The philosopher of the High Street has spoken, and his words contain much wisdom. With a roll of drums Alain de Botton has revealed his personal commandments of contemporary life. We need to work at being good, he has announced. To this end, he has produced “a list on which to flex our ethical muscles”.
It is a stirring objective and a bold claim, but his list might easily have been compiled by a focus group of spin doctors and agony aunts.
De Botton’s virtues – self-awareness, empathy, patience, hope, sacrifice, politeness, sacrifice, forgiveness, resilience and humour – are neither particularly new nor of special relevance to atheists.
The original Ten Commandments at least contained a few surprises (where did all that stuff about coveting thy neighbour’s ox or ass come from?), and so should today’s.
1. Thou shalt not sneer at religion
There is no reason why atheists require their own manifesto and commandments. That kind of secular arrogance is no more excusable than the religious type. Not only does it reveal a closed mind, but also a closed heart.
Anthem: “What a Wonderful World”.
Patron saint: John Updike.
2. Thou shalt respect lust
In a culture which is often sleazy and pornified, true desire is often demeaned and commodified. Yet it is as important a part of being alive as any other.
Anthem: “Wake Up and Make Love To Me”.
Patron saint: Mae West.
3. Thou shalt disrespect fame
Hardly a day goes by without a reminder in the news that celebrity corrodes, corrupts and generally messes up people’s lives. This weekend, it was Chris Evans who revealed some of its effects to an interviewer. “You’re infected, you infect yourself with badness,” he said. “Your real self gets up and leaves. You vacate your own being.”
Anthem: “I Don’t Want To Set the World on Fire”.
Patron saint: Michael Barrymore.
4. Thou shalt be local in your heart and your spending
What matters most is not the fate of multinational company run by bonus-crazed zombies, but the people and places in the particular place on Earth where you have chosen to live. Look after them, fight for their interests, and the wider world will be the better for it.
Anthem: The theme from Neighbours.
Patron saint: Satish Kumar.
5. Thou shalt not take thyself seriously when others do
It is an odd fact that the hijacking of public life by the PR business has resulted in people becoming more, not less, self-important. Pomposity cuts off the circulation, and leads inevitably to silliness and embarrassment.
Anthem: “A Fool Such As I”.
Patron saint: Prince Harry.
6. Thou shalt take thyself seriously when others do not
There are many idiots roaming the world, and a surprising number are in positions of power. As their voices grow louder and more overbearing, it is worth remembering why, for all your faults and failings, you prefer being you to them.
Anthem: “Everybody’s Talkin’”.
Patron saint: David Icke.
7. Thou shalt be unashamedly enraged now and then
There are many things in the modern world which are likely to annoy any reasonable, caring person. Go with the anger, but do not let it infect you. The trick is to access your inner Incredible Hulk when it matters, and then return to normal civilian life.
Anthem: “If I Had a Hammer”.
Patron saint: Dennis Skinner MP.
8. Thou shalt be prepared to take risks
At those key moments when you are facing a life-changing decision, you will be surrounded by sensible voices urging you to take the more cautious path, while within you there may be a yearning to be reckless. Almost always, the more dangerous course will turn out to be the right one. Lack of nerve is more often regretted than an excess of courage.
Anthem: “Don’t Fence Me In”.
Patron saint: Lily Allen.
9. Thou shalt not feel the need to communicate all the time
Something of your inner self is lost if you spend much of the day talking about yourself to anyone who will listen, especially on social media sites. If the internet becomes your master, it will spread you so thinly that sometimes even you will be unable to tell where your real life ends and your virtual life begins. Sometimes it is good not to share.
Anthem: “Shaddup Your Face”.
Patron saint: J D Salinger.
10. Thou shalt not look back
The temptation to dwell on past mistakes (see Commandment 8), lost loves (see Commandment 2) or rash remarks and actions (see Commandment 7) may occasionally be difficult to resist, but regret can only lead to bitterness or pointless, tearful sentimentality. Be nostalgic, but only for the present (see Commandment 1).
Anthem: “Just One of Those Things”.
Patron saint: Bob Dylan.