Alain de Botton, author of The Consolations of Philosophy, has this list of virtues or ‘commandments’ for those who can’t believe in the God of the more famous 10 commandments. This is a good list; in fact, in several ways this list seems a bit more practical and everyday than the list Moses brought down with him.
But de Botton’s list suffers from the same mistake as though who wish to post the Mosaic Commandments in public spaces: it’s a list of virtues stripped of any guiding narrative or interpretative community. Just as it’s not self-evident what it means to refrain from covetousness (in the case of scripture), it’s not self-evident what the practice of empathy entails. One person’s version of empathy will differ markedly from another person’s definition based upon the narrative around which they orient their lives. For Christians, after all, any definition of empathy, hope, forgiveness etc is determined and shaped by the Christ story. Because that’s our narrative we’re stuck with a 70X7, turn the other cheek notion of forgiveness.
It’s not a question of whether we will be shaped by a guiding narrative but which one we will allow to shape us. The very notion that we don’t need a controlling narrative to our lives is in fact the narrative of modernity; it’s its own story.
- Resilience: Keeping going even when things are looking dark.
- Empathy: The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person.
- Patience: We should grow calmer and more forgiving by being more realistic about how things actually happen.
- 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.
- Politeness: Politeness is closely linked to tolerance, -the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, cannot avoid.
- Humour: Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it is disappointment optimally channelled.
- 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.
- Forgiveness: It’s recognising that living with others is not possible without excusing errors.
- Hope: Pessimism is not necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.
- Confidence: Confidence is not arrogance – rather, it is based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we will ultimately lose from risking everything.