Mini-review: Happiness – Lessons from a New Science, by Richard Layard

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Who doesn’t want to be happy? Pretty much by definition, happiness, whatever we may mean by that term, is the ultimate intrinsic good. It doesn’t make much sense to ask “why would you want to be happy?”

Richard Layard is an economist who has decided to take a hard empirical look at the question of what makes us happy (and what doesn’t). The result is an interesting, thought provoking book, full of statistical tables and graphs to chew on. Some of the empirical results are more robust than others, of course, as is always the case in social science.

We learn, for instance, that money really doesn’t make you happy, as there is no correlation between the increase in real per capita income and degree of self-reported happiness. We also learn that seven factors account for the overwhelming majority of the degree of happiness perceived by individuals: family relationships, overall financial situation (as in: one has enough money to have shelter and put food on the table), work (as in job security), community and friends, health, personal freedom (as in how oppressive your government is), and personal values (as in: do you have them and hold on to them?).

Layard is at his weakest in the second part of the book, entitled “What can be done?,” because there he switches from social scientist to wannabe philosopher, and it clearly shows that he is out of his depth. Still, definitely a good, even if now increasingly dated, entry in your happiness library.

Mini-review: The Changeling, by Kenzaburo Oe

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Kenzaburo Oe is a Nobel winning writer whose novels often touch on political and philosophical issues, and whose writing style is influenced by French and American literature, as well as by literary criticism. Generally, I’d consider those influences (especially the latter) unwelcome in a Japanese writer, but Oe pulls off a fascinating existential novel in The Changeling.

It’s the story of a life-long friendship between an aging writer, Kogito (loosely based on Oe himself) and his brother in law, Goro, a successful movie director. (Kogito is obviously not a Japanese name, it’s a reference to Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum). Goro has made a habit of sending tapes containing his reflections on their relationship to Kogito. In one of these tapes Goro says: “I’m going to head over to the Other Side now. But don’t worry, I’m not going to stop communicating with you.” Kogito hears a loud thud and later finds out that Goro has jumped to his death from his apartment.

This is the beginning of The Changeling, which then develops as a quest by Kogito to figure out why his friend committed suicide. A quest that brings Kogito to Berlin and in the woods of southern Japan, reflecting on early dramatic episodes of his life with Goro, as well as on developments stemming from those episodes and that unfolded over decades of their existence. Absolutely recommended.

Mini-review: Philosophy in the Islamic World, by Peter Adamson

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Philosophy in the Islamic World, by Peter Adamson, is another entry in the author’s ongoing series, “History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps,” in turn based on his successful, and also ongoing, podcast. I’ve read, and highly recommend, two earlier volumes in this series, Classical Philosophy and Philosophy In The Hellenistic And Roman Worlds. And I fully intend to read the next two installments that are already available: Medieval Philosophy and Classical Indian Philosophy.

The volume on Islamic (and medieval Jewish) philosophy is particularly hefty, in part because that happens to be Adamson’s own specialty. But it is fascinating because it will dispel a number of myth and misconceptions about philosophy in the Islamic world, as well as elucidate several intricate connections between it and the resurgence of Western philosophy in the late Middle Ages.

The book is divided into three parts: the so-called “formative period,” which includes discussions of the gigantic influence of Aristotle on Islamic philosophy; “Andalusia,” which features, among others, the philosophies of Averroes and Maimonides; and “the later traditions,” with chapters on Illuminationism, debates on Avicenna’s metaphysics, and — surprisingly and very interestingly — philosophy and science in the Mongol age.

While I don’t usually react very well to that part of philosophy that is essentially theological in nature — and a lot of Islamic philosophy of the period covered by Adamson falls into that category — Philosophy in the Islamic World is highly readable, peppered by Adamson’s usual humorous references to giraffes and Buster Keaton, and more importantly represents a must have entry in your library, on penalty of developing some serious gaps in your understanding of philosophy.

Mini-review: Nemesis, Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Nemesis, by David Stuttard, is the story of Alcibiades, the dashing, powerful, and rich Athenian statesman who was partially responsible for the disastrous expedition against Syracuse that helped change the tide of the Peloponnesian War, ultimately leading to the defeat of Athens. Alcibiades was brilliant, and had all the makings of a great politician and general, like his predecessor, Pericles (by whom he was adopted), and yet squandered the whole thing away, defecting from Athens to Sparta and then to the Persians, before being hunted down and killed by Spartan agents.

My interest in Alcibiades lies in the fact that he was also Socrates’ friend and pupil (and wannabe lover, though the philosopher had different ideas). In one of the Platonic dialogues (the Alcibiades Major), Socrates warns his student of the disaster to come, telling him that he (and politicians in general) just don’t have the right character for what they want to do:

“Then alas, Alcibiades, what a condition you suffer from! I hesitate to name it, but, since we two are alone, it must be said. You are wedded to stupidity, best of men, of the most extreme sort, as the argument accuses you and you accuse yourself. So this is why you are leaping into the affairs of the city before you have been educated. You are not the only one to suffer from this; most of those who manage the affairs of the city are the same way, except a few—perhaps including your guardian, Pericles.”

I’m currently writing a book, tentatively entitled The General and the Philosopher, to explore this historically and philosophically fascinating relationship, and more generally the theme of the interface between philosophy and politics. Stay tuned.

Mini-review: Apropos Of Nothing, by Woody Allen

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Yes, yes, I know, why read Woody Allen’s memoir? Isn’t he a perverted child molester and rapist? There are, I think, at least two reasons. First of all, regardless of his personal life, he remains one of the most important movie makers and cultural icons of the latter part of the 20th century. Second, if you actually paid attention — as I did — to the controversy from the beginning you will have to come to the conclusion that Allen is innocent, or at the very least not proven guilty.

He does, inevitably, address the issue in Apropos of Nothing, where he points out that he has been cleared of charges by two different inquiries, and that the investigators have actually concluded that Mia Farrow coached her daughter to lie since she was a small child. But what about the fact that he married his much younger adopted daughter, Soon-Yi? She is indeed much younger, but was never his adopted daughter, he and Farrow were never married, and Farrow abused Soon-Yi, physically and psychologically. Besides, the couple has now been married for a long time, which is more than a lot of other celebrities can boast.

Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way (and of course you are entitled to your opinion about it), the rest of the book is a delight for anyone who appreciated Woody’s movies over so many decades. You won’t get tips about movie making, as Allen claims not to be that good of a director (he thinks of himself as a writer), and acknowledges a lot of luck in his life. But you’ll get endless funny or insightful anecdotes about most of his productions, as well as so many other aspects of his astounding career.

Allen has always been skeptical of awards and reputation, and does not believe in an afterlife. It is fitting, then, that these are his parting words in the memoir: “And really, no interest in a legacy? I’ve been quoted before on this, and I’ll leave it this way: Rather than live on in the hearts and mind of the public, I prefer to live on in my apartment.”

Book Club summary: Practical Philosophy

Over at my Patreon and Medium sites I run occasional “book clubs,” meaning multiple posts on the same book, which interested readers can use either as a companion to the book itself, or simply as extended summaries that give them an idea of what the book is about (and hence facilitate their decision of whether to invest the time to read the full volume or not). Here are all the entries connected to the most recently completed series.

Practical Philosophy — Ethics, Society and Culture, by John Haldane. In this wide ranging volume of philosophical essays John Haldane explores some central areas of social life and issues of intense academic and public debate. These include the question of ethical relativism, fundamental issues in bioethics, the nature of individuals in relation to society, the common good, public judgement of prominent individuals, the nature and aims of education, cultural theory and the relation of philosophy to art and architecture. John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy, and Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs in the University of St. Andrews. He is also a former Royden Davis Professor of Humanities at Georgetown University and is currently a Senior Fellow of the Witherspoon Institute, Princeton. As well as being a prominent academic philosopher he is well known in Britain, in North America and elsewhere in the English-speaking world as a public intellectual and social commentator.

Here are my commentaries:

1. What is practical philosophy? (Patreon / Medium)

2. Practical ethics (Patreon / Medium)

3. Families and why they matter (Patreon / Medium)

4. Private life and public culture (Patreon / Medium)

Book Club summary: Xenophon’s Memorabilia

Over at my Patreon and Medium sites I run occasional “book clubs,” meaning multiple posts on the same book, which interested readers can use either as a companion to the book itself, or simply as extended summaries that give them an idea of what the book is about (and hence facilitate their decision of whether to invest the time to read the full volume or not). Here are all the entries connected to the most recently completed series.

Xenophon’s Memorabilia. An essential text for understanding Socrates, Xenophon’s Memorabilia is the compelling tribute of an affectionate student to his teacher, providing a rare firsthand account of Socrates’ life and philosophy. The Memorabilia is invaluable both as a work of philosophy in its own right and as a complement to the study of Plato’s dialogues. The longest of Xenophon’s four Socratic works, it is particularly revealing about the differences between Socrates and his philosophical predecessors.

Here are my commentaries:

I. In defense of Socrates (Patreon / Medium)

II. Socrates teaches a lesson to his son (Patreon / Medium)

III. Socrates gives advice about politics (Patreon / Medium)

IV. Socrates teaches a lesson in statesmanship (Patreon / Medium)

The Stoic Emergency Kit

I have just published a new e-booklet that collects nine essays I wrote, covering basic aspects of theoretical and practical Stoicism. As the subtitle puts it, this guide is “for those who need a refresher and those who are just starting out.” You can download a free PDF or ePub version (several other free booklets on Stoicism, philosophy of science and general philosophy can be found here). The Stoic Emergency Kit contains the following:

History
A very brief history of Stoicism
Meet the Stoics

Stoic theory
Arête: on the nature of human excellence
Prosochē or not prosochē? On Stoic mindfulness
Stoic psychology 101: impressions, assent, and impulses
Stoic epistemology 101: Zeno and the metaphor of the hand movement
Oikeiôsis: how to feel at home in the world

Stoic practice
Stoicism in three simple steps
How I practice Stoicism: 9 easy exercises
How to deal with insults, the Stoic way
Let’s talk about the premeditation of adversity

Book Club summary: The Art of Living

Over at my Patreon and Medium sites I run occasional “book clubs,” meaning multiple posts on the same book, which interested readers can use either as a companion to the book itself, or simply as summaries that give them an idea of what the book is about (and hence facilitate their decision of whether to invest the time to read the full volume or not). Here are all the entries connected to the most recently completed series.

The Art of Living: The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy, by John Sellars, Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. It is a commonplace to say that in antiquity philosophy was conceived as a way of life or an art of living, but precisely what such claims amount to has remained unclear. If ancient philosophers did think that philosophy should transform an individual’s way of life, then what conception of philosophy stands behind this claim? John Sellars explores this question via a detailed account of ancient Stoic ideas about the nature and function of philosophy. He considers the Socratic background to Stoic thinking about philosophy and Sceptical objections raised by Sextus Empiricus, and offers readings of late Stoic texts by Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Sellars argues that the conception of philosophy as an ‘art of living’, inaugurated by Socrates and developed by the Stoics, has persisted since antiquity and remains a living alternative to modern attempts to assimilate philosophy to the natural sciences. It also enables us to rethink the relationship between an individual’s philosophy and their biography. The book appears here in paperback for the first time with a new preface by the author.

Here are my commentaries:

I. The Skeptics don’t believe in the art of living. Or do they? (Patreon / Medium)

II. The concept of spiritual philosophical exercises (Patreon / Medium)

III. The hidden structure of the Enchiridion (Patreon / Medium)

IV. How to study practical philosophy: a three-pronged curriculum (Patreon / Medium)

24 Stoic Spiritual Exercises

New e-booklet: 24 Stoic Spiritual Exercises, culled from the writings of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Stoicism is a practical philosophy of life, and while I enjoy writing about its history and theory, it is the practice that has so far had a significant impact in my life. I assume it is the same for most readers too. That’s why in this booklet I collect a number of passages from the ancient Stoics where they explicitly advise certain practices or exercises. (Thanks to my friend Greg Lopez for helping curating the collection, on the occasion of Stoic Camp-New York). The first list is distilled from Epictetus’ Enchiridion (the aptly titled “Manual”), while the second list is derived from Marcus’ Meditations (again aptly, a diary that the emperor wrote for his own personal use).

Table of contents:

Introduction

Epictetus, from the Enchiridion

I. Examine your impressions

II. Remind yourself of the impermanence of things

III. The reserve clause

IV. How can I use virtue here and now?

V. Pause and take a deep breadth

VI. Other-ize

VII. Speak little and well

VIII. Choose your company well

IX. Respond to insults with humor

X. Don’t speak too much about yourself

XI. Speak without judging

Marcus Aurelius, from the Meditations

XII. Morning meditation on others

XIII. Keep at-hand principles

XIV. Why am I doing this?

XV. Renunciation

XVI. Decomposition exercise

XVII. Acknowledging others’ virtues

XVIII. Take another’s perspective

XIX. View from above

XX. How did they (not) sin?

XXI. Keep change and death in mind

XXII. When offended…

XXIII. Rebutting thoughts

XXIV. Morning meditation on the cosmos