Issue 85 / January - February 2012
Virtue and Happiness
M. Fethullah Gulen
Those who promise happiness to people must equip them with virtues first. Happiness is out of reach for those whose hearts have not been saturated with virtue. From the past to the present, sound minds have always accepted it as so. Felicity and virtue are twins.
Virtue, succinctly, is being distinguished with the most exalted ethical and moral values, and beholding the whole of existence with love. A truly virtuous person has a kind of connection with all things. In the sight of such an individual the flow of events passes like breezes of spring. Life itself relieves the soul and brings it a feeling of bliss, filling the heart with joys. They are enraptured in the constant flood of things and events, savoring fresh scenes in them. Neither the rising and setting of the sun, nor the continuous cycle of night and day can spoil their delight or fill their heart with gloom. They keep living moments of serenity and happiness, viewing different and ever-renewed sights with wisdom.
On the one hand, being virtuous does not mean an extreme rejection of all human desires and leading a life of extreme austerity by turning our back against the material world. Such an understanding, which detaches people from the world they live in, is a cause of pessimism and a source of hopelessness. And this, as Ibsen puts it, means destroying happiness. At the same time, such extreme and groundless worries imply that the individual only thinks about one's self. Such a person shows signs of being preoccupied with self-concern, and can be deprived of the feeling of benevolence. This kind of thought implies a wrong understanding of ethical standards, and is devoid of the merit of altruism.
On the other hand, it is not correct to claim that virtue is a guarantor of all material and spiritual felicities. A virtuous person can be ill, poor, or in a wretched condition. Such a person may suffer the oppression, insults, and betrayals of other people, and may even undergo torture, convictions, and exiles. Jesus was betrayed, Socrates was convicted, and Epictetus was oppressed-but they all remained happy in a deep sense. In this respect, we believe that happiness resides in the heart, in the form of the breezes of an inner paradise, reinforced by the practice of virtue that cannot be shaken. As faith contains the seed of a spiritual paradise, unbelief likewise bears the stone of a spiritual hell.
Virtue is when people realize their own limitedness, and let go of their pettiness in the infinity of the universe. Virtue means not valuing their person more than they should. We lose felicity when we experience the distress of insatiable and worthless ambition. Then we are beset by little miseries such as material disappointments, or wounds to dignity and pride. A virtuous person is one with sound thinking. Such people "do not wait passively when there is a solution, and do not start wailing at what there is no solution for." On the contrary, they do their best and seek ways against the avoidable and on behalf of the possible. In the face of events beyond their power they submit to the divine will.
People of virtue do not violate their happiness with such things as self-oriented thoughts, greed for fortune, and love of worldly status, which are sought after by many others. Since sound thinking people are ready to welcome insurmountable troubles and inevitable misfortunes from the beginning, their felicity and happiness is never spoiled. In terms of their consciousness and feelings, such individuals can always have their share of pure and lofty joys or delights. They can always take pleasure in loving others, in familial compassion, in brotherhood, sisterhood, and friendship. Such people will not commit oppression, will not be traitors and will always keep away from thoughts based on revenge, grudges, hatred, and envy. Therefore, they can always feel a breeze composed of respect and love blowing around them and will always be happy. With the connectedness they feel for their family, country, nation, and all of creation they swim in a coastless sea of love. They actually feel infinite delights and feel the pleasures of Paradise before they enter there.
These pleasures stem from beauties like sharing others' joys, feeling others' delights in their own soul, and even facing grief and suffering in order to pave the way for greater happiness. Being virtuous means establishing a contact with the past and future just like the present time. Being virtuous means being spiritually connected to the most distinguished personalities of the past and future; feeling their approval and appreciation deep in one's heart. Being virtuous means sharing the same life with the most distinguished persons in human history, uniting and merging with our ancestors and with all future generations. Thus, through living in such a close connection with the entire humanity and universe, the heart attains eternal happiness while in this world and reaches a dimension where external occurrences cannot violate its happiness.
We have learned this deep relation of virtue with true happiness from the most honorable figures of humanity. This is the very felicity which makes hearts find contentment, and which sets minds at rest. This felicity is based on the soundest pillars of virtue such as having no arrogance, being mature and tolerant, overlooking faults, and holding no grudges or hatred. To put it directly: this felicity is in the heart and spirit. It is so deep-rooted as never to be replaced by anything else. It is related to the essence of humanity. Materialistic pleasures in the superficial, selfish, ambitious sense can add nothing to this type of felicity, nor can they substitute for it. How fortunate are those who exalt their souls with belief and refine their hearts with virtue!