining from judging people by their creeds or beliefs but on their moral fruits or lack of them. Hence we not so much judge as arrange or classify.

All this is essential for socially-oriented people who hope to navigate through life and not lose their bearings in this world. But for the solitary, who may intuitively sense that the world of human personalities is more complex than this or that set of beliefs, such complexities need not detain them. Neither judge nor complain. We know virtue when we see it, but don’t need to devote time and energy to extracting it from the entanglements of social obligations not pursued. There is just enough time and energy to work on our own personalities and virtues.