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A Better Diagram of the Cardinal Virtues

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RECENTLY I noticed some diagrams of the traditional four cardinal virtues of prudence (phronesis), temperance (sophrosyne), courage (andreia) and righteousness (or justice; dikaiosyne) arranged as a square. Such a configuration is problematic in that it ignores the unique relationship that righteousness has with the others.

Another more general issue is that Plato — from whom the tradition of cardinal virtues originates — arguably proposed five, not four.  A new diagram above attempts to redress both issues.First, the lower half of the diagram helps show the affinity of the usual four cardinal virtues to Plato’s famous tripartite model of the psyche that distinguishes the (1) rational, (2) appetitive and (3) spirited elements of the soul.In Plato’s system, courage is the excellence (or right-tuning) of the spirited element, temperance the excellence of the appetitive element, and prudence of the rational element. Righteousness, in turn, is the harmonization of the three other virtues.  Hence it makes more sense to place righteousness in the center of the other three.

Second, while Plato sometimes lists these four cardinal virtues, other times he mentions a fifth: piety or holiness. In fact, he seems almost deliberately vague about this — but we also know that Plato sometimes reveals his most important points subtly.

Writing a few centuries later, Philo, the famous Jewish Platonist of Alexandria, was more explicit. In his in his influential allegorical interpretation of Genesis he saw the Garden of the Eden a symbolizing human virtues generally. The four rivers that surround and water Eden, he suggested, correspond to prudence, temperance, courage and righteousness: these nourish the other virtues.

The Tree of Life in the center of the Garden is theosebeia (θεοσέβεια), or reverence towards God’s goodness. This, he says, is  “the greatest of the virtues, by means of which the psyche is made deathless”  (i.e., it does not ‘die’ by lapsing into sin; On the Creation of the World, 154).

This virtue of perfect piety, godliness and ongoing trust in God constitutes the apex of the spiritual life.  It is a progression beyond purification and illumination to what mystics call the unitive life: assimilation to God, erasure of the distinction between self-will and divine will, and the Reign(ing) of God in ones soul.


Transcendentalism as Spiritual Consciousness

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AMERICAN Transcendentalism (i.e., the movement associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson) is notoriously hard to define.  Perhaps the best way to understand the movement is that it centers on recognition of a certain dimension of experience — transcendent awareness — which is very real, but distinctly different from waking consciousness. In Platonic terms, it amounts to an elevation of the mind and awakening of what we might call the higher intelligence.

This shift in consciousness sometimes comes spontaneously; but more often it’s the result of a deliberate choice.  It is a skill that can be practiced and improved.  We could perhaps develop specific exercises to produce and develop it.

Thomas Starr King here supplies as fine a description of this higher consciousness as perhaps has ever been written.  (Note, incidentally, that this is not a cloistered mystic writing, but someone involved in public affairs.)

Several ‘dimensions’ of transcendent cognitive experience are mentioned, including recognition of deeper meanings, appreciation of beauty, and awareness of God’s goodness.

* * *

True Spiritual Communications

EVERY flower, every tree, every plant, every star, exists because it is a receptacle of the Divine vitality. It was organized and is sustained by his thought and his goodness, and we comprehend it, we really see it, when it is translucent with the rays of the Infinite life, and brings us into fellowship of mind or heart with God. The visible material world is the shell of which the spiritual world is the soul. It is the series of printed signs of which the spiritual world constitutes the sense.

When you read the sentences which Burke or Bacon have written, you do not stop to study the letters or shape of the types that cover their pages. The substance you are after is the wisdom and eloquence which they poured from their minds, and which the types record. You get into communion with the spiritual world, to which those inky paragraphs are the portals, as you feel your intellect penetrated, and your passions stirred, with the light and heat that streamed, in their creative mood, from their genius. And the visible universe is the vast array of types, not simply once set up, but continually created and composed by the Infinite Mind, to convey his wisdom and love.

We have the privilege, therefore, of living in the spiritual world now. We need not wait to get into the next stage of existence to begin to enter it. […] We live in the spiritual world, if our souls are awake, precisely as they do, though possibly we may be one remove farther off, by our bodily organization, from the waves of light and love that flow out from heaven.

And we ought to hold firmly to the principle that the spiritual faculty in us is the real organ of communion with the spiritual sphere. The organ through which we know and receive light is the eye. The ear enables us to hold intercourse with music, eloquence, and all uttered thought. The lungs are the channel of our reception from the atmosphere. And the soul, the power by which we become acquainted with Divine truth and respond to the breath of the Infinite Life, is the channel or medium, and the only channel of reception from the spiritual world.

There is hardly any limit to be assigned to the intercourse we can hold with everlasting truth, which is the substance of heaven, even in this world, by the soul.

When you look at a landscape in summer, if you see simply so many trees, acres, cattle, stones, you are wholly in the natural world. You see the outside shapes and colors, just as a sheep or a deer does, when the scene is painted on its eye.

If you study the soil and rocks so as to learn the geological truth of the region, how it was put together through ages of elaboration, by the power of God, and prepared for human habitation, the outside facts are at once a medium of Divine truth to you. A wave of God’s life, an influence from the spiritual world, rolls out of the scene into your intellect, and to that extent you come into communion with the Divine sphere by your mind.

If you see the beauty of the landscape, if the charm and harmony of the colors and the grouping of grove, meadow, hill, and stream, and the blaze of the overhanging blue, flecked with clouds that shed sailing shadows to cool the grass, waken in you a joy that springs from perception of the ineffable art of God, a richer wave from the spiritual world breaks through the scene upon your nature.

If, beyond these two experiences, you see in the same landscape a mystic expression of the Divine goodness, — if the beauty glows with an exhalation of love, “like a finer light in light,” — so that you look on the budding corn and the grazing life, and the peaceful ministry of a thousand forces to human happiness, as Jesus looked upon the bounteous hills that sloped from the shores of Gennesaret, and if, through all the processes which publish that goodness, you see the working of laws that tell you how God’s laws and life play in the experience of the human spirit, as Jesus plucked part of his gospel — the parable of the sower — from the various fortunes of the scattered grain, a still finer surge from the everlasting world floods you from that vision, and though you stand under the visible sun, and are in the body, and within the conditions of mortality, your soul is in communion with God; you look upon one district of this world as an angel looks upon it; your feet are in matter, your soul is in the spiritual sphere.

You will see, too, how this principle applies to all productions of genius. When you read a book, look at a statue, examine a painting, you are on the natural plane, if you simply see the material which the creative mind used to convey its thought and sentiment. You pass up into spiritual reception in proportion as, through the printed eloquence, the imprisoned meaning, the glowing character and imagination, you rise into sympathy with the genius of the writer or artist, and lie open with him to the inspiration that streams out of heaven into the human soul.

The soul is the organ of reception from the substantial world. Spiritual communications appeal to, and are verified by, no other faculties, any more than light can be perceived by the ear or flavors by the eye. It is impossible to obtain communion with the essential quality of the spiritual world in external ways. You can only be carried to the outside of the world of spirits in such ways. It is by something told to the interior faculties, something superior in its grade to anything we can learn by logic and by sight, some thing that makes us more wise in everlasting truth for which the world was made, more spiritual in feeling, that is, more pure, reverent, devout, and joyful, that we verify a message from the heavenly world. (pp. 73−77)

Source: Thomas Starr King, Christianity and Humanity: A Series of Sermons. Edwin P. Whipple (ed.). Boston: Osgood, 1877.  True Spiritual Communications (pp. 71− 89).

Related Articles

Frederic Henry Hedge, The Transfiguration: A Sermon (1838).

Uebersax, John.  What is Transcendentalism? Satyagraha.

Beyond the Pyramid. Being-Psychology: Maslow’s Real Contribution

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IT’S unfortunate — and perhaps ironic — that pioneer humanistic psychologist and the founder of positive psychology Abraham Maslow is today best known for his hierarchy of needs. The hierarchy will be familiar to most readers as the pyramid diagram found in all introductory psychology texts which places lower human needs (food, shelter, clothing, etc.) above higher needs like those for social affiliation and self-actualization.

It’s unfortunate because many people understandably balk at the suggestion that we have to have all material needs met before we can concern ourselves with being moral.  Ironic, because such a notion is far indeed from Maslow’s own beliefs and message.

To begin, then, let’s clear this up.  First, Maslow never used the pyramid diagram in any of his writings; this is an addition of later textbook writers.

Second, he didn’t intend the ‘hierarchy’ as an excuse for selfishness or delaying pursuit of higher needs; rather, he noted with considerable interest that there are people, like great reformers and saints, who are remarkable precisely because they subordinated material to altruism — and he implied that we all ought to emulate their example.  In other words, to the extent this hierarchy does exist, it is the condition of the fallen human race, and not how we should like it to remain.

Third, that people have basic drives for material needs is hardly a surprising or original suggestion;  the innovation of Maslow’s system is precisely that it includes higher needs at all — something surprisingly few psychologists were willing to admit when Maslow wrote.

Finally, Maslow proposed the hierarchy of needs relatively early in his career; over time he moved decisively towards a focus on higher needs; it is this emphasis which is clearly his greatest legacy.

Yet today, decades later, his legacy remains dimly understood and barely appreciated.  There are several reasons for this, including the emergence of a kind of  pseudo-positive psychology that in the 1990’s, using Maslow’s term yet ignoring him and his work.  But another reason is perhaps the regrettable tendency of human beings to latch onto a simplistic idea like a pyramid diagram and then rest there in the pretension of knowing something real and solid.

Rather than berate human folly (they very problem we’re trying to fix), let’s fight fire with fire.  That is, if we need a diagram to get a concept across, let’s supply a better one that expresses Maslow’s thought.  I propose on below.

mandala hires

The point is to give visual expression to Maslow’s real contribution, which is what he called Being psychology.  We can define Being-psychology in a number of ways.  At one level, it’s the psychology behind all the great religions and philosophies of the world — the perennial psychology.  It involves a transcendence of egoism and the inauthentic world of ‘seeming,’ and stepping into the reality of here and now fully alive: being fully in the world whilst simultaneously connected with the great Ideals of Truth, Beauty, Harmony, Love and Goodness. It is the psychology peak experiences, flow states, aesthetics, fulfillment, love and harmony.

Defined negatively, it is concerned with life free from anxieties, doubts, fears, anger and the other forms of negative cognition that oppose happy and fulfilling existence.  In short, Being-psychology is the psychology of life as we wish it to be; it is the aim of our life, what we strive for.

In future articles I’ll explain more about Being-psychology.  Here I simply wish to comment on its significance for the modern world and relevance to contemporary research.  One of the great merits of Maslow’s psychology — how it goes beyond traditional formulations of the perennial psychology like religion, Platonic Idealism and Transcendentalism — is that it is completely naturalistic.  Maslow, in fact, was more less an atheist. Yet he was convinced that all the great psychological and ethical teachings of the world’s religions are grounded in absolute truths of human nature.  He believed we are biologically designed and intended (perhaps by an intelligent universe) to be Idealists.  And unless we express this side of our nature we cannot be true to ourselves or attain to any great measure of happiness.

While not especially systematic in this thinking, Maslow was nonetheless extremely rationalistic, scientific and empirical.  His humanistic theories originated from analysis of answers to surveys and interviews he conducted.  Throughout his works he proposes practical testable hypotheses.  This empirical orientation means that Being-psychology supplies a bridge between science and religion. Maslow also considered the practical applications of Being-psychology and was especially concerned with applying it in industrial settings to improve worker satisfaction, morale and productivity.

Here then is a new way to look at Maslow’s theory: at the center of Philosophy, Religion, Science, and Culture, connecting them, and enabling ideas and discoveries to flow from one area to the others.  Let this much, then, serve as food for though and as an introduction to further posts.


Maslow, Abraham H. (1965). Eupsychian management. Homewood, IL: Irwin (reprinted Wiley, 1998).

Maslow, Abraham H. (1968). Toward a psychology of Being. 2nd ed. New York: Van Nostrand. Ch. 6. Cognition of being in the peak experiences. (pp. 71−102)

Maslow, Abraham H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Viking (republished: Arkana, 1993). Ch. 9. Notes on Being-Psychology. pp. 121−142.

Van Gogh: Christ – “an artist greater than all artists”

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Vincent Van Gogh, Sower with Setting Sun, June 1888

“Christ — alone — among all the philosophers, magicians, &c. declared eternal life – the endlessness of time, the non-existence of death – to be the principal certainty. The necessity and the raison d’être of serenity and devotion.

“Lived serenely as an artist greater than all artists — disdaining marble and clay and paint — working in living flesh. I.e. — this extraordinary artist, hardly conceivable with the obtuse instrument of our nervous and stupefied modern brains, made neither statues nor paintings nor even books….. he states it loud and clear.. he made.. living men, immortals.

“That’s serious, you know, especially because it’s the truth.

“That great artist didn’t make books, either — Christian literature as a whole would certainly infuriate him, and its literary products that could find favour beside Luke’s Gospel, Paul’s epistles — so simple in their hard or warlike form — are few and far between. This great artist — Christ — although he disdained writing books on ideas and feelings — was certainly much less disdainful of the spoken word — the parable above all. (What a sower, what a harvest, what a fig tree, &c.)

“And who would dare tell us that he lied, the day when, scornfully predicting the fall of the buildings of the Romans, he stated, ‘heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.’

“Those spoken words, which as a prodigal, great lord he didn’t even deign to write down, are one of the highest, the highest summit attained by art, which in them becomes a creative force, a pure creative power.”

Source: Vincent van Gogh, To: Emile Bernard, Arles; Tuesday, 26 June 1888

Written by John Uebersax

January 30, 2018 at 5:39 pm

Posted in Art, Christianity, Idealism

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Van Gogh: “We take death to go to a star”

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Starry Night over the Rhône (September 1888)

My dear Theo, […]

It’s certainly a strange phenomenon that all artists, poets, musicians, painters are unfortunate in the material sense — even the happy ones — what you were saying recently about Guy de Maupassant proves it once again. That rakes up the eternal question: is life visible to us in its entirety, or before we die do we know of only one hemisphere?

Painters — to speak only of them — being dead and buried, speak to a following generation or to several following generations through their works. Is that all, or is there more, even? In the life of the painter, death may perhaps not be the most difficult thing.

For myself, I declare I don’t know anything about it. But the sight of the stars always makes me dream in as simple a way as the black spots on the map, representing towns and villages, make me dream.

Why, I say to myself, should the spots of light in the firmament be less accessible to us than the black spots on the map of France.

Just as we take the train to go to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to go to a star. What’s certainly true in this argument is that while alive, we cannot go to a star, any more than once dead we’d be able to take the train. So it seems to me not impossible that cholera, the stone, consumption, cancer are celestial means of locomotion, just as steamboats, omnibuses and the railway are terrestrial ones.

To die peacefully of old age would be to go there on foot.

For the moment I’m going to go to bed because it’s late, and I wish you good-night and good luck.


Ever yours,


Source: Vincent Van Gogh (1853–1890), Letter to brother, Theo van Gogh. 10 July 1888.


Written by John Uebersax

January 29, 2018 at 7:56 pm

Posted in Art, Idealism

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Plato Not a Moral Absolutist (or a Relativist)

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PLATO is often wrongly associated in people’s minds with moral absolutism — that is, with the position that there are definite, absolute rights and wrongs, and, as a result, that human morality involves universal rules for things we should always or never do. However this view is mistaken. Plato’s moral theory, in fact, relies intimately on the principles of balance and proportion. Although Aristotle is usually considered the originator or populizer of the concept of virtue as a golden mean between opposite extremes, this principle is prominently featured earlier in the works of Plato, his teacher.

In the Republic, Plato’s magnificent and magisterial work on personal morals (civil politics is by no means its central theme), he supplies an important summary at the end of Book 9.  The entire preceding discussion was aimed at answering two questions: (1) who is the righteous person? and (2) is the righteous person happier than the unrighteous?  In his summary Plato supplies this key principle:

When the entire soul accepts the guidance of the wisdom-loving part and is not filled with inner dissension, the result for each part is that it in all other respects keeps to its own task and is just, and likewise that each enjoys its own proper pleasures and the best pleasures and, so far as such a thing is possible, the truest. (Republic 9.586e−587a; tr. Shorey; italics added; cf. Philebus 64d−e).

What he means is that, for example, if one emphasizes sensory pleasures or gratification of biological appetites too much at the cost of, say, work or intellectual activity, one creates inner disharmony and strife.  To illustrate this is the whole point of the elaborate city-soul analogy of the Republic; the idea is that our soul is like a city with many factions, and if one faction is overindulged, strife results.

Besides being bad in itself, inner strife has the result, Plato tells us here, of diminishing all pleasure.  Disproportionate indulgence has the effect of blunting and dulling ones experience of the pleasure.  For example, although drinking a small glass of rare wine may be a genuine pleasure, to consume half a bottle dulls the senses, lessening or eliminating the pleasure.  But on top of that, intentional overindulgence may produce inner, mental strife, and this agitation, which reduces our clear and focused attention, will further lessen the pleasure.  On the other hand, if we make a discerning choice to indulge an appetite to the exact right measure, then we may experience the best and truest form of the associated pleasure.

Hence our goal at all times should be to reach and maintain a state of harmony and balance within our soul, so that we may both (1) have the fullest level of mental integrity and clarity, meting out pleasures with wisdom and discernment, and (2) then to enjoy well-measured pleasures fully.  Seeking pleasures is natural and normal, provided they not subvert the more fundamental need to maintain a healthy-minded and virtuous disposition of ones psyche:

The entire soul, returning to its nature at the best, attains to a much more precious condition in acquiring sobriety [sound-mindedness; sophrosyne] and righteousness [dikaiosyne] together with wisdom [phronesis] . . . Then the wise man will bend all his endeavors to this end throughout his life; he will, to begin with, prize the studies that will give this quality to his soul and disprize the others . . . but he will always be found attuning the harmonies of his body for the sake of the concord in his soul . . . He will . . . keep his eyes fixed on the constitution in his soul, and taking care and watching lest he disturb anything there either by excess or deficiency. (Republic 9.591 b−e; tr. Shorey; italics added)

Nor is Plato a Relativist

Nevertheless, neither can it be said that Plato is a moral relativist. His ethics, in fact, offer a third alternative (tertium quid) to moral absolutism and moral relativism.

What is non-relative is his overriding principle that harmony and sound-mindedness, and other such things which promote clear perception of justness and rightness, are absolute and objective criteria for right action.  While the same action (e.g., to drink a glass of wine) may be righteous or unrighteous in different circumstances, the overriding principle by which it may be deemed just and right — i.e., the promotion of inner harmony and ability to see truth, justice and beauty relative to circumstance — does remain the same. And this is much different than moral relativism.  Justice as harmony for Plato is understood as an objective and immutable cosmic principle.

This fits generally with Plato’s marvelous integrality, such that he is able to resolve and find answers to life’s pressing existential questions by transcending dichotomies.


Hesiod’s Ages of Man Myth as Psychological Allegory

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Dance of the Muses at Mount Helicon by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1807)

MY HYPOTHESIS is that Hesiod’s Works and Days is not a “glorified farmer’s almanac,” but an example of ancient wisdom literature meant to convey the perennial philosophy. Its purpose is to advise readers on how to operate the human mind and soul and to find happiness in life via the same philosophical principles expressed by the Delphic religion (and, for that matter, also the Old Testament, the wisdom tradition of ancient Egypt, etc.). For this it uses, as befits poetry, figures and metaphors drawn from history and daily life; but the meanings are parabolic, and it is the reader’s task To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings. (Prov.1:6)

I leave this experiment of interpretation to individual readers.  But for this experiment it will help to have an artistic translation which potentially highlights the interior, psychological meanings — and at least one that does not obscure poetic meanings, which can easily (if not inevitably) happen in translations that are extremely literal and technical, which is the modern trend.

Therefore for your enjoyment and edification I have placed online a copy of Thomas Cooke’s inspired 1743 verse translation, and also for ease of reading an 1822 reprint with modern spelling.

Part of my hypothesis is that the Ages of Man is myth of moral fall (Uebersax, 2014), and symbolizes stages in our periodic descent from a state of grace (understood in either a religious sense, or alternatively in a psychological sense as a condition of greater unity and mental ability) into its opposite mundane and debased condition, through successive cognitive stages, with parallels to Plato’s Tyrant’s Progress in the Republic (Uebersax, 2015). Here is Cooke’s translation of Hesiod’s Ages of Man myth, illustrated with engravings designed by John Flaxman and executed by William Blake.