Dr Said, an Anglican priest with an Israeli passport, is currently completing post doctoral studies at Cambridge. We met at the entrance to Corpus Christi college, just around the corner from its remarkably beautiful new clock. He treated me to lunch in the hall (ancient, beautiful room with modern, institutional food) before we retired to the cafe of a nearby church for coffee and brownies where there were a series of very noisy dish breakages during our talk that caused us to stop regularly and crack up laughing at the hapless stackers of dishes. Not very virtuous of us…
For Dr Said, virtuous acts are acts that contribute to growth – of the self, of others, of society in general. A truly virtuous act is something we do to in response to an emotional challenge of some kind in order to change ourselves for the better: for example, a moment of shame, guilt, or sadness. It is then that we have an opportunity to be less caught up in ourselves and develop better connections with the bigger reality of life. He would not say that he thinks about virtuous behaviour all the time but he does know that he tries consciously, and through prayer, to become the human being that he is being called to become. Prayer, like contemplating a beautiful landscape or listening to music, takes him out of himself and gives him to opportunity to confront and challenge what he sees and understands with a view to transforming it (i.e. himself) for the better.
Whilst this may sound like he is caught up with himself, the answer could not be farther from the truth. Dr Said grew up in the Middle East where society is lived in a less individual way than in the west. He maintains it is easier to be virtuous where groups of people must cooperate on a daily basis to achieve a common goal. This is also the reason that he sees virtue is critical for people in positions of leadership: they can become isolated and begin to work against the interests of the group they are leading if the heirarchy allows them to do so. Alternately, they can be a powerful force for good.
Dr Said sees the barriers to embedding virtue include egoism, greed and fear – all our worst, natural human inclinations! Embedding virtue requires us to forge relationships and learn to live with each other in communities. For him, God is a critical member of any community because he believes we need help and support to transform our lives.
Embedding virtue is in the hands of individuals and Dr Said suggests we do two things: Firstly, we must learn to question our motives when we do thing, asking ourselves, “Why am I doing this? What good will it do? Will it do any harm?” and then acting only to do good and not to do harm. However, asking ourselves these questions in isolation is not enough because we need to understand the people with whom we are interacting in order to be able to answer the questions accurately. To that end, we need to build relationships and share experiences. Only in that way can we get to know others and learn from them, thus creating opportunities for us to transform.