Alain De Botton’s Borrowed Virtues


Pop philosopher Alain De Botton

Yesterday popular philosopher Alain De Botton released his ‘Manifesto for Atheists’, a supposed ten new virtues, in response to his feeling that being virtuous had become ” a strange and depressing notion”.

He says he hopes it “ignites a vital conversation around moral character to increase public interest in becoming more virtuous and connected as a society”.

An admirable aim.

I’ve found De Botton’s work interesting in the past, as so was genuinely intrigued to see what virtues he’s come up with.

Unfortunately (or maybe not) they’re not so much ten new virtues for atheists, as they are ten old virtues from Christianity.

Ironically for an Atheist Manifesto, De Botton has chosen a cluster of virtues which are rooted in the Judeo/Christian tradition.

I want to ask him from what (apparently atheistic) source does he believe these virtues originated?

Are they just his handy hints? Where do they come from?

Christianity understands virtues as attributes grounded in the objective goodness of God. De Botton’s list of ideal virtues for a secular society are part-and-parcel teachings of Christianity.

In many cases, such as the virtue of humility (which is strangely absent from De Botton’s list) its foundation in the teaching of Jesus actually changed the tone of western civilisation (see John Dickson’s excellent book Humilitas).

Unfortunately he has omitted many other Christian virtues, seemingly not as important for the modern atheist, such as humility, love, justice, grace, generosity (esp. to the poor), faithfulness, or servanthood.

Consider this famous passage from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” 

Of course my point is not that an atheist is not capable of these virtues, just that they have not arisen out of secular, atheistic history. They did not appear in thin air.

I completely agree with his list – it’s just neither complete, nor his.

A further point to ask De Botton is: without a belief in absolute truth, on what objective ethical basis does he ground these particular virtues?

Reading through his list, its amazing how easily verses from the Bible, penned a lazy couple of millennia before De Botton was born, jump to mind.  Of course a single example verse does no justice at all to the overwhelming presence of the virtues unfolded throughout the New Testament.

It is the Christian faith that has so influenced our history, as to present De Botton with such a glorious plethora of choices today.

Of course it must be said that at the core of Christianity itself is the truth that we are ultimately unable to ‘save’ ourselves at all. The truth is that only God can save, and our working or trying to be virtuous ultimately falls short.

We are invited to place our trust in God, whose own virtue – love, grace and forgiveness – enables change within us, the beginning of a virtuous life. Virtue then becomes a free response to God’s grace, rather than just another rulebook, however modern.

Alain De Botton’s 10 Virtues:

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

Romans 5: 3 – ‘Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope’

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

Romans 12: 5 –  ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep’

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

Ephesians 4: 1-2 – I therefore, as a prisoner, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love..”

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.

 Romans 12:1 – ‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living 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.

Colossians 3:13 – ‘Be tolerant of one another and forgive each other if anyone has a complaint against another’

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

Job 8:21 – ‘He will yet fill your mouth with laughter, and your lips with shouting’

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.

Romans 12:3 – ‘For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you’

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

Matthew 18: 21-22 – ‘Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven’

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

Romans 5: 3 – ‘Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope’

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.

This final quote from Jesus himself is worth quoting in full, so brilliant and radical in our age as it is:

Matthew 6: 25 – 34 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?  And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?  

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.  

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.