Values and Virtues

by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle

A great hall with a vaulted glass ceiling an and a staircase leading up to a seated statue.

photo by Josh Hild via Pexels

I’ve seen a lot of talk lately in our esoteric communities about our values. It always makes me wince a little. I remember the era, which never really left us, of family values meaning Christian values or traditional mainstream nuclear family values rooted in a naive vision of the 1950s. I remember the Parental Advisory Explicit Content warning labels of the music of my youth, a scheme by Tipper Gore and her ilk to let chain stores still be considered a store of family values when refusing to stock such music. I remember the imposition of one’s values upon another, and upon society. Sometimes I feel those I generally identify with more, like Pagans, are seeking to simply flip the narrative, so that their values are dominant. Language and behavior are adopted that would likewise impose their personal values on the masses of society, rather than shift the fundamental dynamic. And I think we are all guilty of it at one time or another. Wouldn’t it be lovely to live in a world of Witchcraft and Magick? Yes, but what about those who value something different?

Values really involve our thoughts and opinions about something we believe is principled. Values in their definition are linked to the notion of worth as well as principles, and often invoke a code not just for ourselves, but for others. While I think finding your own core values can be quite helpful—like finding your own true will—woe to those who feel they can impose their values—or will—on others, even with good intentions. It’s often those with good intentions that do the most harm. I often consider how we buy, sell, and trade things of value, and I think this monetary paradigm can influence the way we value something or someone, and not for the better.

As a Pagan and as a Witch, I look to the more magickal concept of virtue. Like value, virtue has been distorted. Many think virtue is a Christian concept, but its roots are in Paganism, particularly ancient Greek philosophy. Virtue winds its way through the Western occult tradition and Traditional Witchcraft. Virtue in its truest sense is a part of the Perennial Philosophy.

Virtue can also refer to a behavioral standard, though virtue is truly a state of being or consciousness. It has little to do with sexual purity to the Pagan, though there is a purity and sanctity to holding virtues and “carrying” virtue as a part of oneself into the world. Values are often externalized while virtues must be internalized.

The Christian angelic teaching where the Virtues are one of the nine choirs of angels gives us another hint to the nature of virtue—virtue is both a principle and an entity, a cosmic force beyond the opinions of humans about what is fundamental. The confusion can be in how humans interact with and interpret these forces. In medieval occultism back to Ancient Greece, the virtues were considered goddesses, with the four cardinal virtues of Prudence/Wisdom, Fortitude/Courage, Justice, and Temperance. They were personified, though one might debate if they were truly worshiped like the Olympians, but we have many fundamental forces recognized in Paganism that were not worshiped, such as Annanke, or Necessity, yet magicians I know today invoke Necessity.

Today we see them in our tarot cards, and they have obvious elemental associations. Prudence is assigned with earth and either Virgo and the Hermit, or the Moon and the High Priestess card, or discs in general, the 8 of Discs in particular. Justice is the Justice or Adjustment card, air, Libra, and the swords. Fortitude is Leo, fire, and the wands, with the 9 of Wands and obviously the Strength or Lust card. Temperance is the Temperance card assigned to Sagittarius, but usually given elemental water and the cups

Through the addition of the three Charities or Graces to these forces, then codified through the Biblical quote citing Faith, Hope and Charity specifically, we eventually have the seven holy virtues of Christianity. The four cardinal virtues are linked with the Quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, and the three theological virtues to the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. They are later matches in Christianity against versions of the seven deadly sins.

One of the eldest embodiments of virtue is in the form of the Egyptian goddess Ma’at, both cosmic force and deity. Ma’at is usually translated as “justice,” but she is really the balance of harmony. Everything in ancient Egyptian life revolves around maintaining Ma’at. “Think Ma’at. Speak Ma’at. Do Ma’at,” as the old wisdom tells us. Yet this work didn’t mean everything was perfect. It is a dynamic balance, and there are forces of chaos, Isfet. People often choose gereg, wrongdoing. Ra’s barge is continually assaulted by the forces of Apophis. Injustice can gain a foothold, and things can move in cycles of greater or lesser Ma’at. But the concept is not simply rooted in human concepts of right or wrong, but rather in the dynamic harmony that comes from participating with the consciousness of the cosmos and the interplay of all things. While we might describe Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance, and Justice as separate things, they are all interconnected, for the embodiment of one without the others is imbalance and disharmony.

Hermetic Qabalah teaches a series of correspondences for each level of consciousness upon the Tree of Life, including the virtue, vice, obligation, illusion, and vision. Those in harmony with the level embody the virtue, often through following the obligation that leads to the vision. Those who are not in harmony often embody the vice, coming under the illusion of the level, thinking they have attained the virtue, but falling woefully short. As you climb the tree, embodying each level, you focus on different virtues, and what is important to you at one level isn’t even in your consciousness at another. Core concepts can shift from the perspective of a new level, though in the end, all the virtues are part of the one tree, and found in every person.

Other ways that magickal and Pagan traditions look to virtue can include the Nine Noble Virtues found in Heathenry and the eight virtues found in The Charge of the Goddess. We see somewhat archaic expressions in Arthurian romance and poems such as The Faerie Queene. Diving back into Neoplatonism, I have a focus on Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, though I also think of curiosity, gratitude, and doubt as my own virtues.

Virtue is food for the soul, the force that nourishes our evolution. Virtue is embodied and conscious and communicated within us and the cosmos.

Virtue is embodied qualities that might demand action, but not an action or behavior that is required. Your expression of virtue will be different from my expression of virtue, but like recognizes like. The true occultists cannot require a specific virtue or manifestation of virtue from another, only from themselves.

Like Ma’at, virtues can manifest as entities to be communed with, inspired by, and called upon to be present in your life. Then one can enact a virtue in the world, embody it in their consciousness or soul complex, and truly live the virtue, bearing it out into the world to make its presence known in every thought, word, and deed, just like your magick.

Invocation of the Goddess/Deity/Spirit of a Virtue

First focus on a word, traditional or modern, you associate with a state of virtue. Become clear on the name of your virtue.

However you may commune with spirits and gods, do that, but call upon the virtue you have named.

Speak to the Virtue as an entity. Perhaps light a candle, or offer some water or incense smoke. Commune with it in your Inner Temple. Perform shamanic journey to it or pathworking. But no matter what you do, have an exchange. The Virtue might give you instructions, or perform a magickal empowerment upon you.

Give thanks when done, and conclude in whatever manner is traditional for you.

Then notice how the exchange influences your thoughts, words, feelings, and deeds in the world.

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