Utopia series: the government of the future

Hayes Primary School, Croydon, United Kingdom. Architect: Hayhurst and Co., 2012.

For hundreds of years now, humans have tended to believe that the best sort of government is one which leaves its citizens maximally ‘free’. We’ve come to associate good government directly and uncomplicatedly with the promotion of ‘freedom’: freedom to worship as one pleases, to publish what one wants, to dress as one likes, to love whomever one desires.

Utopia series: the news of the future

Utopia series: cathedrals of the future

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The news is the most powerful and prestigious force in contemporary society, replacing religion as the touchstone of authority and meaning. What are we searching for?

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In the developed more secular parts of the world, it is common, even among unbelievers, to lament the passing of the great days of religious architecture.

Utopia series: the schools of the future

Queen Paola of Belgium (R) and Princess

It is almost universally agreed that education is hugely important. But our large commitment to there being good schools ironically has not been matched by concern about what they are for.

Utopia series: the national festivals of the future

Utopia series: the wedding of the future  

Brazil Begins Carnival Celebration

We’re used to the idea that a year should be punctuated by a sequence of special public days: Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, some kind of national day, May Day, the August Bank holiday etc.

Carolyn and Fabio wed in the remote village of Airor on the Knoydart Peninsula in the Scottish Highlands, Britain  - 11 Nov 2009

Modern societies are deeply invested in the idea of big, glamorous weddings. We have evolved highly-detailed collective ideas about what a proper wedding is supposed to be like.

Utopia series: the cinema of the future

How to become an entrepreneur

3D Film Audience

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.

A Celebration Of Music Hosted By Sean Parker

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 or spearing multiple enemies in battle.

Why we need new and better moments of collective pride now the World Cup is over

Switzerland v Ecuador: Group E - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

For the average citizen of a developed nation, the World Cup generated a deeply unusual emotion. For a few weeks, we were allowed to feel happy about something other than ‘me’.

The Great Philosophers 8: Theodor Adorno

The Great Philosophers 7: Jean-Paul Sartre

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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.

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Jean-Paul Sartre was born in 1905. His father, a navy captain, died when he was a baby - and he grew up extremely close to his mother until she remarried, much to his regret, when he was twelve.

The Great Philosophers 6: Hegel

The Great Philosophers 5: Adam Smith

Portrait of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Hegel was born in Stuttgart in 1770. He had a very middle-class life. He was obsessed by his career path. He fretted all his life about his income. He never quite got his hair under control.

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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.

The Great Philosophers 4: Nietzsche

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The challenge begins with how to pronounce his name. The first bit should sound like ‘Knee’, the second like ‘cher’: Knee – cher.

The Great Philosophers 3: Epicurus

The Great Philosophers 2: The Stoics

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The Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus was born in 341 BC, on the island of Samos, a few miles off the coast of modern Turkey. He had an unusually long beard and wrote over three hundred books.

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‘Stoicism’ was a philosophy that flourished for some 400 years in Ancient Greece and Rome, gaining widespread support among all classes of society.

The Great Philosophers 1: Plato

Why you should never admit to reading self-help books

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Athens, 2400 years ago. It’s a compact place: around 250,000 people live here. There are fine baths, theatres, temples, shopping arcades and gymnasiums. Art is flourishing, and science too.

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There is no more ridiculed genre than the self-help book. Admit that you regularly turn to such titles to help you cope with existence and you are liable to attract scorn and suspicion.

How we end up marrying the wrong people

Prince Charles, Prince of Wales with his fiance Lady Diana S

Anyone we could marry would, of course, be a little wrong for us. It is wise to be appropriately pessimistic here. Nevertheless, one encounters some couples of such primal, grinding mismatch.

Your desire to be famous – and the problems it will bring you

Why you are so annoyed by what you once admired

Premiere Of Summit Entertainment's "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" - Arrivals

We don’t always feel comfortable admitting it to our friends. But, secretly, the idea of being famous has great appeal. Fame is deeply attractive because it seems to offer very significant benefits.

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One of the things that makes us fall in love with people is realising they can do something we can't. We get attracted to people who seem capable and at ease with parts of life in which we struggle.

Why might one still bother with marriage?

What do the things that turn us on mean? A brief theory of sexual excitement

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It’s tempting to think of marriage as old fashioned. Why not just live with someone and be done with it? What need for a public ceremony? Why the weird traditions that people normally keep away from?

"Smashed" Portraits - 2012 Sundance Film Festival

The things that get us sexually excited can often sound rather improbable. On the face of it, Wellington boots, a heavy knit fisherman’s jumper or a car park seem unconnected to erotic satisfaction.

If it wasn’t for you…

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There are many nice things we want, but are somehow a little scared of getting, because they are bound up with risks and subtle inner complications we don’t quite have a handle on.

Have you become a bit lecherous?

Why the fear of rejection never goes away – even when you are in a committed relationship

Men play volleyball on the beach below Sugar Loaf

You are queuing to go through to Departures; one of the guards at security has lovely, almost turquoise eyes. You are intrigued by the way they're frisking the occasional passenger.

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There are sweet moments - early on in relationships - when one person can’t quite work up the courage to let another know just how much they like them.

Rolf Harris: the latest chapter in the history of kindness

Why you need to go and see a therapist

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The once very famous and immensely successful artist Rolf Harris has been convicted of a string of predatory sex-crimes that seem utterly horrible and debased.

Military Families Retreat Designed To Relieve Post-Combat Stress

In almost all countries and communities around the world, there is one central (usually unvoiced) suspicion that arises whenever someone lets slip that they are ‘having therapy’: they are crazy.

How love stories ruin our love lives

Blue is the Warmest Colour - 22 Aug 2013

It sounds strange to ask what a novel might be for. We tend not to wonder too much what role made-up stories should have in our lives. Generally we suppose we just read them for entertainment.

Wisdom – a short guide

Why you’re (probably) not a great communicator

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It’s one of the grandest and oddest words out there, so lofty, it doesn’t sound like something one could ever consciously strive to be - unlike say, being cultured, or kind.

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One of the ideals of modern relationships is that both parties will be ‘good communicators’. ‘Communication’ is held to lie at the heart of a thriving partnership.

Where to go on holiday – and why?

The hardest job in the world

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Going travelling is one of the most exciting pastimes. It’s up there with love in terms of the happiness it can bring – though, unlike love, it's generally assumed to entail no big philosophical issues.

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Under such a title, one expects something properly heroic: inter-planetary travel. Perhaps the flotation of a public company. A breakthrough in renal cancer research.

Why you need to learn a little charity

Retailers Hope For A Good Christmas Despite The Current Economic Gloom

It is one of the seven virtues in Christianity. It used to have a central place in Roman ethics and Judaism as well. Today, we remain deeply impressed by the idea of charity, but often from a distance.

What is History for?

What is Philosophy – and what’s it for?

Parachute troops of the US 501st Battalion at Fort Benning, Georgia. - 1-May-1941

If you had the misfortune to do too much, or the wrong kind of it at school, you’ll probably remember one thing about history: how dull it can sometimes be.

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People are understandably confused about what philosophy is. From a distance, it seems weird, irrelevant, boring and yet also - just a little - intriguing. But it’s hard to put a finger on what the interest really is.

Why you resent your partner

Why – when it comes to children – love may not be enough

Couple doing domestic chores

One of the couple has been out all day: they’ve been to three meetings, grappled with a failing supplier, cleared up a misconception about tax rebates and sought to bring the new CEO on side.

Book At Bedtime

Anyone of childbearing age will be surrounded by examples of catastrophic parenting in their own and previous generations. We hear no end of gruesome stories about breakdowns and resentments.

When is one ready to get married?

Healthy Marriage Initiative Classes Held In Pennsylvania

It used to be when you’d hit certain financial and social milestones: when you had a home to your name, a set of qualifications on the mantelpiece and a few cows and a parcel of land in your possession.

Why you are anxious all the time

Are you Romantic or Classical?

Travel Destination: Maldive Islands

Today, like most days, you are anxious. It is there in the background, always present, sometimes more to the fore, sometimes less so, but never truly banished - at least not for longer than an evening.

Pillow fight

We are - each one of us - probably more one than the other. The categories explain a lot about us; how we approach nature, what makes us laugh, our attitudes to love, what our politics are…

How projection makes you hard to live with

Why conversations are often so boring

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You’re flicking through a fashion magazine and playfully suggest that your partner might want to make a few experiments with their wardrobe. How about a different pair of jeans or a new T-shirt?

London Coffee Bar

Having a decent conversation is something most of us imagine we can do without problem - and certainly without much thought. These things just happen naturally. Don't they?

If you loved me, you wouldn’t want to change me

Restoration Work Completed On Michelangelo's David

There are – when you start adding incidents up – rather a lot of things about you that your partner seems keen to change. They notice how you put off ringing your mother.

Why you get so angry – even though you are nice

Why you’re probably not enjoying your job very much

Protestors Rally In Support Of Katrina Evacuees At White House

It is, of course, a form of madness. You pick up the largest jam jar and fling it to the floor. You go up to the attendant at the counter and deliver a stream of obscenities.

Wall Street Economic Crisis

Almost certainly, you’ve been having a bad time at work. In a perfect world, work should do so much for us: lend us purpose and a sense of achievement, offer us meaning and comradeship.

A guide to the pleasures of work

Clouds, trees, streams

Wall Street Economic Crisis

You might think this bit would be easy, but one of the hardest things about our working lives is knowing what we ideally want to do with them. It’s simple enough to sense what is boring and soul-destroying.

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No one, probably, has ever much doubted that these things are nice. Clouds, trees and streams represent nature in its most gentle, tranquil guise. Their appeal is instinctive. But we take them for granted.

On forgiveness

Children play on a swing set on a summer day

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.

On the madness and charm of crushes

Why we go off sex

Claudia Cardinale in the street

You are introduced to someone at a conference. They look nice and you have a brief chat about the theme of the keynote speaker. But already you have reached an overwhelming conclusion.

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Everyone knows that at the beginning it happens all the time…and then, as relationships get longer, it doesn’t really any more. We say it’s because we’re too busy, or tired, or just not in the mood.

The philosophers’ guide to gratitude

Exercise for the mind

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Feeling grateful about the good aspects of our lives is something we all know we should do a bit more often. And yet there’s often something uncomfortable about being reminded to do so.

Spain Madrid Open Tennis

In general, we are very much alive to the benefits of exercise. In learning to speak another language, drive a car or play an instrument, we recognise the value of rehearsing and memorising.

Photographer unlocks roots of human sympathy

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Media organisations want us to care about the bad stuff that is happening out there – and the best way they feel they can do this is to tell us about the gore, the bombs, the landslides, the murders and the calamities.

The importance of staring out the window

What to talk about on date night

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We tend to reproach ourselves for staring out the window. You are supposed to be working, or studying, or ticking off things on your to-do list. It can seem almost the definition of wasted time.

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You try to set aside a special evening every now and then. That would have been absurd in the old days, you were alone so much of the time, but now there’s a need to schedule it in the diary way ahead of time.

What to do about the envy we’re all quietly dying from inside

Envy: a philosophical exercise

The Hamptons in the Summer

Despite good intentions modern societies are profoundly unequal. Yet contemporary culture encourages the feeling that in crucial ways, everyone is, in fact, on the same footing.

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Typically, envious feelings swirl around unexamined. We carry them about guiltily but blindly. This gives rise to outbursts of bad temper directed at innocent bystanders (especially one’s partner).

Why you should clean up, not empty, your mind

Yoga at Nepal's Boudnath Stupa

Even though our minds ostensibly belong to us, we don’t always control or know what is in them. There are always some ideas, in the middle of consciousness, that are immediately clear to us.

Philosophical Meditation, a guide

I hate you Mum

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Our minds are filled with out-of-focus feelings and ideas: we dimly experience a host of regrets, hurts, anxieties and excitements. For the most part we never stop to analyse or make sense of them.

Thank kew mum, Kew Gardens, England, Mar 2014

In the US this weekend, and in other parts of the world at about this time, people celebrate Mother's Day – a ritual specially designed to allow children to take a moment to express their gratitude for their mothers.

Welcome to the dawn of Capitalism

What the rich really want. And why we should give it to them

The Effects of the Bruce Mansfield Power Plant

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?

Rupert Murdoch Portraits

It’s late and, across the nation, people are sinking back into the soft corners of sofas, clutching glasses of wine and TV remote controls and numbing their minds with soothing images and sounds.

News for the not-yet-dead

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For all of them, it started much as it will for you: a strangely persistent itch at the back of the head, a discomfort on the left side, a lump fingered in the shower.

The dirty secret of capitalism

Why you should stop taking pictures on your phone – and learn to draw

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On a good day, Capitalism can seem pretty impressive. Take the sheer organisational might of corporations, with their incredible ability to focus the efforts of thousands of people on precise goals.

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Whenever something looks interesting or beautiful, there's a natural impulse to want to capture and preserve it – which means, in this day and age, that we're likely to reach for our phones to take a picture.

Leonardo’s Last Supper on sale in China for $45

Six works of art that could help you to live

China's Art Copy Center

Fake, copy, pastiche, forgery, reproduction. Many of the most bitter insults of the art world are designed to denigrate anything which is not the actual product of the master’s hand.

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It comes naturally to most of us to think of music as therapeutic. Almost all of us are, without training, DJs of our own souls, deft at selecting pieces of music that will enhance or alter our moods for the better.

Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum turned into therapeutic centre

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In a surprise move, the Netherlands’ top cultural institution, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, has been turned into a giant therapeutic centre designed to help people with emotional issues.

Why secrets are good for love

More advice for those who want to change the world

Postcards. Circa 1920. A picture of a romantic couple kissing behind an open book whilst sitting together on a bench.

For years, you felt burdened with thoughts, feelings and opinions that didn’t seem to make much sense to anyone else. You sometimes wondered if you were going mad.

Boston Prepares For First Running Of Marathon After 2013 Terror Bombings

A deep-seated desire in many thoughtful people is to try to change, and improve, how their fellow humans behave: to try to make them a bit kinder, or more moral, or interested in nature.

Advice for those who want to change the world

Russell Brand returns to the Philosophers’ Mail

Richard Dawkins in London

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.

Russell Brand press conference, United Nations, Vienna, Austria - 19 Mar 2014

Further discussion, this time about Nietzsche and Prince Harry's sex drive.

Easter for atheists

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The most boring question one can ever direct at a religion is to ask whether or not it is ‘true’. Of course, none of its supernatural claims can ever be ‘true’ – but that may not be a reason to dismiss it.

Feeling happy about a sunny day is stupid, absurd and simplistic

How economic news keeps us dumb and stops us changing the world

Hot weather in London, Britain - 19 Jun 2013

Many people will note a particular brightness to the light today, and a balminess to the air, which may trigger a surge of hope and a willingness to look at familiar problems with renewed determination.

Evening Standard newspaper headline on the credit crunch,  London, Britain - 09 Oct 2008

In their more serious moods, news organisations tell us they want to explain the world to us. And that often means talking about money.

I love you so much, you’re to blame for absolutely everything

A lover’s guide to sulking

Celebrity Sightings In Park City - January 18, 2014

You and your partner are waiting, and waiting, at the airport carousel for your luggage. Other people are wheeling their bags away. Soon, you are the only ones left standing by the now empty conveyor belt.

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They have a habit of ruining embarrassingly long stretches of our lives. They will - by nature - seem absurd to others for they are triggered by what are, ostensibly, the very ‘small things’.

The most valuable piece of art in your world

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For almost all of human history, it has been unthinkable that someone could lay claim to maturity, sanity and reliability by pinning a picture by a six-year-old to the walls of their office, or throne room.

The upsides of insomnia, part 2

Insomnia matters, part 1

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Insomnia leaves us horribly exhausted, but there are a few benefits to sleepless nights, which we might focus on to alleviate the sheer panic that a failure to sleep can cause.

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It’s far into the night, but sleep won’t come. You turn over. Perhaps a different position will quieten the mind. Or maybe the other side was better after all. Panic sets in. Not sleeping is a disaster.

Fascist dictator of Belarus has great idea

Practising at being good

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Alexander Lukashenko is an old-fashioned dictator of Belarus. He is often described as the last dictator in Europe. This doesn't mean that he doesn't care a lot about making his country a better place.

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Why does being ‘a good person’ have such a bad name? In the modern world, the idea of trying to be good or kind conjures up all sorts of negative associations.

New York Times and Guardian join forces to create new celebrities

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Serious people are used to thinking badly of ‘celebrity culture’ and serious news outlets are even more badly disposed towards stars like Justin and Miley, Tamara and Paris.

The School of Life

Ten Virtues For The Modern Age