The Philosophers’ Mail is Dead
A year ago we asked ourselves a question: could philosophers write the news?
Good media is crucial to a good society. Yet, in modern society, the media often plays a hugely detrimental role by stoking anger and fear. It generates false and unhelpful pictures of the lives of others and of the world we inhabit. It distorts our sense of what is normal.
Instead of just dreaming and grumbling, we devised an experiment. During 2014, we would produce the Philosophers’ Mail. We would take typical news stories – about celebrities, disasters and scandals, which dominate major outlets like the Daily Mail – and view them through a philosophical lens.
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Instead of complaining about celebrity culture we took inspiration from Aristotle. Celebrities have real virtues (mixed up, sometimes, with plenty of dross). So discussing celebrities doesn’t have to be idle chatter. It can be a seductive point of entry into a discussion of the wise and good life.
When we wrote about David Beckham, we didn’t focus on the latest thing he’d been up to. Instead, we wanted to know what he could teach us. We were struck by his modesty, relative to his fame. And so we sought to draw attention to that. The heiress Tamara Ecclestone comes in for criticism for her lavish lifestyle. We took the opportunity to ask the bigger question: what would she ideally spend her money on?
A key principle was that news should target our needs. When a train in France was fatally derailed by a falling rock, we took the view that this was important news; not because we need to know about the state of transport in mountain regions but because it provides a sombre memento mori: a lesson for everyone about the fragility of existence and therefore, of our duty to forgive others, to get on with what really matters and to appreciate what is good in our lives.
Taylor Swift’s legs fascinated us, precisely because so much of the world’s media was focused on them. She reminded us of a powerful, tricky fact about human nature: we find it fatally easy to ignore anything painful and get distracted by physical charm. The philosophical point is that anyone who wishes to improve humanity needs to work with this constraint, and ensure that their moral message is as alluring as Taylor Swift.
There are two ways of looking at things: picking out what’s unique, and being attentive to what’s recurring. The news is based on the former, philosophy on the latter. Which means that the daily diet of information and opinion tends to miss much. News, we concluded, is really what you need to know now, rather than what has just happened. The ideas of the Stoics or of Lao Tzu might be urgent news in our lives, even though they have been around in the cultural ether for two millennia.
The experiment is complete. The team behind the Philosophers’ Mail is now putting its efforts into a new venture. It’s called The Book of Life, it will be updated every day – and you can find it here: www.thebookoflife.org