There is a saying I used to believe: ‘First gain an independent income; then practice virtue.’ I cannot recall where I first read it, but it is from the ancient Greeks, people who were very rational about their lives, or at least were supposed to be. Their best thinkers were able to discover that human beings innately understand that there is such a thing as virtue and that a virtuous life is intrinsically desirable. Virtue is superior even to their gods. Plato criticized the Greek gods for exhibiting human vices. Take Zeus for instance, the supreme god who took advantage of maidens who were then, though it is no fault of theirs, punished by the jealous Hera. I understand Plato’s reasons for criticizing such beings regardless whether they were divine or not, regardless whether they could strike Plato dead for being disrespectful. Indeed, if the Christian God did such things simply because He could, I would reject Him. He cannot be God as I know God. Perhaps Plato instinctively felt the presence of the true God.
But despite their intelligence, the ancient Greek philosophers could not find a firm basis for the superiority of human virtue. The question why we should be virtuous rather than not repeatedly comes up in Plato’s dialogues. Why indeed should we be just when the other man is not and he gains wealth because of his actions while we who are just repeatedly experience hardships? Immanuel Kant also considered this problem, and the solution he presented is to say this is why it is necessary to postulate the existence of God. If there is a God, then we would not feel that being virtuous is in vain. Of course, it is also possible to not need to believe in God. Some people have relatively comfortable lives which make it easy for them to practice virtue. These people have no need to see other people as a means to an end as Kant would say, but as an end in themselves, because they are comfortably off. Why should they care if the other stole food from them when they have a full refrigerator and pantry? Why should they hate their fellow human beings when nobody hates them or hurts them or tries to take advantage of them?
If only we could live in this paradise, but we don’t. The world is full of hardships and other people who take advantage of us regardless how good we are to them. So why should someone who has been kicked around by life try to be good when experience shows that being bad will lead him to a better life?
In comes that saying I mentioned. If you have a comfortable life, the practice of virtue becomes easy. Perhaps what the ancient Greeks were saying was this: Only when you live as a human should live can you be expected to act as a human should act. Otherwise, you have the excuse to do whatever is necessary to survive.
This must be the reason why Plato and people who thought like him considered virtue to be completely possible only for the wealthy and comfortable elite. The poor non-elites could exhibit virtue, but this is exceptional in their case. As a Platonist, I thought the same.
My belief in the saying above changed in an instant as I was contemplating the truth that God loves me (and you and everyone else). Or rather, I should say I remembered this saying and rejected it after arriving at the conclusion that God loves me and would never allow me to experience anything bad unless there was a reason for it.
Everything changes with the truth of God’s love. With this truth, the intrinsic superiority of virtue over vice has God as its author, and so we remain virtuous because we understand that God who loves us and who wishes the best for us has told us to be so. The understanding of virtue’s intrinsic value is still there thus we strive to remain virtuous not because we fear God’s punishment but because we understand better why He wishes us to be so.
With this understanding, we are able to go beyond virtue as completely possible only for the elite with comfortable lives. The Christian understanding of life has made it possible for even the most destitute to live with his dignity and sense of virtue intact.
One implication of God’s love is this: all our sufferings and the world’s sufferings are approved by God. He can change our circumstances in a split-second if ever He chooses to do so. Many people ask ‘Why does He not do this?’ Perhaps He is mischievous. Perhaps He is toying with us. But that can’t be possible if He loves us. There must be a reason for our sufferings even if we do not immediately understand what that might be. I always recall what God said to Job: ‘Your thoughts are not My thoughts …’
Even with uncomfortable lives, we can remain virtuous because God who loves us is there with us. The elites are no longer those who have an independent income and who live comfortable lives. The new elites are those who understand God’s love and who accept the lessons gratefully and the challenges with excitement. Even in suffering we can be elites but most especially when God withdraws – ‘Go on now,’ He seems to say, ‘I’m right behind you to catch you if you fall, but you’ve got to try harder than that. Come on now!’ He withdraws to make us know the extent of our strength because there is a reason for this need, perhaps because we are being prepared, perhaps because we are being called for something.