If no society is any better than its constituent members, then the refined individual forms the bedrock of a global community.
Of course, refined individuals don’t just magically appear. They are fashioned within the womb of the spiritually refined family, itself embraced and assisted by a refined community. The essential qualities of refinement cannot simply “trickle down” from some spiritualized aristocracy or centralized system of administration or governance, however just and exemplary that system may be.
In this sense, the emphasis on neighborhood or local community as the foundational divine institution in the Baha’i commonwealth is tantamount to a return to the healthiest aspects of the tribal ethos.
Society is the greatest and most powerful teacher of the individual, and when society is unified in its essential moral vision without stifling individuality or individualism, then what we now perceive as the greatest threat to constructing a healthy family—social influence—can potentially become an ally in the attempt to fashion a sane and fruitful life as individuals, and as families and communities.
Therefore, the attention to individual refinement in the Baha’i teachings is, in this context, quite understandable. In his writings, Baha’u’llah alluded to such seemingly mundane details as trimming one’s nails, as the daily cleansing of one’s body, the wearing of clean clothes, keeping one’s hair kempt, using decent manners when eating, and even perfuming one’s body. Attention to such detail in our daily lives might seem the very last thing one would expect from the most important book revealed by an emissary from God, the Most Holy Book of the revelation of Baha’u’llah, the ultimate import of which is to bring about a world commonwealth. But the totality of our lives is constructed on attention to detail, even as a refined material object consists of refined particles forged together in some beauteous composition.
In this context, Abdu’l-Baha stated—as an example of the effect of attention to our appearance, our manners, and our comportment—that the single virtue of cleanliness, though it be but a material exercise, has the capacity to exert a profound influence on our spiritual perspective:
… in every aspect of life, purity and holiness, cleanliness and refinement, exalt the human condition and further the development of man’s inner reality. Even in the physical realm, cleanliness will conduce to spirituality, as the Holy Writings clearly state. And although bodily cleanliness is a physical thing, it hath, nevertheless, a powerful influence on the life of the spirit. It is even as a voice wondrously sweet, or a melody played: although sounds are but vibrations in the air which affect the ear’s auditory nerve, and these vibrations are but chance phenomena carried along through the air, even so, see how they move the heart. A wondrous melody is wings for the spirit, and maketh the soul to tremble for joy. The purport is that physical cleanliness doth also exert its effect upon the human soul. – Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 146-147.
The Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, Shoghi Effendi, likewise detailed some of the aspects of personal refinement in his often-cited discussion regarding the full scope of what is intended by refinement as it pertains to a “chaste and holy life:”
Such a chaste and holy life, with its implications of modesty, purity, temperance, decency, and clean-mindedness, involves no less than the exercise of moderation in all that pertains to dress, language, amusements, and all artistic and literary avocations. It demands daily vigilance in the control of one’s carnal desires and corrupt inclinations. It calls for the abandonment of a frivolous conduct, with its excessive attachment to trivial and often misdirected pleasures. – The Advent of Divine Justice, p. 30.
In this context, we would do well to reflect on the interplay between our outer and inner conditions, how our daily comportment and attention to detail regarding this wider notion of a “chaste” life affects our inner sense of self, and vice versa. For example, Abdu’l-Baha noted, these outer “material” virtues are ultimately but the manifestation of an inner refinement, which itself is in need of our persistent and systematic attention:
… just as man is in need of outward education, he is likewise in need of ideal refinement; just as the outer sense of sight is necessary to him, he should also possess insight and conscious perception; as he needs hearing, at the same time memory is essential; as a body is indispensable to him, likewise a mind is requisite; one is a material virtue, the other is ideal. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 327.
Thus, we observe that even as a particle of matter becomes ever more proximate to spiritual reality as it becomes more refined and precise, so there is no limit to the attention to detail that the individual aspiring to spiritual development can employ. Furthermore, we can envision that once society itself endorses and supports such efforts at refinement, then will each individual become liberated from having to be the sole guardian of his or her spirituality or the single vigilant defender against the pernicious assaults on the senses of those forces that presently distract us from our essential purpose.
Once freed from such petty concerns, we will be better able to focus our increasingly more refined attention to implementing ever more precise expressions of virtue, whether, as the poet Wordsworth put it, in “little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love,” or as Shakespeare wrote, in “enterprises of great pith and moment.”