In Hitch 22, Christopher Hitchens asks himself: “What is your least favorite virtue, or nominee for the most overrated one?” His answer: “Faith. Closely followed – in view of the overall shortage of time – by patience.”
In other parts of the book, he describes himself proudly as impatient.
It is no surprise, considering Hitchens’ well-known position on faith, that he differs from St. Augustine who called patience the companion of wisdom. That, of course, is the general view.
But Hitchens begs to differ, though he does not spell out his reasoning. But it is clear enough. To improve the world, to get anything done, it is better to be impatient than to be patient. Patience means acceptance of the status quo. The origin of the word tells all: it means suffering, remaining passive, and derives from the Greek pathein, to suffer. Why should that be a virtue?
One can make a case for patience as a tactic, as Tolstoy did when he wrote that “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” Nobody could argue with that – obviously, in war and peace one has to wait for the right moment to act. That is the opposite of passivity.
But what about Emerson’s advice: “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” Nature has many secrets but patience is not one of them. In any case, this is better advice to gardeners than to politicians. If they wait for their opponents to make a fatal mistake, they may have to wait for ever.
Sammy Davis Junior, Jr. makes more sense: “Alcohol gives you infinite patience for stupidity.”