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Hugo Whately reviews How to Change the World by John-Paul Flintoff


Each of us is always changing the world in some way or other all the time. So John-Paul Flintoff starts out his answer to ‘how to change the world’ with a theory of history. Where Carlyle saw history as the work of great men, Tolstoy saw it as a vast cumulation of the incomprehensibly infinitesimal details in everyone’s lives. John-Paul takes after Tolstoy. He asks us to look not to great lives, but our own lives.  Changing the world then means being honest and critical about what matters to each of us, and then being realistic and specific about what we can do to act on it.

We have to start with ourselves, and acknowledge not only that there are better and worse ways for history to unfold, but that we have an intimate role, however small, in that process. We can actually read this book’s title as a proxy for two other titles: “how to see the details of your own life set against the canvas of unfolding of history” and “how to lead a life infused with energy, humility and meaning”.

If one of the universal insights of feminism is that the personal is the political, then John Paul is a fantastic feminist.  It is humbling to think that whatever we may say in public, however we may vote, however we shop and consume, whatever our professed allegiances, values and careers, it is our domestic arrangements that speak most powerfully of our own politics.  The economic, cultural, moral and behavioral patterns that mark our home lives are the building blocks of the wider world.  Our true politics are but our home lives writ large. 

This is a whole new way of working from home.  Don’t think you always have to go out into the world to make a difference:  in your domestic arrangements - whatever they may or may not be - you will find a clear message about what matters to you, and you simply cannot help always being connected to the wider world anyway; just think food, energy, relationships and technology for a start.  Change, like charity, starts at home.

So John-Paul’s conversational, accommodating, warm-hearted, erudite and panoramically rousing book speaks like an old friend who cares how we live; it has both the humblest and the highest aspirations for us.  It is feminist in this sense; and so Tolstoy was a proto-feminist - please correct me on that someone - for history is but the daily details of whatever each of us does.  Do not then fret about never having won a landslide general election; live your vision of a better world at home first, and see what it takes from there.

Here is John-Paul’s message of liberation:  we do not have to be leaders.  Try by all means, but remember we do not necessarily have to inspire the masses, live saintly lives, galvanize revolutions, reverse climate change, stop wars, save the children or stamp out malaria.  Rather, we can bring the big ideas home.  Small changes matter; history is nothing but small changes happening everywhere all the time, and the world we might wish to change is but a tangled mass of the details of everyone’s lives.  So we are freed from thinking top-down, which can be dispiritingly daunting.  This is an ode to domesticity; albeit with a health-warning: as misanthropic philosophers the world over have often found, it can be easier to love humanity than to keep loving specific people.

So keep giving to charity, and keep voting and shopping to support the organizations you believe in, but take a little time too to think about what kind of life you hope to be able to look back on.  ‘Changing the world’ is such a nebulous phrase that it is hard to pin down:  Whose world? Which bit of it? How much? What John-Paul asks is a rather more personal set of questions:  What really matters to you?  What is there in your own life that jarrs or violates your own sense of what matters?  Once you know, start with one do-able and realistic act to put that right.  Be the change.  Inspired.

Hugo Whately is a faculty member at The School of Life. John-Paul Flintoff leads our class How To Make A Difference on 27 June, for information and to book click here.

Posted by Hugo Whately on 1 June 2012

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