Thought for the Day - Clifford Longley

The Biblical story of how the shepherd boy David slew the fearsome giant Goliath has passed into our culture as a metaphor for personal courage. It is about the valiant little guy standing up against overwhelming odds.

A host of Davids taking on an army of Goliaths has become an enduring television image in the last year, as individuals have demonstrated against state tyranny and corruption in, among others, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and now in Moscow and St Petersburg - not to mention the Congolese capital, Kinshasa. The Russian demonstrations, for instance, represent an upsurge of civic courage by ordinary people in a society where, not too long ago, just raising an eyebrow at the wrong time could earn you a single ticket to a Siberian labour camp.

Courage is one of the four cardinal virtues, and in the Russian case stands alongside another of those four, the virtue of justice. Like their fellow Davids on the Arab street, the Russian demonstrators want the rights which every legitimate regime owes its citizens: they want honest elections, freedom of speech, and an end to corruption.

The reappearance of the classical virtues is one of the most encouraging signs I’ve yet seen that the world is not quite ready to go to hell on a handcart. If you start to talk about “virtue ethics”, people’s ears prick up. It’s something they want to hear about, whether we’re talking about the crisis in the financial world, civic responsibility and the revival of civil society, or just what’s going wrong with family life.

We owe the idea of four primary virtues - along with courage and justice there's also temperance and prudence - to the ancient Greeks, transmitted into Western culture by, among others, St Ambrose, St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. The mediaeval emphasis on the importance of virtue was pushed aside in the Renaissance and then at the Enlightenment. Among philosophers it remained dormant almost until living memory. We owe its revival to a postwar English philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe, and a Scotsman, Alasdair Macintyre, who wrote a seminal work called After Virtue.

Virtue is about character, about how to become a better person; but it’s also about how to have good relationships, how to be happy and fulfilled. Virtue ethics fits neatly into certain strands of Christian theology such as Catholic Social Teaching; but it is also good cross-platform stuff. The virtues are extolled in the Book of Wisdom; they are explicit in the Koran, implicit in Buddhism and Hinduism; and all over Confucius. Ordinary people are rediscovering them, and in doing so are making the lives of corrupt dictators - the modern Goliaths - very difficult. Surely here is an idea whose time has come, if ever there was one.

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