The Seven Virtues #5 Diligence

I went to the internet to look for quotes about hard work. As you would expect, they are many, and not just from any old minor celebrity but from the good and great. Here’s the first, A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination, and hard work. Colin Powell.

Without fail, they say, hard work is the key to success. We applaud the hard working and castigate the lazy.

Diligence, the supposed synonym for work, is one of the 7 virtues and the opposite to the capital sin of sloth. We all hate sloth.

Like all parents, mine extolled me to work harder with the promise of greater returns. Their pleas had limited success and they settled in a cosy contentment if I did any school homework, but they knew when it came to sports I would practice endlessly. I had a diligent gene somewhere.

Like parents, like son, and I paced the corridors outside my children’s rooms checking on them. I was very proud of Ben’s diligence until he later admitted that most of the time he was playing computer games. Another myth exploded. With Lucinda and Maddie, I finally outsourced the task by sending them to a boarding school.

It’s what we do. We encourage hard work because it is self-evidently true. The harder we work the greater the riches. Proof from Margaret Thatcher. I do not know anyone who has got to the top without hard work. That is the recipe. It will not always get you to the top, but it should get you pretty near.

I went to a public school (for my American readers it means I went to a private school), the Victorian hothouses for the work ethic which we exported all over the world with our colonial Empire. It worked for a time but by the mid-1970s even the British had lost the will to work.

The rest of the world took up the mantle. The Japanese have a reputation for working harder than most nations. There are stories of offices being closed at 8 pm to stop its staff from working through the night. But, the Japanese are not now the hardest working nation. In fact, they are the 11th on the international list. At 2,193 hours per annum, the South Koreans are at work longest. To save you hunting for a calculator that is 42 hours per week, every week of the year.

But is hard work the axiom for the modern world success? Is it true?

There is an alternative mantra that the real skill is to work smarter and not harder. Again, I turned to the internet to check its popularity, saw there were 13,200,000 results and decided a case proven.

Smarter and not harder suits me fine. I will always spend a few moments looking for the easy way to do a job. Or, I will I will resort to Adam Smith and comparative advantage and find a valuable job that I can do easily to pay for someone else to do the work I find boring and hard.

However, neither of these approaches tackle the real issue.

We will always favour the hard worker over the lazy and working smarter is always good but maybe the real issue is focus. It doesn’t matter how you approach the task if it is the wrong task then you are wasting your time. Focus is the real virtue.

As we move into a society with increased automation and AI the definition and focus of our work will change. Work will start to take on many different, non-traditional forms. For example, increasingly we will see community work classed as ‘proper’ work. As societies break down we will place an increased emphasis on the work that builds stronger families and societies. Work on good parenting will be recognised as ‘proper’ work to be rewarded. Just ask Lucinda if she is working harder now looking after Bertie.

As I collected my internet quotes there was one that stood out and I wanted to include. Unfortunately, it didn’t fit into the flow of my argument, but it was too good to discard and so it is here at the end. It doesn’t say that hard work is good, it doesn’t support smarter work, it just says keep going. Success is walking from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm. Winston Churchill

The Seven Virtues #4 Kindness

I am always taken by surprise. What should be the easy subjects always become the most difficult to write, but kindness is such a bland concept there seems little to say. Doesn’t everyone aspire to be kind and isn’t misanthropy such an unpleasant personal attribute?

Yet when it came to sitting in front of the computer, ready to write on this obvious virtue, it was hard to find the words.

Thinking about kindness, brought back memories of those long off corporate days when, twice a year, directors would meet to review all staff to talk about promotions and merit pay reviews. We would talk about everyone, extolling skills, and lamenting problems. Always there would be one or two of the staff who were almost unknown. We had nothing to say, and all we could agree on was that ‘he is very kind’.

In the environment, it was not a compliment. It was all we could muster. It rarely led to a promotion of merit pay increase.

Are we kind by nature is there something more sinister and why should we even ask the question?

We are wary when unexpectedly someone shows us kindness. We look for ulterior motive and assume that there must be something else at play.

It is because in this cynical world we assume that everything is an exchange. If I do something for you then you are obliged to do something for me. It has always been the nature of business that nothing is for free and in kindness, we often see a barter.

Altruistic behaviour has been studied by psychologists for decades and still they are confused and have come up with a range of theories to explain it. From a purely evolutionary view altruism or kindness makes no sense.

To help close relatives or even distant cousins may sustain the gene pool as they share most of the same genetics. Over the last year, I have been watching my daughter with her first child, the mighty Bertie. The kindness of a mother to a new child is awe inspiring. A mother gives everything to her child.

Or maybe, the psychologist says, it is a way of demonstrating our skills and resources as a way of impressing the opposite gender. ‘Look how good I am,’ you may be saying. ‘Look how I will look after you and our offspring.’

Or, it is a leftover from days when we lived in small groups and the protection of the group gene was the prime motivation for survival.

But all the theories are no more than an excuse for the behaviour and to explain away why we are kind. As one commentator said, it reminds me of my attempts to excuse my indolence when my wife comes home and finds that I haven’t done the DIY jobs I promised to. They’re attempts to make excuses for altruism: ‘Please excuse my kindness, but I was really just trying to look good in the eyes of other people.’ ‘Sorry for helping you, but it’s a trait I picked up from my ancestors thousands of years ago, and I just can’t seem to get rid of it.’

Business understands that there can be profit or at least benefit in social altruism. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is now standard and is a regular boardroom discussion. According to Investopedia, it is to take responsibility for the company’s effects on environmental and social well-being. Most companies set targets for CSR but is this altruistic behaviour?

For corporations to be robust and successful, they need to ensure the resilience of the community in which they work and the extended supply chains that serve them. Improving the conditions of the communities around them has a profitable impact. As always there is a reciprocal benefit. It is not pure altruism. Don’t believe Sainsbury’s or Marks and Spencer would advertise and sell goods with the sustainable label if it wasn’t something the consumer wanted or demanded.

Back to the psychologists. One of the benefits they say is that being kind can give a strong dopamine kick exciting your brain’s reward and pleasure centres. You can benefit from the kindness just as much and sit back and imagine how far you can climb up to the moral high ground when you tell your friends of your act of kindness.

I’m not going to proselytise the benefits of being kind but remember kindness is more than just giving. It an attitude about being sensitive to other’s needs.

In 1982, California, Anne Herbert wrote on a placemat, ‘practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty’ and the idea of a random act of kindness as a non-premeditated, inconsistent action designed to offer kindness towards the outside world, was born.

A friend who lives in San Francisco told me a story the other day. She and a friend were in a restaurant for a girl’s lunch. It was a light lunch and they were laughing and talking. As they finished they called over the waiter asking for the bill and were told that a man, who had since left, had already paid it. They don’t know who it was or why he had done it.

There is still a place in this world for kindness.

The Seven Virtues #3: Chastity

Some days while I am struggling to write a piece I think about this self-imposed challenge. It is never easy, always time-consuming, mainly frustrating, often rewarding, but also thought-provoking. That is where the enjoyment comes in.

Some days I arrive with preconceptions. I am arrogant enough to think I know all the answers, but nothing focuses the mind more clearly than publishing 1,000 words. Deficient arguments will be exposed. Woolly thinking is laid bare.

It was like that last night when I started this piece on the virtue of chastity.

I was a teenager in the 1960s and those years shaped and defined me. I am a natural libertarian. I can support the decriminalisation of cannabis. I think the NHS could dispense harder drugs to take the scourge of dealers off the street. I don’t see a stigma in prostitution. I arrived at this piece with prejudice.

I have had my say about lust as a sin and now is the time to write about chastity as a virtue. I was ready to condemn, but before I put the pen to paper and in the spirit of fairness I was willing as ever to do my research.

It was unsurprising to see most of the reference were to religious sites and reluctantly I was duty bound to at least flick through them.

OK, here comes the apology, now I have a better understanding, some of my opinions have changed.

To practice chastity or to be chaste, until the sixteenth century at least, had different meanings distinguishing between sex in or out of a committed relationship. Other than, monks, nuns, and priests (I am not going to get into that discussion and the Catholic child abuse scandals) the virtue is remaining chaste and not, necessarily, practising chastity.

Let’s get then easy bits out of the way.  Simply, chastity is going without sex. Chaste is not having sex outside of a committed relationship.

There are good anthropological reasons to encourage ‘being chaste’ as a virtue. Even without the 9 months of pregnancy, it takes up to 15 years, or thereabouts, for a child to become self-sufficient. There are obviously good reasons for society to encourage chaste, meaningful relationships between the parents to ensure genetic development.

Historically, values encouraged by the Church were important to society to allow it to develop. Canon law, in its widest sense, through the Christian Church managed and is the basis and validity of marriage. It defines the ability to end a marriage as well as the rules for remarriage, and therefore defines the norms for sexual behaviour.

When society was less well defined and universal civil law was more concerned with property, making chastity a virtue and lust a sin, the Church was codifying good anthropological behaviour.

For the majority of the adult population married in a church or an equivalent place of worship, we buy into this concept of chastity with vows of faithfulness. In the Christian church the vows in The Book of Common Prayer, are: with this Ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and …..

Marriage, faithfulness and chastity are central to the wellbeing of society and today I have started to realise that the virtues are a guide to help build a cohesive society. Maybe, we shouldn’t look at them as absolutes.

But they must also reflect the society we live in and a society that is developing. In the UK at least, the concept of faithfulness in a relationship is being consistently diminished and for many is less relevant today. In the UK there are now 1.8 million families with one parent and dependent children

I said that was the easy bit and the libertarian in me was eventually bound to break out.

What about chastity and in particular sex as a recreational behaviour for those that are not in a committed relationship?

Since the 1960s and the introduction of effective birth control that gave control of conception to every woman, we have become far more tolerant of sex as a leisure activity.  And probably, more importantly, we have accepted that women have the right to enjoy sex every bit as much as men.

The right of women to control when they have children is usually cited as the biggest benefit of The Pill but probably the right of women to enjoy sex is the greater benefit.

But every benefit is always accompanied by a caution. Our liberal attitude to sex and internet technologies have increased the availability and distribution of pornography. Personally, I have no problem with pornography, but I do get worried about pornography and its impact on young children.

Pornography does nothing to teach children about the joy of sex and it is predominantly misogynist. We need to look at the way we educate and teach our children about the joys of sex. We should change the name from sex education to relationship education broadening its scope.

Sex can be one of the most enjoyable of all experiences and, with the noted caveats, to feel ‘dirty’ or sinful for consensual sex, is wrong. We need to educate our children to understand that sex is not a rite of passage nor an athletic pursuit but a shared and healthy expression of a developing relationship.

We always have choices. I have been in a long-distance relationship for nearly five years and staying chaste is not easy. There are always temptations, but it is part of the commitment that both Sasha and I made. We must teach our children that they also have a choice.

I do not expect my now adult children to be chaste before marriage. I do expect them to have full, rounded, and meaningful lives. I see no virtue telling anyone to deny themselves enjoyment because of a moral code that doesn’t apply to them. On the other hand when they make a shared vow of commitment I expect them to buy into it totally.

I still believe that Chastity is outdated but I am a big fan of being chaste. It’s just a shame that tolerance isn’t one of the Seven Virtues. I am feeling full of that right now.

The Seven Virtues#2: Abstinence

Humility, kindness, patience, or diligence, are characteristics I can admire. Chastity was never going to be a personally achievable objective. But abstinence and abstinence from food, what is that all about? Time to find out.  As gluttony is the sin so abstinence is its corresponding virtue.

Abstinence is well founded in the Abrahamic faiths and so deeply embedded in our culture.

Roman Catholics fast during Lent, other occasional specific religious holidays and for one hour just before receiving the Eucharistic.  In Islam, there is a month of fasting during the daylight hours of Ramadan. I have lived in Dubai during many celebrations of Ramadan and understand just how strictly it is followed.

There are major and minor fast days as part of the Jewish year.  The two major fasts, Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, last just over twenty-four hours. This fast is absolute and the faster may not eat food, drink, brush his teeth, comb his hair, or take a bath. Minor fasts differ in their duration and no food or drink is taken from dawn until nightfall.

In all the religions the purpose of fasting is not to suffer, but to guard against impure thoughts, deeds, and words. Fasting is accompanied by increased prayer and in particular, almsgiving. Giving to charity is one of the five pillars of Islam and paying Zakat during Ramadan is required of every adult Muslim man or woman who possesses a wealth of a certain minimum amount.

But for those of us living in a far more secular world, we have updated our conformance to abstinence and become obsessed by our own self-esteem and self-image. These have become the driver of our eating habits.

We are asked to be ‘beach ready’, the models in our adverts are invariably thin. We have a perception of ideal body shape which we share through advertising and social media.

These new norms have caused us to develop a strange relationship with our food. Of course, we eat too much, and the range and choice are excessive, particularly when you think about world poverty. However, we don’t think of third world malnutrition when abstaining from food; which we do a lot of the time.

The first world is on a continuous diet.

It was in 2004 that a BBC survey showed that more than one in four adults in the UK are trying to lose weight “most of the time”.  The poll estimates that this means 13 million people are effectively on a permanent diet.  Almost two in five (37%) women were dieting most of the time, compared to around just one in six (18%) of men.  The research found that although people were conscious of the need to eat well for the sake of their health, many were dieting to look good.

And it’s got no better, and by 2014 the Daily Mail reported: A record-breaking two out of three women tried to lose weight in the past year – and more men than ever are trying to slim down, figures have shown. This means that last year a total of 29million Britons decided to exercise or diet to ward off problems associated with weight gain.

If it’s not dieting, then we modify and manipulate our diets. Over half a million people in the UK are on a vegan diet and January this year was labelled Veganuary encouraging even more to try a plant-based diet.

There is a diet for everyone and it seems everyone is on a self-inflicted weight loss course.

I am not writing from any position of strength or moral righteousness.

I can control some of my ever-increasing list of ailments with a very restrictive diet. My diabetes is helped with a stricter control of carbohydrates and sugars than I would like, although I do have the orange coloured phial of insulin for the days when my control is less than hoped.

My stomach problems have all but disappeared but only by removing all gluten and most of the other fodmaps. I am supposed to be reintroducing them one-by-one on an exclusion diet, but I really can’t face 2 or 3 days of stomach ache, just so I can spread Marmite on to a slice of stodgy gluten-free bread.

Did I say that by choice I am also a vegetarian?

I have become a moral abstainer, and, I admit, I gloat just a little as I decline a slice of pizza. I may quote doctor’s instruction, but I am happy to see my abstinence reflected on the scales. A point made more poignant as this is Eating Disorder Week.

Food is the essential fuel of our lives but the pressure not to eat and deny ourselves, is pervasive.

In the Abrahamic faiths abstinence and denial strengthen more than the body. The original virtue of abstinence was more than a historical diet but a wider penance embracing the soul. Full denial that harms the body was seen as much a sin as gluttony. More importantly, all the faiths associate giving as an essential side dish to fasting.

Of all the virtues, abstinence is the one most widely embraced, but that doesn’t make any of us virtuous. In our modern culture of self-denial, the single-mindedly focused is on ‘me’.

As always there is a meaningful lesson in our history.

The Seven Virtues #1: Liberality

The Gates Foundation, founded by Bill and Melinda Gates, launched in 2000, is said to be the largest private foundation in the US, holding $38 billion in assets, with the primary aims to enhance healthcare and reduce extreme poverty.

In 2007, its founders were ranked as the second most generous philanthropists in America and by 2013, Bill Gates had donated US$28 billion to the foundation. Warren Buffett, another contributor, is the first most generous.

It is probably the largest ever example of individuals giving to the voluntary sector, probably the greatest ever example of liberality.

While we think of liberality more often in the sense of being open to new ideas, as the antonym to greed (which is the purpose of these pieces) it is the quality of giving or spending freely that will be my focus.

David Cameron decided, even in a period of austerity, that the UK would donate 0.7% of Gross National Income to overseas aid. In terms of donations as a proportion of national income, the UK is in the top five in the world. In the absolute, the UK gives more in international aid than any other developed country apart from the United States, according to figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In a speech to the UN general assembly David Cameron said it was a moral obligation that better-off countries must tackle poverty in a world where more than 1 billion people live on less than a dollar a day. He argued it was also in everyone’s interests to build a more prosperous world otherwise, the problems of conflict, mass migration and uncontrollable climate change will come and visit us at home.

The 0.7% target is now embedded in UK law as a budgeting requirement but ever since it has been questioned and debated.

One of the arguments against this policy is that it is fine to give to aid but not during austerity when there are problems on our doorstep. Many have said that the money would be better spent on hospitals, flood barriers, and the underprivileged in the UK.

From all the debate you would think that the British don’t give easily to charity. Far from it.

Income from individuals to the civic and voluntary sector, in the UK, in 2015 increased by nearly £0.8bn from 2014 to £20.8bn. Voluntary organisations received £10.1bn from individual donations and legacies. (

Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and the people of the UK have been incredibly generous and there is no criticism at all for what they have done. Quite the opposite. I have nothing but praise but compare it to this story of Mother Teresa.

A reporter watched as she cleaned infected and weeping sores of a man.  ‘I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars,’ the reporter said.  ‘Neither would I,’ Mother Teresa said. I hadn’t realised that sarcasm was in her skill set.

It is so much easier to give £10 to the poor and homeless when there is a £100 in your wallet. Much harder when it is your last £10.

From Aristotle onwards, liberality has been the subject of a great deal of philosophical discussion, much of course from the religious community where giving is often at the core of the faith.

I am no expert in philosophy, but Aristotle seems to concentrate on the opposite extremes of wastefulness and meanness. His approach was to define the virtue as knowing how to use money: giving to the right people, the right amount at the right time. He went out of his way to emphasise that generosity is not a virtue associated with making money because a virtuous person is normally someone who causes beautiful things.

He adds that it might seem that it is better to be wasteful than mean. A wasteful person is cured by age, and eventually by just going broke. They are more foolish rather than spiteful. Meanness is worse.

I can understand. We can be frustrated when we watch money being wasted but as with Scrooge, we despise the mean.

Of course, there has also been a strong word from religious philosophers. In the way that we celebrate Mother Teresa and wandering Buddhist monks, liberality is at the core of many a faith.

In the thirteenth century, as he always did, Thomas Aquinas had a word or two on the subject. (As an aside if you ever need a quote on morals, virtues or values in a faith-based context then check what Thomas said. There is always a Thomas Aquinas quote somewhere.)

Even poor men may be liberal, he said, because the virtue is not in the multitude of gifts given, but in the habit of the giver. To be liberal is to be ready to give.

Finally, let’s bring the discussion back home.

My Mum, as she will tell you anytime you ask, is 90. After her teens, she has had a good and comfortable life, but at 15, she lost both her parents. It was a traumatic time in her life and it has shaped much of her behaviours since. She is forever grateful to those who looked after her and gave her all the help and support in difficult years to the point and after she met my father.

She doesn’t talk about repaying a debt, but she understands how liberality can change a future and now she is a real and committed supporter of local and international charities. She supports avidly local youth schemes and knits scarves and gloves, at the rate of one or two a week, for orphans in Romania. Her liberality is in her nature bred by the same liberality she received.

This has been a difficult piece to write as it has caused me to think about my own attitudes. How much of the virtue of liberality is in my soul? Where on the spectrum from Bill Gates to Mother Teresa do I sit?

It was in mid-December when I wrote about Greed, the first of seven deadly sins, and I remember the promises I made on how, if I had won, I would give the bulk of a Euro Millionaires jackpot to my family and a wide range of charities. I didn’t win and so my liberality has not been tested.

It is easy to give when you have a lot. That was my plan if I had won the lottery.  My plan was to share because I had more than any needs I could define, but the real virtue in liberality is giving when you don’t have anything. That is much harder to do.

For Every Sin There is a Virtue

February 14th. It’s a date that resonates all around the world. Valentine’s Day is universally recognised as the day for lovers to be together. It is a day for romance, tenderness, and love. It wasn’t always so. Romantic love and Valentine’s Day are not formed out of ancient history or pagan rites and only came together when Geoffrey Chaucer, in 1382, wrote Parlement of Foules.

For this was on seynt Volantynys day

Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

For this was on St. Valentine’s Day,

when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.

We are not about to go on a nature trail of avian dating and mating habits nor, having done all the research, a history of Valentine’s Day. Mostly, that was boring. Chaucer kicked it all off. End of story.

There is a lot of mythology starting with the Romans, and then it is far more associated with lust than love. The names of young Roman girls were thrown into a hat for the young men to choose a partner for erotic games. In today’s politically correct world I don’t intend to comment on that although the stories you may have heard of swinging parties and car keys in a bowl, do have an ancient history!

In the series I wrote on the Seven Deadly Sins love and lust were combined, and I suggested that lust was not a sin if matched with love ( )

But, if lust is a sin, then love is its complimentary virtue and I wondered if every one of the sins was matched by a virtue. It wasn’t hard to find the answer. Philosophers, the spiritual and the religious have all had a say on the virtues we should aspire to – more so it seems than the range of sins we can commit.

The Seven Contrary Virtues are specific opposites to the Seven Deadly Sins while the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy are a medieval list of things you can do to help others. Bushido, the code of honour and morals developed by the Japanese samurai, has its own Seven Virtues.

When Pope Gregory defined the seven deadly sins he kindly also included a counter-balancing set of virtuous values.

  1. Faith, is a belief in the right things.
  2. Hope, is taking a positive future view, that good will prevail.
  3. Charity, is a concern for, and the active helping of, others.
  4. Fortitude, is never giving up.
  5. Justice, is being fair and equitable with others.
  6. Prudence, is care of and moderation with money.
  7. Temperance, is moderation of needed things and abstinence from things which are not needed.

For the biblical scholars among you, the first three are a slight variation on St. Paul’s trio of Love, Hope and Faith and are known as the Spiritual Virtues. The others are called the Chief or Natural Virtues. Greek philosophers had already defined these.

Now a sinful confession. I enjoyed writing the series on the Seven Deadly Sins and so now is the time for penance and I will be covering all the virtues over the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, with all the thoughts of Valentine’s Day still fresh, and, although out of sequence, I can start a little early with an initial thought on love. Heard at weddings all over the country these words of St Paul are still the best for a Valentine’s Day.

Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous. 

Love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly. 

It does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.

Of course, there will be more on a later day but as I wish all of you my best for the day, I hope you will allow me a moment of personal indulgence: Sasha, I love you. Every day with you is Valentine’s Day.