On 仁

From Easter to Bastille Day, I will practice and write about the five Confucian virtues: 仁,义,礼,智, . I am conducting this project alongside Patrick Laudon, Frenchman based in Tokyo. We will spend three weeks with each virtue, following the same protocol: first explore its meaning and relevance, then articulate and adopt a daily practice to cultivate that virtue, finally reflect on the practice and share this in two parallel blog posts. This is not a solid introduction to the Confucian framework of virtues – but rather, a prototype attempt at connecting classical philology to practice.

仁 – pronounced rén with a rising tone – is  variously translated as benevolence, kindness, or humaneness. Popular etymology describes the character as composed of the key for ‘man’ (亻) and the number two (二) – therefore identifying 仁  as the virtue that manifests when two people come together. This first arrested my attention. 仁is not about guidance from a higher being or a set of rules that the self should follow: it is anchored in concrete human relations. From the very start of the Analects, this relationship is presented as defined on the basis of seniority: “孝弟也者、其为仁之本与” (are not filial piety and obedience to elders fundamental to the actualization of fundamental human goodness? Analects 1:2). In a later commentary, 仁 is said to manifest itself in the person who rescues a child playing on the margin of a well. 仁 informs each relationship not on the pure basis of our joint humanity, but also based on each parties’ lifespan – and therefore, the same virtue will manifest as a different behaviour in each situation. This, I thought, addresses a point which I often hit upon when thinking about morals and ethics: when exactly should a child be considered ethically mature? 仁 offers a lateral way to think of the answer: when the child finds themselves in a situation where the relational duty demands that they be the adult, on the basis of their seniority to the person they interact with.

The word仁has another unrelated meaning: it refers the kernel of an apricot pit or the flesh of a shrimp. Is it therefore, I wondered, the warm rich human core that lies inside the social shell, and acts as the principle of movement? 仁 cannot be deducted from external behaviour, as this long passage indicates:  “孟武伯问子路仁乎。子曰。不知也。又问。子曰。由也、千乘之国、可使治其赋也、不知其仁也。求也何如 子曰。求也、千室之邑、百乘之家、可使为之宰也、不知其仁也。赤也何如 子曰。赤也、束带立于朝、可使与宾客言也、不知其仁也。(Meng Wu Bo asked Confucius whether Zi Lu was a ren man. Confucius said, “I don’t know.” He asked again. Confucius said, “You could direct the public works forces in a state of 1, 000 chariots, but I don’t know if I would call him a ren man.” Meng again asked: “What about Qiu?” Confucius said, “Qiu could be the governor of a city of 1, 000 families, or of a clan of 100 chariots, but I don’t know if he is a ren man.” Meng asked: “What about Chi?” The Master said, “Dressed up with his sash, placed in the middle of the court, he could make conversation with the guests, but I don’t know if he is a ren man. Analects 5:8). Instead, it can be captured through patterns of subtle harmony that are experienced aesthetically: “里仁为美。” (As for a neighborhood, it is its ren that makes it beautiful. Analects 4:1) “人而不仁、如乐何” (If a man has no ren what can his music be like? Analects 3:3). In turn, the collective enjoyment of a world infused by 仁 can trigger a positive spiral where aesthetic refinement nurtured by 仁brings together people who, through their relationship, strengthen each other’s 仁: “君子以文会友。以友辅仁。” (The noble man uses his refinement to meet his friends, and through his friends develops his ren. Analects 12:24)

What mainly struck me when I read through the words Confucius was a seeming paradox inherent to the virtue. On the one hand, 仁 is presented as an always available option “仁远乎哉。我欲仁、斯仁至矣。”(Is ren far away? If I aspire for ren it is right here! Analects 7:30). And yet, we consistently fall short of it, and few can maintain it for any period of time: “囘也、其心三月不违仁、其余则日月至焉而已矣。” (Hui could keep his mind on ren for three months without lapse. Others are lucky if they can do it for one day out of a month. Analects 6:7).

In line with this observation, when I developed a practice that would help me cultivate 仁, I decided to focus on deliberate attention: at least once a day, when I found myself in a public setting, I would pause and think about my relationship with every person present. I would do this in two stages: first establish common humanity, then consider our respective status based on age, and how this should inform my behavior to each person around, should I interact with them.

The practice revealed a few things about myself. As a gay man, I noticed how skewed my attention is to people of different gender – and how little attention I spontaneously pay to women in public places: another confirmation of unconscious bias, and its rippling effects. As a 40 year-old, I noticed how time has passed, how most people are now slightly younger than me, and how I should therefore start adapting my default behaviour. I also noticed how solitary my professional life can be – how much of my time is spent ‘alone in company’ or even entirely on my own.

The practice was strangely transformative. When I was looking at people sitting or standing in a group – friends, families, co-workers – through this deliberate relational attention, I entirely stopped thinking of them as ‘another group’, a ‘them vs me’, but rather, each of them became part of a consistent human web that I also belonged in. Through the practice of仁, I feel that I was able to expand my circle of empathy: most likely by offering a simple framework that allowed me to think of my relationship with every other human as concretely defined by age – the length of time we spent alive, and how this determines a certain type of duty. This also made it more possible for me to see the world from the perspective of others, and in their company, feel a sense of calm and beauty.

All translations of the Chinese in this text are from Charles Muller

 

On Envy

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

In French, the word ‘envy’ became synonymous with desire before I was born. It is therefore highly difficult for me to natively think of it as a sin. I can hear the voice of parents and friends asking me ‘Qu’est-ce qui te fait envie?’ literally ‘what makes you envy’, meaning, ‘what would you like?’ I can hear the lyrics of an 80s rock song that played on the radio through my childhood: ‘On m’a trop donné, bien avant l’envie – qu’on me donne l’envie, envie d’avoir envie’ – and though the song is about the exhaustion of desire in a consumerist world of material abundance, a word-for-word translation would read ‘I’ve been given too much, way before envy – let somebody give me envy, envy to have envy.’ It’s an odd reversal of values when the radio broadcasts an aspiration to sin.

The lyrics of that song echo my experience of material abundance as an only child of wealthy divorced parents. Toys and games rained over me – both parents, I guess, and parts of the broader family vying for my affection through gifts. I had more things, I think, than any kids at school. I remember moments of envy, when one of them had a toy that I didn’t – but this never lasted very long: either I came back home and appreciated how superior my collection was, or I was able to acquire the plastic object of my desire.

Material abundance protected me from material desire, but a different and deeper form of envy characterised elements of my life that compared unfavourably with others. I envied the children of married parents, who didn’t have to shuffle around from one apartment to the other, nor act as mediator in the financial and emotional struggles of adults. When my father left for the capital, I envied anybody whose two parents lived in the same city, and were spared a fortnightly plane commute. Later still, I envied kids without hostile or manipulative step-parents. Envy led me to regular bouts of despair, a belief that my family situation would make it impossible for me to reach happiness, ever – while others around, though materially less fortunate, were given all the right emotional and spiritual circumstances to lead balanced happy lives. And I became incapable of seeing the good in my own situation.

At school, struggling with my own romantic attraction to men, growing up in a period when gay was not OK, I envied couples of male platonic friends who shared a clear mutual desire to spend time together. Some times, instead of letting new friendships and attachments emerge, I let myself be possessed by envy, targeted and seduced – soon resulting in embarrassment, or even harm.

Envy lost its grip on me when I came out and moved out of home. But the possibility to do this depended on so much – high levels of privilege, a scholarship system, decades of activism from LGBT groups, and the sheer luck of remarkable encounters leading to friendships and romantic relationships that, I hope, were mutually nourishing. And so, when I look back at my own experience of envy, I sense how difficult it is to curb its power, and how dangerous it is for all communities and social relations.

Tragedies of the commons are all based on envy. Prisoner’s dilemma: what if I was to reduce my carbon emissions, and others don’t. Why should I work harder for lower benefits? Why should less developed countries – hey, China – get a right to burn more cheap coal and save money to buy beef, while we must forsake immediate satisfaction to build more expensive insulated buildings and wind farms? Why should future generations be protected, and live in a world of greater potential abundance than us? Why should I go to the effort of looking after the public good, if the public does not look after my interest?

Envy squares greed: while greed is a perverted relationship to the material world, envy looks at other people and their possessions or attributes, seeking discrepancies, and aiming to get even. Envy derives from a scarcity mindset: you have more of something than I do, whether brains, looks, money, relationships, or attention. Envy wears a mask of heroic justice – I would rather risk both of us losing everything, than let such inequality continues. But the same person, here, is both judge and party.

I am writing this – the last of my reflections on sin – on Easter Day. Judah betrayed for greed, but envy led the Pharisees to condemn and kill Christ: why should this man receive such attention – yay, claim to be son of God – rather than us? I would rather take the chance of killing the Messiah than let this uneducated man steal the love and respect of the people from us. Easter, however, is not a revenge story. The judges and executors simply disappear, while abundance returns for the believers who did not let envy possess them. And on this day, at least, it is possible to dream of a future community where envy does not exist, and a genuine sense of abundance prevails.

On Wrath

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

Late on Tuesday, I found myself looking at Facebook. A friend had shared an article on a new proposal from our immigration minister, to give white South African farmers exposed to violence at home a fast-track to an Australian visa. The same minister had previously opposed increasing visa numbers because of the burden on Australia’s welfare system and the risk to Australia’s jobs. At 11h30, I shared the piece on Facebook with a flaming quote: “For a moment, I thought that our present government had something against refugees, and I felt ethically challenged. But as it turns out, I was wrong this whole time – they’ve got nothing against refugees, just brown people. Now that’s a government I can proudly stand behind!” At 1am, I still couldn’t sleep – I was excited by my act of righteous boldness, curious to see reactions, ready to go and overthrow the government. What happened in the end? Nothing more than a few likes and comments – I deprived myself of time I could have used more productively, literally burning it in the fires of wrath.

My first long piece of writing explored wrath: it was a verse tragedy called The Sirens about the death of Patroclus and the wrath of Achilles. The Illiad is the a cornerstone of the Western canon. Achilles, Greece’s foremost warrior, incensed by some internal slight with another general, is overtaken by wrath and refuses to fight. His lover Patroclus goes in his stead and is killed on the battlefield ,shifting Achilles wrath against the Trojans. The version I wrote opens and closes with Achilles’ mother, the sea-goddess Thetis, and her choir of sirens, calling her son to rejoin her in the shapeless ocean. At the beginning, Achilles, tired of the war, dreams of dissolving back into the maternal waters with his lover. The guile of Greek generals sends Patroclus to the battlefield – he’s not the son of a Goddess, and could only stand on equal footing with demi-God Achilles through the glory of heroic battle. The death of Patroclus prompts a change in Achilles: the only way that he now can unite with his lover is by rejecting murky death by water, and instead, join him on the funreal pyre of heroes.

Wrath is the fiery twin of depression. It is a form of moral perfectionism, an allergy to the corrupt world. It is a mask of strength hiding internal weakness. It is not a last resort resistance to evil, but violence let loose. Wrath is possession: alienated freedom. And so wrath is always a form of self-destruction. Every time we give in to wrath, we reproduce on a small scale the actsof a suicide bomber.

But wait – I hear you say – is not God himself wrathful? Here may be the crux of it. In wrath, all human doubt and frailty vanishes. We know what is right, and if we just let the powers of wrath take possession of our bodies and souls, we feel that we could bring order to the world. Is this not a sacrifice worth making? So wrath is ultimate temptation, inviting us to be like God: the most harmful and seductive form of hybris.

On Greed

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

As I read through the notes I took for this post over the past two weeks, this is what I noticed. There is a lot about the current state of the world, capitalism, economic systems, theory, change. Nothing about myself. Lust evoked shame – greed, abstraction and righteousness.

I could write pages about the systemic greed of our society. Capitalism, consumer culture, negative externalities. Reagan, Thatcher, Trump. Boomers in McMansions, SUVs and cruise-ships, burning away gas, oil and coal, destroying ecosystems for their immediate enjoyment. No fair go for future generations. I could write about the people who produced and promoted single-use plastic bags and forks and cups – disposable pens, razors, printers – and the piles of waste that their fortune was built on. I could mention the start-up world, where success begins at 9 zeros. The slave merchants of past centuries. Colonists over the globe, destroying cultures and land everywhere. All this unpunished, for greed.

I could write about this conversation, last year, on a Facebook thread with a guy contending that ‘everyone’ should put aside four million dollars for retirement: that’s how much you need to secure adequate returns, and you couldn’t possibly start eating up your capital, because what if you lived up to 100? I could reflect on greed as a sin of old age, often based in fear. Then I could look for causal chains, how individualism, consumerism and the loss of intergenerational solidarity nurtures greed. If all incentives are for each of us to look after themselves, the result is irrational collective behaviour, Tragedy of the Commons, and its pending catastrophe.

I could write more about all of this, but would I understand anything about greed as a sin? What if, instead, I wrote about myself. How I live a very comfortable life in a very wealthy country, yet hardly give anything to charity, and only part with money for my own future self through super – and even then, with difficulty. How I know very well that animal farming and large-scale fishing are wrecking our environment, yet struggle to wean myself off meat, fish, eggs, or dairy. How I pass by homeless people every day, yet would rather spend my dollars on cakes and coffee for myself than share it with them.

I do try to moderate my appetite – because I know greed to be dangerous, and because I see the connection between simpler needs and more freedom. But as soon as I got a larger income, a few years back, I started upgrading. The better jam, the better yoghurt, the better peanut butter. The box of fresh vegetables and fruit delivered once a week. The regular coffee outside. The books bought online, rather than borrowed from the library. And when I needed to travel, ubers and taxis, my own airBNB, and the better airline. Because I was working hard, and therefore should be compensated with greater comfort.

Greed is about refusing death, greed is about infinite growth, greed is about placing the self above others. But greed is also that insidious voice in our head, whispering ‘you’re worth it’, and hoarding objects in our cupboards, cash in our bank accounts, consumable experiences in our memories – and piles of waste all over the place.

 

On Lust

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation. 

As I try to write about lust, I encounter an immediate block. Sharing personal encounters with pride, sloth or gluttony seemed easier than sharing my encounters with lust. The sin comes with an ambivalent combination of shame – revealing details will bring embarrassment – and righteousness – as an aunt once famously said, ‘do whatever you like with your ass’. After decades of sexual revolution, our current social agreement seems to be that lust is fine, as long as it stays in the shadows. Indeed, there is a very high taboo on the public consumption of lust. Polite society welcomes pride, greed and envy  more than it does sex.

Lust has been described as the most minor of all sins, and the root of all sins. I turned and turned around this in my head, until I landed on the concept of scandal. In its original meaning – and in the Gospel – a scandal is, literally, the little stone that enters the shoe. With each step, the scandal digs deeper into the foot, causing pain, and eventually preventing further forward movement.

The question, then, is this: would it be possible to think of lust, the most minor of all sins and the mother of all sins, as not evil in itself, but in its consequences. This I found in Chesterton, articulating the radical nature of Christianity – that no thing in creation is evil in itself, but evil is always spiritual: it lies in the nature of our relationship to that thing. Such is physical pleasure then – orgasm – or the bodies of other people as a source of pleasure. Nothing there is evil in itself, but our relationship to the thing may be sinful.

As a little stone digs into the sole, softening it, increasing sensitivity to pain, and eventually limiting the capacity to walk – so lust digs into the soul, softening it, increasing sensitivity to pain, and eventually limiting the capacity to walk. There is nothing intrinsically bad about the pleasures of the flesh – whether strictly sexual, or more broadly the many pleasure of soft fabrics, elaborate foods, and sophisticated service, that cushion our encounter with the outside world. But each of those makes a little mark that grows larger and softer with each encounter, until we find ourselves unable to deal with harsher circumstances, or bear the absence of a physical comfort. Then freedom disappears, replaced with addiction to pleasure.

Another concept, then, is useful to think about lust: comfort, the milder side of lust, or endless desire for higher and higher levels of cushioning from the world.  Addiction, then, could be the more common manifestation of lust. Here, pleasure is no longer found in resolute and coordinated activity, but in pure consumption. As the need for comfort increases – whether in the form of sexual pleasure, cocaine, booze or thick carpets, in higher and higher doses – other people and, indeed, the entire natural world become nothing more than a means to an end, providing me with the comfort I need in order to keep on living.

All forms of abuse ensue – harassment, exploitation, slavery, rape, of individuals, of natural ecosystems. But abuse is equally directed inwards. Our bodies primarily become a means towards pleasure. We curate images of ourselves intended to get us more sex; we sacrifice entire days to recover from a big night out drinking; we sell off our time and energy to the most evil masters in order to get the money that will pay for the luxuries we can no longer live without.

An entire system develops on the back of this boundless appetite, whose only task is to satisfy our addiction: drugs and prostitution. Business class lounges. Chocolate bar manufacturers. Barrista Coffee. Consumer-driven capitalism. And as the system grows, it feeds upon itself: it needs people to maintain it, and those people, irritated by the many scandals of the system, need more comfort to move forward.

‘You should not test your God’ is one of the most important statements of biblical wisdom. We are, after all, largely mechanical creatures – freewill, if ever within our reach, requires immense concentration. We can, at best, only build better habits, and use their momentum as a path towards virtue. If yielding to lust opens the door to gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, pride and wrath, should we – then – concentrate all our efforts on resisting lust, and virtue will naturally follow?

Among angels, maybe – but not in our present world. The many scandals of a failing system dig from all directions in our souls – public advertisement, addiction to comfort trained from childhood, coffee shops, wine bars & dating apps. Comfort has a calming effect, even if temporary. Giving in to lust puts a balm on our wounds, it relieves us from temporary paralysis, allowing us to take a few steps ahead and – maybe – by doing so, saving us from worse evil. Lust is the mother of all sins, but also the lesser one. Giving in, therefore, rather than firmly resisting, may be prudence: we acknowledge our weakness, and humbly choose a lesser evil.

 

On Gluttony

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation. 

‘Little belly, rejoice, rejoice – every cent I make is for you.’ According to family lore, this is what my great-grandfather used to chant before each meal. Being of French-Italian descent, one would expect gluttony to be particularly challenging for me: from the earliest age, I was trained to believe that food is at the centre of civilised life.

I have noted on several occasions that food plays a role in my own psychological balance. Two days without a good meal, and I will start feeling sad and grumpy. The sensual pleasure of a well-balanced dish enjoyed on a regular basis is a way for me to offset the many frustrations of the day. To that extent, food – good food preferably – is a drug that I depend on to keep my own balance.

As with all drugs, addiction is a risk. Stress, frustration, or even boredom, call for a quick solution. This I find in the form of a chocolate, pizza, cake – or a very large bowl of lettuce with cracked walnuts and shaved parmesan that I prepare, for no reason, in the middle of the afternoon. There is a huge, complex project to work on, where so much is unknown. Munching my way through chips and a burger gives me the sense of control that is missing in other areas of my life, even if only temporarily. When I eat, I’m in charge.

Gluttony, Lust, and greed all have to do with excessive appetite. They are the vices of our time, fed by advertisement, capitalism, and our hedonistic ideology. But what exactly distinguishes them? Is it purely their object – food, sex, money? Or do those three sins differ in a more subtle manner? This is what I would like to reflect on in this post.

I have not been warned against gluttony to the same extent that I have been about sloth, wrath, or envy. Indeed, our entire social system is built on gluttony. Food is available everywhere, and cheap. We subsidise farmers – irrespective of their impact on our environment – so that we can eat in abundance.

Gluttony goes beyond the sensual enjoyment of drink and food. It establishes the purpose of the natural world ss ingestion by humans. Gluttony, quite literally, may result in our species eating the planet to destruction – with all fish- and meat-lovers to the front.

Waste is the necessary by-produce of gluttony. Let the sin go loose, and the world will literally turn to shit. Gluttony destroys its object in order to nurture the self – and to that extent, may be seen as an extension of pride. Gluttony seeks balance and fulfilment through consumption rather than activity – and to that extent, may be seen as an extension of sloth.

Gluttony goes beyond the mindless consumption of food to those extensions of our selves – gas-guzzling SUVs and big houses and the fuel we burn for heating, cooling and decorating them. More broadly, the cities we build, where suburbs encroach further and further into the non-human world, because we want to live close to nature, may be framed as a form of gluttony.

Gluttony comes with an expectation that there will always be more. Resisting it, therefore, is also respecting the right for others to leave. Resisting gluttony preserves our future freedom: parts of the world are untouched. I don’t have to transform the entire world into my own substance. It is OK that food remains uneaten – or even, that food may never be produced.

Resisting gluttony creates internal space: physically, by lowering the pressure on our internal organs, and spiritually, by giving up on our limitless appetite for ingesting the whole world, and keeping time for other activities. What if, then, gluttony was nothing but the fear of freedom, replacing the space of possibility with endless food consumption – and therefore, also, the best ally of tyranny?

 

On Pride

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation. 

I am writing this post on Australia Day. On January 26, 1788, the First Fleet landed on the coast of New South Wales, and raised a British flag on the banks of what is now Sydney harbour. This date has been chosen to mark the birth of Australia as a nation. While crowds are blocking off Swanston Street for a commemorative march, others are protesting what they call ‘Invasion day’.

There is a close connection between pride and nationalism. Pride is an inflated sense of self, a deluded belief in our own importance – and typically takes the form of a carefully curated public image. Enter nationalism, and its two-step process of delusional storytelling. First, select a few figures among the large crowds of our collective past, and establish them as exclusive ancestors. Then, loudly celebrate their glorious achievements, keeping any contribution from others hidden in the shadows of history, while any crime is carefully brushed under the carpet of oblivion.

As a gay man, I am staunchly aware of collective pride and its appeal. Every year, we celebrate the resistance of gay patrons to police intrusions at the Stonewall bar in New York, 49 years ago. Collective gaymory made those people our ancestors. ‘Pride March’ commemorates their courage, from which our current freedom was born. In my time, I proudly marched along the streets of Paris, dancing to techno music with a joyful crowd, celebrating identity. There is, however, danger in this sense of pride – forgetting the plight of those still suffer from oppression today – other genders, other cultures, other ages even – and are easily swept under the carpet of gaystory.

Television – the news particularly – gives our nationalist pride its daily feed through selective reporting. Last week-end, I was in Hobart. At breakfast, large screens were playing the morning show, reporting on the tennis in Melbourne, fires in New South Wales, and an accident in Queensland. Nothing of local interest, nothing about the broader world, but Australia, beautiful Australia, featured exclusively.

Walking to the harbour, I passed a number of monuments erected in St David’s park, bearing the names of early settlers, explorers, governors. Those stone carvings are intended to shape collective memory, and proudly defy death. Soon, however, the vaults of the MONA museum demonstrated their laughable vanity. Mummies, human bodies preserved in white bandages for eternity, now an object of distant curiosity. A gruesome arrangement of twenty-seven taxidermied kittens playing croquet and drinking tea, in derisive imitation of advanced civilization. A room covered in blank books, mocking our attempts at survival through words. A machine reproducing the digestive system: plastic vats filled with bacteria, producing shit on schedule, reminder that our existence depends on those very basic lifeforms, that make up most of our body-weight.

If pride is excessive self-importance, then professional life is a dangerous field. Exposed are entrepreneurs: the fight for attention from clients and funding bodies demand that they put their best profile forward, always, in pitching situations. Yet the most vulnerable may be ‘wannapreneurs’, as I once heard them labelled, who proudly discuss their ideas for a new venture among their supporters, but never learn humility from the resistance of the real that comes with any genuine attempt at making ideas concrete. More broadly, job seekers are dangerously exposed, at least in Australia: when I first arrived, I thought I would never work here, since every job required ‘outstanding communication skills’. I later understood that this actually meant ‘can write an email’. Pride, or at least its verbal demonstration, seems to be the condition for entrance into the contemporary world of work.

Professional pride can take many forms. One is neglecting details, because ‘I’m a big picture person’, and my time is better spent on lofty visions. One is the pride of the magician, that if we say the right words in the right tone at the right time, the laws of nature will bend to our will. One is manic activity, because the world would stop turning without me. One, more insidious, is a stern attachment to personal reputation, whereby we throw colleagues and partners under the bus at the first occasion to preserve our integrity, no matter what the consequences may be for the collective.

Pride is based on a lie, that I am indeed part of a team, a network, a collective, an ecosystem – but there is something unique to me which makes my absolute value relatively superior to that of others. Pride, therefore, dangerously erodes confidence. The proud person cannot be trusted. Their flawed perception requires effort in all interactions: not only must the situation be managed, but also their inflated ego. Pride unravels the complex web of collective life, until nothing but loose threads of humanity are left adrift on an ocean of sterile chaos.