Public Virtue

By temperament I’d probably prefer an Epicurean life. As Wikipedia has it:

For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia: peace and freedom from fear and aponia: the absence of pain and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. 

Following Alain de Botton’s lead, I think of this as seeking ‘The Garden’; an idealised  Mediterranean retreat surrounded by carefully selected friends, passing days in contemplation -with occasional breaks for olives, bread, jamon y queso and other light delights… 

But working and family life – especially the middle years – aren’t quite like that are they.

And given I’ve taken Aristotle as my guide, his ‘good life’ comes with a much higher bar; what I’ve come to think of as a life of ‘public virtue’.

Here’s a list of 11 things an Aristotelian life of public virtue requires, in a blend of my words and his; re-found last week looking at those ‘to do’ lists from 2010:

A life of Public Virtue

Courage: does my courage suitably balance fear and confidence?

Temperance: am I self-indulgent or unduly ascetic?

Liberality: am I generous, profligate or mean?

Magnificence: do I visibly give my time and money to good causes?

Pride: am I vain or unduly humble; do I step forward or stand back from noble actions and undertakings?

Honour: am I sufficiently ambitious or am I too unambitious?

Good Temper: am I good tempered, irascible or too meek?

Friendliness: am I friendly, obsequious, a flatterer or quarrelsome?

Truthfulness: am I boastful or mock-modest about my achievements?

Wit: do I sparkle or am I dull?

Friendship: am I generous in my friendship, a loner or spreading myself too thinly?

Tough tests these. 

Based on this higher Aristotelian standard, I’ve pushed myself this week: more courage, less obsequiousness and ‘mock-modesty’ – and a spot of irascibility too; telling a couple of people to b#%%€r off. 

In sum: standing for, standing against; and not just standing by on some things which need to be better.

Public virtue requires a bit of courage and a bit of oomph; a public life can’t always be a peaceful one free of fear and pain.

Good also to remember, this week of all weeks, what US ‘Founding Father’ John Adams had to say on the importance of public virtue:

Dining Alone


For possibly the first time in my adult life, I went to a restaurant last week and ate alone. What came over me?

As a kid I loved restaurants. When we moved to Holland for my Dad’s work, I went to the Eurotel restaurant, all by myself – aged 9 – to have dinner and my very own portion of sauté potatoes – smilingly served in an oval stainless steel dish. Mmmm.

Pace adult life: travelling the world on business and subsequently living in France. A world of opportunity. But if I found myself alone, I’d never deviate from room service and TV dinners. Eating solo, whatever the city, whatever the food – it just felt wrong.

My regular – but unusually absent – lunching partner sent me a quote from Epicurus in response to the photo above:

“We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink, for dining alone is leading the life of a lion or wolf”.

He asked me which I was: lone wolf or feasting lion? I’m not sure I was either. But facing an uncomfortable afternoon in a management meeting, I thought ‘what the hell’, I need some blood sugar, I’ve got one hour, I don’t want anyone in my face – lets have a tasty plate in preparation and quiet contemplation.

Epicurus might have raised an eyebrow but it was fine. Nobody stared at me. I didn’t howl or roar. I just quietly and quite contentedly devoured.