Alain de Botton’s Ten Virtues of the Modern Age

Cardinal Virtues

History dating back to ancient times includes an interest in learning about and practicing virtues. American polymath Ben Franklin was a more modern example of a desire to be more virtuous. It seems we're living as the first generations who have zero public interest in the topic. 

“In the modern world, the idea of trying to be a ‘good person’ conjures up all sorts of negative associations—of piety, solemnity, bloodlessness and sexual renunciation—as if goodness were something one would try to embrace only when other more difficult but more fulfilling avenues had been exhausted,” says Alain de Botton, founder of The School of Life.

With this in mind, a couple of years ago de Botton wrote a sort of manifesto to help us refamiliarize ourselves with timeless principles like resilience, empathy, patience, sacrifice, politeness, humor, self-awareness, forgiveness, hope, and confidence, and bring them back into our lives.  

1. Resilience

Keeping going even when things are looking dark; accepting that reversals are normal; remembering that human nature is, in the end, tough. Not frightening others with your fears.

2. Empathy

The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person. The courage to become someone else and look back at yourself with honesty.

3. Patience

We lose our temper because we believe that things should be perfect. We've grown so good in some areas (putting men on the moon etc.), we're ever less able to deal with things that still insist on going wrong; like traffic, government, other people… We should grow calmer and more forgiving by getting more realistic about how things actually tend to go.

4. Sacrifice

We’re hardwired to seek our own advantage but also have a miraculous ability, very occasionally, to forego our own satisfactions in the name of someone or something else. 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 has a bad name. We often assume it's about being 'fake' (which is meant to be bad) as opposed to 'really ourselves' (which is meant to be good). However, given what we're really like deep down, we should spare others too much exposure to our deeper selves. We need to learn manners, which aren’t evil – they are the necessary internal rules of civilization. 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. Humor

Seeing the funny sides of situations and of oneself doesn't sound very serious, but it is integral to wisdom, because it's a sign that one is able to put a benevolent finger on the gap between what we want to happen and what life can actually provide; what we dream of being and what we actually are, what we hope other people will be like and what they are actually like. Like anger, humor springs from disappointment, but it's disappointment optimally channeled. It's one of the best things we can do with our sadness.

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

Forgiveness means a long memory of all the times when we wouldn't have got through life without someone cutting us some slack. It's recognizing that living with others isn't possible without excusing errors.

9. Hope

The way the world is now is only a pale shadow of what it could one day be. We're still only at the beginning of history. As you get older, despair becomes far easier, almost reflex (whereas in adolescence, it was still cool and adventurous). Pessimism isn't necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.

10. Confidence

The greatest projects and schemes die for no grander reasons than that we don't dare. 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. 

In Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle emphasized the importance of developing excellence or virtue of character. He says a person who possesses character excellence does the right thing, at the right time, and in the right way—virtue is practical.

More recently, the then 58 years old novelist John Steinbeck on a journey with his French poodle Charley in search of America says, “We value virtue but do not discuss it. The honest bookkeeper, the faithful wife, the earnest scholar get little of our attention compared to the embezzler, the tramp, the cheat.” 

If it's good to remind ourselves of the value of virtues, we could also use a little more love in our lives. The kind of mature love described in On Love.

See also a conversation on modern virtues.