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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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Yes, Usain Bolt is pretty fast (the fastest man on earth). Yes, he likes the big events. Yes, his nonchalance and keeping cool are not just cunning fronts to phase the other runners – they are real. But why has he run so well at these Olympics?

Listen to what he actually said in his BBC interview straight after he had won the 100m final: He is not a good starter. He’d been worrying about this, trying to improve his start, trying to react quicker and get out of the blocks ahead of his rivals. And all this worry was tensing him up and making him run worse. Until his coach said to him: Forget about the start. You’ll beat them when you get into your stride. For you, it is the second half of the race that matters. And when he realised that, and let go of the desire to put everything right, he was fine. More than fine: he was 9.63 seconds.

And this is what he said in the post-win euphoria: I won because I stopped worrying about my start.

This is a wonderful example of ‘positive psychology’. Instead of looking at psychological dysfunction and trying to fix it, positive psychology looks at a person’s strengths, virtues and talents. It doesn’t ignore the very real difficulties that someone may have, but the core conviction is that you help someone to flourish and find happiness by focussing on their strengths rather than by trying to correct or compensate for their weaknesses.

Sometimes, you don’t need to straighten everything out, you just need to go with what’s positive – notice it, affirm it, use it, strengthen it. This is what Usain Bolt learnt from his coach.

Most of us are right or left handed. We don’t worry about that most of the time; we don’t waste energy trying to build up our skill set in our weaker hand. We simply learn to live with the strengths that come from our stronger hand. This can be true for skills, virtues, personality traits, spiritual gifts, etc.

If you are interested in all this, see the Authentic Happiness website run by Dr. Martin Seligman, Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. And you can take one of the questionnaires here, to see what are your instinctive strengths of character and how they might serve you better.

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"A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter" (a nice photo - but I'm not sure how sturdy this shelter is...)

Two friends got married yesterday. For the first reading, they chose this passage about friendship from Ecclesiasticus (6:14-17):

Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter:
   whoever finds one has found a treasure.
Faithful friends are beyond price;
   no amount can balance their worth.
Faithful friends are life-saving medicine;
   and those who fear the Lord will find them.
Those who fear the Lord direct their friendship aright,
   for as they are, so are their neighbours also.

Here are a couple of thoughts – not the whole sermon, just the reflection on friendship:

It’s a lovely thing that they were friends for a good period before they started dating, because it helps them to see that friendship is the foundation even of the great romance that has brought them to marriage.

An enduring friendship, through all the inevitable ups and downs of life, is a key part of what sustains a marriage. It’s why the word ‘honour’ is so important in the marriage rite. You honour a person for who they are, for what their innate dignity deserves, and not just because you happen to love them.

The last verse of the reading is particularly thought-provoking: “Whoever fears the Lord directs his friendship aright, for as he is, so is his neighbour also”. As you are, so will your friend be, so will your spouse be.

A simple interpretation of this is to say that ‘like attracts like’, we are drawn to people who are similar to us – and there is some truth to that.

But a deeper meaning is this: that the person you choose to be at any moment will have a formative effect on your spouse. If you are loving, patient, cheerful, forgiving; this will have an effect, for the good, on your spouse. If you are ratty, resentful, complaining, mistrustful; the chances are, before too long, so will your spouse be too.

Everyone wishes that their husband or wife were more loving, more perfect. The secret is to be more loving yourself. The effects, as anyone knows, are not always immediate (if only they were!). But if you want your spouse to be good, and you want your friendship to last, there is no clearer path than trying to be a good person yourself; and persevering on that path.

And, since I’m cutting and pasting, a final section about the openness of a couple within marriage:

There is a special beauty about a marriage that is open to God and open to the gift of children. It’s hard to describe, but it’s true.

If you live your Catholic faith, and pray together, and make your home and family a place of faith and holiness – in one sense it makes you less intensely focussed on each other.

You can’t say to each other, like in the romantic novels, ‘You are everything to me’ or ‘You are my all’, because it’s simply not true. There’s God also, there’s life after death, there’s the family, there’s all the other stuff too. (Now I’m not a hardliner; and we’ll allow you a bit of romance and exaggerated lovers’ language.)

But in a strange way, the fact that two people are less focussed on each other (because of their faith) allows them to love each other more freely, with more passion and more purity. And you really see this.

It’s not a bargain, as if to say, ‘If you love God, he will bless your marriage’. It’s a spiritual truth, that your openness to God in faith, and your openness to the gift of children that he may send you, will have a direct effect on your openness to each other in love and friendship.

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What do men really want? Not (apparently) beautiful women, fast cars, and an endless supply of free beer; but a life of duty, service, and self-sacrifice.

Robert Crampton wonders why the contemporary Western male is not happier than his father or grandfather, when he is ‘richer, safer, healthier, more long-lived, with a huge choice of leisure pursuits, lifestyles and material goods’. The answer, at the risk of oversimplifying, is that he is looking for happiness by seeking pleasure, rather than by cultivating virtue. He is following the path of Epicurus rather than Aristotle. And it isn’t working. ["What really makes men happy?" by Robert Crampton, The Times Magazine, 27/11/10, p54-59]

Live for today, the mantra that dominates our culture, simply does not work for most men. Men want to live for tomorrow. Men need goals, plans, causes, beliefs, structures, direction. Men are not natural Epicureans. Men crave the virtue Aristotle espoused.

That virtue can be found in small, everyday ways. The morning that I came into work to start this article, one of my colleagues, Jo, waylaid me by my desk. “Robert,” she said, “you strike me as a man who might have a screwdriver in his desk.” “I haven’t, I’m afraid,” I had to say. “What do you need a screwdriver for?” “My glasses have gone floppy,” said Jo, holding out her specs, the arms of which had indeed gone floppy. “Give them here,” I said. “I’ll see what I can do.”

I spent the next ten minutes experimenting with various tools attempting to tighten the screw at the side of Jo’s glasses, trying out in succession a penknife, teaspoon and paperclip in lieu of what was actually required, a tiny Phillips screwdriver. Eventually a bent staple fitted the screw head and gained traction. Thirty seconds later, Jo’s glasses were no longer floppy. She was duly grateful, I went back to work in a glow of satisfaction, of wellbeing and, yes, of happiness.

Why did this small action make me happy? Partly, but only partly, because Jo’s a woman and I’m a man. Partly my happiness came from sticking at a slightly awkward task, seeing it through, finding a solution. Partly it came from working with my hands, which I rarely do. And partly – mostly, I think – I derived a degree of pleasure from the fact that they were someone else’s glasses. I’d done a no-strings favour. Jo had asked for my help, I’d been able to oblige. Nothing in it for me. Except, happy as it made me, it turned out there was.

It’s not just about doing little favours and getting a glow of satisfaction from them. It’s about the whole direction of one’s life.

Men have an immense capacity for self-sacrifice. Not just a capacity, I would argue, but a need. Not all men, perhaps. But most. Male self-sacrifice is there in many of the key stories and myths of our culture, from the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae to the Battle of Britain.

For most of human history, what it has meant to be a man has involved self-sacrifice. Not only the patriotic self-sacrifice of war, also the peacetime sacrifice of doing a demanding, possibly dangerous job to provide for others. Or devoting yourself to a political, social or religious cause. Or simply having children and taking full responsibility for their welfare.

But these days, most men don’t dedicate themselves to creating Utopias, and aren’t involved in wars, or mining coal, or deep-sea fishing, or striving to lift their families out of poverty. All of which is a good thing.

A lot of men reach middle age unmarried and without children, which isn’t such a good thing, in my opinion – not for society, not for them. The reason married men are happier than bachelors is not, as in the caricature, because marriage allows husbands to grow lazy while a wife runs around for us. It’s the opposite: we’re happier because we’re almost certainly, to some degree or other, acting for someone’s benefit other than our own. I became a father at 33, which seems young from where I am now. Even so, I wish I’d done it sooner.

And it’s not just that we have lost the plot as individuals. The reason we have lost the individual plot is that we do not have the social networks there to remind us what really matters.

Our fathers and grandfathers had institutions to cultivate their virtue for them: the Church, the Army, early marriage, a lifelong, cumulative career building towards expertise and respect, a trade union, a political cause, an extended family network. Such bonds have either been loosened, or are gone.

In losing their access to these institutions and beliefs, men lost something else, too: the company of other like-minded men. A couple of generations back, men would work and play exclusively with other men. We did that too much. Now we probably don’t do it enough. Many of my contemporaries socialise with their partners or not at all. They have friends, but they are in some way estranged from them.

I like these ideas. But I’m not convinced by Crampton’s solutions. He wants us to live sacrificial lives as if we were living for a higher cause (with all the generosity and virtue that our grandfathers brought to their own causes), even if we are not sure about what the foundations of our own convictions and goals are. In the absence of God he appeals to conscience. It’s certainly better to follow your conscience than not to follow it. But I don’t think you can serve your conscience. It’s your conscience that helps you to serve and give your life to something that is more important than yourself: your family, your friends, your country, your God, those in need, etc. Conscience is a means to an end. But what if you have no identifiable end?

See what you think of Cramptons concluding remarks:

So what is to be done? Join the Army? Downshift to the country and become a lumberjack? Some things you can’t control: you can’t rustle up a morally bombproof cause like the defeat of fascism to fight for. You can’t start believing in a God whom you don’t think exists. You can’t go back to the days when your grandfather dedicated himself to lifting his family out of poverty. But what you can do is take the elements worth preserving from the institutions and activities and beliefs that we have lost and put them to work again.

You don’t have to be a labourer to spend time working with your hands. You don’t have to be a soldier or a sportsman to be fit rather than fat and lazy. You don’t need to be an intellectual to read a decent book. You don’t need to pretend to be thick and crude when you’re not. You don’t need to be a hero to take some responsibility for the world around you. You don’t have to be a revolutionary – it’s better if you’re not – to make that world a better place in small ways. You don’t have to be a monk to spend time alone to work out what you think about something, and what you need to do.

And you don’t, of course, need to be a believer to live according to a moral code. Most surveys conclude that the devout are happier than the faithless. It’s not clear why that is, but it might be because the belief that you are being judged by a higher authority is a superbly moderating influence on male behaviour. You don’t have to call that higher authority God. You can call it conscience. Pretty much everybody has one. When we live in rough accordance with our consciences, we’re happy. When we don’t, we’re not.

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What’s the point of studying obscure topics in the arts and humanities when there seems to be no practical purpose or economic benefit for the students themselves or for the society that funds them? Six years ago the then Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke, was happy to suggest that public funding should only support academic subjects of ‘clear usefulness’.

Nigel Biggar wonders what universities are for, and gives a beautiful reflection on the poverty of this kind of utilitarian assessment. He explains the importance of the moral education that takes place when we study histories and literatures, religions and cultures, theologies and philosophies, music and drama:

One valuable gift that the arts and humanities make is to introduce us to foreign worlds: worlds made strange by the passage of time; present worlds structured by the peculiar grip of unfamiliar languages; worlds alien to us in their social organisation and manners, their religious and philosophical convictions.

Introduction to these foreign worlds confers a substantial benefit: the benefit of distance from our own world, and thereby the freedom to ask questions of it that we could never otherwise have conceived. In foreign worlds, past and present, they see and love and do things differently. And in reflecting upon that difference, it might occur to us from time to time that they see and love and do things better. So, one precious contribution of the arts and humanities is their furnishing public discourse with the critical resources of an understanding of foreign worlds, resources vital for social and cultural and moral renewal — a renewal that deserves at least an equal place alongside scientific and technological innovation.

He develops this idea and says that it is not just about appreciating other worlds and other people but understanding how to relate to them. This is ultimately a training in virtue:

The arts and humanities not only introduce us to foreign worlds, they teach us to treat them well. They teach us to read strange and intractable texts with patience and care; to meet alien ideas and practices with humility, docility, and charity; to draw alongside foreign worlds before we set about — as we must — judging them. They train us in the practice of honest dialogue, which respects the “Other” as a potential prophet, one who might yet speak a new word about what’s true and good and beautiful.

A commitment to the truth, humility, a readiness to be taught, patience, carefulness, charity: all of these moral virtues that inform the intellectual discipline into which the arts and humanities induct their students; all of these moral virtues of which public discourse, whether in the media or in Parliament or in Congress, displays no obvious surplus. All of these moral virtues, without which this country and others may get to become a “knowledge economy”, but won’t get to become a “wisdom society”.

And public decisions that, being unwise, are careless with the truth, arrogant, unteachable, impatient and uncharitable, will be bad decisions — and bad decisions cause needless damage to real institutions and real individuals.

What I’m saying, then, is that in addition to providing talented individuals with the opportunity to grow their gifts and find a social role to exercise them; in addition to producing qualified applicants for positions in legal practice and in public administration; in addition to training the labour-force to man a high-tech, service-oriented economy; and in addition to generating new scientific knowledge with technological or commercial applications, universities exist to form individuals and citizens in certain virtues — virtues that are not just intellectual, but are also social and political.

It’s no surprise that he turns to John Henry Newman for inspiration. It will be interesting to see whether Newman’s ideas about university education get any new publicity when his beatification takes place in September.

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Last night I went to the launch of the Safer Streets Drama Project. It’s a programme for schools, youth groups and young offender institutions run by TenTen Theatre.

The heart of the programme is a play called Sam’s Story. You see a boy lying in a pool of blood. Sam stands over him, a knife in his hand, wondering how he had got to this place. And then we look back on the months leading up to this tragedy, and try to understand how a 15 year old boy with a good heart and a loving mum ends up in prison for murder. It was heartbreaking to watch: the pressures put upon him, the choices he made and perhaps couldn’t not make, the unravelling of his relationship with his mum…

You can see a trailer for the project here.

It wasn’t just the power of the drama that impressed me, it was seeing how drama could be used to open up issues for young people in the follow-up sessions, and actually help them to reshape their lives and their choices. Drama, and the reflection that goes with it, can be a powerful tool for conversion.

Colleen Prendergast, who plays Sam’s mum, writes about her experiences of being involved in the workshops:

Ten Ten are setting up in a school hall. Children drift in to buy breakfast, peering curiously round the half open door of the hall. Bells shrill out as we put the last chairs in place. We’re getting ready to perform a scene from ‘Safer Streets – Sam’s Story’ to an assembly for Year Nine.The scene we’ve chosen to perform – an argument between Sam and his mum – provokes gasps and flurries of movement from the audience. The relationship between the characters – personal, real, believable – is what grips the students.

[In the workshops] we introduce the concept of the ‘thoughts, feelings, actions’ triangle, and work in small groups to identify moments where Sam reactions could have been different. We look at tiny changes in one of the areas and how they impact on the outcome for the characters. With this one exercise, we can see the students making the connection between their emotions and their behaviour. One boy raises his hand. ‘If you choose to change one thing, they all change, don’t they?’ he asks. ‘Is that a choice you can always make?’ Anthony, the facilitator, asks the class. Yes, they nod. It is.

Some of the lads, in particular, are keen to preserve their ‘hard’ image. One boy sprawls across the floor. He describes himself as a ‘G-man’ – a gangster. At fourteen, he may not be part of an actual gang yet, but the idea clearly holds attraction for him, giving him identity and status.

Over the week, we work with these groups again and again. Each time we introduce a new concept, relating it to the play. We deal with themes of belonging, peer pressure, relationships, goals and dreams. It’s evident that these kids live in the moment; they are constantly jostling for status and attention, demanding respect from their peers but not necessarily giving it in return. It’s our job to give them alternatives.

Through the exercises, we begin to explore how they can shape their future and their identity from their inner choices and attitudes. That concept – of vision, of possibilities, of self-determination – is what marks us out as different. One girl dominates the group. She’s tall, striking, with a distinctive voice. Whatever we ask her to do, she does with gusto, but we can see she’s used to pulling focus. Yet those qualities – confidence, a desire to be the centre of attention, physical presence – that might make her a disruptive influence, are also the qualities that might give her focus and direction. After the class, as she’s gathering up her things, I go up to her. ‘Can I have a word?’ Her face shuts down – she’s guarded, mistrustful. It’s clear she’s expecting to be told off. ‘Have you ever thought of joining a drama group?’I ask her. ‘No,’ she says warily, ‘why?’ ‘Because I think you’d be good at it,’ I say simply. Her face suddenly softens. ‘Do you think so?’ She looks younger somehow, flushed with praise. ‘Yes. I do.’ And I leave her to think about it as she goes to her next class.

On the final day, we set up once again. This time, the students are primed – they’ve been working with us for a week, and have a sense not only of the characters but of the deeper concepts behind the play. I hear little gasps of recognition as something we’ve suggested in the workshop suddenly connects with the events of the play. There is laughter – the piece is, in places, very funny – and shouts of outrage at some of the choices of the characters. Yet by the end of the play, as I get up to deliver my final speech, I see one of the ‘hard’ lads surreptitiously wiping away tears.

In the plenary session, the kids are animated but respectful. When Anthony describes a triangle in the air with his hands, they immediately know what concept he’s referring to. ‘Thoughts, feelings, actions!’ they call out. ‘Change one, you change the rest!’ Anthony draws a Venn diagram – they know, instantly, that he’s talking about the different ‘circles of belonging’ – areas of your life where you feel under pressure to behave a certain way, and what choices you can make. The themes of the play have connected with them on a deep level. Sam’s story has become their story.

The week is over and we’re clearing away. I reflect on what a privilege it’s been to be involved with this project, giving young people a sense of possibility, of the future, of what they can achieve and who they can be. But I wonder if they will act on those possibilities. Suddenly I see a movement at the corner of my eye. It’s the tall girl from earlier in the week, waving to attract my attention. Her face is shining, and she calls across the hall, ‘I’m going to be an actress! Watch out for me on the silver screen!’ I wave back and she disappears out of the door. I carry on clearing away with a grin on my face. I believe her.

I’m sure this isn’t in the programme notes, but this is an Aristotelian conception of virtue – of how even within the most constrained circumstances we can rethink what is important to us, and begin to change our lives by making better choices and holding onto higher values.

Do look at the TenTen website. And if you are a teacher or youth worker do get in touch with them and make a booking.

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