Can reading a novel change the world?

‘It was through books that I first realised there were other worlds beyond my own; first imagined what it might be like to be another person,’ wrote novelist Julian Barnes in a recent Guardian essay. It’s an enticing thought that reading fiction might help us escape the straitjacket of our egos and expand our moral universes. Modern literary theorists are, however, decidedly sniffy about the notion. ‘They see the idea as too middlebrow, too therapeutic, too kitsch, too sentimental, too Oprah,’ according to Steven Pinker in his latest tome, The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Yet Pinker, together with philosopher Martha Nussbaum, psychologist Keith Oatley and historian Lynn Hunt, is amongst a new band of champions for the idea that reading can indeed change not just ourselves, but the world. If we want to put this idea to the test, a good starting point is one of the most popular novels of the nineteenth century, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. What interests me, though, is not simply the extraordinary social impact of this admittedly sentimental story, but what its writing reveals about the origins of morality itself. Continue reading

High Achiever or Wide Achiever?

We should all be worried about the £20 note, which features the eighteenth-century economist Adam Smith staring fixedly at workers toiling in a pin factory. Smith argued that this factory would produce far more pins if workers specialised in just one or two tasks – such as straightening the wire or sticking on the head – rather than doing all the stages of pin-making themselves. The result was his most famous invention: the division of labour. Continue reading

Why creativity is not about originality

Michelangelo was bad news for creativity

In this interview with bestselling novelist Fiona Robyn featured on her blog Writing Our Way Home, I discuss my approach to the process of creative writing and thinking, and suggest why creativity is not about originality, and how musician Brian Eno can help us think more adventurously. 

Fiona Robyn: What drives your creative work?

Roman Krznaric: A disastrous cultural inheritance from the Renaissance is the idea that creativity is about originality. We have in our minds the image of geniuses like Michelangelo, who was worshipped for his stunning originality, which seemed to be a divine gift from above. But I think that is off-putting for most of us, and makes us feel that if we aren’t being brilliant and original then we are lacking a creative streak. Continue reading

The radical origins of compassion

So you think compassion means being nice to people? Sure, its Latin root literally means ‘to suffer with another’, which is pretty close to the psychological concept of ‘affective empathy’, where you share in or mirror someone else’s emotional state. When I feel your pain or suffering, I may well do something to help you out.

But there’s much more to compassion than that. It’s time we recognised it as a source of radical social change which can erode prejudice, create human bonds across social divides, and spur political action. A flowering of compassion was at the roots of the anti-slavery movement in the eighteenth century, the creation of organisations to tackle child poverty in the nineteenth, and countless other political initiatives. ‘So often when people hear about suffering in our world they feel guilty,’ says Desmond Tutu, ‘but rarely does guilt actually motivate action like empathy or compassion.’ Continue reading

Empathy with the enemy

In the spring of 472 BC the people of Athens queued up to see the latest play written by Aeschylus, the founder of Greek tragedy. The Persians was an unusual production, and not only because it was based on an historical event rather than the usual legends of the gods. What must have really shocked the audience was that it was told through the eyes of their sworn enemy, the Persians, who only eight years earlier had fought the Athenians at the Battle of Salamis. Continue reading

Why every city needs an Empathy Museum

Just as the world’s major cities now have Holocaust Museums, it is time they all established Empathy Museums too. Their purpose would be nothing less than generating a new global culture of empathy by creating adventure spaces where you can explore how to view life from the perspective of other people.

A typical Empathy Museum would not house dusty exhibits inside glass cases. Instead, it would be an exciting and intriguing playground rivalling the finest galleries and tourist attractions that the city has to offer. On rainy Sunday afternoons you might wander through the Empathy Museum with a few friends or your mother-in-law. During the week it is likely to be filled with children on school excursions and inquisitive visitors from countries where the ideal of empathy remains embryonic. The Empathy Museum will ignite the imagination just like the first public museums in the seventeenth century, whose collections of curiosities revealed the wonders of nature and human civilization for the first time. Continue reading

Do we suffer from compassion fatigue?

The British photojournalist Don McCullin has just turned seventy-five. During a career that has now spanned half a century, perhaps his most unforgettable photograph is of an emaciated albino boy in the Biafran War in Nigeria, taken in 1969. He is leaning over on skeletal legs with an abnormally large head, clutching an empty tin of corned beef. I have never seen an image like it and, at the time, neither had most of the Western world. Here is the photo:

Don McCullin's 1969 photo of a starving war orphan in Biafra.

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Plato's Symposium at the Latitude Festival

The School of Life's recreation of Plato's Symposium at the Latitude festival

I don’t wear a mauve toga very often. But it was my fashion item of choice at this year’s Latitude Festival, the annual extravaganza of music, theatre, comedy and literature held deep in the Suffolk countryside. On behalf of The School of Life, I hosted one of the more unusual events on the programme – a recreation of Plato’s Symposium, the first great conversation in the history of the art of living. Continue reading

Review: The Sacred Made Real at the National Gallery

For over half a millennia Christian art has attempted to use empathy to help people understand the reality and significance of Christ’s suffering on the cross. We are offered paintings and sculptures showing nails piercing flesh, gaping wounds and seeping blood that aim to have us not only see what Christ endured, but also to physically feel his bodily pain. As the art historian Jill Bennett points out in her book Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma and Contemporary Art:

‘The images developed from the late medieval period with the express function of inspiring devotion were not simply the “Bible of the unlettered” in the sense of translating words into images. Rather, they conveyed the essence of Christ’s sacrifice, the meaning of suffering, by promoting and facilitating an empathetic imitation of Christ.’
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