Ten Virtues for the Modern Age

Max, 2013/02/10 

Bumped up from a new comment on an ancient thread. Wanted to ensure it got a little more visibility.

A Manifesto for Atheists – Ten Virtues for the Modern Age:

  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 civilisation. 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. 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, humour springs from disappointment, but it’s disappointment optimally channelled. 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 recognising 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.


  1. Max wrote,

    I particularly like the common-sensical definitions of some of these terms like empathy, hope and forgiveness. Forgiveness is not about exiting the wheel of rebirth through a shedding of an accumulation of karma. Its about remembering all the times others have cut you some slack when you’ve f’d up.

    I love the defense of a virtue so hip to malign these days, the sin of the indefatigable optimist, hope.

    Pessimism isn’t necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.

    Comment on 2013/02/10 @ 12:37 pm

  2. Max wrote,

    Alright, I posted it – guess I have to deal with it. I like this list immediately because I really like its author Alain de Bottan, and it’s refreshingly free of those old boring puritanical virtues like discipline and temperance. So, here’s my take on each:

    Resilience – interesting first choice. I guess you don’t know how you’re doing on this one until you really get knocked flat. So far I feel I’ve been lucky and haven’t needed a ton of it. Or maybe I just don’t recognize my own resilience when I see it. Seems like a ‘virtue’ you really have no choice about.

    Empathy – this virtue sometimes feels like a curse. Like when you can’t sleep for days after something like Newtown. Or you find it hard as hell not to ignore someone down on their luck because you really can’t afford to help. Or maybe you’re not as empathic as you think you are? Again, is there really a choice?

    Patience – I suck at this one so bad I’m moving on to the next one.

    Sacrifice – I’m too good at this one.

    Politeness – I don’t know if its genuinely altruistic, but I get a real kick out of being polite. Especially when the receiver of the politeness is pleasantly surprised, as if he or she is used to dealing with assholes all day.

    Humour – Always think of the bright side of life. Get’s more important every day (as we draw closer to drawing our terminal breath).

    Self-awareness – this isn’t just a virtue, it’s a never-ending battle. I feel that meditation has made a lot of difference in this area. So has reading some of my posts on New Worlds. Self-awareness seems to often be accompanied by cringing.

    Forgiveness – a product of the virtue above. When anger with another is transformed into cringing for them. When you can truly feel empathy for someone who thinks entirely differently. Maybe the hardest virtue on the list.

    Hope – I was born a superstar of hope. Others may see this as simply evidence of total delusion. I think this is born of the awareness of the incredible gift of consciousness. Once you realize that happened, anything is possible.

    Confidence – I want to be Aldous.

    Comment on 2013/02/11 @ 2:36 pm

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