Ethics and Ethos

Inner Necessity


Decisive Freedom
R. E. Lee in the uniform of the Corps of Engineers, United States Army

R. E. Lee
Corps of Engineers

"The problem basically is theological and involves a spiritual recrudescence and improvement of human character that will synchronize with our almost matchless advances in science, art, literature, and all material and cultural developments of the past 2,000 years. It must be of the spirit if we are to save the flesh."

General of the Army Douglas MacArthur
Speech to Congress, April 19, 1951

I.   We should learn the meanings of words, use only words the meanings of which we grasp and learn new words continuously so our awareness is constantly expanding.

  • The universe is an educational institution. Its purpose is to foster learning, which is to promote expansion. Some say that economics is the purpose of life. They want us to buy something from them. Others say that politics is the purpose of life. They want us to vote for them. Others say that work is the purpose of life. They want us to wait on them. Education is the purpose of life. We do it for ourselves and it truly promotes our expansion, which is our welfare. The universe is not a market, not a party and not an estate. The universe is a school for refining taste.

II.   Who are we?     Where are we going?     Where did we come from?

  • We ask these questions and we answer them using words. The words we use are all-important. Our words make us, whether we know it or not. And if we don't, they break us.

  • In the beginning ... words. We begin with someone saying, "I love you." In the ending ... words. Maybe we will want to hear them, and maybe we won't.

  • Sets of words more or less integrated as skeins of syntax that array as pulsing cones more or less Divinely Proportioned (a:b::b:a+b) and communicating at their origins -- we are something like that.

III.   Thought, word and deed are one and the same. The seer, the seen and the sight are one and the same.

  • This is the great truth that, when grasped through participation, in practice, liberates us, sets us free from constraint by immoderate desire or activity.

IV.   Ethics means the strength which holds the consciousness bound to truth. Ethos means the opportunity to use decisive freedom.

  • Ethics and Ethos signify aspects of one and the same thing:   us. Ethics is our nature, our inner necessity. It is what we are and should do. Ethos is our will, our decisive freedom to act. It is what we do and should be.

  • Ethics is essence, Ethos is existence. Ethics is nature, Ethos is character. These are one and the same.

  • Our lives are sweetly fragrant and filled with peace when who we are and what we do are one and the same.

V.   Ethics is the prius of our existence, Ethos is the consequence of our existence. Ethics and Ethos are one and the same thing.

  • A major publication by Bill McWilliams, USMA Class of 1955, illustrates this truth as it is practiced by West Pointers in real-life at the Academy and in theaters of war.

I.   We face two philosophical questions of the first importance:

  1. Is Ethics foreign to us, imposed on us from some source outside ourselves?

  2. Is Ethics guaranteed by reason, discoverable by science as commonly understood?

II.   The answer to both questions is, "No." How we get to that answer shall be understood.

  • Ethics is intrinsic to us and is anterior to reason. Therefore, it cannot be guaranteed by reason or discovered by science as commonly understood. Science as commonly understood arises and occurs within the realm of reason, including each of the several types of reason classically distinguished by philosophers.

  • Reason can neither discover nor verify Ethics because (1) reason belongs to the realm of the finite, (2) Ethics belongs to the infinite -- although Ethics concretizes itself in the realm of finitude, being then in forms of mixed aspect, particular and universal -- and (3) what is finite cannot reach, by its own means, what is infinite.

  • Immanuel Kant (and here) (1724-1804) demonstrated this fact in The Critique of Pure Reason. His demonstration relies on the categorical structure of reason and the mind and no professional has challenged it. Nor will any.

  • A related demonstration, equally secure, appeared in 1931 when Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) published Über formal unentscheidbare Sätze der Principia Mathematica und verwandter Systeme.

  • Gödel demonstrated that any rational system contains propositions that cannot be proved or disproved by means of its own terms, its own axioms. His demonstration relies on the use of typology.

  • This work by Gödel -- sometimes and imprecisely referred to as "Gödel's Proof" -- evacuated the effort of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) and Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) to produce mathematics from axioms (Principia Mathematica, 1910-1913).

  • Zeno of Elea (495?-435? B.C.) provided parallel demonstrations of the ultimate irrationality of reason with his four paradoxes of motion. The process of verification requires summation of everything because there is no isolated system. Summation of everything can never be done. Therefore, nothing can ever be verified --- including this syllogism and a so-called Grand Unified Theory.

  • Reason is not reasonable. This fact is the "monster" lying in wait for every "conclusion" of science, every "bit"of knowledge, every "premise" of epistemology and every "progress" of evolution. Nor are emotion or intuition any surer as sources of truth than reason is. No matter how much or how little we prize them, every aspect of finitude -- reason, emotion, intuition, etc. -- is bound in finitude, cannot escape finitude by its own means and therefore is unable or at least unreliable as a source of truth.

  • Science as commonly understood does not, cannot and will not get to Ethics -- or to religion. There is no continuum between science and Ethics or between science and religion because there is no continuum between the realm of the finite and the infinite.

III.   Reality is not asymptotic. It is not measured by a standard external to itself.

  • There is no standard external to reality by which reality can be measured. Any standard which purports to measure reality is a tautology and for that reason cannot serve as a standard.

  • Reality is Newtonian, Cartesian, Lobachevskian, etc. ... and a whole lot more that isn't.

  • Pure reason alone or in combination with other faculties such as emotion or intuition is unable to build a reality in which we can live.

IV.   What is the relationship between the realm of the finite and the infinite, between reason and Ethics, between particulars and the universal?

  • There is no relationship between the realm of the finite and the infinite. They are one and the same. Or better, they are not two. The Sanskrit word indicating this fact is adwaitha, which means not two (a + dwaitha). Sanskrit is the source of all languages and in the word adwaitha we recognize versions of two English words: a, the negativer, and two, the counter (tw and dw are cognate).

  • The metaphysical foundation of modern culture was established by Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), who took birth at Bernkastel-Kues on the Moselle. He was a great Sage who was accepted by the Roman Catholic Church as a Cardinal.

    Here     Here     Here    Cusanus Hospice Bernkastel-Kues, Germany

  • Nicholas expounded the principle called coincidentia oppositorum, the coincidence of opposites. By this he meant that everything has its opposite inside it. This was his way of expressing the principle of unity. He used a form of the epistemological procedure Moses Ben Maimon (1135-1204) called via negativa and Vedas call neti. In this procedure, instead of speaking of something positively and directly one speaks of it negatively and indirectly. Instead of saying what something is, one says what it isn't. An explanation of why this procedures helps us grasp the truth involves a subtle examination of the dynamics of communication itself and lies beyond the scope of this composition. Let it be presented, however, that by means of this procedure, called via negativa or neti, we minimize the misrepresentation of a thing which is caused unavoidably by the dualistic character and effect of any communication regarding it.

  • Nicholas was a Mathematician, as are all Theologians, and he talked about God in geometrical fashion (more geometrico), as did Pythagoras (5th Century BC and see also). He said that God is the center and the periphery of everything. This means that there is a common participation of everything in everything else. The whole world participates in Ethics and Ethics participates in the whole world. We do not have a separation or distinction of realms, such that Ethics is in one place and not in another or such that the world happens in one place and not in another. Everything is everywhere as everything. All emerge and participate in the same ground, the same fundamental reality, the same simple essence and existence.

  • After Nicholas, two great Theologians expanded his foundation and set the course of history towards a fruition of Ethics in the daily walks of life. These were Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677). Luther said that God is in every grain of sand, but the world cannot comprehend God. God is in everything and also transcends everything. Spinoza said that man's highest aim is to participate in the eternal love with which God loves himself. In these ways these Theologians established the principle of unity or non-duality which is the characteristic concern of modern culture. Significantly, the main works by Baruch de Spinoza and Dieterich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) carry the title, Ethics. Recently, His Holiness The Dalai Lama published an Ethics for the New Millennium.

V.   Ethics is unmediated and unconditional.

  • Ethics is directly and actively available to us because it is our nature. It does not have to be mediated to us by, for example, an organization, a symbol or person. Ethics is always and fully present to us because it is us. It neither relies on nor accepts anything other than itself. For these reasons, also, we have not deniability with respect to Ethics. We're born with it, even through and because of it.

I.   Our West Point Honor Code and Honor System are a fecund unity of inner necessity and decisive freedom.

  • The environment of that statement is given by a motto often attributed, although inaccurately, to Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480 - ca. 547):   Ora et Labora (Prayer and Work). This motto is widely used by members of the Order Benedict developed from the base of Pythagorean and Hieronomean (and here) (c. 341-420) monasticism. The motto Ora, Labora et Lectio (Prayer, Work and Study) would reflect Benedict's intentions. T. J. Jackson's (1824-1863) version of this environment was: "Duty is ours, consequences are God's." And a modern version reads: Duty is God, Work is Worship.

II.   Ethics upholds those who uphold Ethics.

  • A direct ancestor of West Point illustrated and in ways continues to illustrate this fact. This was the order of warrior monastics who served as the military arm of the Cistercian Order. Cistercians are a Benedictine revival begun by Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) and several members of his family. In Praise of the New Knighthood is the charter Bernard wrote for this order he called The Poor Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon. They have been known to non-participants as The Knights Templar. The origins of our West Point Honor Code and Honor System are deep, rich and infinitely auspicious.

III.   Our West Point Honor Code and System are who we are and what we do. We are one and the same.

IV.   The world hungers for what West Point is: Duty-Honor-Country.

    The source of West Point is our Honor Code and Honor System. The world's hunger for us is legitimate. Let us, therefore, satisfy the world with example of the inexhaustible and indomitable grandeur of our Ethics and Ethos, refined and burnished in ourselves, in our Honor Code and Honor System.

V.   Ethics is being strong. Ethos is being happy. Let us be strong and be happy.

E  T  H  I  C  S     A  N  D     E  T  H  O  S

An Unsolicited Occasional Paper
For the Center for Professional Military Ethics
United States Military Academy
By a Theologian and Friend of West Point
8 August 2000