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Chapter 4: self: Virtues of Character

An Updated Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments (which appear in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) maintain an extraordinary hold on our imaginations even though many of them can sound – in the context of our own times – really rather peculiar, bound up with injunctions not to covet a neighbour’s livestock or carve images of god-like figures.

It isn’t so much the precise contents of the 10 Commandments that still proves compelling, it is their form, which is astonishingly concise and simple, a distillation of a mass of ethical thinking down to just a few robust rules. Our culture keeps promoting the pleasures of extension – and along with it, the qualities of subtlety, digression and elaboration – but we’re in truth creatures who for the most part crave for things to be laid out succinctly for us, so that we know exactly where to look and what to do amidst the ambiguous and chaotic conditions of existence. It is no sign of low intelligence to want to have some very clear rules that we can pin to the fridge door and live by – a powerful truth that our elites keep forgetting.

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The 10 Commandments were responses to the needs of a small nomadic community, wandering the Sinai peninsula with goats and sheep around (if we believe these sort of things) 1,200 BC. Our needs have – predictably – changed a little since then. Angering a jealous God is no longer a priority. But a place for rules remains: because we remain horribly prone to violence, cruelty and self-righteousness and need regularly to be reminded of how to live peacefully and well with ourselves and our neighbours.

What follows is an updated version of the 10 Commandments. The idea shouldn’t be that these seem novel; just true but a bit ignored. The problem of modern society is not so much ignorance, as an inability to act on the many important precepts which are theoretically known but aren’t active in our lives at points of crisis. By compressing psychology into 10 injunctions, the hope is to make wisdom available to us at times when we need it most – which is often in the kitchen, when everyone has not had quite enough sleep.

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1. The good person is at all times highly aware of their flaws and committed to becoming a better version of themselves. They are not insulted if people point out their need for evolution, even if this is done rather clumsily. They believe in their own moral education.

2. The good person knows that everyone is deeply damaged and a little mad, starting with (of course) themselves. They are unfrightened by their own strangeness and are committed to informing those around them of it in very good time, and apologising retrospectively when they have failed at this. They understand that part of their duty is to have a ready answer to the legitimate question, ‘And how are you mad?’

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3. The good person is loyal in relationships not because they think their lover is perfect, but because they know that everyone is pretty imperfect and rather hard to live with at close range. They accept that the only people we can ever think of as normal or easy are people we don’t yet know very well.

4. The good person knows that it is impossible to be wholly understood by anyone and accepts that things are going well if one is very lonely in around only half of the key areas of one’s life.

5. The good person tries hard never to assume that other people should know what they are thinking of without having been told. They try to resist sulking (behaviour that stems from an incensed belief that others should know why we are upset without us having informed them) – and are committed to teaching others about the contents of their minds.

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6. The good person looks at people who are behaving badly as if they might be small children; that is with patience, charity and an active search for mitigating circumstances. Though our societies stress the insult of being treated as younger than one is, the good person knows it is the greatest privilege for anyone to look beyond the apparently strong yet nasty adult to the worried, anxious and really rather nice child within.

7. Confronted with a piece of stupidity or evil which they could never be guilty of, the good person doesn’t fall into self-righteousness. They swiftly remember all the many stupid and evil things they have at other points, over different things, been guilty of. They don’t lose sight of how much they overall stand in need of the charity and forgiveness of others.

8. The good person is committed to searching for the funny side of people who might appear merely desperately irritating. They look at others like characters in a comedy rather than a tragedy. They know that the greatest achievement is to be able to move from seeing someone as an ‘idiot’ to considering them as that most privileged of beings: a ‘loveable idiot.’

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9. The good person is a firm believer in restraint and in not immediately saying certain things that are on their minds. They hold that being fully oneself can entail revealing levels of melodrama and rage that one should spare any human one cares about.

10. The good person knows that the best protection against impatience and paranoia is a little gently-worn pessimism. They budget for disappointment far ahead of time. They don’t cry constantly only because they have understood that the whole of existence is – in many ways – worthy of tears. Their constant awareness of the possibility of death and catastrophe makes them especially appreciative of small things that happen to go well. They relish flowers, balmy skies and so-called ‘boring days’ when everyone manages to go to bed relatively content.

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