Sociology Archives - The School Of Life

The fiercely individualistic spirit of our age tends to take a dim view of two big ideas: having any sort of rules governing everyday life; and pooling resources to live together in a communal way.

We’ve come to see ourselves as, each one of us, needing to invent our own unique way of life, governed by our instincts and what we most feel like doing in the moment. As for the idea of community, though it might cross our minds every now and then (especially when we contrast how fun it was at college and how rather arduous and lonely it might be now), nothing in modern capitalism enables us to imagine how we’d ever manage to make the group, rather than the ‘I’, the centre of things. Everything from domestic appliances to mortgages to romantic love enforces the idea of the lone or couple-based unit. We’re influenced by an ideology of personal freedom, where pursuing private ends is seen as the only path to happiness – though the results do not necessarily match the hopes. The joys of being part of a gang are simply not on the radar.


These attitudes, which we take for granted today, contrast so strongly with an idea which flourished for very long periods in many parts of the world and continue to have much to teach us about our real longings: monasticism. Monasticism puts forward the bold thesis that people can actually lead the most fruitful, productive and happy lives when they get together into controlled, organised groups of friends, have some clear rules and direct themselves towards a few big ambitions. Even if you’re not planning on setting up a secular version of a monastery any time soon (though we believe – as you’ll see – that this would be no bad idea), monasticism deserves to be studied for the lessons it yields about the limits to modern individualism.

One of the earliest and most influential figures in the history monasticism – in its Christian, Western guise – was a Roman nobleman living at the end of the 5th century, by the name of Benedict. In his twenties, Benedict studied Philosophy in Rome. For a time, he shared the dissipation, wastefulness and lack of genuine ambition of his wealthy fellow students until he suddenly became weary and ashamed and went off to the mountains in search of a better way of living. Other people soon joined him and he naturally found his way to starting a few small communities. From there, it was a natural step to write an instruction manual for his followers, with a simple and emphatic title: The Rule.


Within his lifetime, hundreds of people signed up to live in communities governed by his principles. And for over a thousand years, hugely impressive institutions founded in his name played a central role in European civilisation.

Benedict was an intensely devoted Christian. But it’s not necessary to share his beliefs in order to recognise that his recommendations tapped into something fundamental about human nature. His insights into communities are – in fact – detachable from the particular religious environment in which they were originally developed.


One: The Pleasures of Rules

The rules for living drawn up by Benedict were beautifully precise and detailed. His starting point is a pessimistic view of human nature. He’s acutely aware of how readily our lives go off the rails in big and little ways when we just do whatever comes to mind.

His rules include instructions on:


Rule 39: Except the sick who are very weak, let all abstain entirely from eating the flesh of four-footed animals.

Benedict was very concerned about eating the sort of foods that make you sluggish, self-pitying and slow. He recommended that one should consume modest but nutritious meals only twice a day. (An occasional glass of wine was allowed.) Lamb and beef were to be avoided, but chicken and fish in small quantities were ideal. Benedict was wise enough to see that being an intellectual was entirely compatible with thinking a lot about what one should eat – and his search was for the sort of food that would best nourish and nurture our minds. He thought that everyone should sit together at long tables, but he was also aware of how much idle banter there can be at meals, so he advised that diners should generally listen to someone reading from an important and interesting book while they made their way through lemon chicken with courgettes and beans. If they needed something, they should make a signal with their hands.


Benedict knew the benefits of silence. When you’ve got a big task on, concentration is key. He knew all about distraction: how easy it is to want to keep checking up on the latest developments, how addictive the gossip of the city can be… That’s why his communities tended to be set up in remote locations, often close to mountains, and his buildings featured heavy walls, quiet courtyards and beautifully serene living quarters.

Benedictine Arch Abbey of Pannonhalma, Hungary. Contemplation room.

Hair and Clothing

Fashion was, in Benedict’s time, as in ours, a huge source of interest, expense and attention. Benedict was himself a handsome man, but he was keen to put a limit on how much he or anyone else would think about what they had to wear every day. That’s why he recommended that everyone in his community wear the same clothes: plain and useful, not too expensive and easy to wash. What’s more, everyone should have their hair cut the same way – very, very short.


Rule 35: Let the brethren serve one another, and let no one be excused from the kitchen service except by reason of sickness

If you are going to be concentrating quite a lot on ideas and intellectual activities, Benedict knew it could be really helpful also to do some physical activity everyday; something repetitive and soothing might be ideal, like sweeping the floor or weeding a row of lettuces. You might also occasionally take your turn preparing a meal or doing the washing up – everyone does. But mostly it will be other people’s turns so you’ll be free – and guilt free.

Early Nights

You have to go to bed early and get up very early, Benedict knew that. Routine is crucial. You don’t suddenly want to be engaging in a conversation that starts at 11pm, gets rather heated around midnight and leaves you tossing and unable to sleep at 1pm. Get used to winding down systematically, focusing your thoughts and arranging your mind for the next day (a lot of good thinking happens when we’re asleep).

Monk’s bedroom, designed by John Pawson, Monastery of Novy Dvur, Czech Republic.

No porn addiction

Benedict knew that sex gets in the way. But it’s no use thinking endlessly, in repetitive cycles, about naked people when you’ve got really key things to get on with. He wasn’t a prude, and had a great deal of fun as a student, but he knew how short life was and how much he had to do. That’s why he recommended that in the ideal community, everyone should dress in a fairly demure way and that there should be no encouragement given to sexual feelings. Sex simply plays havoc with any attempts to concentrate.


At many strategic points in Benedict’s buildings, you’ll see beautiful or dramatic works of art that remind you of some important idea or help you get into a useful mood. Benedict didn’t think that good art and architecture were luxuries: these were vital supports for our inner lives. He understood that we were likely to take our cue about how to be inside ourselves by looking around at the moods emanating from the walls around us. That’s why Benedictine monasteries have long employed the best architects and artists, from Palladio and Veronese to John Pawson in our own times. If you’re going to live together, it makes sense to create a home that is as uplifting and as calming as can be.


Wedding Feast at Cana, Veronese, Monastery of San Giorgio, Venice


Archabbey of Pannonhalma, Hungary, John Pawson

The point isn’t so much that we should particularly embrace the specific rules drawn up by Benedict; rather he is showing us something more general: the potential for rules to help us live well. 

There are periods in life (and history) when it seems as if gaining freedom is the key to a great time. To a four-year-old, who has always been told when to get up, when bath time is and when the lights go out, it’s natural to suppose that it’s wonderful to be old enough to decide for oneself.  But rules about how to live – and the authority to get us to stick with them – start to look more important, even wise, when we have a more urgent sense of the problems to which wise rules are possible solutions, when we realise how prone we are to distraction, dissipation, weakness of will and late-night squabbles. At that point, we may learn that rules – far from being interruptions of our native good selves – are really the restraints that safe-guard our best possibilities. They make us truer to who we want to be than a system which allows to do anything whatsoever.

Two: The Highlights of Community

Benedict established his first monastery at Monte Cassino – about halfway between Rome and Naples. It’s still there (although it had to be rebuilt after it was damaged by allied bombing in 1944).

Abbazia di San Benedetto ,montecassino

The lofty – and rather inaccessible – location wasn’t an accident. The point of going to a monastery was to avoid the distractions that might take one’s attention away from what’s really important. We might not share Benedict’s idea of what’s important, but we deeply share the underlying concern: how to focus effectively on what we really want to accomplish and not get distracted all the time.

Benedict acknowledges that it’s hard for creatures like us to ponder the nature of God, examine our own failings or decode the meaning of some obscure Biblical passage – when our natural instincts draw us to eating too much, having sex, scratching our bottoms, getting drunk and gossiping.

Under Benedict’s inspiration, monasteries made a range of dazzling innovations in the field of non-distraction studies. Benedict proposed that to avoid distraction, one might need to live far removed from towns and cities. The architecture should be rather grand and imposing – as a continual reminder of the importance of what one is doing. One should live on-site and not commute in. The walls are going to have to be high and thick. There can’t be lots of doors or big picture windows looking out onto the wider world. Walls, cloisters and being a good few miles from the local tavernas certainly help in the fight against distraction.

Library, Benedictine Abbey of Admont, Austria

The ideal of the monastic community is that living collectively enables people to accomplish more than would be possible by individual effort.

Some aspects of how Benedict imagined that going – like the segregation of the sexes – don’t seem so compelling. But we still need some of the advantages of communal living.


It’s something we can see in action in the housing market. The Royal Crescent in Bath, for instance, is an example of collaboration around accommodation and architecture. Today, around two hundred people live in this building, mostly in modestly sized flats. If, for roughly the same money, they each had a small house it would look something like this:


However, by pooling the fabric of their homes, they collectively share one of the world’s greatest urban structures. Individually, they all have to deal with phone plans, wifi systems, electricity bills, council taxes, plumbing emergencies. But quite possibly one administrator could do it all for them – with an immense saving in terms of frustration. We’d all gain so much by giving up a little of our famed, but actually rather exhausting, individualism.

Monasteries frequently evolved into successful business centres, operating the major industries of the day: farming and mining, schools, hospitals and the early versions of hotels.


Layout of a Benedictine monastery showing factory, offices, workers’ accommodation, boardroom, restaurant. The hotel is on the lower left.

We think we understand collaboration in business. But actually, we are generally only looking at quite a limited range of options. We still assume that in a medium sized company, 157 people will all need to travel in by slightly different routes, all park their cars and in the evenings, all spend their money individually on chicken noodles, rent, a sofa bed and going to a bar.

Many big undertakings of the modern world could be pursued so much more effectively from within a monastery: a great graphic design company, a biotech corporation, a television production firm.

salk institute


Communal life can be much more enjoyable and less stressful than the nuclear family, with all its disappointments and pressures. We keep imagining that happiness lies in finding one other very special person (then rail against them for not being perfect enough) or else that it must be about becoming something extraordinary ourselves – rather than joining lots of other very ordinary people to make something superlative. We’d generally be so much better off joining a team. We’d be able to do things on a grander scale and get them done more easily – and more often have our minds in proper focus. That’s why Benedict remains a provocative and useful thinker.

Democracy was achieved by such a long, arduous and heroic struggle that it can feel embarrassing – even shameful – to feel a little disappointed by it. We know that at key historical moments people have made profound sacrifices so that we can, every now and then, place a cross next to the name of a candidate on a ballot sheet. For generations across large parts of the world democracy was a secret, desperate hope. But today, we’re likely to go through periods of feeling irritated and bored by our democratically-elected politicians. We’re disappointed by the parties and sceptical that elections make a difference. And yet not to support democracy, to be frankly against democracy, is not a possible attitude either. We appear to be utterly committed to democracy and yet constantly disappointed and frustrated by it.


Perhaps the best guide to some of these feelings, and to modern democracy in general, is a French 19th-century aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, who – in the early 1830s – travelled around the United States studying the political culture of the world’s first truly democratic nation and then compiled his thoughts in one of the greatest works of political philosophy, Democracy in America, published in France in 1835. For de Tocqueville, democracy was a highly exotic and novel political option. He’d been born in 1805, when Napoleon was the populist dictator of half of Europe. After Waterloo, the Bourbon Kings came back – and while there were elections, the franchise was extremely limited. But, de Tocqueville presciently believed, democracy was going to be the big idea of the future all over the world. What, he wanted to know, would that be like? What would happen when societies that had been governed for generations by small aristocratic elites and who inherited their wealth and power, started to choose their leaders in elections in which pretty much the whole adult population could vote? 

That’s why de Tocqueville went to America: to see what the future would be like. He got there courtesy of a grant from the French government, who wanted him to study the American prison system and compile a report from which it could learn some lessons. But de Tocqueville wasn’t so interested in prisons and made it clear in letters to friends that his real reason for going was to study American morals, mentalities and economic and political processes. He arrived in New York, together with his friend Gustave de Beaumont, a magistrate, in May of 1831 – and then embarked on a long journey around the new nation that was to last nine months, until February 1832. 


De Tocqueville and Beaumont went as far west as Michigan, which was then frontier country and there got a sense of the vastness of the American Midwestern landscape. They also went down to New Orleans, but most of their time was spent in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. They met everyone: presidents, lawyers, bankers, cobblers, hairdressers… – and even shook hands with the last surviving signatory of the Declaration of Independence, a man called Charles Carroll.

The observations that de Tocqueville made on America are droll, often funny and frequently very acerbic. Here he is on New York:

‘To a Frenchman the aspect of the city is bizarre and not very agreeable. One sees neither dome, nor bell tower, nor great edifice, with the result that one has the constant impression of being in a suburb’.

On native pride:

‘I doubt if one could extract from Americans the smallest truth unfavourable to their country. Most of them boast about it without discrimination, and with an impertinence disagreeable to strangers… Generally speaking there is a lot of small-town pettiness in their makeup… We have not yet met a really outstanding man.’


On the middle class spirit:

‘This country illustrates the most complete external development of the middle classes, or rather that the whole of society seems to have turned into one middle class. No one seems to have the elegant manners and refined politeness of the upper classes in Europe. One is at once struck by something vulgar, and a disagreeable casualness of behaviour…’

On attitudes to the native Americans:

‘In the midst of this American society, so well policed, so sententious, so charitable, a cold selfishness and complete insensibility prevails when it is a question of the natives of the country. The Americans of the United States do not let their dogs hunt the Indians as do the Spaniards in Mexico, but at the bottom it is the same pitiless feeling which here, as everywhere else, animates the European race. This world here belongs to us, they tell themselves every day: the Indian race is destined for final destruction which one cannot prevent and which it is not desirable to delay. Heaven has not made them to become civilised; it is necessary that they die. Besides I do not want to get mixed up in it. I will not do anything against them: I will limit myself to providing everything that will hasten their ruin. In time I will have their lands and will be innocent of their death. Satisfied with his reasoning, the American goes to church where he hears the minister of the gospel repeat every day that all men are brothers, and that the Eternal Being who has made them all in like image, has given them all the duty to help one another.’


Then again, he wasn’t so keen on native Americans himself:

‘I was full of recollections of M. de Chateaubriand and of Cooper, and I was expecting to find the natives of America savages, but savages on whose face natured had stamped the marks of some of the proud virtues which liberty brings forth. I expected to find a race of men little different from Europeans, whose bodies had been developed by the strenuous exercise of hunting and war, and who would lose nothing by being seen naked. Judge my amazement at seeing the picture that follows. The Indians whom I saw that evening were small in stature, their limbs, as far as one could tell under their clothes, were thin and not wiry, their skin instead of being red as is generally thought, was dark bronze and such as at first sight seemed very like that of Negroes. Their black hair fell with singular stiffness on their neck and sometimes on their shoulders. Generally their mouths were disproportionately large, and the expression on their faces ignoble and mischievous. There was however a great deal of European in their features, but one would have said that they came from the lowest mob of our great European cities. Their physiognomy told of that profound degradation which only long abuse of the benefits of civilisation can give, but yet they were still savages.’

But there was a lot to admire in America as well: the prettiness of the women, the healthy simplicity of the food, the jovial frankness of conversations, the comfort of the hotels. Above all, Tocqueville loved the wilderness of America:

‘It is impossible to imagine anything more beautiful than the North or Hudson River. The great width of the stream, the admirable richness of the north bank and the steep mountains which border is eastern margins make it one of the most admirable sights in the world… We are envying every day the first Europeans who two hundred years ago discovered for the first time the mouth of the Hudson and mounted its current, when its two banks were covered with numberless forests and only the smoke of the savages was to be seen…’

When de Tocqueville arrived in New York he was setting foot in the only large scale, reasonably secure democracy on the planet. And he saw himself as advancing a highly nuanced and helpful enquiry: what are the social consequences of democracy? What should one expect a democratic society to be like?

De Tocqueville was particularly alive to the problematic, and potentially dark sides of democracy. Five issues struck him in particular: 

One: Democracy breeds materialism 

In the society that de Tocqueville knew from childhood, making money did not seem to be at the forefront of most people’s minds. The poor (who were the overwhelming majority) had almost no chance of acquiring wealth. So while they cared about having enough to eat, money as such was not part of how they thought about themselves or their ambitions: there was simply no chance. On the other hand, the tiny upper stratum of landed aristocrats did not need to make money – and regarded it as shameful to work for money at all, or to be involved in trade or commerce. As a result, for very different reasons, money was not the way to judge a life.


However, the Americans de Tocqueville met all readily believed that through hard work, it was possible to make a fortune and that to do so was wholly admirable and right. There was hence no suspicion whatever of the rich, a certain moral judgement against the poor, and an immense respect for the capacity to make money. It seemed, quite simply, the only achievement that Americans thought worth respecting. For example, in America, observed de Tocqueville, a book that does not make money – because it does not sell well – cannot be good, because the test of all goodness is money. And anything that makes a profit must be admirable in every way. It was a flattened, unnuanced view that made de Tocqueville see the advantages of the relatively more subtle, multi-polar status systems of Europe, where one might (on a good day) be deemed good, but poor; or rich, but vulgar. 

Democracy and Capitalism had created a relatively equitable, but also very flat and oppressive way for humans to judge each other.

Two: Democracy breeds envy and shame

Travelling around the United States, de Tocqueville discerned an unexpected ill corroding the souls of the citizens of the new republic. Americans had much, but this affluence did not stop them from wanting ever more and from suffering whenever they saw someone else with assets they lacked. In a chapter of Democracy in America entitled ‘Why the Americans are Often so Restless in the Midst of Their Prosperity’, he sketched an enduring analysis of the relationship between dissatisfaction and high expectation, between envy and equality:

‘When all the prerogatives of birth and fortune have been abolished, when every profession is open to everyone, an ambitious man may think it is easy to launch himself on a great career and feel that he has been called to no common destiny. But this is a delusion which experience quickly corrects. When inequality is the general rule in society, the greatest inequalities attract no attention. But when everything is more or less level, the slightest variation is noticed… That is the reason for the strange melancholy often haunting inhabitants of democracies in the midst of abundance and of that disgust with life sometimes gripping them even in calm and easy circumstances. In France, we are worried about increasing rate of suicides. In America, suicide is rare, but I am told that madness is commoner than anywhere else’.


Familiar with the limitations of aristocratic societies, Tocqueville had no wish to return to the conditions that had existed prior to 1776 or 1789. He knew that inhabitants of the modern West enjoyed a standard of living far superior to that of the lower classes of medieval Europe. Nevertheless, he appreciated that these deprived classes had also benefited from a mental calm which their successors were forever denied:

‘When royal power supported by aristocracies governed nations, society, despite all its wretchedness, enjoyed several types of happiness which are difficult to appreciate today. Having never conceived the possibility of a social state other than the one they knew, and never expecting to become equal to their leaders, the people did not question their rights. They felt neither repugnance nor degradation in submitting to severities, which seemed to them like inevitable ills sent by God. The serf considered his inferiority as an effect of the immutable order of nature. Consequently, a sort of goodwill was established between classes so differently favoured by fortune. One found inequality in society, but men’s souls were not degraded thereby’.

Democracies, however, had dismantled every barrier to expectation. All members of the community felt themselves theoretically equal, even when they lacked the means to achieve material equality. ‘In America,’ wrote Tocqueville, ‘I never met a citizen too poor to cast a glance of hope and envy toward the pleasures of the rich’. Poor citizens observed rich ones at close quarters and trusted that they too would one day follow in their footsteps. They were not always wrong. A number of fortunes were made by people from humble backgrounds. However, exceptions did not make a rule. America still had an underclass. It was just that, unlike the poor of aristocratic societies, the American poor were no longer able to see their condition as anything other than a betrayal of their expectations.


The different conceptions of poverty held by members of aristocratic and democratic societies was particularly evident, Tocqueville felt, in the attitude of servants to their masters. In aristocracies, servants often accepted their fates with good grace, they could have, in Tocqueville’s words, ‘high thoughts, strong pride and self-respect’. In democracies, however, the atmosphere of the press and public opinion relentlessly suggested to servants that they could reach the pinnacles of society, that they could become industrialists, judges, scientists or presidents. Though this sense of unlimited opportunity could initially encourage a surface cheerfulness, especially in young servants, and though it enabled the most talented or lucky among them to fulfil their goals, as time passed and the majority failed to raise themselves, Tocqueville noted that their mood darkened, that bitterness took hold and choked their spirits, and that their hatred of themselves and their masters grew fierce.

The rigid hierarchical system that had held in place in almost every Western society until the eighteenth century, and had denied all hope of social movement except in rare cases was unjust in a thousand all too obvious ways, but it offered those on the lowest rungs one notable freedom: the freedom not to have to take the achievements of quite so many people in society as reference points – and so find themselves severely wanting in status and importance as a result.

Three: The tyranny of the majority 

Typically, we think of democracy as being the opposite of tyranny. It should, in a democracy, no longer be possible for a clique to lord it over everyone else by force; leaders have to govern with the consent of the governed. But de Tocqueville noticed that democracy could easily create its own specialised type of tyranny: that of the majority. The majority group could, in principle, be very severe and hostile to minorities. De Tocqueville wasn’t simply thinking of overt political persecution,  but of a less dramatic, but still real, kind of tyranny in which simply being ‘in a minority’ as regards prevailing ideologies starts to seem unacceptable, perverse – even a threat. 


Democratic culture, he thought, could easily end up demonising any assertion of difference, and especially of cultural superiority or high mindedness, which could be perceived as offensive to the majority – even though such attitudes might be connected with real merit. In a tyranny of the majority, a society grows ill at ease with outstanding merit or ambition of any kind. It has an aggressively levelling instinct; in which it is regarded as a civic virtue to cut down to size anyone who seems to be getting above themselves. 

This, he thought, was part of the natural price one could expect to pay for living in a  democracy. 

Four: Democracy turns us against authority

De Tocqueville saw democracy as encouraging strong ideas about equality, to an extent that could grow harmful and dispiriting. He saw that democracy encourages ‘in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which always impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level’.


It’s line of thought that sounds almost brutal today because we instinctively see equality as desirable. But what disturbed de Tocqueville was the way in which, in the United States, people of no distinction, in terms of education, skill, experience or talent would refuse to defer to what de Tocqueville called their ‘natural superiors’, as he put it. They were inspired – he believed – by an unwillingness to bow before any kind of authority. They refused to think that someone could be better than them just because they had trained to be a doctor, studied the law for two decades or had written some good books. A healthy and admirable reluctance to defer to people fatally encouraged a deeply unhelpful refusal to accept any kind of submission to anyone of any sort. And yet, as he saw it, it simply must be the case that some people are wiser, more intelligent, kinder, or more mature than others and for these very good reasons should be listened to with special attention. Democracy was, he thought, fatally biased towards mediocrity. 

Five: Democracy undermines freedom of mind 

Instinctively, you’d suppose that democracy would encourage citizens to have an open mind. Surely democracy encourages debate and allows disagreements to be resolved by voting, rather than by violence? We think of openness of mind as being the result of living in a place where lots of opinions get an airing. 

However, de Tocqueville came to the opposite conclusion: that in few places could one find ‘less independence of mind, and true freedom of discussion, than in America’. 

Trusting that the system was fair and just, Americans simply gave up their independence of mind, and put their faith in newspapers and so-called ‘common sense’. The scepticism of Europeans towards public opinion had given way to a naive faith in the wisdom of the crowd. 


Furthermore, as this was a commercial society, people were very conscious of not wanting to step too far out of line with their neighbours (who might also be customers). It was better to trot out clichés than to try to be original – and never more so than when there was something new to sell.


Back in France de Tocqueville pursued a political career. Although France was nominally a democracy at this point, the electorate was very tightly restricted – less than five percent of adult males were entitled to vote. He was a deputy and, for a few not very glorious months, Minister for Foreign Affairs. But in 1851 the elected President, Louis Napoleon, declared himself Emperor and tore up the constitution. De Tocqueville, then in his mid-forties, left the political field and led a quieter life on his family estates. He suffered long bouts of tuberculosis and died in 1859, aged 53.


Although he says a lot of quite grim things about democracy, De Tocqueville isn’t anti-democratic. He’s not trying to tell us that we shouldn’t have democracy. On the contrary, he was convinced that democracy would prevail over all other forms of political organisation. Rather, his aim was to get us to be realistic about what this would mean. Democracies would be very good at some things and really rather terrible at others. 


By highlighting the inherent drawbacks of democracy, he was showing why living in a democracy would be, in some key ways, deeply annoying and frustrating. He is teaching the stoic lesson that certain pains need to be the expected; they are the likely accompaniments of political progress. He’s preaching an anti-provincial, worldly lesson: of course there are going to be quite bad things about democratic politics and society, don’t be too surprised or shocked; don’t come with the wrong expectations… 

Frustration and irritation are secretly fuelled by hope (that is, by the conviction that things really could be very different). By telling us soberly and calmly that democracy has major defects de Tocqueville is trying to get us to be strategically pessimistic. Of course, politics is going to be pretty awful in major ways. It’s not that we’re doing anything terribly wrong. It’s the price you pay (and should be willing to pay) when you give ultimate authority to everyone. 

Though we tend to think of atheists as not only unbelieving but also hostile to religion, we should remember a tradition of atheistic thinkers who have tried to reconcile a suspicion of the supra-natural side of religion with a deep sympathy for its ritualistic aspects. The most important and inspirational of these was the visionary, eccentric French nineteenth-century sociologist Auguste Comte.



August Comte

Comte was born into a strict Catholic family in Montpellier in Southern France in 1798. As a young man, he received a highly progressive education, and became obsessed with the idea of building a new kind of France based around science and republicanism. His family violently disagreed and broke off relations with him – so he went to live in Paris where he became a student of and later secretary to the utopian thinker Henri de Saint-Simon. But Comte had a quarrelsome nature and fell out with Saint-Simon, failed to get a university post and for the rest of his life maintained a precarious existence writing dense, often unreadable works about the reform of humanity. He was only intermittently sane, spending long periods in asylums and in 1827, attempted suicide by jumping off the Pont des Arts. In 1844, he fell deeply in love with a married woman called Clotilde de Vaux, though the relationship was never consummated. After her premature death, Comte made his love for Clotilde into one of the centrepieces of his thinking on religion. Though a deeply eccentric man, he did manage to gain the trust and interest of the British philosopher John Stuart Mill, who admired his efforts around religion – and helped Comte to be better known in Britain.


John Stuart Mill

Comte’s thinking on religion had, as its starting point, a characteristically blunt observation that in the modern world, thanks to the discoveries of science, it would no longer be possible for anyone intelligent to believe in God. Faith would henceforth be limited to the uneducated, the fanatical, women, children and those in the final months of incurable diseases. At the same time, Comte recognised, as many of his more rational contemporaries did not, that a secular society devoted solely to financial accumulation and romantic love and devoid of any sources of consolation, transcendent awe or solidarity would be prey to untenable social and emotional ills.

Comte’s solution was neither to cling blindly to sacred traditions nor to cast them collectively and belligerently aside, but rather to pick out their more relevant and secular aspects and fuse them together with certain insights drawn from philosophy, art and science. The result, the outcome of decades of thought and the summit of Comte’s intellectual achievement, was a new religion, a religion for atheists or, as Comte termed it, a religion of humanity, an original creed expressly tailored to the emotional and intellectual demands of modern man, rather than the inhabitants of Judea or northern India in 400 B.C.




Comte presented his new religion in two volumes, the Summary Exposition of the Universal Religion and the Theory of the Future of Man. He observed that traditional faiths tended to cement their authority by providing people with daily, and even hourly schedules of who or what to think about, rotas typically pegged to the commemoration of a holy individual or supernatural incident. So he announced a calendar of his own, animated by a pantheon of secular heroes and ideas. In the religion of humanity, every month would be devoted to the honouring of an important field of endeavour – for example, marriage, parenthood, art, science, agriculture – and every day to an individual who had made a valuable contribution within these categories.

Comte was impressed by the way that traditional religions had disseminated moral guidance, for example, dictating principles for how to conduct oneself in a marriage or fulfill one’s duties to the community – and he lamented that modern liberal governments, in their desire to prove inoffensive to all constituencies, had settled on merely offering factual instruction before letting people out into the world to destroy themselves and others through their egoism and self-ignorance. Therefore, in Comte’s religion of humanity, there would be classes and sermons to help inspire one to be kind to spouses, patient with one’s colleagues and compassionate towards the unfortunate.


He also recognised how badly we all need consolation and proposed that his girlfriend, Clotidle, take the function previously accorded to the Virgin Mary in Catholicism. Portraits of Clotidle were to be placed everywhere in the new religion, and – when one was down – one was invited to share one’s sorrows and weep in front of this vision of kindness and sympathy.

Because Comte appreciated the role that architecture had once played in bolstering the claims of traditional religion, he proposed the construction of a network of secular churches or as he called them, temples for humanity. He suggested that each one be paid for by a banker, whose bust would appear above the door in recognition of his generosity (rather than resenting bankers, Comte thought it wiser to coax them into supporting good causes, as medieval merchants had successfully been inveighed upon to help fund cathedrals). Inside the temples of humanity, there would be lectures, singing, celebrations and public discussions while around the walls, sumptuous works of art would commemorate the greatest moments and finest men and women of history. Finally, above the west-facing stage, there would be a large aphorism, written in golden letters, invoking the congregation to adopt the essence of Comte’s philosophico-religious world-view: ‘Connais toi pour t’améliorer,’ ‘Know yourself to improve yourself’.



Regrettably, Comte’s complex, thought-provoking and often deranged project was felled by a host of practical obstacles. Ridiculed by both atheists and believers, ignored by public opinion, devoid of funds, Comte fell into despair and self-pity. He took to writing long and frightening letters in defence of his scheme to monarchs and industrialists across Europe, including Louis Napoleon, Queen Victoria, the Crown Prince of Denmark, the Emperor of Austria, three hundred bankers and the head of the Paris sewage system – but few offered money, let alone replies. Without seeing any of his proposals take hold, Comte died at the age of fifty-nine in 1857.

Nevertheless, like Jesus, Comte was well served by his followers and in the decades after his death, his religion made some notable advances. La Chapelle de l’Humanité was opened at 5 rue de Payenne in Paris where it still stands today and became a well-known venue for secular baptisms, funeral services, weddings and sermons. The religion crossed the Channel, where it acquired five thousand adherents, led with rare energy by a former Oxford don, Richard Congreve. In 1878, with the help of a legacy from an aunt, Congreve opened the Church of Humanity in Lamb’s Conduit’s Street in London, where secular services were held every Sunday morning. ‘We gratefully commemorate the beauty of mother earth,’ began one example, which Congreve delivered in a white tunic with a chain around his neck bearing Comte’s image on one side, Plato’s on the other, ‘We meet as believers in Humanity. We use all that the past can offer us by way of wise utterances – poems or music, the religious writings of the east or west – but we admit of no revelation and no being outside of man. We consider all to have been written or spoken to men like ourselves by men like ourselves’. Services ended with a prayer to Comte: ‘Great teacher and Master, revealer of Humanity, prophet of the future, founder of the one universal religion’.

La maison de Clotilde de Vaux devenue une "Chapelle de l'Humanité"

Comte’s religion had even greater success in Brazil, where it was put into practice by some students that Comte had taught in Paris in the 1840s. A Templo da Humanidade opened in Rio in 1890 and others followed in Sao Paulo and Curitiba. Unfortunately, infighting among the leadership (connected to doctrinal squabbles about the place of Western authors in their liturgy) meant that the movement failed to grow into a truly popular religion and yet it acquired a small and permanent place in Brazil’s spiritual life. To this day, every Sunday morning in Rio de Janeiro, at 74 Rua Benjamin Constant, audiences – who make up in intensity what they lack for in numbers – arrive at the Templo da Humanidade to draw sustenance from the teachings of a Parisian sociologist’s unusual secular religion.

Whatever its shortcomings, Comte’s religion is hard to dismiss entirely, for it identified a psychic space in atheistic society which continues to lie fallow and to invite resolution. Comte’s work was an attempt to rescue some of what is beautiful, touching, reasonable and wise from what no longer seems true. For these reasons and more, it is extremely timely.

Max Weber is one of the four philosophers best able to explain to us the peculiar economic system we live within called Capitalism (Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx and Adam Smith are the others).


Born in Erfurt in Germany in 1864, Weber grew up to see his country convulsed by the dramatic changes ushered in by the Industrial Revolution. Cities were exploding in size, vast companies were forming, a new managerial elite was replacing the old aristocracy. Weber’s father, successful in business and politics, prospered greatly from this new era, leaving his son with a fortune that would allow him the independence to be a writer. His mother was a sober, withdrawn figure, who mostly stayed at home practising an extremely pious and sexually-strict version of Christianity.

Weber became a successful academic at a young age. But when he was in his mid-thirties, during a family get-together, he fell into a grave quarrel with his father over the latter’s treatment of his mother. Weber senior died the next day and the son believed he might inadvertently have killed him. This catapulted him into severe depression and anxiety. Weber had to give up his university job and lay more or less mute on a sofa for two years.


Max and Marianne Weber in 1894

His wife, Marianne, turned out to be unhelpfully similar to his mother. The marriage was unconsummated and filled with neurotic complaints on both sides. Weber’s path to intellectual recovery began after he had a liberating affair with a sexually-progressive 19-year-old student, Else von Richthofen (whose sister, Frida, comparable in temperament, was married to the novelist D. H. Lawrence). Max Weber had the sort of life that his contemporary, Freud, was born to address.

Weber was largely unknown during his lifetime. But his fame has grown exponentially ever since – because he originated some key ideas with which to understand the workings and future of Capitalism.

1. Why does Capitalism exist?

Capitalism might feel normal or inevitable to us but, of course, it isn’t. It came into existence only relatively recently, in historical terms, and has successfully taken root in just a limited number of countries.

The standard view is that Capitalism is the result of developments in technology (particularly, the invention of steam power).

But Weber proposed that what made Capitalism possible was a set of ideas, not scientific discoveries – and in particular religious ideas.

Good Friday Ecumenical Service And Procession

Religion made Capitalism happen. Not just any religion; a very particular, non-Catholic kind of the sort that flourished in Northern Europe where Capitalism was – and continues to be – particularly vigorous. Capitalism was created by Protestantism, specifically Calvinism, as developed by John Calvin in Geneva and by his followers in England, the Puritans.

In his great work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published in 1905, Weber laid out some of the reasons why he believed Protestant Christianity had been so crucial to Capitalism:

i) Protestantism makes you feel guilty all the time:

Catholics have it – relatively – easy in Weber’s analysis. Believers who have strayed are able to confess their transgressions at regular intervals and can be ‘cleansed’ by priests and thereby recover a sense of their good name in the eyes of God. But no such purifications are available to Protestants, for only God is thought able to forgive and He won’t make his intentions known until the Day of Judgement. Until then, Weber alleged, Protestants are left with heightened feelings of anxiety as well as life-long guilty desires to prove their virtue before a severe, all-seeing but silent God.

The White Ribbon, (Aka Das Weisse Band) - 2009

ii) God likes hard work

In Weber’s eyes, Protestant guilt feelings were diverted into an obsession with hard work. The sins of Adam could only be expunged through constant toil. To rest, relax and go hunting – as the old Catholic aristocracy liked to do – was to ask for divine trouble. Not coincidentally, there were far fewer festivals and days of rest in Protestantism. God didn’t like time off. Money earnt wasn’t to be blown in feasts celebrating the here-and-now. It was always and only to be reinvested for tomorrow.

iii) All work is holy

Catholics had limited their conception of holy work to the activities of the clergy. But now Protestants declared that work of any kind could and should be done in the name of God, even jobs like being a baker or an accountant. This lent new moral energy and earnestness to all branches of professional life. Work was no longer just about earning a living, it was to be part of a religious vocation connected with proving one’s virtue to God. The clerk was meant to approach his work at the office with all the seriousness and piety of a monk.


iv) It’s the community, not the family, that counts

In Catholic countries, the family was (and often still is) everything. One would regularly give jobs to relatives, help out indolent uncles and lightly swindle the central authorities for family gain without too much compunction. But Protestants took a less benevolent view of family. The family could be a haven for selfish and egoistic motives, running counter to Jesus’s injunctions that a Christian should be concerned with the family of all believers, not his or her specific family. For early Protestants, one was meant to direct one’s selfless energies to the community as a whole, the public realm where everyone deserved fairness and dignity. To stick up for one’s family over and against the claims of the wider group was nothing less than a sin; it was time to do away with narrow vested interests and clan loyalties.

v) There aren’t miracles

Protestantism turned its back on miracles. God wasn’t thought to be lever-pulling behind the scenes day-to-day. One couldn’t get prayers directly answered. Heavenly power didn’t intervene in a fantastical, childish way. Weber called this ‘the disenchantment of the world.’ Instead, in the Protestant philosophy, the emphasis fell on human action: the day to day world was ruled by facts, by reason and by the discoverable laws of science. And therefore, prosperity was not mysteriously ordained by God and couldn’t be won through imploring prayers. It could only be the result of thinking methodically, acting honestly and working industriously and sensibly over many years.

Taken together, these five factors created, in Weber’s eyes, the crucial catalytic ingredients for Capitalism to take hold. In this analysis, Weber was in direct disagreement with Karl Marx, for Marx had proposed a materialist view of Capitalism (where technology was said to have created a new capitalist social system), whereas Weber now advanced an idealist one (suggesting that it was in fact a set of ideas that had created Capitalism and given the impetus for its newfound technological and financial arrangements).


Karl Marx in 1875

The argument between Weber and Marx pivoted around the role of religion. Marx had argued that religion was ‘the opium of the masses’, a drug that induced passive acceptance of the horrors of Capitalism. But Weber turned this dictum on its head. It was religion that was in fact the cause and foremost supporter of Capitalism. People didn’t tolerate Capitalism because of religion, they only became capitalists as a result of their religion.

2. How do you develop Capitalism around the world?

There are about 35 countries where Capitalism is now well developed. It probably works best in Germany, where Weber first observed it. But in the remaining 161 nations, it arguably isn’t working well at all.

This is a source of much puzzlement and distress. Billions of dollars in aid are transferred every year from the rich to the poor world, and are spent on malaria pills, solar panels and grants for irrigation projects and women’s education.


But a Weberian analysis tells us that these materialist interventions will never work, because the problem isn’t really a material one to begin with. One has to start at the level of ideas.

What the World Bank and the IMF should be giving sub-Saharan Africa is not money and technology but ideas.

In the Weberian analysis, certain countries fail to succeed at Capitalism because they don’t feel anxious and guilty enough, they trust too much in miracles, they like to celebrate now rather than reinvest for tomorrow and their members feel it’s acceptable to steal from the community in order to enrich their families, favouring the clan over the nation.

IMF Director Christine Lagarde Visits Mozambique For Africa Rising Conference

Weber didn’t believe that the only way to be a successful Capitalist country was actually to convert to Protestantism. He argued that Protestantism had merely brought to their first fruition ideas which could now subsist outside of religious ideology.

Today Weber would counsel those who wish to spread Capitalism to concentrate on our equivalent of religion: culture. It is a nation’s attitudes, hopes and sense of what life is about that produces an economy that either flourishes or flounders. The path to reforming an economy shouldn’t hence wind through material aid, it should go through cultural assistance. The decisive question for an economy is not what the rate of inflation is, but what is on TV tonight.

A Cuban family watches a soap opera on t

3. Why is Capitalism not going so well in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the poorest country on earth)?

Because, Weber would tell us, this unfortunate nation has the wrong mentality, one far removed from that of Rhineland Germany. They believe in clans, they have magical thinking, they don’t believe that God would Himself command them to be an honest mechanic or hairdresser…

Weber’s point is that if Capitalism is going to take root in developing nations – and bring the advantages of higher productivity and greater wealth – then we will need to look to changing mentalities, instilling something akin to an updated version of the attitudes of Calvinism.

Residents of the town of Kibumba walk o

Weber’s views on global development emerged in two books he wrote on two religions that he felt were extremely unhelpful to Capitalism, The Religion of India and The Religion of China. For Weber, the caste system of the Hindus assigns everyone to a status they can’t escape and therefore makes any sustained commercial effort futile. The belief in samsara – the transmigration of souls – also inspires the view that nothing substantial can change until the next life. At the same time, a Hindu ideology of the clan takes pressure off individual responsibility and encourages nepotism rather than meritocracy. These ideas have economic consequences; they are why nowadays, Weberians would argue, there are many excellent public hospitals in Geneva and Erfurt and not too many in Chennai or Varanasi.

Indian Hindu Brahmins, sitting inside hu

Weber noted similarly unhelpful factors in China. There Confucianism gives too much weight to tradition. No one feels able to rethink how things are done. The devotion to bureaucracy encourages a static society – whereas entrepreneurship arises from a fruitful mixture of anxiety and hope.

4. How can we change the world?

Weber was writing in an age of revolution. Lots of people around him were trying to change things: communists, socialists, anarchists, nationalists, separatists.

He too wanted things to change, but he believed that one first had to work out how political power operated in the world.


Anton von Werner, The Proclamation of Prussian king Wilhelm I, 1877

He believed that humanity had gone through three distinct types of power across its history. The oldest societies operated according to what he called ‘traditional authority.’ This was where kings relied on appeals to folklore and divinity to justify their hold on power. Such societies were deeply inert and only rarely allowed for initiative

These societies had subsequently been replaced by an age of ‘charismatic authority’, where a heroic individual, most famously a Napoleon, could rise to power on the back of a magnetic personality – and change everything around him through passion and will.

But, Weber insisted, we were now long past this period of history, having entered a third age of ‘bureaucratic authority.’ This is where power is held by vast labyrinthine bureaucracies whose workings are entirely baffling to the average citizen. It’s not obvious what all the functionaries actually do in meetings and at their desks. Bureaucracy achieves its power via knowledge: only the bureaucrats know how stuff works, and it will take an outsider years to work it out (for example, how housing policy or the educational curriculum are actually structured). Most simply give up – usefully for the powers that be…

Shelves with folders.

The dominance of bureaucracy has major implications for anyone trying to change a nation. There is often an understandable, but misguided, desire to think one just has to change the leader, who is imagined as a kind of super-parent personally determining how everything goes. But in fact, removing the leader almost never has the degree of impact that is hoped for. (The replacement of Bush by Obama did not lead, for example, to all the changes some people expected; Weber would not have been surprised).

Weber knew that today one can’t bring about significant social change just by charisma. It can feel as if political change should be driven by fiery rhetoric, marches, fury and grand, exciting gestures, like publishing a bestselling revolutionary book. But Weber is pessimistic about all such hopes, for they are misaligned with the reality of how the modern world works. The only way to overcome the power lodged within bureaucracy is through knowledge and systematic organisation.

Weber encourages us to see that change is not so much impossible as complicated and slow. If we are to get things to go better, much of it will have to come through outwardly very undramatic processes. It will be through the careful marshalling of statistical evidence, patient briefings to ministers, testimonies to committee hearings and minute studies of budgets.

Obama Administration Officials Discuss President's FY2013 Budget


Weber, though personally a cautious man, is an unexpected source of ideas on how to change things. He tells us how power works now and reminds us that ideas may be far more important than tools or money in changing nations. It is a hugely significant thesis. We learn that so much which we associate with vast impersonal external forces (and which hence feels entirely beyond our control) is, in fact, dependent upon something utterly intimate and perhaps more malleable: the thoughts in our own heads.

Emile Durkheim is the philosopher who can best help us to understand why Capitalism makes us richer and yet frequently more miserable; even – far too often – suicidal.


He was born in 1858 in the little French town of Epinal, near the German border. His family were devout Jews. Durkheim himself did not believe in God, but he was always fascinated by, and sympathetic to, religion. He was a clever student. He studied at the elite Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, travelled for a while in Germany, then took a university job in Bordeaux. He got married. There were two children: Marie and André. Before he was forty, Durkheim was appointed to a powerful and prestigious position as a professor at the Sorbonne. He had status and honours, but his mind remained unconventional and his curiosity insatiable. He died of a stroke in 1917.


Camille Pissarro, The Boulevard Montmartre at Night, 1897

Durkheim lived through the immense, rapid transformation of France from a largely traditional agricultural society to an urban, industrial economy. He could see that his country was getting richer, that Capitalism was extraordinarily productive and, in certain ways, liberating. But what particularly struck him, and became the focus of his entire career, were the psychological costs of Capitalism. The economic system might have created an entire new middle class, but it was doing something very peculiar to people’s minds. It was – quite literally – driving them to suicide in ever increasing numbers.

This was the immense insight unveiled in Durkheim’s most important work, Suicide, published in 1897. The book chronicled a remarkable and tragic discovery: that suicide rates seem to shoot up once a nation becomes industrialised and Consumer Capitalism takes hold. Durkheim observed that the suicide rate in the Britain of his day was double that of Italy; but in even richer and more advanced Denmark, it was four times higher than in the UK. Furthermore, suicide rates were much higher amongst the educated than the uneducated; much higher in Protestant than in Catholic countries; and much higher among the middle classes than among the poor.


Edouard Manet, The Suicide, 1877

Durkheim’s focus on suicide was intended to shed light on a more general level of unhappiness and despair at large in society. Suicide was the horrific tip of the iceberg of mental distress created by Capitalism.

Across his career, Durkheim tried to explain why people had become so unhappy in modern societies, even though they had more opportunities and access to goods in quantities that their ancestors could never have dreamt of. He isolated five crucial factors:

1. Individualism

In traditional societies, people’s identities are closely tied to belonging to a clan or a class. Their beliefs and attitudes, their work and status follow automatically from the facts of their birth. Few choices are involved: a person might be a baker, a Lutheran, and married to their second cousin – without ever having made any self-conscious decisions for themselves. They could just step into the place created for them by their family and the existing fabric of society.

But under Capitalism, it is the individual (rather than the clan, or ‘society’ or the nation) that now chooses everything: what job to take, what religion to follow, who to marry… This ‘individualism’ forces us to be the authors of our own destinies. How our lives pan out becomes a reflection of our unique merits, skills and persistence.


Gustave Caillebotte, Young Man at his Window, 1875

If things go well, we can take all the credit. But if things go badly, it is crueller than ever before, for it means there is no one else to blame. We have to shoulder the full responsibility. We aren’t just unlucky any more, we have chosen and have messed up. Individualism ushers in a disinclination to admit to any sort of role for luck or chance in life. Failure becomes a terrible judgement upon oneself. This is the particular burden of life in modern Capitalism.

2. Excessive hope

Capitalism raises our hopes. Everyone – with enough effort – can become the boss. Everyone should think big. You are not trapped by the past – Capitalism says – you are free to remake your life. Advertising stokes ambition by showing us limitless luxury that we could (if we play our cards right) secure very soon. The opportunities grow enormous…as do the possibilities for disappointment.


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Hangover, 1889

Envy grows rife. One becomes deeply dissatisfied with one’s lot, not because it is objectively awful but because of tormenting thoughts about all that is almost (but not quite) within reach.

The cheery, boosterish side of Capitalism attracted Durkheim’s particular ire. In his view, modern societies struggle to admit that life is often quite simply painful and sad. Our tendencies to grief and sorrow are made to look like signs of failure rather than, as should be the case, a fair response to the arduous facts of the human condition.

3. We have too much freedom

One of the complaints against traditional societies – strongly voiced in Romantic literature – was that people needed more ‘freedom’. Rebellious types complained there were far too many social norms: telling you what to wear, what you were supposed to do on Sunday afternoons, what parts of an arm it was respectable for a woman to reveal…


Edouard Manet, The Luncheon on the Grass, 1862-3

Capitalism – following the earlier efforts of Romantic rebels – relentlessly undermined social norms. States became more complex, more anonymous and more diverse. People didn’t have so much in common with each other any more. The rules or norms that one had internalised stopped applying.

What kind of career should you have? Where should you live? What kind of holiday should you go on? What is a marriage supposed to be like? How should you bring up children? Under Capitalism, the collective answers get weaker, less specific. There’s a lot of reliance on the phrase: ‘whatever works for you.’ Which sounds friendly but also means that society doesn’t much care what you do and doesn’t feel confident it has good answers to the big questions of your life.

In very confident moments we like to think of ourselves as fully up to the task of reinventing life, or working everything out for ourselves. But, in reality, as Durkheim knew, we are often simply too tired, too busy, too uncertain – and there is nowhere to turn.

4. Atheism

Durkheim was himself an atheist, but he worried that religion had become implausible just as its communal side would have been most necessary to repair the fraying social fabric. Despite its factual errors, Durkheim appreciated the sense of community that religion offered: “Religion gave men a perception of a world beyond this earth where everything would be rectified; this prospect made inequalities less noticeable, it stopped men from feeling aggrieved.”

Marx had disliked religion because he thought it made people too ready to accept inequality. It was an ‘opiate’ that dulled the pain and sapped the will. But this criticism was founded on a conviction that it would not actually be too difficult to make an equal world and therefore that the opiate could be lifted without trouble.

Durkheim took the darker view that inequality would be very hard to eradicate (perhaps impossible), so we would have to learn, somehow, to live with it. This led him to a warmer appreciation of any ideas that could soften the psychological blows of reality.


Camille Pissarro, The Fair by the Church of Saint-Jacques, Dieppe, 1901

Durkheim also saw that religion created deep bonds between people. The king and the peasant worshipped the same God, they prayed in the same building using the same words. They were offered precisely the same sacraments. Riches, status and power were of no direct spiritual value.

Capitalism had nothing to replace this with. Science certainly did not offer the same opportunities for powerful shared experiences. The Periodic Table might well possess transcendent beauty and be a marvel of intellectual elegance – but it couldn’t draw a society together around it.

Durkheim was especially taken with elaborate religious rituals that demand participation and create a strong sense of belonging. A tribe might worship its totem, men might undergo a complex process of initiation. The tragedy – in Durkheim’s eyes – was that we had done away with religion at precisely the time when we most needed its collective consoling dimensions and had nothing much to put in its place.

5. Weakening of the nation and of the family

In the 19th century, it had looked, at certain moments, as if the idea of the nation might grow so powerful and intense that it could take up the sense of belonging and shared devotion that once had been supplied by religion. Admittedly there were some heroic moments. In the war against Napoleon, for instance, the Prussians had developed a dramatic all-encompassing cult of the Fatherland. But the excitement of a nation at war had, Durkheim saw, failed to translate into anything very impressive in peacetime.

Family might similarly seem to offer the experience of belonging that we needed. But Durkheim was unconvinced. We do indeed invest hugely in our families, but they are not as stable as we might hope. And they do not provide access to a wider community.


John Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882

Increasingly, the ‘family’ in the traditional expansive sense has ceased to exist. It boils down to the couple agreeing to live in the same house and look after one or two children for a while. But in adulthood these children do not expect to work alongside their parents; they don’t expect their social circle to overlap with their parents very much and don’t feel that their parent’s honour is in their hands.

Our looser, more individual sense of family isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just means that it’s not well placed to take up the task of giving us a larger sense of belonging – of giving us the feeling that we are part of something more valuable than ourselves.


Durkheim is a master diagnostician of our ills. He shows us that modern economies put tremendous pressures on individuals, but leave us dangerously bereft of authoritative guidance and communal solace.

He didn’t feel capable of finding answers to the problems he identified but he knew that Capitalism would have to uncover them, or collapse. We are Durkheim’s heirs – and still have ahead of us the task he accorded us: to create new ways of belonging, to take some of the pressure off the individual, to find a correct balance between freedom and solidarity and to generate ideologies that allow us not to take our own failures so personally and sometimes so tragically.

When we use ‘modern’ to describe something, it’s usually a positive. We are very appreciative and even a little smug about the miracles of modern science, the benefits of modern technology, and even the superiority of modern viewpoints. But what if, in speeding towards a new and ever-better future, we’ve left some important truths about ourselves behind? One of the people who best helped us explore this problem was Margaret Mead, perhaps the most famous anthropologist of the 20th century. 

Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead in 1942

Margaret Mead was born in 1901, the oldest of five children. Her father was a professor of finance, and her mother was a sociologist who studied Italian immigrants. When Margaret was little, her family moved frequently, and she alternated between attending traditional schools and homeschooling. She also shopped different religions (because her family members had different faiths) and eventually chose Episcopalian Christianity. Her experience sampling different beliefs and navigating new schools may have influenced her decision to study the wildly different ways people think and interact.

After studying psychology as an undergraduate at DePauw University and then Barnard College (at a time where higher education was very unusual for a woman), Mead began a PhD at Columbia University in the relatively new field of anthropology. Her supervisor, Franz Boas, was essentially the founder of the discipline in the United States. Unlike earlier anthropologists, who had imagined that civilisation was progressing in a linear fashion from ‘barbarism’ to ‘savagery’ to ‘civilisation’, Boas argued that the world was teeming with separate cultures, each with their own unique perspectives, insights, and deficiencies. The modern western world was not the pinnacle of human achievement, but simply one specific example of what humans could achieve.


View of Falefa Valley, Samoa

Boas suggested that Mead travel to Samoa, a few tiny volcanic, tropical islands in the centre of the Pacific Ocean, for her fieldwork. At the time Samoa was governed by America in the East and New Zealand in the West, and was slowly being converted to Christianity. Boas hoped the trip would allow her to study a ‘primitive’ culture that was still relatively undisrupted by the technologically developed world, and to show that it had its own insights and a highly developed culture. Much in line with Boas’s concerns, Mead was particularly interested in primitive communities because she believed that such isolated cultures could serve as ‘laboratories’ that would reveal which cultural norms were most helpful and healthy. She also believed it was critical to do this quickly; she feared that primitive cultures were slipping away, soon to be lost forever.

Starting in 1925 and lasting until the beginning of the Second World War, Mead travelled to Samoa and then to other islands in the south seas of the Pacific Ocean. She lived among native people there as an anthropologist, recording their ways of life. The groups Mead studied included many fishermen and farmers, and few literate people. Mead learned to carry babies around by having them cling to her neck and to dress in native dress. She had no access to recording devices other than still cameras, so she mostly relied on her memory and written notes—and, of course, her ability to quickly learn native languages and become popular with native people. On one island, she lived on the front porch of the Navy pharmacist’s dispensary (which had more privacy than a native house). People came to visit her at all hours of the day and night, often just to chat. She learned to be a foreigner locals didn’t mind confiding in.


Ruth Benedict in 1937

Mead’s work demonstrated a particular weakness in modern society related to sexual life. Mead herself led an unconventional life, simultaneously involved with successive husbands and her ever-present female lover—another famous anthropologist named Ruth Benedict. She believed that “one can love several people and that demonstrative affection has its place in different types of relationships.” Perhaps because Mead’s own life was neither heterosexual nor monogamous, she emphasised the ease with which other cultures allowed such practices, and the healthy relationship towards love and sex that could be maintained with these behaviours.

In her 1928 book Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead described Samoan culture as more open and comfortable with sex. The book was her first and most famous research project, for which she studied girls only a bit younger than herself: adolescents navigating their transition to adulthood. She wanted to understand whether their experiences were very different than those of American teenagers, and, if so, whether their experiences could be learned from. Most of all she wanted to test whether “societies could be changed by changing the way children were brought up.” What she found was that little children knew all about masturbation and learned about intercourse and other acts through firsthand observation, but thought of it as no more scandalous or worthy of comment than death or birth. Homosexuality was incidental but also not a matter of shame, and people’s orientations fluctuated naturally throughout their lives without defining them.

Samoan Girls

Samoan girls, c. 1902

Many of the differences Mead found were not simply curiosities, but replicable practices. Divorce was common and not shameful—a relationship was simply said to have ‘passed away’. Loving more than one person was accepted and understood to be common. Adultery might lead to divorce, but it wouldn’t have to; Mead describes how, in Samoan culture, the lover of a person’s husband or wife might gain the forgiveness of the wronged spouse:

“He goes to the house of the man he has injured, accompanied by all the men of his household…the suppliants seat themselves outside the house, fine mats spread over their heads, bent in attitude of deepest dejection and humiliation….Then towards the evening [the betrayed husband] will say at last: ‘Come, it is enough. Enter the house and drink the Kava. Eat the food which I will set before you and we will cast our trouble into the sea.’”

Samoan Bathing

A Samoan family bathing c. 1950

Mead argued that because Samoan culture had an understanding of sex and all of its complexities and difficulties as part of the natural life cycle, and because their culture had developed useful, meaningful responses to address these difficulties, their personal sexual lives were much easier. For example, she found that such norms made adolescence much less difficult for Samoan girls than for American girls, because Samoan girls had relatively few responsibilities and there was little pressure for them to conform to a particular kind of sexual life. They were neither pressured to abstain from sex or to achieve particular milestones like having boyfriends or getting married. The converse of this situation meant that being an American teenager was stressful largely because of the nature of being American, rather than being teenaged.

Here Mead tapped into a deeper criticism of her own culture. She saw life for Americans of her time as one in which people are brought up “denied all firsthand knowledge of birth and love and death, harried by a society which will not let adolescents grow up at their own pace, imprisoned in the small, fragile, nuclear family from which there is no escape and in which there is little security.” Although much has changed in America and in the Western world since this time, her insights still apply in many ways. Our adolescents are still pressured to conform to particular models of human sexual behaviour, and these pressures, along with the pressures that we experience long into adulthood, make our lives more difficult and empty than they would otherwise be. Our modern life does not allow us to be as freely loving and sexual, as complex and full of change, as other cultures allow.

Teens dance on 'American Bandstand'

American teenagers at a dance c. 1950

Mead also discovered that human behaviour in relation to gender varied widely from culture to culture, far more than Americans at the time could imagine. For example, Americans thought of men as productive, sensible, and more aggressive, while women were more frivolous, peaceful, and nurturing. But in her 1935 book, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, Mead studied tribes in Papua New Guinea and found radically different results. She recorded that in the Arapesh tribe both men and women were peaceful and nurturing, while among Mundugumor, men and women were both ruthless and aggressive. Perhaps most striking was Mead’s description of the people of the Chambri region, where the women were dominant and far more aggressive than men, while the men were dependents and in need of emotional support. In short, Mead suggested that none of these traits were ‘human nature’: they were all instead simply possibilities, which were either taught, encouraged, or shunned by native culture.

Mead’s striking conclusion was, of course, that culture determined an individual’s personality far more than people had previously expected. It was not sex that made women curl their hair or listen to people’s feelings, or ‘race’ that made some nations regularly attack their neighbours. Rather, it was the social expectations and norms that had developed slowly for centuries, and which laid the groundwork for each individual’s psychological makeup. “We must recognise,” she reminded her readers, “that beneath the superficial classifications of sex and race the same potentialities exist, recurring generation after generation, only to perish because society has no place for them.”


Group of women aviation workers sitting under hair dryers in a beauty salon, c. 1950

Modern American culture also had no place for certain potentialities—in this it was no more successful than any primitive culture. We might think, for example, that men like football because they are the more warlike sex, but in fact they have been the more warlike sex because (for some arbitrary reasons or matter of convenience) they have been the sex at war. Similarly, we may believe that women have tended to children because they are nurturing, but actually they have been guided to be nurturing because they were assigned the task of raising children. In making these assumptions, we forget about human potential for gentleness and roughness that other cultures have forgotten.

In making this criticism, Mead followed in a long line of thinkers who recognised that modern civilisation, with all of its technological advantages and rapid developments, had left some aspects of human experience behind—either unrecognised, misunderstood, or poorly tended to. In this sense, she was much like the Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who had described human beings as originally having a very different, and far more solitary nature. Rousseau suggested that as civilisation developed, human nature was moulded by society—often for the worse; this artificial construction of social order (often through violence and oppression), he argued, limits human potential.

Mead’s point, in turn, was that even now we wrongly assume the conventions that Rousseau describes as unnatural, and in doing so we miss out on greater possibilities, both for how to behave as individuals and how to reorganise societies. She believed that by studying other cultures, especially primitive ones that had developed apart from our own, we could better explore these possibilities. Perhaps, for example, we can choose when to be loving and when to be aggressive, when to demand a certain standard of sexual behaviour and when to learn how to gracefully and conscientiously accommodate our differing needs.

American women doing men's work in the arsenals of war in the United States - 28-June-1942

American women doing men’s work in the arsenals of war in the US, c. 1940

Mead strongly believed that it was important to consider cultural norms because people needed their culture to help guide them towards healthier emotional lives. She imagined that each culture, like a tribe cast out from the Tower of Babel and given a unique language, had something unique to contribute culturally as well: “Each primitive people has selected one set of human gifts, one set of human values, and fashioned for themselves an art, a social organisation, which is their unique contribution to the history of the human spirit.” The beauty of these differences was not that the people she studied always had it better figured out than Americans (sometimes she could be very critical of the people she studied), but rather that both groups could learn from each other: “from this contrast we may be able to turn, made newly and vividly self-conscious and self-critical, to judge anew and perhaps fashion differently the education we give our children.”

Indeed, Mead herself had learned much from her anthropological subjects. For example, she brought up her daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, on some of the parenting of the primitive people she worked with. Mead enlisted a new physician, Dr. Benjamin Spock, as the child’s doctor, in part because he allowed unconventional practices like breast feeding on demand, which Mead had learned from her research subjects (and which is now commonplace in western culture, thanks in part to Dr. Spock).


Benjamin Spock with his niece Susannah in 1967

During World War II access to the South Pacific was impossible, so Mead began to study more ‘complex’ cultures like her own. She was also asked to turn her research to war purposes, first by studying how to maintain morale during wartime, and then by studying the social complexities of food distribution. She even wrote a book on American national character entitled And Keep Your Powder Dry (1942). With the help of her husband Gregory Bateson, she founded the Institute for Intercultural Studies in order to establish further study of other cultures.

After the war, Mead also worked for the US Military, studying Russian responses to authority in order to try to predict what the Soviets might do during the cold war. She grew increasingly famous, travelling widely, giving lectures, and teaching at universities. For 50 years, from 1928 until her death in 1978, she worked for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City as a curator for their projects. She wrote 20 books, was made a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was awarded 28 honorary degrees, and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Mead studying Tzantzas brought back from a trip to New Guinea, 1934

Mead was a supporter of many political causes, fighting against poverty and racism and supporting women’s rights. She wrote a book showing how many of the differences in intelligence between ‘races’ that psychologists had measured were instead the result of cultural knowledge and convention. She encouraged her readers and listeners to also think of social problems as culturally conditioned, issues that could be overcome by new efforts and ideas. She is famous for having (probably) said, “never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Mead’s own committed work helped generations of Americans and people everywhere see greater possibilities for individuals and for modern values. She suggested that we see human nature less as a singular and universal fact and more as an ever-changing landscape, one through which we should travel in order to become wiser. “As the traveller who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep,” she suggested, “so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinise more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own.” In doing so, she suggested, we could uncover and support undeveloped human potential forgotten in our rush towards ‘modernity’.

Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno was born in Frankfurt in 1903 into a wealthy and cultured family. His father, a wine merchant, was of Jewish origin but had converted to Protestantism at university. Teddy (as his closest friends called him) was an extremely fine pianist from a young age. Until his twenties, he planned for a career as a composer, but eventually focused on philosophy. In 1934, he was barred, on racial grounds, from teaching in Germany. So he moved to Oxford and later to New York and then Los Angeles. He was both fascinated and repelled by Californian consumer culture – and thought with unusual depth about suntans and drive-ins. After the war, he returned to West Germany, where he died in 1969, at the age of 64.

Portrait Theodor W. Adorno

Adorno believed that intellectuals should band together to change society, and he was closely connected with the pioneering Institute of Social Research, which had been founded and funded by his friend Felix Weil (whose father was a hugely successful commodities trader). The Institute aimed to develop a psychological understanding of the problems thrown up by modern capitalism. It focused not so much on the hard economic aspects of life so much as on the culture and mindset of capitalism.

Adorno drew attention to three significant ways in which capitalism corrupts and degrades us:

1. Leisure time becomes toxic

Although Adorno didn’t overlook issues like working legislation and the revision of the taxation system, he believed that the primary focus for progressive philosophers should be the study of how the working and middle classes of developed nations think and feel – and in particular, the manner in which they spend their evenings and weekends.

Adorno had a highly ambitious view of what leisure time should be for. It was not to relax and take one’s mind off things. Adorno argued that leisure had a great purpose to serve: free time – and the cultural activities we might pursue in it – was our prime opportunity to expand and develop ourselves, to reach after our own better nature, and to acquire the tools with which to change society. It was a time when we might see certain specific films that would help us to understand our relationships with new clarity, or to read philosophy and history books that could give us fresh insights into politics or to listen to the kinds of music that would give us courage to reform ourselves and collective life.

Group Of Men Sunbathing

But, in the modern world, Adorno bemoaned that leisure had fallen into the hands of an omnipresent and deeply malevolent entertainment machine he called ‘the culture industry,’ which occupied the same demonic place in his philosophy as religion had occupied in Marx’s. Modern films, TV, radio, magazines and now social media seemed for Adorno to be designed to keep us distracted, unable to understand ourselves and without the will to alter political reality. This was a new and catastrophically dangerous opium for the masses.

For example, the news, while ostensibly updating us on everything that is ‘important’, is – in Adorno’s view – simply there to feed us a mixture of salacious nonsense and political stories that scramble any possibility of understanding the open prison within which we exist. Journalists will self-righteously claim that they are giving us ‘the truth’ but they are themselves too busy, too scared of their bosses and too thoughtless to be in any position to offer such an elixir. Films for their part excite fears and desires wholly disconnected from the real challenges we face. We might spend two hours of our lives following the adventures of an alien invasion – while the real calamities of our world go unattended. Museums display works of art without allowing them to speak to the needs and aspirations of their audiences. We wander through galleries, silently admiring so-called ‘masterpieces’, while privately unsure what they really mean and why we should care. The culture industry likes to keep us like that: distracted, pliant, confused and intimidated. As for pop music, this focuses relentlessly on the emotions around Romantic love, selfishly suggesting to us that happiness can only come from meeting one very special person, rather than awakening us to the pleasures of community and of a more broadly distributed human sympathy.


Adorno was so strict on the cultural output of his age because he believed in the highest possibilities for culture. It wasn’t there to help us pass the time, impress the neighbours or drug us into momentary cheerfulness. It was to be nothing less than a therapeutic tool to deliver consolation, insight and social transformation. No wonder he perceptively described Walt Disney as the most dangerous man in America.

2. Capitalism doesn’t sell us the things we really need

Because of the huge range of consumer goods available in modern capitalism, we naturally suppose that everything we could possibly want is available. The only problem, if there is one, is that we can’t afford it.

But Adorno pointed out that our real wants are carefully shielded from us by capitalist industry, so that we end up forgetting what it is we truly need and settle instead for desires manufactured for us by corporations without any interest in our true welfare. Though we think we live in a world of plenty, what we really require to thrive – tenderness, understanding, calm, insight – is in painfully short supply and utterly disconnected from the economy.


© Flickr/Hernán Piñera

Instead, capitalism’s tool of mass manipulation, advertising, exploits our genuine longings to sell us items that will leave us both poorer and psychologically more depleted. An advert will show a group of friends walking along a beach chatting amiably; or a family having a picnic and laughing warmly together. It does this because it knows we crave community and connection. But the industrial economy is not geared to helping us get these things; it would indeed prefer to keep us lonely and consuming. So at the end of the advert, we’ll be urged to buy some 25-year-old whisky or a car so powerful, no road would ever let us legally drive it at top speed.

3. There are proto-fascists everywhere

Adorno was writing at the dawn of the age of the psychological questionnaire. These were widely in use in the United States where they measured consumer attitudes and commercial behaviour.


© Flickr/Drew Leavy

Adorno was intrigued by the underlying concept of the questionnaire, and together with colleagues, devoted himself to designing a rather different kind questionnaire: one designed to spot fascists – rather than possible purchasers of new washing powders.

The questionnaire asked contributors to assess their level of agreement with statements like:

– Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn.

– A person who has bad manners, habits, and breeding can hardly expect to get along with decent people.

–  If people would talk less and work more, everybody would be better off.

– When a person has a problem or worry, it is best for him not to think about it, but to keep busy with more cheerful things.

After a battery of such enquiries, Adorno felt confident that he would be able to detect the fascists lingering in the new generation. Given the traumas Germany had just been through, it is no surprise that Adorno gave his questionnaire – and what he called ‘the F scale’ – such attention.

But a more widely applicable lesson to be drawn from this experiment concerns the need to change politics not just through legislation and agitation, but also through psychology. Psychology precedes politics. Long before someone is racist, homophobic or authoritarian, they are – Adorno skilfully suggested – likely to be suffering from psychological fragilities and immaturities which it is the task of society as a whole to get better at spotting and responding to.


Rather than leaving problems to fester so long that there is eventually no way to deal with them other than through force (exerted by the police or the military), we should learn to understand the psychology of everyday insanity from the earliest moments. Adorno and his team sent the F-scale to every school in West Germany. Freud should have been able to get to Hitler before the Red Army and General Patton did. Psychotherapy wasn’t a rarified, private, middle-class indulgence. For Adorno, it should rightly take its place at the vanguard of progressive social transformation.


Adorno recognised, very unusually, that the primary obstacles to social progress are cultural and psychological rather than narrowly political and economic. In truth, we already have the money, the resources, the time and the skills to make sure everyone sleeps in an attractive house, stops destroying the planet, is given a fulfilling job and feels supported by the community. The reason why we continue to suffer and hurt one another is first and foremost because our minds are sick. This is the continuing provocation offered by the beguiling and calmly furious work of Theodor Adorno.

There’s nothing very natural about caring for nature. The standard impulse has often been to conquer and tame the natural world: to clear the forest, hunt the animals, drain the marshes and extract whatever materials we can from the depths of the earth. For a very long time this seemed heroic and benign.  Human efforts were on a puny scale in comparison with the apparently boundless abundance of the world. It’s only very recently that that we have become capable – collectively – of damaging the planet and exhausting some of its resources. 

We learn to care for nature when someone is on hand to guide our emotions: to point out the beauty and intricacy of the butterfly, the awesome force and purity of the sea, the economy and grace of the oak tree…


In the most destructive and polluting country mankind has ever known, that person was – for a generation – Rachel Carson. A scientist and writer, almost single-handedly, Carson taught her fellow Americans to respect nature and recognise that they were in the process of destroying it at a faster rate than any previous civilisation – and would be in dire trouble if they did not alter their arrogant ways at the earliest opportunity.

At first glance, Carson’s work seems to be a simple and urgent warning against the dangers of new agricultural technologies (especially noxious chemicals), but her writing is far from being a dry polemic against environmental degradation. Carson understood – like too few environmentalists before and after – that in order for her cause to gain traction in a democratic consumer society, she had to charm her audience into loving nature. It wasn’t enough to make them feel guilty about what their consumerism and greed were doing to the world; what she had to do was to make them fall in love with the seas, the forests and the prairies in order that they would stand any chance of wanting to alter their ways.


At the very end of her life, Carson wrote a book specifically for children, beautifully illustrated with photographs of nature. She called it The Sense of Wonder, and tried to guide parents to teach their children to feel close to the earth and its miraculous creations from the earliest age:

‘A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.’


Rachel Louise Carson (1907-1964) was born and raised on a small family farm in Pennsylvania, where she learned to love animals and nature from her earliest years. In a time when it was unusual for women to have further education, she went to Chatham University and studied a distinctive mixture of English and Biology. She then began a PhD at Johns Hopkins University, where, after some frustrating and fruitless studies involving pit vipers and squirrels, she finally published a Master’s dissertation on the excretory systems of fish. However, she had to leave this topic (and higher education altogether) in order to support her struggling family – after first her father, then her sister, and finally her niece all died tragically young in quick succession.

This was at the time of the Great Depression, when many United States government agencies were creating new jobs – some of them quite peculiar – to shorten unemployment lines. By chance, Carson secured a job writing radio broadcasts for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. The series was called “Romance under the Waters” and was designed to educate Americans about marine biology and the importance of the work of the bureau itself. Carson soon discovered an exceptional knack for making the lives of aquatic animals sound interesting to the general public. She wrote about eels, whelks and crabs, about the Atlantic stargazer, the gulf pipefish and the Remo flounder – and gripped her audiences. “If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there,’ she wrote modestly, ‘but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”


But poetry there certainly was – and it was her genius to know how to express it:

“Who has known the ocean? Neither you nor I, with our earth-bound senses, know the foam and surge of the tide that beats over the crab hiding under the seaweed of his tide pool home; or the lilt of the long, slow swells of mid-ocean, where shoals of wandering fish prey and are preyed upon, and the dolphin breaks the waves to breathe the upper atmosphere. Nor can we know the vicissitudes of life on the ocean floor […] where swarms of diminutive fish twinkle through the dusk like a silver rain of meteors, and eels lie in wait among the rocks. Even less is it given to man to descend those six incomprehensible miles into the recesses of the abyss, where reign utter silence and unvarying cold and eternal night.”

Eventually, Carson wrote three books about the sea. One was a particularly poetic meditation (Under the Sea Wind, 1941); a second (The Sea Around Us, 1951) looked at the migratory and seasonal patterns of sea creatures; another focused on coastal ecosystems and their resilience and importance (The Edge of the Sea, 1955). She had a talent for encouraging readers to abandon their normal myopic human points of view so as to learn to consider existence from the perspective of a painted goby or an ocean pout. She understood that scientific facts would never be enough to stir a population distracted by commercial television and demanding jobs, that she needed the gifts of a great writer to help to save the planet.

She wanted to promote identification with the whole of the earth: so that humans would learn to consider themselves a part of something unfathomable, beautiful and fragile, rather than merely the appointed masters and destroyers of ‘resources’. Her gifts reached their climax in her most subtle, impassioned and moving book, Silent Spring (1962).


The book’s main topic was – from a distance – rather unpromising: pesticides. Yet this was a book that would sell 20 million copies and change the course of history.

In the late 1950s, the United States Federal Government had begun mass-producing chemical pesticides developed in military-funded laboratories. The most popular was dichlorodiphenlytrichloroethane (DDT), originally designed to rid Pacific islands of malaria-carrying bugs during the Second World War. DDT was so effective and apparently so beneficial that its inventor, Paul Hermann Müller, was awarded a Nobel prize.

However, DDT turned out to be a Frankenstein-ian invention. It gradually emerged that it killed not only malaria-bearing insects, but also for months afterwards, any kind of insect whatsoever. Moreover, DDT ran off with rainwater, drained into streams and aquifers and poisoned fish, moles, rats, foxes, rabbits and pretty much anything else alive. Applications of DDT had the power to contaminate the world’s food supply, as well as collect in carcinogenic ways in the fatty tissues of humans.

The book caused outrage. Although Carson was an established author, magazines and newspapers shunned her arguments. Scientists who had helped develop DDT and the companies they worked for angrily disputed the dangers of the pesticide. Companies like Monsanto published polemics against the work and launched snide rumours about its author. The executive of one company raged, “If man were to faithfully follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.” Ezra Taft Benson, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, wrote to President Eisenhower that, since Carson was physically attractive yet unmarried, she was “probably a communist.” (In fact, she may simply have been too busy writing scientific texts, or – possibly – had a romantic friendship with a close female friend).


Despite the efforts of corporations and their political allies, Silent Spring broke through. Expecting criticism from the chemical industry, Carson had prepared the book as though it were a lawsuit, and included 55 pages of notes at the end to prove her points. Her arguments were bullet-proof.

The title, Silent Spring, provided a terrifying image of a world without songbirds, or almost any kind of natural life whatsoever. It opened with a depiction of a nameless small American town, full of consumer conveniences, slick gadgets and cheap food outlets, but without robins or ladybirds, larks or squirrels. A world ostensibly altered for the convenience of human beings would end up being no world for humans at all.

Carson urged us to leave nature alone: when abandoned to its own devices, nature would itself fight against insect over-population. But if man intercepted, unwanted populations would eventually become resistant to all poisons and then balloon rapidly, because the insects that kept pests in check would unwittingly also have been killed.


Carson concluded that scientists (and modern human beings generally) are philosophically naive enough to assume that nature is a force to be controlled at will, rather than a fierce, complex and vast entity that responds unpredictably to any human action. She suggested that human beings should think more creatively about how to prevent insect damage, for example, by sterilising insects, or using the same chemical “lures” insects use to catch each other, or by using sound at a specific frequency to destroy larvae. Turning towards the larger issue of humans and their environment, she then reminded readers that dealing with nature would always require an appreciation, respect, and awe of nature, and an understanding that that it is a force largely beyond human control and full comprehension.

With her lyrical style of writing, her defence of the primitive and her love of nature, Carson was – for a scientific age – an heir to David Henry Thoreau. Like Thoreau, Carson’s work was guided by a sense of responsibility towards the earth, the seas and the skies. Like Thoreau, Carson saw them as sources of psychological health and wisdom. By learning to live more closely attuned to their cycles, to their subtle processes, and to their very simplicity, humans would have access to a nourishing wisdom and an inoculation against the psychological ills of modern life.


Carson died from breast cancer shortly after the publication of Silent Spring, yet her work has endured. The book quickly became a critical influence on the nascent environmental movement. Not only was DDT strictly controlled and eventually banned (both in the US and abroad), Carson’s views on nature became part of our common consciousness. We are, thanks in large part to her, now able to think of ourselves as part of a larger ecosystem that is sharply imperilled by our activities and needs to be treated with the utmost humility and care.

Carson revealed that what might have seemed like an arcane technical matter (getting rid of pests in midwestern corn fields) was ultimately a metaphysical and moral issue. At heart, good stewardship of the earth requires us to understand both our scientific strength and our distinctive moral stupidity and imaginative blindness.

In her posthumously published book for children, The Sense of Wonder, Carson shook off the mantle of the scientist to speak to us in the plainest, most moving terms about how to love the small blue mothership that sustains us:

“One stormy autumn night when my nephew Roger was about twenty months old I wrapped him in a blanket and carried him down to the beach in the rainy darkness. Out there, just at the eve of where-we-couldn’t-see, big waves were thundering in, dimly seen white shapes that boomed and shouted and threw great handfuls of froth at us. Together we laughed for pure joy—he a baby meeting for the first time the wild tumult of Oceanus, I with the salt of half a lifetime of sea love in me. But I think we felt the same spine-tingling response to the vast, roaring ocean and the wild night around us.”


Winslow Homer, Moonlight, 1874

It is perhaps her most radical idea of all: that it is love, rather than guilt, which is the key to transforming humanity’s relationship to nature.