We’re all pretty sophisticated when it comes to ordering a cup of coffee – do you want a latte, a cappuccino, a mocha or maybe a double espresso? But we are incredibly crude in the way we talk about love, using a single word to describe so many kinds of relationship. Those clever Ancient Greeks, though, recognised six different varieties of love.
I’ve just written an article about the six Greek loves, which you will find at Yes Magazine. Have a read and see if makes you rethink our culture’s obsession with the idea of romantic love.
Tolstoy was more than just a great novelist with one of the best beards of the nineteenth century. He was also a radical social and political thinker who was constantly grappling with the problem of how to live. I’ve just written an article about his approach to the art of living called Six Life Lessons from Leo Tolstoy, which you can find over at Powells Books Blog.
It’s launch day for my new book How Should We Live? Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life, which has just been released in the US. Previously published in the UK under the title The Wonderbox (sorry, a bit confusing, I know), it’s about what history can teach us about the art of living. What might we learn from the Ancient Greeks about the different varieties of love, from the Renaissance about creativity and death, or from the industrial revolution about rethinking our attitudes to work, money and family life?
But rather than tell you all about the book myself, there’s a fascinating review and discussion of it by the brilliant Maria Popova from Brain Pickings, which came out today. She describes it (most flatteringly) as ‘an illuminating and awakening read in its entirety’. Check out her full article, which focuses on the topics of love, time and empathy.
‘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 →
It’s about what the last three thousand years of human history can tell us about better living, and explores twelve universal topics, from work and love to money, creativity and empathy. What might we learn from the Ancient Greeks about the different varieties of love, from the industrial revolution about changing career, or from ancient Japanese pilgrims on the art of travel?
‘The Wonderbox is a cornucopia of delights. Completely fascinating, beautifully written and brimming with insights that challenge our entrenched and predictable ways of seeing and doing, it draws on an amazing range of stories from the history of human culture to explain how we can find true meaning in life. Every thinking home should have one!’ – Michael Wood, historian, broadcaster and author of The Story of England
Find out more about the book here. You can buy it from Amazon here.
The book is being launched with a series of five talks at The School of Life, Life Lessons from The Wonderbox, starting January 11 with ‘The Six Varieties of Love’.
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 →
There is an intriguing thesis at the heart of Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. The Harvard psychologist argues – contrary to popular opinion – that humankind has become progressively less violent over the past few thousand years. We might feel surrounded by terrorism, civil wars and gun crime today, but murder and warfare is in fact on the decline. And the reason? One of Pinker’s key explanations is the rise of empathy as a force for social change: we are now more likely to look at the world through other people’s eyes, and consequently take action on their behalves. Continue reading →
I live around the corner from one of the world’s most remarkable streets, Cowley Road in Oxford. It’s a hive of different cultures – Bangladeshi, Moroccan, Chinese, Ukranian – and has a vibrancy that cannot be found in the cobbled medieval lanes of the city centre. It has even been the subject of a fabulous book, Isolarion: A Different Oxford Journey, by James Attlee, in which the author wanders up Cowley Road philosophising about the sex shops and curry houses. But if there is one thing that makes Colwey Road truly remarkable, it is Alan Human. Continue reading →
Who was the greatest traveller of the Victorian era? Amongst the usual top contenders you will find the name of Sir Richard Francis Burton. Best known for translating The Thousand and One Nights from Arabic and for visiting Mecca in 1853 disguised as a Muslim pilgrim, Burton wandered for years throughout the Middle East, Far East and Africa. He had an extraordinary talent for languages – he could speak twenty-nine of them – and was a master of assimilating himself into local cultures. Just after his death in 1890 he was described as ‘a Mohammedan among Mohammedans, a Mormon among Mormons, a Sufi among the Shazlis, and a Catholic among the Catholics.’ Continue reading →
Anybody who reads novels is a secret empathist. Most writers of fiction try to take you on a journey into the minds and lives of their characters, introducing you to worldviews that are not your own, filling your head with the voices of strangers. An instance from the history of empathetic literature is Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931), a story told from the perspective of five individuals, with all the dialogue and action being submerged in their thoughts. When we read books like The Waves, we are inevitably drawn to make the imaginative leap that is empathy.
I think novelists, who spend so much time attempting to understand the mental worlds of their protagonists, have a peculiar ability to appreciate the meaning and significance of empathy. One of the best examples of this is an article that Ian McEwan wrote in The Guardian, published just a few days after the September 11 attacks. It is, in effect, a meditation on empathy. ‘Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity,’ he writes. ‘It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.‘ Here is the article in full. Continue reading →