Modern life is in many ways founded around the idea of progress: the notion that as we know more, and as economies grow larger, we’re bound to end up happier.
We generally think that philosophers should be proud of their big brains, and be fans of thinking, self-reflection and rational analysis. But there’s one philosopher, born in France in 1533, with a refreshingly different take.
We know very little for certain about the life of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (a westernised version of his name, which means 'Master Kong'). He is said to have been born in 551 B.C. in China.
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.
Democracy was achieved by such a long, arduous and heroic struggle that it can feel embarrassing - even shameful - to feel a little disappointed by it.
Little is truly known about the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (sometimes also known as Laozi or Lao Tze), who is a guiding figure in Daoism (also translated as Taoism), a still popular spiritual practice.
We tend to get nervous around the idea of political art. Some terrible things have been done in its name: it’s encouraged fanaticism, demonised vulnerable groups and pumped out delusional propaganda.
Among our deepest and seemingly most natural aspirations is the longing to form stable, satisfying relationships: to thrive in partnerships that are good for both people. It doesn’t seem much to ask.
Stoicism was a philosophy that flourished for 480 years in Ancient Greece and Rome and was popular with everyone from slaves to the aristocracy because, unlike so much philosophy, it was helpful.
In the West, we have a vague sense that poetry is good for our ‘souls’. Yet we don’t always know how this should work. Poetry has a hard time finding its way into our lives in any practical sense.
There are many types of beauty and many ways of being sexy. But at certain periods of history some major possibilities get neglected.
One of the most depressing aspects of travel is finding that the world often looks the same in many different places. The towers of downtown Tokyo are indistinguishable from those of Frankfurt or Seattle.
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 and the superiority of modern viewpoints.
There is something compelling and exciting about cities that makes many of us love them. They are full of bright attractions, intriguing strangers and endless, unimaginable possibilities.
Traditionally, philosophy has been nervous around the idea of communication. Academic philosophers have frequently erected barriers to wider participation.
The cultural elite gets nervous about cheerful or sweet art. They worry that pretty, happy works of art are in denial about how bad the state of the world is and how much suffering there is in almost every life.
We expect - of course - for it to be the other way around: we teaching them. But they have a host of important lessons for us too, if we dare to pay close enough attention.
There’s nothing very natural about caring for nature. The first impulse of humans has almost always been to burn the trees, exhaust the fish stocks, pollute the ground-springs and darken the skies.
Groups of young men armed with planks of wood roam the alleyways extorting money. Houses are made of bits of tin, old doors, the occasional lump of concrete, oil drums and tarpaulin sheets.
It would be unusual today to find a travel agent recommending a sojourn in Detroit as the ideal vacation. The city is, after all, in decline.
August is perfect for sitting outside at the Café de Zaak in the Korte Minrebroederstraat. The decent beers on tap, plus a generous bring-your-own-meal policy make this one of the nicest cafes in town.
You are - quite literally - in the middle of nowhere - and, unexpectedly, it’s helping. A lot. How frantic we otherwise normally are. We live competitive crazed lives.
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.
Melanie Klein (1882-1960) was a highly creative and original Viennese Jewish psychoanalyst who discovered the work of Freud at the age of 26 and devoted her life to enriching it in valuable ways.
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.
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.
The system we know as Capitalism is both wondrously productive and hugely problematic. On the downside, capitalism valorises immediate returns over long-term benefits.
For hundreds of years now, humans have tended to believe that the best sort of government is one which leaves its citizens maximally 'free'.
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.
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.
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'.
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 challenge begins with how to pronounce his name. The first bit should sound like ‘Knee’, the second like ‘cher’: Knee - cher.
‘Stoicism’ was a philosophy that flourished for some 400 years in Ancient Greece and Rome, gaining widespread support among all classes of society.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In their more serious moods, news organisations tell us they want to explain the world to us. And that often means talking about money.
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.
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.