How to be a virtuous person
The 10 commandments in the interpretation of an atheist.
Written for Quora: How do I be a good person as a teenager?
One can become a good person by following these simple 3 steps:
Step 1. Revise your vocabulary
What kind of meaning do you put in the words like “good man”,
Your definitions could be very short and on point or long and precise. Let me give you an example.
I ask people a very simple question:
What is a “friend”?
Most of them start to give long explanations. They try to find appropriate words, come up with some life examples and situations.
That’s the common flaw. How can someone’s mindset, someone’s system of beliefs, be effective when it consists of dodgy blurry terms?
My definition is simple and crystal clear:
A friend is someone who is taking care of you.
That’s it. And then after I could expand on this definition:
A friend is someone who is sacrificing his own resource for the sake of yours.
By resource, I mean primarily time and secondarily money which are essentially the same thing as they are interconvertible.
Now, your objective is to define for yourself what is a “good person”. Since there are as many opinions as there are people you have to find what works just for you. Of course, it should be noted that your definitions should be based on the objective reality, not some distorted version of it.
I will share my take on those definitions:
A good person is a person of virtue.
A virtue is a behavior that helps to live a happy and meaningful life.
A happy and meaningful life is a life that contains:
- A loving family
- Loving friends (the word that we have just defined)
- A Mission — a way of service to others that also helps to sustain life on the level of wealth
- Wealth — rich man is not who has a lot of money, it is the one who has enough.
- Enough money— enough for food and shelter, enough for learning and traveling, enough for not being distracted from the Mission.
I could go endlessly through these definitions as they are all interconnected and pull each other as a bundle of handkerchiefs as I pull one. The point is not to share what I think. Everyone has an opinion. My point is to show you how important it is to define the words and utilize the vocabulary that is crystal clear for you in order to be an effective human being.
Step 2. The Ten Virtues
As we just defined virtue we can take a closer look at them. What virtues are there?
If you have a religious background you already understand how religion helps you to restrain yourself from the behavior that you may regret about later.
I don’t have a religion but I am a believer. I was born in USSR and raised in an atheistic middle-class family hence we never talked about God in my family. All I learned about the concept of God and my own spiritual maturing are the results of study and practice. The way I found my way to develop spirituality and my definitions of God I should dissect in a separate essay.
Here, I just want to think about the practicality of the Religion. In order to do that I will use another definition of Religion:
Religion is a system of beliefs that promotes a certain desired behavior in order to distribute the ultimate goodness.
What I mean is, a religious person lives a life of virtue, he experiences the benefits of it on the individual level and expands it further to his family>his community>city>country, and lastly to the level of humanity.
We obtain a pyramid in which the goodness self-distributes and everyone can benefit from the same mindset that, very importantly, can be explained to even an uneducated person.
My Dad is turning 60 today.
Happy Birthday, Dad! I love you.
He is an atheist and has an engineering background. He once told me:
“Son, I already lived my life. I think I lived a righteous life. There are really not that many things that a man should do in order to live a good life. Take care of your family, work hard, do your work and do it well. I am no Christian, but everything that a man needs to know was written on two stones on the mountain long time ago.”
It made me think.
He showed me the direction and I started to rethink the Ten Commandments in order to absorb the practicality of it. Here is what I come up with.
1. I am the Lord your God. You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.
I will call this virtue more simply. I will call it
Faith is a strong belief in the righteousness of the things that are generally known as right.
Having faith is the most important virtue, as the absence of faith makes all other virtues futile.
It doesn’t matter if you have a religion or not, if you don’t believe that the right things are right you will not implement them and your life will be a mess.
The famous Heath Ledger’s Joker is an example of the ultimate distortion of faith. He implemented a system of beliefs that for a regular person would seem insane. He didn’t have faith in the things the majority of people think are right by default and as a result, he transformed into the “man who wants to watch the world burn”. Everyone likes the Joker on screen, but no one wants to be one in the real life.
2. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
For this one I want to go back to the Bible:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Bible says that the God is the Word. This is my interpretation of it — “You shall not use the words in vain”. The second virtue is
Benjamin Franklin in his book writes about the three “filters” we should use for our speech. Before saying something we need to check if it is:
- pleasant to hear
In the age when the world is sinking in the noise and constant chatter, we should be mindful of what we say and the way we say it.
Silence is meditation. Meditation is silence. Sitting in silence with your eyes closes will teach you more about yourself than a hundred of books and a dozen of teachers.
3. Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day
This is the virtue that I would translate into
Maybe we are all too busy caught up with our routines to take the whole day off to think about God and to ask ourselves questions like “Who am I?” “What do I do with my life?” “What are my ultimate meanings?” but I think everyone should dedicate at least small part of their day to take time and focus on the spiritual growth.
We live in a fascinating time of technological progress that brought us not less fascinating challenges. Global automation caused by the advancements of AI and robots bring up real threats but one of the most dangerous of them the humanity has already started to experience is the loss of meaning.
We need to take the full responsibility for the development of a solid personal philosophy that will give us convincing answers to the question of who we are and what we are doing on this planet. The transcendence of the planetary conscientiousness starts at an individual level. It starts with you.
4. Honor your Father and your Mother.
This virtue I would translate as
As humans, we increase our efficiency by constant collaboration. We can’t collaborate if we don’t build hierarchy systems. This is just the way it works now. The respect to yourself and respect to others comes from the family. In the family, parents educate children and lay the foundation for the understanding of how social systems work.
“A man doesn’t get respect for nothing. Respect has to be earned.” This is what my Dad taught me and it became a part of my personal creed. I know that whenever I work with others the only way to build up my reputation is working hard and getting shit done.
Respect for authority teaches you how to stay a lifelong student and seek for mentors in everything you do. Respect for authority teaches you how to work hard and do your job well. Respect for authority opens you up to knowledge.
5. You shall not kill
People kill because they lose control. Anger — this what makes people attack each other. This virtue can be put simply in one word:
My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama writes about kindness: “The true essence of humankind is kindness. There are other qualities which come from education or knowledge, but it is essential, if one wishes to be a genuine human being and impart satisfying meaning to one’s existence, to have a good heart.”
I used to get attracted to people who are intelligent. I thought the intelligence is a virtue that automatically implies the kindness. I was naive enough to believe that smart men (because they are smart) do understand that the kindness is the most efficient way to operate in this world. I was wrong. Many extremely intelligent men that I know don’t get it. It appeared that the consequent downside of the intelligence is the aptitude to overinflated ego. The best people are kind.
6. You shall not commit adultery
Adultery in a sense is a betrayal, a betrayal on the bigger scale can become a treason. The community will fail if it is sabotaged from the inside hence it should be preempted before happening.
This virtue is
A sense of duty is what keeps good men in order. A feeling that there is always something bigger than them, something look up to. Staying loyal to the things you hold dear resisting the temptation to indulge into temporary pleasure with the risk of ruining what you have been building for years — this is the quality that will help you to achieve more in life.
7. You shall not steal
Stealing is the result. The causality is the excessive desire that doesn’t match one’s financial capabilities. This virtue can be called:
Abstinence, temperance, frugality, minimalism — you name it. Learning how to control your desires and not stay away from extensiveness will keep your mind strong and safe. People fall into gluttony, seek consolation in alcohol, spend money on things they don’t need. Asceticism might be over the top for the most of us but the moderation is something that a man pursuing a good fortune should strive for.
8. You shall not bear false witness
Back in the days, the language had to be simplified so that common people could understand the commandments. This particular commandment served to reinforce the justice and emphasized the importance of treating each other in an honest way.
Formulation changes, principles stay the same. Integrity is what earns respect. Strong spine wins people. Honesty with yourself and others is the key to master life. Personal creed defines destiny. This virtue can be summarized in one word
If a personal creed doesn’t contain this virtue as a component, the whole life philosophy of an individual will be incomplete and he will fail in many areas in life.
9. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife
In the past, this commandment prevented people from fights. People needed an external rule to follow so that community doesn’t self-annihilate. In today’s age of “free love”, “friends with benefits” and “no strings attached” relationships, in the age of the high-speed Internet that delivers one-click-away porn, this commandment has to transcend and become internal. One willing to succeed in life must practice the virtue of
Sigmund Freud has claimed that sexual desire is the fundamental motivation. Chastity is the moderation in sex, control of sexual desires and channeling this energy into creative process. No one has said it better than the Sigmund Freud himself:
The virtuous man contents himself with dreaming that which the wicked man does in actual life.
Chastity is a self-discipline and self-control.
10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods
By goods, we shouldn’t understand only material objects. Skills and talents that other people possess are also good things that we can desire. A virtuous man understands that the superiority of the other man is not a subject of jealousy, it is a subject of deep respect and high admiration. A virtuous man understands that he needs to foster his
Stay humble. Learn from those who are better than you, share knowledge with those who are at the beginning of the way you already walked. A man of virtue doesn’t judge and eradicates the slightest traces of jealousy when he notices them. He knows that he never walked other people’s paths in their shoes. He is humble because he knows that he knows nothing.
Step 3. Deploy.
Okay, let’s recap what we have. We have just walked through 10 virtues:
10 fingers. 10 virtues. Easy to remember.
I am convinced that these 10 are definitely enough to be called a good person and fairly certain they are enough to live a good life.
Now, all you need to do is to deploy.
These virtues should define your daily activities, they should govern your regime, they should define the way you position yourself in this world and the way you respond to the challenges Life throws at you. These 10 virtues will become the anchor that you will use to stay still when the storm comes.
I will leave you today thinking about these virtues with the words of ancient stoic Epictetus: