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Personification of a Virtue by Antonio del Pollaiolo

Personification of a Virtue by Antonio del Pollaiolo

In case you missed these, here is Alain de Botton’s list of ten virtues unveiled in his Manifesto for Atheists.

1. Resilience. Keeping going even when things are looking dark.

2. Empathy. The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person.

3. Patience. We should grow calmer and more forgiving by getting more realistic about how things actually tend to go.

4. Sacrifice. We won’t ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don’t keep up with the art of sacrifice.

5. Politeness. Politeness is very linked to tolerance, the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, can’t avoid.

6. Humour. Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it’s disappointment optimally channelled.

7. Self-Awareness. To know oneself is to try not to blame others for one’s troubles and moods; to have a sense of what’s going on inside oneself, and what actually belongs to the world.

8. Forgiveness. It’s recognising that living with others isn’t possible without excusing errors.

9. Hope. Pessimism isn’t necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.

10. Confidence. Confidence isn’t arrogance, it’s based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we ultimately lose from risking everything.

Why these? Why now? Robert Dex explains:

De Botton, whose work includes a stint as a writer in residence at Heathrow Airport, said he came up with the idea in response to a growing sense that being virtuous had become “a strange and depressing notion”, while wickedness and evil had a “peculiar kind of glamour”.

He said: “There’s no scientific answer to being virtuous, but the key thing is to have some kind of list on which to flex our ethical muscles. It reminds us that we all need to work at being good, just as we work at anything else that really matters.”

My own response, which I sent to the Catholic Herald last week:

I like this list of virtues. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s certainly helpful. It prods you into making a sort of ‘examination of conscience’, and reminds you that there are other ways of living and relating and reacting.

There are obvious borrowings from classical philosophy, the great world religions, English manners, and the self-help books that line the shelves at WH Smiths.

Apart from the obvious absence of ‘God’, they don’t seem to have a particularly atheist spin.

If both believers and non-believers lived by these virtues, the world would be a much happier place; there would be less shouting and more laughter; relationships would be more stable, and we’d get more done in an average day. That’s surely something to celebrate!

But Francis Phillips thinks there is an implicit Pelagianism at work here:

I understand why de Botton is preoccupied with the concept of a virtuous atheist and I do not mock him; indeed I take his yearning to counter the supposedly superior claims of Christianity very seriously. It is a noble ideal and society would indeed be happier and more civilised if more irreligious people of the “Me-generation” were to reflect on his ideas. But just as that selfless quiet heroine of the Great War, Nurse Edith Cavell, realised that patriotism was not enough, so a noble and enlightened atheism, however fine its aspirations, is not enough if individuals or society are to be regenerated or renewed.

The reason, as Catholic theology teaches us, is sin, original and personal, our own and Adam’s. We are not strong enough by ourselves to be good (as opposed to “nice”) without the grace of God. Politeness and resilience – indeed kindness and niceness – are not virtues in themselves; they are attractive characteristics of some people by nature; the rest of us have to fight against being “horrid”, like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead.

It is Pelagianism (and de Botton strikes me as something of a neo-Pelagian) to think we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and achieve virtue on our own.

Do you like them? What’s missing?

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I’m just back from a night in Chester – two hours from Euston on the train. In fact the hotel I stayed in was just over the Welsh border;so I wasn’t just out of London, I was out of England.

It’s good to be reminded that London is not ordinary life for everyone in Britain. I expected the “it’s too big, too busy, too brash” attitude. One man I met, brought up in Chester, reflected on a recent trip to London, and told me how he was amazed that you had to stand on the right-hand side of the escalators so that other people could rush past you on the other side. Why not just take your time and let the escalator do the work? Why not indeed.

I remembered that just this week I was standing on an escalator behind two people who were talking to each other – a very ordinary and beautiful thing to do – but they were on the same step, and so one of them was standing on the left-hand side! And I was thinking at the time ‘are you crazy, just standing there blocking the clear line of the fast lane?’ When someone came racing down and wanted to pass, he moved out of the way immediately, but then he went back to his position on the left!

You can tell how mad my stream-of-consciousness thinking has become in the apparent normality of this London madness. And how right the good people of Chester are to be bemused and a little concerned by all this.

But the other conversation I had about my home city surprised and heartened me a lot. When I was talking about the escalator conversation later in the evening, someone else said that they had visited London recently with friends, and they had all commented, reflecting on their different experiences, that London seemed a friendlier place than it had been a few years ago – for them as visitors. People were more helpful, more willing to talk, happier to engage.

If it’s true, isn’t that great? And if it’s true, I wonder why? Is it because London is more multicultural, so the natural English reserve has given way to the openness that perhaps comes more easily to people brought up in different cultures? Is it because customers have higher expectations about how they should be treated in shops and restaurants and entertainment venues, and businesses are better at training staff and responding to these expectations? Or is it because of some deeper shift in the zeitgeist? I’m not sure. But it warmed my heart to think that one or two random people from outside London had gone home with good impressions of the city and of those of us who live here, despite our obsession with standing on the right of the escalators.

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Why is it that some people, especially in the blogs and comment boxes, become so hostile on the internet? Is it the anonymity? The lack of self-censorship that arises when communication is instantaneous? The inability to un-post a spontaneous comment? The tiredness that comes with writing late into the night? Or is it simply that online communication is, in one sense, unmediated: you meet the real person sitting at their computer; you are plugged into their mind – and this is what our minds are like.

Alan Jacobs has a different answer. He thinks it is because we have an over-developed sense of justice, that is not balanced or tempered by the virtues of humility and charity. It’s too simplistic to say that people are just angry or rude or self-righteous. Maybe they are. But this doesn’t explain what drives their anger or rudeness or self-righteousness.

What energises them is a sense of justice: “I’ve seen something that you haven’t, something that matters, something that could be lost.” But this zeal for justice can drown out every other human virtue, especially the virtues that make it possible to communicate that sense of justice to others, or to question whether one’s judgements about this possible injustice are correct.

now-famous cartoon on the xkcd “webcomics” site shows a stick figure typing away at his computer keyboard as a voice from outside the frame says, “Are you coming to bed?” The figure replies: “I can’t. This is important. . . . Someone is wrong on the Internet.” I have thought a lot about why people get so hostile online, and I have come to believe it is primarily because we live in a society with a hypertrophied sense of justice and an atrophied sense of humility and charity, to put the matter in terms of the classic virtues.

Late modernity’s sense of itself is built upon achievements in justice. This is especially true of Americans. When we look back over the past century, what do we take pride in? Suffrage for women, the defeat of fascism, Brown vs. Board of Education, civil rights and especially voting rights for African-Americans. If you’re on one side of the political spectrum, you might add the demise of the Soviet empire; if you’re on the other side, you might add the expansion of rights for gays and lesbians. (Or you might add both.) The key point is that all of these are achievements in justice…

As we have come to focus our attention ever more on politics and the arts of public justice, we have increasingly defined our private, familial, and communal lives in similar terms. The pursuit of justice has come to define acts and experiences that once were governed largely by other virtues. It is this particular transformation that Wendell Berry was lamenting when he wrote, “Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate ‘relationship’ involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided.” That is, it has become a matter of justice rather than of love, an assertion of rights rather than a self-giving.

This same logic governs our responses to one another on the Internet. We clothe ourselves in the manifest justice of our favorite causes, and so clothed we cannot help being righteous (“Someone is wrong on the Internet”). In our online debates, we not only fail to cultivate charity and humility, we come to think of them as vices: forms of weakness that compromise our advocacy. And so we go forth to war with one another.

This comes close to what Thomas Hobbes, writing four centuries ago, famously called the “war of every man against every man.” As he pointed out, such a war may begin in the name of justice, but justice cannot long survive its depredations. In such an environment, “this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. . . . Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues.”

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