“Happy Birthday! Now blow out your candle and make a wish.” I had just turned 54. There was just one candle on the cake, as 54 of them would constitute something of a fire hazard. I started to contemplate what I might wish for, and here is what took shape inside my head…
As I reflect on our modern culture, it seems that we have a number of establishments created to honor, and economically capitalize on, our human vices. There are bars where people can go to spend money to pour fermented barley water, fermented grape juice, or even fouler concoctions down their throats in an effort to incapacitate their rational minds. There are fast food restaurants where people can go to nurture their sugar addictions and further narrow their arterial passages. Pornography is, horrifyingly, readily available across the internet to those whose passions can’t be satiated. All of these are stunningly profitable enterprises, which explains their widespread prevalence in a culture where greed is also rampant. So, my birthday wish arose from these contemplations as I noticed that there was a conspicuous absence of institutions that honor human virtue. I understand that one could make the case that churches fulfill this role, but I had something different in mind: the Hall of Virtue.
Here’s the vision: Every community would commission and build a replica of the Roman Pantheon in its downtown area or any other suitable public square. The Hall of Virtue would be open 24/7, and staffed by volunteers. Funding for its supplies and upkeep would come from donations and private fundraising. When you enter a Hall of Virtue, you would be met by a docent who would greet you and seek to know how he or she could assist you in maximizing the benefits of your visit. You may wish to discuss a current struggle in your life with one of the Hall’s volunteer philosophers, trained in ancient Greek and Roman philosophical techniques such as premediatio malorum (“premeditation of evils,” or negative visualization). You may wish to visit one of the statuary niches, each housing a full-scale marble sculpture of a famous historical philosopher. Many philosophical schools and perspectives would be represented; there would be a sculpture for everyone’s preferred perspective, and requests for additions would always be accepted and considered. Each niche would contain a selection of votive candles which could be lit in thanks for the wisdom and guidance the niche’s philosopher has offered the visitor. You may just wish to peruse the philosophical quotations that are engraved all over the walls in search of inspiration to guide your day. Whatever your purpose there, the docent will gently suggest some options, let you know he or she is there if you need anything, and then leave you in contemplative peace.
You may choose to visit the library wing, stocked with a vast collection of parchment scrolls, each containing an elegant, handwritten philosophical treatise. The surviving works of every philosopher represented by a statue in the hall would be available for perusal and commonplace book note taking. When finished reviewing a scroll, patrons would then gently roll them back up and leave them on one of the study tables. You may then depart with your notes, and the library’s overseer would see the scroll safely returned to its respective cubbyhole in the scroll shelf.
Perhaps you wish to attend one of the Hall’s frequently scheduled philosophy readings and open discussions. Perhaps you wish to reserve a rostrum in the Hall’s central audience chamber so that you could deliver a philosophical oration of your own, not unlike how Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park operates. You would never lack opportunities for vigorous philosophical discussion in the Hall of Virtue, though all patrons know that civility and respect will reign supreme, and all participants will part in amity and goodwill.
Live, instrumental music will be constantly provided; soft, meditative melodies emanating from harps and other instruments of similar ancestral history will resonate through the hall to establish an ambience of peace and reflection. Musicians in the Hall of Virtue will be local enthusiasts from the Hall’s surrounding community, and they will offer classes in the playing of their instruments to all interested, free of charge.
Volunteer philosophers will engage in extensive community outreach, working to educate the greater community on the practice of the chief virtues in daily life. Chief among those would be courage/fortitude, wisdom, justice, and temperance. School field trips would be welcomed, particularly from secondary level history and literature classes.
There will be no wifi access, or electronic devices permitted within the boundaries of the Hall. Though they have their uses, such devices serve more to distract and tempt than they do to promote the virtues. It is best they remain unavailable to maximize the authenticity of a patron’s visit. A docent will see that any such devices are kept very safe in a secure storage area and returned to visitors upon their departure…
“So…are you going to blow out the candle?” My wife’s curious if not subtly concerned prompting led me to do just that, and the vision, though only as developed as you see it above, became a part of the logos as I exhaled it through the candle flame. Will it ever come to pass in the wider world beyond my own imagination? Who can tell? It could take a while, but while we all wait for Halls of Virtue to be commissioned in our respective communities, we can heed this advice from Marcus Aurelius himself:
People try to get away from it all—to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like. By going within. Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul. Especially if you have other things to rely on. An instant’s recollection and there it is: Complete tranquility. And by tranquility I mean a kind of harmony.
As the emperor tells us in this passage from The Meditations, we each carry within us a Hall of Virtue, sometimes referred to by the Stoics as the “inner citadel.” Vacations aren’t necessary. We don’t have to go anywhere physically to “get away from it all.” Just envision your own personal Hall of Virtue, and go there whenever you have a quiet moment. Mine is a basalt rock Pantheon, crafted into the hillside of Steptoe Butte in Whitman County, Washington; it is set high enough in the butte’s slope to offer a commanding view of the surrounding Palouse countryside—the land that is the home of my soul. A cobblestone walkway lined with cypress trees leads up to its entrance, and several walking paths, built terrace-like into the side of the butte, wind around it where I nightly (or sometimes even daily) go on long walks with Seneca, Epictetus (he and I usually just sit on the ground due to his infirmity), and Marcus Aurelius himself, discussing the path to tranquility.
Until our Halls of Virtue can come into physical existence in our own communities, we can carry them within us, encouraging others to create and visit their own as often as they have the opportunity to, and avoid the temples of vice they pass by each day. We can build our Halls, mentally and spiritually, among all we meet, and then, when the time has finally come…
I look forward to greeting you all at my local Hall’s threshold…or visiting yours.
Until then, may courage, justice, wisdom, and temperance be with you.
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Antoninus, Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. Translated by Gregory Hays. The Modern Library, 2002.