The four virtues

The four virtues

By Shakespeare’s time, in the 16th century, a new idea was coming up. A big change had begun in 15th century England. (Perhaps Shakespeare himself was an example: he was at first despised because his father had not had the money to send him to a university. Yet he became famous in his lifetime.) The enormously popular poet Geoffrey Chaucer declared that a gentleman is to be known by his good behaviour, not by his birth. A man is a gentleman, proclaimed Chaucer, only if he behaves well.

There was a verse of that time: ‘There are these four virtues—Honesty, Kindness, Freedom and Courage. No one can be a gentleman if he lacks three of them’.  In other words, he must have at least two. It is typical of the British that this ideal does not require one to have more than two of the four virtues to be considered a gentleman. Of course, it is better if he has three—better still if he has four. But we do not expect such perfection to be common. (I am reminded of a phrase in a letter of Yamaoka Tesshu9: ‘Every man has seven bad points’.)

I may add here that the virtue of freedom has been an enormous advantage to us in national life. We respect the freedom of others to be eccentric. To be eccentric is often a sign of genius. But in many countries, eccentric people are disliked and persecuted. The British respect for freedom is one reason why for centuries there have been many new ideas arising in Britain.

However, even when complete, the ideal has some big gaps in it. Nothing is said about inner calm. Courage included endurance of pain. This was especially a Roman virtue. At school we learnt how Scaevola, a Roman hero captured by the Etruscan enemies about 500 B.C., was brought for interrogation. There happened to be a fire in the room. One of them said, ‘Answer our questions’. Scaevola walked to the fire and thrust his right hand into it. The interrogators watched in amazement as the hand blackened and shrivelled. Then he faced them and said, ‘Ask’.  It is pleasant to read that the Etruscans freed him and allowed him to return to Rome. (Romans would not have been so chivalrous.) The Romans honoured him by giving him the name ‘Left-handed’; Scaevola means left-handed. His descendants played a large part in Roman history for six centuries. Some of us schoolboys were impressed by this. When I read about Nobunaga’s death10, dancing in the burning temple, I said to myself, ‘Scaevola!’

This sort of grand-scale heroism is outside ordinary life. But there were also small-scale incidents in the tales of chivalry which could be tried. As a boy I read how a Knight and his servant were travelling and stayed at a poor inn, where the beds were full of fleas. ‘The servant was scratching all night, but the Knight lay still’.  On one occasion, when my family were on holiday, we were overtaken by a storm and had to stay at a little inn. My bed had fleas in it. I resolved to imitate the Knight, trying to lie still and letting them bite. After two or three bites, they stopped and I began to fall asleep. Then I felt a new bite and automatically scratched. I concluded that the Knight in the story must have stayed awake.

As a student at London University, I joined a Spartan-type group. Once a week, we bathed in the icy water of a deep pond; it was a special achievement to break the ice in winter months. About this time I began Judo and heard from the old teacher that the traditional samurai always washed his face in cold water, ‘so that it would remain firm even after death’. From then on for over 20 years I never took a hot bath. I used hot water only reluctantly just to shave.

But there was a gap in the code of chivalry: there was no inner calm. The Knights were passionate people. The gap was filled in the 19th century by reviving the Roman virtue of inner undisturbability, not merely outer calm. The nation as a whole began to cultivate it. There was a familiar saying on the Continent: ‘the calm Englishman’. Anti-British writers, like the popular novelist Jules Verne, often laughed at the British for stupidity, but admitted that they were calm.

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