Three virtues needed for public life

Philip Pullman, author of often controversial science fiction/fantasy books on God and the church writes of three virtues: “Courage, modesty and intellectual curiosity that can cultivate delight in daily life, and protect our liberties.”

But when it comes to public or political virtues, are there any in particular that ought to characterise a virtuous state? I can think of three that would make a good start.

The first is courage. Courage is foundational: it’s what we need so as to be able to act kindly even when we’re afraid, in order to exercise good and steady judgment even in the midst of confusion and panic, in order to deal with long-term necessity even when short-term expediency would be easier. A courageous nation would not be afraid of its own newspapers, or toady to their proprietors; it would continue to do what was right even when loud voices were urging it to do wrong. It would stand up to economic interests when others were more important, and yes, there are interests that are more important than short-term economic benefits. And when it came to the threat of external danger, a courageous nation would take a clear look at the danger and take realistic steps to avert it. It would not take up a machine-gun to defend itself against a wasp.

The second virtue I want to praise is modesty. Modesty in a nation consists among other things of fitting the form to the meaning, and not mistaking style for substance. A modest kingdom, for instance, would have to think for a moment to remember whether or not it was a republic, because the members of the royal family would be allowed to spend most of their time in useful and interesting careers as well as being royal, and their love affairs would remain their own business; and people would always be glad to see them cycling past. Acquiring modesty in our public life would be a big step towards developing a realistic sense of our size and position in the world.

The third virtue I’d like to see in a nation (all right: in our nation, now) is intellectual curiosity. Wakefulness of mind might be another term for it. A nation with that quality would be conscious of itself and of its history, and of every thread that made up the tapestry of its culture. It would believe that the highest knowledge of itself had been expressed by its artists, its writers and poets, and it would teach its children how to know and how to love their work, believing that this activity would give them, the children, an important part to play in the self-knowledge and memory of the nation. A nation where this virtue was strong would be active and enquiring of mind, quick to perceive and compare and consider. Such a nation would know at once when a government tried to interfere with its freedoms. It would remember how all those freedoms had been gained, because each one would have a story attached to it, and an attack on any of them would feel like a personal affront. That’s the value of wakefulness.

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