chapter 3. Self-Knowledge

Why very beautiful scenes can make us so melancholy

As inhabitants of the modern world, the major part of our lives is spent in ugliness: under polluted leaden skies, among choked motorways, warehouses, freight depots and graffitied shuttered shops. These…

chapter 3. Self-Knowledge

On Old Photos of Oneself

To those sensitive to the melancholy nature of experience, looking though an album of old photographs is not an uncomplicated pastime. A few pages in, there we are in a large…

chapter 2. Work

The Dangers of Having Too Little To Do

For most of our lives, we’re hard at work: we’re up till midnight in the library studying for a degree, we’re learning a trade, building a business, writing a book. We…

chapter 3. Self-Knowledge

The Roots of Loneliness

It remains unhelpfully hard to be able to admit that one is lonely. Unless one has recently been widowed or just moved to a new city, there are no respectable-sounding explanations…

chapter 3. Self-Knowledge

On being able to defend oneself

Every day, especially in the era of social media (from the mental health perspective, probably the single worst invention of modern times), we are likely to face enemies. People who disagree…

chapter 3. Self-Knowledge

Are intelligent people more melancholic?

Early on in the history of melancholy, the Greek philosopher Aristotle was said to have raised a question which it’s hard to answer without sounding self-serving – or smug: ‘Why is…

chapter 3. Self-Knowledge

Our Right to be Miserable

The official religion of modernity is happiness. It sounds pleasant but being asked to smile is an extremely coercive requirement. There is a freedom that our age seems subtly yet horribly…

chapter 2. Work

The Agonies of Choice

For most of history, we had no choice around most things in our lives: there was only one job we could do and it would be chosen for us by our…

chapter 2. Work

Nature as a cure for the Sickness of Modern Times

The modern age has manhandled nature like none before it ever quite has. Previous eras may not have treated it with too much respect – the Ancient Greeks stripped most of…

chapter 3. Self-Knowledge

Reasons to give up on Perfection

Part of our problem as a species is that we’re troublingly good at making things perfect. We can set our minds on an extraordinary goal and – with heroic sacrifice, thousands…

chapter 6. Leisure

Why is the modern world so ugly?

One of the great generalisations we can make about the modern world is that it is, to an extraordinary degree, an ugly world. If we were to show an ancestor from…

chapter 2. Work

When Are We Truly Productive?

In the last two hundred, the world has witnessed the greatest increase in productivity in the history of humanity. From 1 A.D to 1820, living standards in the West slowly doubled,…

chapter 5. Calm

For Those Who (Privately) Aspire to Become More Reclusive

For most of history, societies have equated good lives with active outward noisy ones: lives spent spearing enemies in battle, sacrificing oneself heroically in the name of God, achieving high office…

chapter 2. Work

On Asking People What They 'Do'?

The world became modern when people who met for the first time shifted from asking each other (as they had always done) where they came from – to asking each other…

chapter 2. Work

How Could a Working Life Be Meaningful?

For most of history, work was not a topic of sustained reflection because it seemed at once so simple, so inevitable and so unpleasant. It was overwhelmingly focused on the provision…

chapter 1. Relationships

Why Do I Feel So Lonely?

When we think of what might have been lost on the way to becoming modern, we’re liable to think about mealtimes: how seldom they now take place communally, how rare it…

chapter 1. Relationships

The Ongoing Complexities of Our Intimate Lives

In sexual matters, the world became modern in early April 1953, on a beach in Cannes, when the eighteen year old Brigitte Bardot appeared in front of the world’s press to…

chapter 1. Relationships

Pygmalion and your Love life

In Book 10 of the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, we’re introduced to one of the world’s more curious but telling myths: a Cypriot sculptor called Pygmalion has developed a problem with…