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Self-Knowledge: Melancholy

Nostalgia for Religion

The situation is simple enough if one believes. Or doesn’t believe. Where it starts to get complicated is if one firmly doesn’t believe – never has and never will – but still profoundly wishes that one could believe; if one suffers from, as it were, a nostalgia for a religion one never had. What might...

Work: Utopia

How Science Could - at Last - Properly Replace Religion

According to a standard heroic secular account, at the start of the modern age and in just a few short decades, science was able to defeat religion through rigour and brilliance – and thereby forever liberated humankind from ignorance and superstition. For centuries, this account explains, religion had essentially been doing some very bad science....

Leisure: Culture

What Comes After Religion?

Fewer and fewer people believe nowadays. It’s possible that in a generation there simply won’t be religion across Europe and large sections of North America, Australia and Asia. That’s not necessarily a problem. But it’s worth thinking about why people made up religion in the first place, and what we’re doing with the needs and...

Calm: Serenity

The Benefits of Provincial Life

There’s a grand, subtle and beguiling myth that can work it’s way into the centre of our brains, lead us to judge our lives as calamitous failures and drive us into years of anxious and unrewarding effort and struggle. The myth is constructed around an innocent sounding – even exciting – idea: the notion that...

Self-Knowledge: Mood

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 keen to deny us: the freedom to be miserable. The child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott developed a particular suspicion of the sort of people who,...

Work: Good 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, rising from a GDP per person of $600 a year to $1,200. Then, over the next 200 years, it catapulted up by a factor...

Work: Meaning

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 of basic food and shelter and offered next to no stimulation or spiritual reward. At best one could describe it as a backbreaking and...

Relationships: Romanticism

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 is for whole families to gather, how much technology can intrude. In paintings of communal meals that reflect the older way of doing things,...

Relationships: Romanticism

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 women. He has seen the daughters of a local man called Propoetus refuse to honour Venus, the goddess of love, and then turn to...

Work: Politics & Government

On Living in Democracies

When modern societies are in the mood to vaunt their advantages, there is one feature they invariably single out and refer to with special reverence: we, at least, live in democracies. The superiority of the modern state is thought to be nowhere more in evidence than in its way of electing its leaders. For the...

Work: Consumption & Need

Is the Modern World Too 'Materialistic'?

It’s often said that the problem with modern societies is that they are far too ‘materialistic’ – which is taken to mean that we are far too interested in buying objects. This is not entirely fair. We are indeed materialistic, but not primarily because we buy a lot; rather because we harbour an immense faith...

Work: Consumption & Need

The Purpose of Advertising

Businesses have always had a need to let the world know of their existence. For most of history, that meant a sign above the door. If you were a milliner or a hosier, you would put up a lamb, a barber shop meant a pair of scissors, a glove shop involved a hand, and if...

Work: Capitalism

The Challenges of Modernity

Since the middle of the eighteenth century, beginning in Northern Europe and then spreading to every corner of the world, people have become aware of living in an age radically different from any other and which they have called – with a mixture of awe and respect, trepidation and nostalgia – ‘the modern age’, or...

Relationships: Parenting

How to be Curious

One of the things it’s easiest to forget about children is that they are aliens recently descended from another planet. In the way they look at everything around them, in the wide open stares they give to ways of living and being that have grown utterly familiar and therefore invisible to our eyes, they may...

Calm: Anxiety

The Seven Most Calming Works of Art in the World

Art has never been mere entertainment. Alongside philosophy and religion, it has been humanity’s chief source of consolation. It is what we should turn to in our very worst moments. Here are seven of the most calming works of art ever produced. 1.  Hiroshi Sugimoto, The Atlantic Ocean, 1989 Because of the way our minds...

Relationships: Parenting

How We Crave to Be Soothed

One of the greatest skills any human can possess is a capacity for soothing: in a better arranged society, we would celebrate not only gifted athletes and canny entrepreneurs, but also those gentle souls who are most effective at delivering reassurance to their fellow frightened creatures in the face of the many physical and psychological...

Relationships: Breaking Up & Heartbreak

Overcoming Nostalgia for a Past Relationship

After considerable agony, we’ve left a relationship. We’re on our own now – and, when we can bear to be honest, it’s a little harder than we expected. We aren’t going on many dates; the central heating broke down last week; the shopping is proving a hurdle. In idle moments, we find ourselves daydreaming, returning...

Self-Knowledge: Behaviours

You Don't Need Permission

When we first arrive on the earth, nothing is more alien to our minds than the idea of needing permission. We simply try to do whatever we want: when the carpet looks interesting, we give it a lick. When the cat annoys us, we give its tail a yank. When there’s an intriguing plug socket,...

Calm: Serenity

Taking It One Day at a Time

Occasionally, life places us in a situation where our normal long-range hopeful way of thinking grows impossible. It’s unclear from here when you’ll be going back to work - or whether you ever will. When someone asks how things are, one answer seem to fit above all: we’re taking it one day at a time.

Work: Consumption & Need

The Importance of Maslow's Pyramid of Needs

One of the most legendary ideas in the history of psychology is located in an unassuming triangle divided into five sections referred to universally simply as ‘Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs’.This profoundly influential pyramid first saw the world in an academic journal in the United States in 1943, where it was crudely drawn in black and...

Work: Sorrows of Work

The Sorrows of Competition

At the heart of how modern individuals work, there is a dream of security: security from humiliation, penury, dependence, arbitrary dismissal and uncertainty. At the heart of how a modern capitalist economy works, there is a dream of competitive advantage: one based on the intelligent maximisation of invested capital, on the effective deployment of technology,...

Self-Knowledge: Fulfilment

What Is the Meaning of Life?

To wonder too insistently what ‘the meaning of life‘ might be marks you out as being somewhat heavy, weird or just naïve. People nowadays often say – sometimes in a sad way, other times more aggressively and cynically – that ‘life just has no meaning.’ Two reasons are often cited for this. The first has...

: Western Philosophy

Baruch Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza was a seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher who tried to reinvent religion – moving it away from something based on superstition and ideas of direct divine intervention to being a discipline that was far more impersonal, quasi-scientific and yet also, at all times, serenely consoling. Baruch – the word means ‘Blessed’ in Hebrew – was...

Self-Knowledge: Emotional Skills

Calm

Introduction 1. We have unfortunate tendencies to look at agitation as something quasi-physical, as a bodily emanation and therefore as best addressed via physical mechanisms: baths, teas or walks. 2. But agitation is always a mental phenomenon, it is a result of ideas – and a calm mindset therefore relies on having to hand a...

Self-Knowledge: Psychotherapy

How the Modern World Makes Us Mentally Ill

The modern world is wonderful in many ways (dentistry is good, cars are reliable, we can so easily keep in touch from Mexico with our grandmother in Scotland) – but it’s also powerfully and tragically geared to causing a high background level of anxiety and widespread low-level depression. There are six particular features of modernity...

: Western Philosophy

Blaise Pascal

It is still, tragically, sometimes assumed that the best way to cheer someone up is to tell them that everything will turn out all right; to intimate that life is essentially a pleasant process in which happiness is no mirage and human fulfilment a real possibility. However, we need only read a few pages of...

Work: Business Skills

The Nature and Causes of Procrastination

Introduction The history of every life is made up both of the life we lead, and the richer, more ambitious one we dream of leading – but never quite do… because we are stretched out in the bath or on the sofa, too tired or worried, too distracted or despairing. This alternative life could be...

Self-Knowledge: Growth & Maturity

We Only Learn If We Repeat

One of the most obvious but striking things about a modern education is that you go through it only once. You show up every day for a number of years, get filled up with knowledge and then, once you’re twenty-one or so, you stop – and begin the rest of your life. Before modern education...

Calm: Serenity

What Is Wrong with Modern Times - and How to Regain Wisdom

Part I: The Ills of Modernity The conditions of modernity are in many ways profoundly better than those under which the vast majority of humanity lived for more or less the whole of history. But, along with its manifest benefits, modernity has brought a special range of troubles into our lives which we would be...

Relationships: Breaking Up & Heartbreak

When Someone We Love Has Died

Someone we loved so much has died. It can be hard to know where to turn. For religions, dying was regarded as an essential, immensely important, part of existence; it was supposed to happen at a time appointed by God or by fate. It was not an embarrassing or despair-inducing end point, it was a...

Work: Utopia

What Community Centres Should Be Like

Although our societies have, in theory, a very high regard for the idea of community, it is telling that, in practice, ‘community centres’ are often the most uninspiring and unlovely of all buildings. They can be architecturally very undistinguished, they may have been vandalised and not patched up properly, they can be home to desperate...

Leisure: Food

On Not Being Able To Cook Very Well

In so many areas of life, it’s easy to feel desperate that we have failed to live up to our own expectations. We are evidently not beautiful enough, rich enough, intelligent enough, kind enough or clever enough. And, of course, in this context, nor are we anything like the sort of cooks we should be....

Self-Knowledge: Emotional Skills

The Importance of Confession

If as a species we understood ourselves a little better, and so properly appreciated what really brings calm to our agitated souls, we would take confession a lot more seriously. We would realise that unburdening ourselves on a regular basis, once a week at least, speaking candidly of our most peculiar, dangerous, pathetic or terrifying...

Leisure: Travel

The Wisdom of Nature

We are always being told that nature is good for us – and that we should spend more time in its company for the sake of our health. What is less well flagged up is that nature is as important to us as a source of nourishment for our souls. Nature is a kind of...

Relationships: Romanticism

The Definition of Love

The world is sick for a surprisingly modest-sounding reason: we don’t understand love – and yet we are rather convinced that we do. We talk a lot of love of course, but generally in terms of a dizzying rapture lasting a few months focused on someone’s beauty, intelligence and strength. The most convincing discussion of...

Self-Knowledge: Growth & Maturity

Why We Should All Think of Ourselves as Sinners

One of the strangest ideas bequeathed to us by religion is the notion that it might be wise and socially beneficial to think of ourselves as being, every one of us, sinners. This seems, at first glance, both patently untrue – and deeply unhelpful. The vast majority of us have committed no particularly egregious crime...

Self-Knowledge: Growth & Maturity

The Importance of Atonement

‘Atonement’ is a slightly unfamiliar, old-fashioned and alien word. It means, according to the dictionary, the action of making amends for a wrong or injury and, especially in religious contexts, reparation or expiation for sin. The modern world chiefly believes that the rightful way to amend for a wrong is either to pay a fine...

Work: Consumption & Need

Money and 'Higher Things'

In his consulting room at Berggasse 19, in central Vienna, Sigmund Freud came to an important realisation about money. The great majority of his clients were drawn from the Austrian upper middle classes: they were civil servants, engineers, university professors and business owners. Money was not typically a problem for them. Yet when it came...

Calm: Perspective

Why ‘Earthrise’ Matters

It is perhaps the most famous photograph ever taken. It came into being almost by accident, when on the morning of Christmas Eve 1968 one of the astronauts aboard the Apollo 8 spacecraft, Bill Anders, turned the camera from the supposed object of their mission – the moon – towards a spherical, brightly glowing, blue...

Calm: Perspective

The Valuable Idea Behind the Concept of the Day of Judgement

Across time, various religions have come up with an idea that, today, can sound extremely odd: The Day of Judgement. The suggestion has been that, after we die, the merit of our entire lives, with every relevant factor included, will be judged by an all-knowing, all-understanding and ultimately decisive judge: God, perhaps with the help...

Sociability: Confidence

Akrasia - or Why We Don't Do What We Believe

A central problem of our minds is that we know so much in theory about how we should behave but engage so little with our knowledge in our day-to-day conduct. We know – in theory – about not eating too much, about being kind, about getting to bed early, about focusing on our opportunities before...

Leisure: Culture

Easter for Atheists

Perhaps the most boring question one can ever direct at a religion is to ask whether or not it is ‘true’. Of course (this publication believes), none of its supernatural claims can ever be ‘true’ – but that may not be a reason to dismiss the religion in its entirety, just as one wouldn’t disregard...

Uncategorised:

What Is the Point of Museums?

The prestige of museums has never been higher. Every city that wishes to be on the map knows it must build one. No foreign trip feels complete without taking up the guidebook’s recommendation to visit one. We regularly hear that museums are our ‘new cathedrals’, in other words, the most meaningful and prestigious spaces we...

Self-Knowledge: Fulfilment

The Meaning of Life

i: Introduction To wonder too openly, or intensely, about the meaning of life sounds like a peculiar, ill-fated and unintentionally comedic pastime. It isn’t anything an ordinary mortal should be doing – or would get very far by doing. A select few might be equipped to take on the task and discover the answer in...

Leisure: Art/Architecture

Why We Need to Create a Home

One of the most meaningful activities we are ever engaged in is the creation of a home. Over a number of years, typically with a lot of thought and considerable dedication, we assemble furniture, crockery, pictures, rugs, cushions, vases, sideboards, taps, door handles and so on into a distinctive constellation we anoint with the word...

Sociability: Confidence

How to Overcome Shyness

Because shyness can grip us in such powerful ways, it’s tempting to think of it as an immutable part of our emotional make-up, with roots that extend far into our personality and perhaps biology – and that we would be incapable of ever extirpating. But in truth, shyness is based on a set of ideas...

Self-Knowledge: Emotional Skills

Emotional Education: An Introduction

For most of history, the idea that the goal of our lives was to be happy would have sounded extremely odd. In the Christian story which dominated the Western imagination, unhappiness was not a coincidence, it was an inevitability required by the sins of Adam and Eve. For the Buddhists, life simply was in its...

Self-Knowledge: Emotional Skills

Philosophical Meditation

I: Self-Ignorance The Vagueness of the Mind The most striking feature of our minds is how little we understand them. Though we inhabit ourselves, we seldom manage to make sense of more than a fraction of who we are. It can be easier to master the dynamics of another planet than it can be to...

Relationships: Affairs

Loyalty and Adultery

Long-term relationships almost inevitably confront us with one highly uncomfortable dilemma around sex. On the one hand, monogamy feels like a profoundly desirable and often default state, approved of by the community, religions, the media, one’s children and the ethos of Romanticism. It is a route to emotional closeness, a spur to cosiness and a...

Self-Knowledge: Emotional Skills

Self-Love

The Inner Voice Somewhere in our minds, removed from the day to day, there sits a judge. They watch what we do, study how we perform, examine the effect we have on others, track our successes and failures – and then, eventually, they pass a verdict. So consequential is this judgement, it colours our entire...

Self-Knowledge: Emotional Skills

Charm

1. What is the Purpose of Friendship? Though we appreciate charm when we find it, most of us rarely think of consciously setting out to be charming. The very idea of learning to be more charming sounds off-key, for we tend to believe at some level that we are simply born charming (or not) –...

Calm: Perspective

The Wisdom of Rocks: Gongshi

In the West, we expect philosophy to come from books. In the East, more wisely, there’s an awareness that it may legitimately come from rocks as well. In China, in the middle period of the Tang dynasty, at some point in the first half of the 9th century CE, an enthusiasm for rocks developed in...

Relationships: Sex

On Art and Masturbation

No two subjects could seem further apart. The one: the summit of the human spirit and one of the ultimate sources of meaning. The other: a pitiable, distracting compulsion, until very recently condemned by religions and doctors and still hard to mention in any kind of decent or intelligent company. And yet… masturbation deserves to...

Relationships: Breaking Up & Heartbreak

Stay or Leave?

The decision whether one should stay or leave is one of the most consequential and painful any of us ever has to make. On any given day, many millions of people worldwide will be secretly turning the issue over in their minds as they go about their daily lives, their partners beside them possibly having...

Leisure: Culture

Why Philosophy Should Become More Like Pop Music

When pop music started in a big way in the 1960s, it seemed at times like an especially silly medium, favoured by hormonal school girls and connected up with delinquent and tediously bizarre behaviour.  By contrast, philosophy had a reputation for being deeply serious and impressive – the natural home of the big ambition to understand...

Self-Knowledge: Know Yourself

Know Yourself

In Ancient Greece, the philosopher Socrates famously declared that the unexamined life was not worth living. Asked to sum up what all philosophical commandments could be reduced to, he replied: ‘Know yourself.’ Knowing yourself has extraordinary prestige in our culture. It has been framed as quite literally the meaning of life. This sounds, when one...

Work: Consumption & Need

Business and the Ladder of Needs

Business is focused on addressing a multitude of human needs; for everything from Jelly Babies to cardiac surgery to nuclear technology to hand soap dispensers. Because human needs are so wide ranging, and span such a multitude of different appetites and desires, it can be useful to divide these needs into three broad categories –...

Work: Consumption & Need

Good Materialism

It doesn’t seem to make sense to suggest that there might be such a thing as ‘good materialism’: after all, surely materialism is just plain bad? When people want to pinpoint the root cause of corruption in our age, they generally only need to point the finger at our attachment to material things. We’re apparently...

Leisure: Culture

The School of Life: What We Believe

The School of Life is a global organisation with a simple mission in mind: to increase the amount of Emotional Intelligence in circulation. We are seeking more emotionally intelligent kinds of: – Relationships – Work – Leisure – Culture To further our goals, we undertake a number of activities; we run conferences, shops and classrooms worldwide, consult...

Work: Consumption & Need

Why We Continue to Love Expensive Things

Despite the widespread availability of good quality cheap products (watches, handbags, cars…), there remains a remarkable appetite for extremely expensive versions of them – which seems deeply weird at first sight. The so-called luxury sector appears to defy economic logic. These two timepieces do very much the same thing. Both can tell you barometric pressure...

Leisure: Culture

History of Ideas – the Movies

If you had the misfortune to do too much of it at school, you’ll probably remember one thing about history: just how boring it can be. You might harbour painful memories of the 100 Years War, the War of Spanish Succession, Crop Rotation in the Middle Ages or – heaven forbid – the good deeds of...

Work: Capitalism

How to Make a Country Rich

Most of what we call ‘politics’ really revolves around the question of what you need to do to make a country richer. Rather than ask this of any specific country, let’s imagine designing a country from scratch. How could you make it as rich as possible? Suppose the brief was to design ‘Richland’: an ideal...

Work: Sorrows of Work

The Pains of Leadership

We tend to be pretty clear why it might be nice to be in a leadership role. There’s more status, you get to decide how things should be and – very often – you get paid more too. But there are some dark aspects too. Here are five of them… One: You become the object...

Work: Purpose

How to Serve

Understanding how to serve customers well is a major factor in the success of corporations: and service has a big role outside work too. It’s one of the many ways in which there’s an overlap between getting better in business and getting better at life in general. Service means helping others to thrive. It’s a...

Work: Politics & Government

Africa after Independence

We can identify a range factors that explain Africa’s painful post-independence history. It might seem mysterious, but looked at more soberly, the problems were in many ways to be anticipated from the start; they were in large part the legacy of colonialism.

Leisure: Literature

Fyodor Dostoevsky

A good trick, with his name, is to say ‘toy’ in the middle: Dos-toy-ev-ski. He was born 1821 and grew up on the outskirts of Moscow. His family were comfortably off – his father was a successful doctor, though he happened to work at a charitable hospital that provided medical services for the very poor....

Calm: Serenity

The Pursuit of Calm

Nowadays, almost all of us wish we could be calmer. It’s one of the distinctive longings of the modern age. Across history, people have tended to seek out adventure and excitement. But most of us have had a bit too much of that now. The desire to be more tranquil and focused is the new,...

Work: Sorrows of Work

On Stress and Inner Voices

We don’t often think about it – and may never discuss it with others at all – but pretty much everyone has voices in their heads. Not in any sinister or disturbing way: just the murmuring stream of thoughts that runs along inside our minds most of the time. Sometimes, the voice is more explicit,...

Work: Purpose

On the Origins of Motivation at Work

Getting people to work hard and do their best – to be highly motivated – is a central problem not only of individual businesses but of the economy as a whole. Everyone can recognise in themselves what a huge difference being fired-up makes: you confront challenges with energy, you sail through routine tasks, you stay...

Sociability: Communication

On How to Disagree

We live in a world saturated with disagreement. People are at odds about pretty much everything from when to order a taxi, go out to dinner to whether there should be a caliphate; from the kind of orbit the International Space Station should assume; the right way to cook lasagna to whether Hungary is in Eastern...

Leisure: Art/Architecture

Art as Therapy

There is widespread agreement that art is very important. But it can be remarkably hard to say quite why, or what it is for. Here at The Book of Life (and its associated arm, The School of Life) we have a particular ideology about art. We believe that art is a tool which should help us to cope...

: Political Theory

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Modern life is, in many ways, founded around the idea of progress: the notion that as we know more (especially about science and technology), and as economies grow larger, we’re bound to end up happier. Particularly in the eighteenth century, as European societies and their economies became increasingly complex, the conventional view was that mankind...

: Political Theory

Adam Smith

Adam Smith is our guide to perhaps the most pressing dilemma of our time: how to make a capitalist economy more humane and more meaningful. He was born in Scotland in Kirkcaldy – a small manufacturing town – near Edinburgh in 1723. He was a hard working student and very close to his mother. In...

Self-Knowledge: Fear & Insecurity

On a Sense of Sinfulness

Modern society often tells us that we should learn to feel good about ourselves. Low self-esteem is out. We should be celebrating our goodness, talents and potential. Enough of having to feel ashamed of who we are and what we do. Religions couldn’t agree less. All of them carve out moments in the diary when...

Work: Utopia

On the Desire to Change the World

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) The world needs changing in all sorts of urgent ways: the great question is how to do it. The most popular and appealing answer has long been that one should try to write a book, retreat to a mountain-top, lay down one’s thoughts with passion and...

Leisure: Literature

Jane Austen

Jane Austen is loved mainly as a charming guide to fashionable life in the Regency period. She is admired for portraying a world of elegant houses, dances, servants and fashionable young men driving barouches. But her own vision of her task was radically different. She was an ambitious – and stern – moralist. She was...

: Psychotherapy

Sigmund Freud

He described himself as an obsessional neurotic. For although the father of modern psychology told us so much about our inner lives, he was touchingly vulnerable himself. Sigmund Schlomo Freud was born to a middle-class Jewish family in 1856, in what is now the Czech Republic. He had a deep love for his mother, who...

: Western Philosophy

Augustine

Augustine was a Christian philosopher who lived in the early 5th century AD on the fringes of the rapidly declining Roman Empire, in the North African town of Hippo (present day Annaba, in Algeria). He served as Bishop for over thirty years, proving popular and inspirational guidance to his largely uneducated and poor congregation. In...

: Psychotherapy

Anna Freud

‘Defensive’ behaviour is at the root of a lot of the trouble we have with ourselves and others. It leads us to direct blame inaccurately, to hear reasonable criticisms as cruel attacks and to resort to sarcasm and irony as an alternative to sincerity. The finest guide to the origins of defensive behaviour was the...

: Sociology

Auguste Comte

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,...

: Western Philosophy

Thomas Aquinas

It seems at first weird that we might learn from him. Thomas Aquinas was a medieval saint, said in moments of high excitement to levitate and have visions of the Virgin Mary. He was much concerned with explaining how angels speak and move. Thomas Aquinas, comforted by angels And yet he continues to matter because...

: Sociology

Max Weber

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...

Leisure: Literature

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy was a believer in the novel not as a source of entertainment, but as a tool for psychological education and reform. It was, in his eyes, the supreme medium by which we can get to know others, especially those who might from the outside seem unappealling, and thereby expand our humanity and tolerance....

: Sociology

Emile Durkheim

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...

: Political Theory

Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold was the most important educational reformer of the 19th century. He realised that, in the modern world, education would be one of the keys to a good society. But it had to be education of a special kind – and not one that we nowadays necessarily recognise or strive for. Instead of saying...

: Sociology

Margaret Mead

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...

: Western Philosophy

Voltaire

François-Marie Arouet was born in Paris in 1694. His father, a well-established lawyer, sent him to the best school in the capital, and by all accounts he was a brilliant student. The young Arouet decided at an early age to make his name as a writer – to remake his name, to be precise, as...

: Sociology

Theodor Adorno

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...

: Western Philosophy

David Hume

The 18th-century writer David Hume is one of the world’s great philosophical voices because he hit upon a key fact about human nature: that we are more influenced by our feelings than by reason. This is, at one level, possibly a great insult to our self-image, but Hume thought that if we could learn to...

: Western Philosophy

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant is a philosopher who tried to work out how human beings could be good and kind – outside of the exhortations and blandishments of traditional religion. He was born in 1724 in the Baltic city of Königsberg, which at that time was part of Prussia, and now belongs to Russia (renamed Kaliningrad). Kant’s...

Calm: Perspective

The Consolations of a Bath

It is easy to get carried away imagining a happy life. One mentally sketches the perfectly job, the ideal relationship, a wide set of fascinating yet always cheerful friends. It’s lovely to think about such things, but to get very attached to these hopes is unhelpful: life perhaps just won’t live up to them. One...

: Western Philosophy

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson is the father of American Literature. In a series of strikingly original essays written in the mid-nineteenth century, he fundamentally changed the way America saw its cultural and artistic possibilities, enabling its separation from transatlantic literary traditions. ‘We have listened too long,’ he wrote, ‘to the Courtly muses of Europe.’ His ejection...

: Western Philosophy

Nietzsche

The challenge begins with how to pronounce his name. The first bit should sound like ‘Knee’, the second like ‘cher’: Knee – cher. Friedrich Nietzsche was born in 1844 in a quiet village in the eastern part of Germany, where – for generations – his forefathers had been pastors. He did exceptionally well at school...

Leisure: Literature

James Joyce

James Joyce is one of the most revered writers in the English language and a central figure in the history of the novel. He is still hugely important to us because of his devotion to some crucial themes: the idea of the grandeur of ordinary life, his determination to portray what actually goes through our...

Work: Media & Technology

On Health News

While most of its energy is devoted to briefing us about the gruesome ways in which various people have recently blown up or bled to death in a brutal stabbing, in the area known as ‘health news’, the media takes on a very different project. Here it constantly collects information to assist us in the...

Work: Purpose

On Becoming an Entrepreneur

The modern world is in love with entrepreneurship. Starting your own business holds the same sort of prestigious position as, in previous ages, making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem or spearing multiple enemies in battle. © Brian Solis/Flickr However, what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur remains maddeningly elusive. Governments and public bodies do their...

Sociability: Social Virtues

On Forgiveness

Most weeks, someone mistreats us in a greater or lesser way: they overlook a commitment they’ve made, they let us down logistically, they betray our hopes or deceive our trust. And on a macro scale, similarly sombre dynamics play themselves out on the public stage: politicians act dishonourably, business leaders plunder and fool us, the...

Leisure: Travel

Pumping Station, Isla Mayor, Seville - for Snobbery

There are many guide books suggesting what you might do when you get to Seville. But they all pretty much agree that you must go both to the Plaza de España, built for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929, and then to the Alcázar – a beautiful Moorish fort which subsequently became a royal palace. There’s...

Leisure: Food

Food as Therapy

At the moment, food is highly prestigious. A vast amount of attention is paid to celebrity chefs, dietary advice, new restaurants and cooking shows. We have, it seems, become collectively obsessed with what we eat. But the question of what we need from food, other than just physical sustenance, is rarely taken up. The issue...

Work: Utopia

Utopian Culture

We generally hold culture – by which we understand art, museums, cinema, literature and the study of history – in extremely high regard. But, equally, we tend not to look very closely at why culture has such prestige. In fact, we are encouraged to think it is unsophisticated, even vulgar, to ask what culture is...

Work: Utopia

Utopian Film

Cinema is the most prestigious cultural activity in the modern world. It is for us what theatre was in the age of Shakespeare or painting was in the days of Leonardo da Vinci: the art form with the biggest impact, the largest budgets, the most widespread audiences. © Flickr/Hamed Masoumi Collectively, we recognise that film...

Work: Capitalism

On the Dawn of Capitalism

Generous, thoughtful, sensitive people are often drawn to the view that we shouldn’t expect economies to ‘grow’. After all, the earth and its resources are limited, so why keep asking for GDP to expand? We don’t need more commercial activity or more businesses. We are destroying the planet fast enough as it is. According to...

Leisure: Art/Architecture

Secular Chapels

Even very secular people tend to admit that when it comes to architecture, religions have done some very beautiful things. You can be left utterly cold by all the superstitious aspect of religions, and yet still be in awe at the profundity, intricacy and sheer prettiness of many mosques, temples, cathedrals and churches. However, any nostalgia for...

Work: Utopia

Utopian Media

Calling an idea ‘utopian’ is normally a way of saying it’s pie-in-the-sky and not worth paying attention to. Far from it. Throughout the ages, a number of philosophers have put forward some highly provocative and interesting utopias, describing ideal arrangements of everything from schools to religion, government to holidays. Utopian ideas aren’t meant to be...

Work: Utopia

Utopian Capitalism

The system we know as Capitalism is both wondrously productive and hugely problematic. On the downside, capitalism promotes excessive inequality; it valorises immediate returns over long-term benefits; it addicts us to unnecessary products and it encourages excessive consumption of the world’s resources with potentially disastrous consequences – and that’s just a start. We are now...

Work: Purpose

On Being an Unemployed Arts Graduate

Arts graduates across the developed world complain bitterly about the difficulties they are facing finding employment. They spend long and costly years studying such subjects as history, art, philosophy, poetry and drama – then they reach the jobs market, and discover that no one has any use for their distinctive skills and interests. If they’re...

Leisure: Art/Architecture

What Art Museums Should Be For

Things seem to be going really well with the institution of the art museum. All the big cities have one, new ones are popping up constantly and the lines to get into blockbuster shows can snake around the block. But despite the buzz, museums are arguably not doing as much for us as they might;...

Leisure: Small Pleasures

On Sunday Mornings

On weekdays you’d be out of the house by now; but today you’re still in bed. You’ve got time to notice how the light is filtering through a gap in the curtains. It’s quieter than usual outside; the background sound of traffic is muted. Down the road you hear a car door slam. There’s not...

: Eastern Philosophy

Gongshi

In the West, we expect philosophy to come from books. In the East, more wisely, there’s an awareness that it may legitimately come from rocks as well. In China, in the middle period of the Tang dynasty, at some point in the first half of the 9th century CE, an enthusiasm for rocks developed in...

Self-Knowledge: Emotional Skills

On Exercising the Mind

In general, we are very much alive to the benefits of exercise. And not only around physical fitness. In learning to speak another language, drive a car or play an instrument, we recognise the value of going over things again and again, of rehearsing, memorising and testing according to established principles. We willingly follow the...

: Western Philosophy

E. M. Cioran

Towards the end of the twentieth century, a celebrated Romanian-French philosopher and aphorist was invited to speak in Zurich. He was introduced with rhetorical pomp and flattering comparisons to the likes of Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer. The speaker smiled, and immediately confounded his German interpreter by beginning his presentation with the words: ‘Mais je ne suis...

Self-Knowledge: Emotional Skills

The Sorrows of Work

I. Introduction There is no more common emotion to feel around work than that we have failed. We have failed because we have made less money than we’d hoped, because we have been sidelined in our organisation, because many of our acquaintances have triumphed, because our schemes have remained on the drawing-board, because we have...

Self-Knowledge: Emotional Skills

Cultural Consolation

1. Introduction Our societies frequently proclaim their enormous esteem for culture and the arts. Music, film, literature, painting, photography and sculpture enjoy superlative prestige and are viewed by many as close to the meaning of life. But our societies also have a strict sense of what properly appreciating the arts should involve. Sensible homage is...