Historians claim that one of the greatest speeches of all time was delivered by the Athenian leader, Pericles, after one of the first battles of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE. It was a Funeral Oration given to Athenian citizens the year after the war with Sparta had begun. It was very much like a Memorial Day celebration in our own time, in which were recounted many of the glories and blessings of Athenian life; the virtues the citizens enjoyed, such as freedom, democracy, the rule of law, an open society, patriotism, free trade, and consequent prosperity.
But in one of the supreme ironies of recorded history, within a year after Pericles made his famous oration, the city was stricken by a plague. The death and destruction were horrific. The plague spread with appalling rapidity, causing widespread sickness and mass death. Lawlessness prevailed; people forgot their morals, religion, and ethics, and resolved to enjoy themselves while they could, and to think only of their personal wants.
These two events recorded together represent a meaningful analogy of human experience–the astonishing heights a great civilization can reach on the one hand, coupled with the miserable lows they can descend into on the other. And this cycle of life happens to civilizations, to governments, to cultures, to families, and to individuals. It is indeed one of the great opposites in the human condition.
But the lesson that we must never lose sight of is that amidst the very worst of times, somehow, we still manage to come through with amazing contributions to the overall human experience: amazing acts of kindness and charity, creation of great works of art, literature, architecture, scientific achievements, relief of suffering through medical breakthroughs…and it teaches us that regardless of our situation in the moment, life goes on. And then we die.
The question we should ask as fraternal men is what does Freemasonry have to say to us about how we should live our lives in response to life’s extreme vicissitudes? After all, we are experiencing many of these vicissitudes today. Storms are becoming more violent across our planet, human suffering more apparent, governments more unstable, ideologies more divisive, violence more prevalent, suicides more common. How do we respond to the circumstance life brings us? More importantly, how do we respond to life’s ultimate brevity?
As it turns out, these subjects weighed heavily on the minds of the ancient thinkers. In fact, the study of ethics came about in ancient Greece to articulate an answer to the problem of “how we should live.” And Freemasonry tends to follow the pragmaticism of the ancient Greeks. Our behavior and ethics have a purpose which is higher than ourselves. How we behave and respond to life’s negatives matters just as much as how we respond to life’s joys.
Just as Aristotle set forth in his famous lecture that the “Golden Mean” is where virtue lies, so does Freemasonry examine in almost every one of its Degrees, that there is a virtue which can reconcile every opposite. There is a golden mean between the vices of excess and deficiency. The truths set forth in our Masonic teachings give us all the guideposts we will ever need to know how human beings can, by reason and practice, excel towards virtue and excellence, even in the worst of times.
And ultimately, these practices can result in happiness, which then enables the achievement of what the Greeks called the “highest good,” or “goodness embodied in a flourishing human life”. As brothers, perhaps the cultivation and improvement of friendships is how we can best comprehend what the nature of the higher good means.
Human happiness carries with it a purpose in the furtherance of good intentions and aims. Rather than drifting aimlessly and purposeless in such a challenging world, we can act with a purpose which uplifts not only ourselves, but everyone around us. Masonry admonishes us that as we master ourselves, our passions, and our personal behaviors, we cultivate our virtues and contribute to the “highest good” of human activity. And this is the path to real happiness.
We are to rise to life, and make the best of it we can; rather than fall to the circumstances which deprive us of becoming all that we can become. Being the best simply means that if you are a teacher, then be the best possible teacher you can be. If you are an artist, then be the best possible artist you can be. If you are in a trade, then be the best tradesman you can be. If you are in business, then run the best and most ethical business you can run, and consciously align moral principles with corporate values. If you are a husband and father, be the best you can be in both.
Masonry teaches us that whatever we do, we should do it to the best of our ability and always strive to improve. By doing so we maximize our natural talents and potential and “make the world a better place.” When we invest in ourselves, others will prosper along with us. Because making the best of ourselves helps lead all of us toward the greatest good.
Human life is what it is–full of wonder, happiness, fulfillment, and love; disease, loneliness, destruction, and death. Surely, then, we have nothing to lose from following an ethical and moral path to realize our highest potential and maximize our own personal virtues. Thereby living a life devoted to excellence and happiness.
We are all in the same boat while we are alive. And when all is said and done, the real question will be: what kind of life would we have wished we lived?
My brothers, in our great fraternity of men, and by the grace of God, we are always to take the high road: pursue virtue, excellence, and happiness. The reward is that we will have a much more rewarding and full life, in good times and bad.
What more meaning, what more purpose, could we ask for than that we live happy, and communicate happiness?