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Five (and a bit) steps to a better life: What philosophy tells us

Unthinkable: Do we need more books promoting self-mystification? Yes, we do

What good is philosophy to anyone? It can’t demonstrate progress in the way science can. It seems to relish ignorance – Socrates used to brag about his lack of knowledge. And it’s impractical in the sense of distracting us from important tasks like making money and getting ahead.

Yet there is no end to the line of philosophy books peddling their counter-cultural wares, with four more hitting the shelves in recent weeks. Do we really need this relentless propaganda for self-mystification?

Actually, yes. Each of the four titles, in its own way, makes a persuasive case for deploying philosophy as a weapon against modern ills such as online hatred and everyday cruelty.

How To Know Everything by Elke Wiss was a publishing sensation when first released in Dutch, shifting 30,000 copies in the author's home country in the first 10 weeks on sale.


What They Forgot to Teach You at School is the latest output from The School of Life, a mini-industry co-founded by Alain de Botton with now over five million YouTube subscribers.

Bald: 35 Philosophical Short Cuts is a collection of essays from Simon Critchley, who has been moderator of The Stone in the New York Times since it was launched in 2010 (which beats Unthinkable by a mere three years to the title of longest-running newspaper philosophy column in existence).

Finally, The Three-Minute Philosopher comes from Fabrice Midal, a Parisian writer who has had international publishing success with The French Art of Not Giving a Sh*t.

While there are differences in style and emphasis between the four books, they sip from a common font of wisdom – and this week’s column shall attempt to distil it for you, dear reader. For as the last book title suggests, attention spans are short these days and, while you might like to think of yourself as intellectually a cut above the rest, I know you’re itching to get back to whatever’s “most read” or to scuttle off to the latest social media spectacle.

There’s no shame; you’re only human (see point three in this self-help guide, made especially for you).

1. Slow down

Notwithstanding your animalistic urge to be at the centre of things, it wouldn’t hurt to turn off the phone now and again. Or to just listen.

Wiss writes so wonderfully about this neglected activity she might just be capable of making you hear again.

One of her exercises is “Don’t agree or disagree.” Try that next time you’re in a conversation. Another is to ask your interlocutor a question rather than making a statement of your own.

It’s not easy but in this way you can learn “to steer yourself from judgment towards curiosity”. As you get comfortable listening to others, she says, you can start to “judge your judgment in its turn”.

The approach is like the opposite of mansplaining – which we shouldn’t be too judgmental about since we’re all flawed (see point 3). It all starts with slowing down, something Critchley also emphasises. “To philosophise,” he argues, “is to take your time, even when you have no time, when time is constantly pressing at your back.”

2. Don’t care so much what others think of you

Socrates was constantly trolled; he was mocked on the boards and ultimately paid for such slander with his life. When asked why he never got upset from the abuse, he replied: “If an ass had kicked me, should I have taken him to court?”

Arthur Schopenhauer had a similarly jaundiced view of praise. "Would a musician feel flattered by the loud applause of an audience if he knew that they were nearly all deaf?" asked the German philosopher – who would have run a mile from the kind of self-congratulatory echo chambers that populate the online world.

The School of Life underscores the logic of this "philosophical" perspective by discussing Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. There in the painting, almost unnoticed, is the flailing leg of Icarus disappearing under the waves as farming folk go about their work oblivious to his plight. "The news is both very bad and strangely good: on the one hand, no one may notice when we die; on the other, they are also sure not to notice when we spill something down our front or do our hair the wrong way."

3. Resist moralising

There is far too much finger-wagging going on these days – on that all these authors agree. Midal makes the case most forcefully, endorsing Lou Andreas-Salomé’s claim: “Morality is the most daring act of narcissism.”

Midal reminds us of the dark side of both moral thought and charitable action: “Countless people are treated with condescension on a daily basis. And the effect it has on them is worse than we tend to acknowledge.” In another, wondrous passage, he asks “what if our defining characteristic isn’t reason” but rather sensitivity?

The School of Life develops a similar line of thought. “The true reason why kindness matters boils down to an idea that we may resist for a long time: because we are all alarmingly, and almost limitlessly, sensitive, by which is meant, hugely unconvinced of our own value . . . We need kindness so desperately . . . because we are permanently teetering over a precipice of despair and self-loathing.”

Go easy on others; they’re not as tough as you might think.

4. Welcome setbacks

As a philosopher who has written extensively on our search for purpose amid constant failure, Critchley brings characteristic honesty and human empathy to his latest work. “There is no happiness machine, nor should there be,” the English academic writes.

His collection of essays is less thematic than the other books reviewed here, and the most touching pieces he writes are the more personal ones. One surrounds his support for Liverpool FC, at a time when they were the great “nearly” club, “Eighty per cent of my texting and talking with my son is about the team,” he notes.

There is a river of Stoicism running through much of western philosophy but you don’t need to drink from the source to appreciate it. Midal puts it simply: “Without problems, we are deprived of our ability to solve them and therefore of the most meaningful aspects of life.”

5. Be free

In every era there are pressures to conform. What They Forgot to Teach You at School contains a number of useful tips to minimise the risk of living someone else’s life.

First, stop asking for permission before acting. Second, consider a few experimental transgressions: “cause problems for someone else, flirt, stay in bed a little longer . . .”

This may sound like a manifesto for selfishness but in the right spirit it’s a recipe for going to your grave without regrets.


I can’t possibly end on that note, however, since no philosophy worth its salt can be reduced to a newspaper listicle.

"Foolishness is wanting to draw conclusions," the French novelist Gustave Flaubert said.

Midal concurs: “To conclude is, in a sense, to stop thinking.”

Appreciating this bit of wisdom may be key to understanding the rest.

- How To Know Everything by Elke Wiss is published by Arrow;

- What They Forgot to Teach You at School is published by The School of Life Press;

- Bald: 35 Philosophical Short Cuts by Simon Critchley is published by Yale University Press;

- The Three-Minute Philosopher by Fabrice Midal is published by Orion Spring