Ten virtues for a new world

Virtues must be our self-defense and necessity, says Nietzsche. What virtues might we wish for our children as they make their way into the 21st century?

TOLERANCE.  The capacity to accept difference and not to feel threatened by it.  Its opposite is bigotry, the tendency to judge others by one’s own unexamined beliefs.  As travel and communications shatter the walls that once insulated communities from one another, tolerance acquires a new urgency.  The world we live in will be one where people of various faiths, languages, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and tastes will have to live and work closely with one another, or die in the battlefields of prejudice.

OPEN-MINDEDNESS.   The willingness to live openly with the question “how shall I live” and not assume that there are fixed answers already available.  Its opposite is knowingness, the tendency to think that there are eternal truths that science or theory or philosophy has already figured out.  Our present age is a time of rapid change; things fall apart and come together in the most unpredictable ways, challenging our notions of the steadiness of reality.  To be knowing is to lose the capacity for surprise and awe; it is to be dead to these transformations.

SOLIDARITY.  The capacity to feel the pain of others by an imaginative identification with their situation.  It is the readiness to find common cause with those who are struggling against oppression, exploitation and despair.  Its opposite is selfishness and selfabsorption, the tendency to think that life is all about getting ahead and looking after oneself or one’s kin.  The old boundaries that kept people ignorant of each other’s lives are coming down quickly. Global and instantaneous news has made it difficult to ignore the sufferings of those living outside our shores.

GENTLENESS.  The ability to respect life, other people, and oneself. It is the capacity to keep one’s poise in the face of aggravation, to distance oneself from emotionally charged situations.  Its opposite is the tendency to take things personally, to rush to judgment, to give full play to one’s righteous rage, and to have no qualms about inflicting injury.   Modern technology has multiplied our capacity to cause irreversible harm.  It has made it easy to cause injury to others without being detected.

SOLITUDE.  The ability to be by oneself, to befriend silence, and to pause if only to contend with the noise in one’s head.  Its opposite is compulsive sociability, the constant questing for the attention and affirmation of others.  “We live thick and are in each other’s way, and I think that we thus lose some respect for one another,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, in reference to the moral and physical density of city living.

PRUDENCE.  Sensitivity to personal boundaries, the deep respect for the right and need of people to be left alone.  Its opposite is intrusiveness, especially of the moralistic kind; the tendency to assume that one’s way of life must be the norm for everyone.  The world will be a complex landscape of varied identities and preferences, even as new forces try to homogenize these in the name of profit.  Prudence means the ability to navigate one’s way through this potential minefield.

HUMOR.   The ability to laugh at oneself.   Lots of it will be needed in a world in which the potential for social mobility will be available more than ever, driving people to aspire relentlessly for instant success and personal fulfillment.  The effort will be exhausting and frustrating and may lead the weak ones to self-destruction.  The opposite of humor is graveness or grimness, or the tendency to think that to be serious one must be sad.

IRONY.  The ability to take oneself as one is — imperfect, incomplete, a product of the accidents of one’s culture and upbringing.  It is to give up trying to be everything, but only to want to become oneself. Resentment and guilt are its opposites.  As tradition loosens its grip on people, it becomes possible to imagine and re-imagine one’s life through the lenses of many vocabularies, not one of which need be final.  The “ironist”, says Richard Rorty, “thinks nothing has an intrinsic nature, a real essence.”

PRAGMATISM.  The ability to think that the world, life, and truth itself are made rather than discovered.  The stress is not on the truth of beliefs and ideas as such but on their implications for doing and living.  “We cannot regard truth as a goal of inquiry,” says Rorty provocatively.  “The purpose of inquiry is to achieve agreement among human beings about what to do.”  The opposite of this is the quest for Truth, the striving to still the sound of our limited languages in order to hear the clear voice of Truth.  Our times are bound to bring out many versions of the Truth.  The challenge will not be how to decide which truth is a better representation of reality but how to get their advocates to converse with one another so that they can come to a consensus on what to do.

HOPE.   The willingness to suspend judgment on the fate of the world, the nature of human beings, or the end of history.  It is the ability to ask new questions and to propose novel ways of looking at situations.  Its opposite is pessimism, the tendency to be paralyzed by what we know, or to give up creating and experimenting in the face of existing knowledge.  Our century will open up new vistas into old human problems not just as an effect of technology, but as a result of the sustained encounter of diverse minds and cultures. What we think we know will fade as fast as new ways of living come into being.   Imagination rather than knowledge should have more room in such a world.


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