Philosophy is sometimes assumed to be a dry, academic subject but it also has much to say about how we live, love and relate to each other. Emrys Westacott chooses the best books on philosophy and everyday living.
Philosophy is sometimes assumed to be a dry, academic subject but it also has much to say about how we live, love and relate to each other. Emrys Westacott chooses the best books on philosophy and everyday living.
Emrys Westacott is a professor of philosophy at Alfred University in New York. He is the author, most recently, of The Virtues of our Vices
Your own book, The Virtues of our Vices makes, I think, a brilliant case for applying philosophy to everyday living, because, as you point out in the introduction, apparently trivial things – like a colleague being rude to us – have a much bigger impact on us on a day-to-day basis than ruminations on the meaning of life.
A lot of philosophy concerns fairly theoretical issues – the correct definition of concepts like justice, the relation between mind and body, or the nature of the soul. These are problems that have been inherited down the years from Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Kant. There is another tradition which sees philosophy as a reflection on life. This includes discussion of ethical problems that we face, but also focuses on the way we conduct ourselves, the way we live, the way we relate to each other. I see my book as a contribution to that tradition. Not so much an attempt to solve complex metaphysical problems, or problems in the theory of knowledge or the philosophy of mind, but a reflection on the way we live.
Do you feel this side of philosophy has been neglected?
I do. In one of the books I’ve chosen, The Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, William Irvine makes this very explicit. In ancient times, Plato and Aristotle and other philosophers did deal with theoretical problems, but the Greeks and the Romans understood philosophy as something that people had and used in everyday life, and there were competing schools of philosophy.
Yes, I love that bit in the book, where Irvine describes how as an ancient Greek you had to choose a school of philosophy for your child – whether to send them to the Cynic school, or the Stoic school, or the Sceptic school – just like today we might grapple with whether to send them to private or public school.
Yes. So that tradition of philosophy, as a reflection on life and a guide to living, has never died out. You can trace it through Plato, Epicurus, the Stoics, Augustine, Pascal, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Thoreau all the way to the present day. But in the past few hundred years, it’s very much taken a back seat while the more heavy duty metaphysics, theory of knowledge, philosophy of mind, political philosophy and grand theories of morality in moral philosophy, have tended to take centre stage. When you look at a standard introduction to philosophy or to ethics, it’ll usually be about these great theoretical problems. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with discussing those big theoretical problems, I just think it’s a shame that the tradition of philosophy as a reflection on life and a guide to life has been marginalised.
Let’s go through the books you’ve chosen, then, and maybe say a bit more about Irvine’s book, The Guide to the Good Life, specifically. So he really is applying Stoicism to everyday life – I read one section where he’s in the shopping mall and his Stoic principles leave him completely unimpressed by the consumer goods.
I don’t necessarily completely agree with this book. What I like about it is that he writes beautifully and he’s very clear about what he’s doing: He’s trying to revive that notion of philosophy as a guide to life. That’s a really valuable contribution. We live in a culture where science has hegemony. Everybody looks to science; everyone, in a way, wants to be thought of as like a scientist. Philosophy is no exception. The kind of philosophy that sees itself as a handmaid to science, or as using some of the methods of science, has tended to dominate. So he’s reviving this other tradition.
Obviously he’s pushing the philosophy of Stoicism, and I think he does a very good job of making it plausible and attractive. He has to counter the common perception of Stoicism as advocating a rather tedious, boring, self-denying, joyless existence. He shows that it’s really not like that. It’s about deciding on certain values, and the Stoic prioritises the value of mental and emotional tranquillity. He argues that the ancient Stoics were actually very acute psychologists – in many ways they anticipated some of the findings of modern psychology – and they had a lot of insight into human nature. If tranquillity is your goal – and Irvine argues that it’s a worthwhile goal – then the Stoic way of life is pretty plausible.
So he goes through various Stoical techniques for dealing with issues. For example, as humans, we have a problem called “hedonistic adaptation”, namely that if I were to win the lottery tomorrow, I’d be happy for a month or two, and then would go back to normal levels of frustrations. To deal with this, Stoics advocate “negative visualisation”. So, for example, if you’re unhappy with your husband, just imagine he had an affair or left you tomorrow and you’ll appreciate him again.
Maybe! Yes, negative visualisation is one of the most memorable of the psychological techniques he talks about. He suggests that as a regular habit, just practise imagining how things might be worse – imagine the loss of loved ones, the loss of your job, that your country is at war, or that you’ve lost your health. He argues that if you practise this, it does pay dividends. This chimes with contemporary psychological research about gratitude. Psychologists have found that if people continually write down things they are grateful for, they do in fact find themselves more content with life. That’s pretty plausible. Since I read the book, I’ve been practising “negative visualisation” on a very small scale. I don’t do it every night, as he recommends, but I do it when I’m in a situation that’s less than desirable. For example, the other week I was stuck with the family in the car, on the New Jersey Turnpike. It was sleeting, we were in a horrendous, endless traffic jam, and we passed a couple of guys with a flat tyre at the side of the road. There we were in the car: We were warm, we were listening to a good audiobook, and I thought, “Well, yes, things could be worse.” It’s a small-scale thing, but it’s certainly better to be thinking like that, rather than just consuming yourself in annoyance, frustration, boredom and anger about the fact that things aren’t the way you’d like them to be.
His examples from ancient Stoics are just great. So there’s Seneca making a list of his frustrations before he goes to bed – the petty insults he has had to deal with over the course of the day – and how he gets out of his funk about them. They’re quite fun to read and Irvine points out how little things have changed over two millennia…
Yes, and there’s Marcus Aurelius. He gets up every morning, and says, “Today the following is going to happen to me: I’m going to be insulted, calumnied, and spat upon.” He starts his day preparing for the worst.
And that helps because he’s ready for it?
Yes, he doesn’t have unreasonable expectations. Whether I want to go all the way with Irvine, I don’t know. But I have a very open mind about the philosophy of Stoicism. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in it. One thing I was impressed by is that although his primary value seems to be tranquillity, the book is called The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. He really tries to argue against the idea that Stoicism is the same as a certain kind of Buddhism, where you try to completely eliminate desire. He says that if you live the right way, you can achieve more than just the absence of pain.
I think of Stoicism as a fatalistic approach: If something bad happens you just have to shrug your shoulders and move on.
It has that too. A Stoic attitude is certainly accepting things that you can’t change. That’s another big plank of his philosophy, that there is absolutely no point in protesting against what you can’t change, shaking your fist at thunderstorms.
I think the negative visualisation techniques might need to be finessed a bit. At one point Irvine cites Epictetus’s advice that every time you kiss your child, you should imagine that they might die tomorrow. For neurotic modern parents, constantly anxious about the health and safety of their children, thinking of them dying tomorrow would probably not help tranquillity levels. Also, the advice to live each day as if it’s your last: That could be a burden for the hypochondriacs amongst us, who are already constantly worrying that we might die tomorrow.
Yes, it could be a recipe for enhanced anxiety. You could argue there’s something neurotic about that level of negative visualisation. He’s suggesting doing it as a result of a conscious choice, though, rather than as a symptom of anxiety.
One of the areas where I’m very sympathetic to Irvine is where he talks about luxurious living. He mentions people who get too accustomed to the very best food, the very best wine, the very best theatre, the very best music etc, and who come to be unable to appreciate more mundane versions. I think he’s on to a good point there. For example, I live in a college town and we regularly go to see the university theatre productions and the university orchestral performances. Obviously, it’s not the same as going to Carnegie Hall, and I’ve occasionally heard people express rather snobbish attitudes about student performances. But it’s a sad thing not to be able to appreciate art just because it’s not on a par with the very best. You really are better off being able to enjoy things on their own terms. Irvine says: “It’s a good thing to accustom yourself to a little bit of roughness in living, and a little bit of the less than excellent.” I wouldn’t advocate harsh deprivation; but when people become too precious over savouring the excellent, I see that as a limitation rather than a marker of their good taste.
I love cheap plonk and amateur music-making, and I possibly do too much negative visualisation. Reading this book, I’ve realised I’m definitely a Stoic. What about you?
I think I’m three-quarters a Stoic. I teach a course here at the university called Tightwaddery, the Good Life on a Dollar a Day. It’s what we call an honours class, a two-credit evening class and it’s both serious and somewhat light-hearted. We read Epicurus, we read Thoreau, we read articles about consumerism and advertising. We also do classes on personal finance, and there’s some jokey classes, like one where the students learn to cut each other’s hair. There’s a banquet at the end of the term, where everybody has to produce a meal very cheaply, from a Depression-era recipe. That aspect of Stoicism, the getting by on little, eschewing unnecessary luxuries, husbanding your resources, that’s definitely me. I’m very averse to spending unnecessary money, although I’ll spend money on the things I value, like travelling…
If you’re three-quarters Stoic, what’s the other quarter?
I’m not completely committed to stoicism because there is also something of the Nietzschean in me. Nietzsche was very interested in the Stoics because he himself was something of a Stoic. He lived like one, in a way. But he’s also something of a Romantic. He’s influenced by Goethe’s Faust and believes the finest life is one where you experience the whole gamut of human experience – life as a bit of a rollercoaster. That’s not the Stoic ideal. The Stoic ideal is tranquillity. So in a way I’m torn. I do favour that Stoic ideal, and yet I recognise the appeal of the Faustian or Nietzschean ideal of experiencing the highs and lows.
Let’s talk about the Nietzsche book you’ve chosen, then. It’s called The Gay Science, which means…?
It’s just a translation of the German, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, which means the joyful wisdom. It’s my favourite of all Nietzsche’s books. It’s interesting that 50 years ago Nietzsche was not taught much in academic philosophy departments. Gradually, in the 1970s and ever since, there’s been a tremendous burgeoning of academic interest in him. If you go to the philosophy section in any bookshop, you’ll find there are more books on Nietzsche than on any of the other great philosophers. One reason for that is that he’s an absolutely fabulous writer. He’s also extraordinarily original and seems to have so many interesting thoughts on almost everything.
But another reason for Nietzsche’s popularity, I think, which ties in with what we were talking about earlier, is that he doesn’t just concern himself with theoretical problems like the mind-body relation or the definition of knowledge. He does concern himself with traditional philosophical problems to some extent, but he also offers a philosophy of life. He really does. I think this is one of his great appeals. When you read Nietzsche, you can relate much of what he says to your own life and experiences.
Give me an example.
So the book is written in aphorisms, short passages, ranging from one sentence to a couple of pages. In one place, he talks about becoming the “poets of our lives”. What I take him to mean is that if you think of your life as a poem or a work of art, you can work at making it a coherent and attractive whole. You can chip away at the things you find ugly. Say there’s some character trait you’ve got, say you’re a little bit greedy – you try to work on that trait. You don’t cut it out completely, necessarily, but you try to convert it to a more desirable trait, perhaps to a form of ambition that is productive and fruitful. In this way, you’re taking your own life as raw material, and you’re working at it to make it something more harmonious and, ideally, beautiful. I assume that guiding idea in Nietzsche appeals to most of us.
It also seems to tie in with modern research by the psychologist Jamie Pennebaker [mentioned in the next book, by Jonathan Haidt] who found that if something very bad happens to a person and they write about it in such a way as to create a meaningful story, they feel better. One of Nietzsche’s most famous lines is on trauma, isn’t it?
Yes, in another book, he famously says, “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” A lot of people have criticised that, saying that it’s obviously not true, because some things are just terrible. But I think that misunderstands Nietzsche. What he is saying there is: “Here is an attitude that you should try to take, whenever you can. When bad things happen to you, ask yourself, how can I use this?” And I think he’s right about that. It is a fruitful, positive, productive attitude to take.
The Gay Science is quite a hard book to read though, isn’t it, if you’re not from a philosophy background?
Yes. Nietzsche presupposes a high degree of cultural literacy on the part of his readers, and in his later works he tends to presuppose that you’re familiar with his own interests, his way of writing and his terminology. And yet, when I teach a class on existentialism I usually do include this book. Yes it’s difficult, but he’s unfailingly interesting. One of the things Nietzsche does is relate the philosophy of everyday living to grander historical and cultural concerns. So, for instance, one of the main themes in The Gay Science is the death of God. In Book III, he famously announces that “God is dead”. On the face of it, this means that religion, Christianity in the West, is losing its hold over people’s minds, it’s declining in importance both socially and politically. Religion is no longer the psychic centre of people’s lives. In general cultural terms, the “death of God” also raises issues about belief in objective truth. But it also links up to the way that people live. If religion is no longer at the centre of your life, if you no longer have a belief in God or the afterlife, or in a cosmic justice that keeps you on the straight and narrow and rewards you for virtue and punishes you for vice, you have to think again about your fundamental values and how you want to live.
Is joy important in this book as well?
Yes, joy is an important concept in Nietzsche. He was a classical philologist. He’s steeped in the classics of Greece and Rome, particularly Greek tragedies, and his first book was on Greek tragedy. He starts out by accepting the tragic view of life. As Sophocles said, “Greatly to live is greatly to suffer.” Life is going to involve a lot of suffering; the human condition is fundamentally tragic. We’re mortal; we’re bound to fail to achieve things we want to achieve. His whole life is spent, in a way, trying to argue that the greatest affirmation of life is to affirm it in the face of that tragic insight – to say that life is good, even though it’s suffering. That’s the greatest way of saying “yes” to life one can imagine. He thinks the Greeks, in a way, did that, and he’s trying to do that himself. Are you familiar with Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal recurrence?
I know it’s a big theme in Nietzsche, but you’d better explain.
At the end of Book IV of The Gay Science he introduces the idea for the first time. It’s a very beautiful passage, called The Heaviest Burden. He says, imagine that one night a demon were to whisper in your ear that this life you’ve lived, with all its joys and all its heartaches, you’re going to have to live again and again, an infinite number of times. The natural thing to do, Nietzsche assumes, would be to fall down and grind your teeth and pull your hair out and say, “This is awful!” – because life is suffering. But, perhaps, he says, there was a moment when you wouldn’t have done that, when you would have said, “This is great; I welcome this news. It’s the finest thing I’ve ever heard.” That would be the peak of life-affirmingness, where you could embrace the eternal recurrence of all things, the eternal recurrence of your own life, despite the fact that your own life may include a great deal of misery. His life certainly did. His great happiness was his writing and his work. His great misery was his loneliness, and the failure of most of his relationships.
And his terrible health.
And his terrible health.
Which book shall we talk about next?
I think Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis. There’s a pretty clear connection. Haidt is a very interesting thinker. There’s a wonderful TED talk by him. Do you know his work at all?
When I studied philosophy as an undergraduate, I remember moral philosophy consisted of dry analysis of moral concepts, the status of moral judgements and a lot of Oxbridge-style linguistic analysis. Haidt – who started off as a philosopher and is now a psychologist – shows just how interesting moral philosophy can be, if you broaden its scope a little bit. He’s done some really interesting work analysing different elements of people’s moral thinking in different parts of the world. For instance, he shows how liberals tend to emphasise rights and justice and conservatives tend to emphasise loyalty, obedience to authority and purity. He uses that analysis to explain why, in the culture wars in the US, liberals and conservatives are often talking past one another. For liberals, gay marriage is simply a rights issue. It’s a no-brainer. Of course people should have the right to marry who they want. For conservatives, who are thinking along a different moral axis, homosexuality is sinful, it’s impure, it goes against tradition. One of Haidt’s big contributions is to show just how much more there is to say about morality than we’ve been thinking. He shows a lot of creativity there.
So how does his book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, tie in to the philosophy of everyday living?
Haidt starts out with the traditional philosophy we’ve been talking about. He uses a lot of Eastern as well as Western philosophy. He looks at some of the major insights and chunks of wisdom within these traditions, but then he relates them to contemporary psychological research, and he assesses them in relation to that. He’s willing to criticise them and say, “Well the Buddha and the Stoics and Socrates, they showed a lot of insight here, but we can build on that, and using contemporary psychology we can actually offer a more well-founded guide to how to live a meaningful life, how to be happy and how to be fulfilled.”
Do you want to give an example?
One of his best chapters is chapter six, where he talks about love. He contrasts passionate love with companionate love. Passionate love is Romeo and Juliet, what we all think of as romantic love. He says that a lot of people want and expect that they fall in love in the paradigmatic romantic way, and that this passionate, romantic high will last for a lifetime. Sometimes people will even make claims like that for their marriage: “I love you just as much and just the same as when we first met.” He says that that’s nonsense. What happens in the case of passionate love is that your brain is flooded with certain kinds of chemicals, and you can’t sustain that for a long time. It’s not even biologically possible. It’s like a drug you get accustomed to, so to expect it to be sustained is a big mistake because you’ll be disappointed. What takes over, though, is companionate love, which takes a very long time to grow. He has a lovely little graph, where passionate love falls off a cliff after a short while, but companionate love grows steadily. It seems to me that this is clearly true to people’s experiences. It makes good use of contemporary psychology and it relates a bit to Stoicism. It’s a matter of being realistic in your expectations about things, and not becoming dissatisfied because things are failing to accord with some impossible ideal.
This book is also important, I think, because he argues that it’s OK to go on antidepressants. He talks about how he went on them himself, and while they were great for his anxiety, they made him extremely absent-minded, so he came off them again.
Yes, he says quite early on that antidepressants like Prozac are a solution for some forms of depression, and he criticises people who suggest there is something morally suspect or inferior about them. He says: “No, these drugs can really make a very positive difference to some people.” I thought he was refreshingly blunt and straightforward about that.
He also says some people are just more cheery, and some are more prone to depression – it’s just the way you are and it isn’t much to do with your life experiences. I find that a very helpful insight.
He actually has a formula for happiness that goes something like genetics + conditions + choices. This is his formula for a realistic approach to trying to achieve the good life. There’s something out of your control, which is your genetic heritage. We’d be foolish to deny that this has something to do with who we are. Psychological research of identical twins shows there’s quite a lot in us which is fixed by genetics. But conditions and choices are things that are more under our control. He talks about how the conditions that you live under affect your happiness – quite small things, sometimes. For instance, he says noise – the incessant noise of living in a city – actually grates on people, and has an adverse effect on their overall sense of wellbeing. He also recommends against long, stressful commutes.
In general, are these books you’re recommending offering an alternative solution to the one offered by Freud and psychoanalysis? Say, the example of grief. My mother died when I was nine so whenever I have an issue in my current life, analysts want to talk about it endlessly. But the Stoic approach would presumably be, “OK, it’s sad, but there’s no use in dwelling on something that happened 30 years ago: You have to move on.”
Haidt says it’s worth talking about things. He does see a value in talking about adversity. But I do think the books suggest that perhaps you don’t always need to call in experts to provide the key to dealing with life’s problems. To some extent we come equipped with the resources to fend for ourselves, to work things through. And other resources are readily available. Some of these resources can be philosophical: The philosophies that the Stoics offer, that Nietzsche offers, and the insights that Haidt offers. I’m not saying, “Oh, no one ever needs to go to a psychologist or a psychiatrist.” I wouldn’t say that at all. But you’re right that these books are all about having to think about our lives, our basic values, our priorities, and the direction we’re heading in. Also, the ways in which the minutiae of life can affect things. Maybe that is something we tend to overlook. For instance, Haidt points out, I think in this book, that in a relationship it’s a very good thing if you say positive things to each other a few times a day. You could make each other cups of tea, or thank each other for favours rendered. Small things like that actually make a difference.
I think one of the reasons we don’t turn to philosophy for solutions is that it needs a fairly major PR revamp. It just isn’t very mainstream. Look at Haidt – he left the philosophy field to focus on psychology…
I’m all in favour of what he’s doing, as long as you don’t give up on philosophy or despise philosophy, or say it’s got nothing more to offer. Because philosophy – which is general reflection and clarification of thinking – can open up ideas precisely for people like Haidt to study on a more scientific basis. Philosophy does have a reputation for being difficult and for being abstruse, but one development that’s healthy is that there are a lot of people who are trying to write philosophy in a way that is more accessible without dumbing it down – Alain de Botton, for instance, and Julian Baggini, as well as some of the people who have contributed to The Stone columns in the New York Times.
Well, your book has already made a difference in my life, in the two weeks since I’ve read it. I’m thinking in particular about the chapter in which you try to clarify thinking about gossip. It’s something we’re constantly engaging in, one way or another, and yet we tend to view it as morally suspect. It’s quite refreshing to hear that it can be positive and helpful.
Yes, it can be an informal channel of communication that can prevent misunderstandings.
Let’s talk about Middlemarch, which I haven’t read in a while but is just fabulous. Before this interview, you told me that George Eliot was something of a philosopher – she translated Feuerbach and Spinoza – and that this book presents everyday moral dilemmas and issues in all their messy complexity.
It is a fantastic book. I think Virginia Woolf described it as the only English novel written for grown-ups. It’s got everything – it’s beautifully plotted, the characters are wonderfully drawn. When I come to the end of a semester I always treat myself to a big, long classic novel, and I just reread Middlemarch. What struck me is what a wonderful psychologist George Eliot is. One very nice thing about her is that, for instance, Casaubon, the dry, self-centred scholar who Dorothea marries, and the banker, Bulstrode, who is a pious hypocrite… she calls on the reader to pity them, because she sees they’re trapped in their way of being. No one in the book likes Casaubon – except Dorothea – and I don’t think any reader ever likes him. But several times she says, pity him, because he’s stuck. I love the sympathy with which she portrays characters that, from a moral point of view, we have to be very critical of. Casaubon has got no business asking Dorothea to marry him – it’s very much a self-centred, self-interested request.
What insights does the book give into the philosophy of the everyday?
Eliot is very good at showing how people act against their best interests because of subtle social pressures that lead them a certain way. One of the central characters is Lydgate, the doctor, who marries a rather shallow woman. He’s trapped into this marriage and they get into debt. He’s a noble character, who is ambitious in his profession, who wants to do good work in the world, and he finds himself dragged down. With the best will in the world, and very noble intentions, he can’t prevent the subtle social pressures of people’s expectations of him from dragging him down.
Another thing I noticed in the novel is that time and again social expectations prevent people from talking directly to others about difficult matters, such as whether they love each other or are critical of each other. But when they do, when they break through those social expectations, then something good happens. Lydgate, for example, is suspected of having taken a bribe from the banker Bulstrode. Dorothea crosses the threshold of social convention and says to him: “Just tell me directly. What happened?” She’s warned against doing this by her friends, who say, “You can’t do that.” But she does, and the fact she is very open and honest and truthful makes a big difference to Lydgate’s life. That happens several times in the book. The most admirable characters are people like Caleb Garth, who always speaks very directly and openly. For him, there is no fannying around, no dithering, no masking of intentions or euphemisms.
Aren’t social conventions a lot more relaxed these days though? Does it still apply?
It’s true they are a lot more relaxed and we probably find it easier today than in the 19th century to be straightforward and open because of the growing informality of social life – something I talk about in my book. There’s still a fair bit to be learned from Middlemarch though. The moral I’m drawing isn’t that everyone in all cases should always be straightforward and open and blunt. There are times when you have to make difficult judgements about what will be useful, and what won’t be. What Eliot is getting at, the need to cultivate the difficult, practical wisdom of knowing when to be blunt and truthful and when to hold back, still applies today.
This is definitely an issue I wanted to ask you about in the context of white lies. Say a friend is wearing a hideous outfit, and asks what you think of it. Do you automatically say, “You look lovely!” or do you tell the truth? Obviously, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but if you don’t, firstly, you’re lying, and secondly, the next thing you know, your friend will be wearing the hideous outfit again. What do you do?
I’m pretty chicken about that kind of thing. It all depends on the relationship. In the case of my wife, if she asks me, I just tell her the truth as I see it. She’s got used to that. She doesn’t like it; she’ll get annoyed when she asks me about a sweater and I say, “Nah. It makes you look fat.” She might protest a little, but she’ll take note. But that kind of honesty is only possible in certain relationships. If it was someone I knew less well, I wouldn’t say that necessarily. If it were someone who I thought was sensitive, someone I thought it would hurt, I’d perhaps be less honest. I wouldn’t want to hurt someone.
So you would just say, “The sweater is lovely”?
I have a difficult time lying, but yes, I’d probably say, “Oh yeah, it’s nice…”
Another thing about Middlemarch I noticed as I reread it is how acute George Eliot is on the subject of self-deception. Almost everyone is guilty of self-deception, and there are about a dozen different forms of self-deception in the book. Dorothea’s self-deception comes through a kind of idealism, Rosamond’s through callow self-centredness, and Bulstrode’s is a kind of religious hypocrisy. This is interesting to me, because there is a lot of philosophical literature on self-deception. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a lot about it. There’s a kind of mystery as to how we’re able to lie to ourselves given that we actually know the truth in some sense. Eliot offers not so much an analysis of self-deception as a very clever, insightful portrayal of the different forms it takes, and how it’s often linked to people’s self-interest.
Does she offer a solution? If I, as a person, want to know how self-deceived I am, how do I set about finding out?
In the book, often the solution comes from someone else. Self-deception tends to be shattered by other people, or by circumstances. Bulstrode’s is broken by circumstances; he’s exposed as a crook. But Rosamond’s self-deception never does get shattered.
Dorothea would have been a lot better off if she’d realised she was deceiving herself before marrying Casaubon, rather than after.
Yes, but fortunately he dies. One very interesting moment in the book is when he asks her to make him a promise about how she will behave after he dies. She agonises over whether she should make the promise. She thinks the promise is that she will carry on with his work, which she thinks is pointless, though in fact the promise is probably that she won’t ever marry Will Ladislaw. She goes out to the garden, having resolved to make the promise, and she finds Casaubon dead. If Dorothea hadn’t found him dead, she would have made the promise, and then, being Dorothea, she would have felt obliged to keep that promise. And she would have spent years and years engaged in an activity she thought was pointless, just because she made a promise to a dead man. George Eliot really invites us there to say what we think: “Don’t do it, Dorothea, don’t make the promise! And if you do, don’t keep it!”
What does your last choice, The Forest People, bring to the discussion?
Colin Turnbull is a well-known anthropologist who wrote popular books. This book, The Forest People, is about the pygmies of the Congo and he paints a portrait of their lives. Some people would probably say it’s an idealised portrait, and maybe it is. The book had a big influence on me, because it portrayed a form of life which is very different from our own, and very different to the kind advocated by Haidt or Nietzsche. What strikes me about the form of life the pygmies live is that they’re not trying to achieve anything beyond what they already have. We almost take it as a given that we should be striving for things. In The Forest People they hunt, they gather, they set up their houses (they’re nomads), and then they sit around the fire and eat and sing songs in the evening. And they do the same the next day. The kids play, splashing around in rivers and climbing trees. They don’t think there’s any need to do anything more. I find that fascinating. I think it’s a very interesting and important counterpoint to what we take for granted – the preferability of a purpose-driven life. I don’t live like the forest people, but I think contemplating how they live is very worthwhile. When I read this book it raised a question mark for me about some of the values we take for granted.
So a way of life from which some of our central driving forces – ambition, the desire to progress – are absent?
Yes, if you think about the way we educate children – I’m an educator too – it’s a given that children should be ambitious. They should be striving, they should be all they can be, and they should try to leave the world a better place. I’m not saying that’s wrong. It’s just that The Forest People provides a very interesting challenge to our assumptions. For instance, what about living in the present? One of the features of the way we live is that we are leaning into the future at a very acute angle. Children in school are trying to get into college; people in college are trying to start their careers; people in their careers are trying to get promoted. We lean heavily toward the future, and in extreme cases, in China, Korea, Japan, and parts of the US and Britain too, people almost lose their childhood because it’s so devoted to getting on.
I think living in the present and being more capable of enjoying that, of relishing the moment, is something that we easily forget how to do. I am guilty of this too. I think I fail to relish the moment as much as I should because I have that nagging sense all the time that there are things that need to be done and achieved. Of course, it’s also true that, as a result, we have an incredibly dynamic society that’s producing iPads and all the rest of it, and we’re glad about that. We’re talking now by Skype, thanks to the dynamic character of our society and the people who strive. But for all that, pleasure in the moment, in the present, has to be a part of the good life. What The Forest People, as Turnbull describes them, have that seems admirable and enviable is an intense enjoyment of simple things, available to them in the present.
It is a very engaging, readable book, as well isn’t it? It’s not some dull anthropological treatise.
Turnbull was an anthropologist, but he doesn’t write in anthropological jargon. One of the things he’s criticised for is that he tends to include value judgements, which makes him scientifically suspect. I don’t worry about that, since I engage in normative ethics anyway. For me, it brings a form of life alive, and makes me reflect on what we’ve lost and what we can learn, even though obviously we can’t live like that. We can’t go back to that in any way, and we don’t necessarily want to. But you can still think to yourself, “What is there to be envied in the way these people live? What chance is there of recovering something of that in our own lives?”
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by donating a small amount, or by buying some of our most recommended books from Amazon. Since we are enrolled in their affiliate program, we receive a small percentage of any product you buy, at no extra cost to you.
Emrys Westacott is a professor of philosophy at Alfred University in New York. He is the author, most recently, of The Virtues of our Vices