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Could there be a ‘skeptical ecstasy’?

We all love a bit of ecstasy, don’t we? Not the drug (though that’s a form of ecstatic experience) but, more broadly, those moments of expansion, elation and awe we sometimes feel, when our heart-strings seem to vibrate in harmony with the universe,  when the vast, black and empty cosmos seems suddenly to radiate with love. We’re all into that, yeah?

The ecstasy of Father Jean Birelle, from the Louvre

If, like me, you’re a bit of a mystic hippy, you might attribute such ecstatic moments to God, and interpret them as a connection to the divine. Making a ‘divine attribution’ adds to the experience. You may feel ‘God loves me!’, you may feel profoundly accepted and forgiven, you may take your feelings as proof of His special favour.

This is where it get tricky. The certainty that usually accompanies ecstasy can lead to various nasty side-effects for you and for your society.

People in the grip of ecstasy are often convinced that the world had radically changed, normal rules no longer apply, that they are in a new Age of Love. They may abandon their jobs and families, dance naked in the streets like the Ranters of the English Civil War or the Ravers of the Summer of Love. And it’s what Californians call ‘a major buzz-killer’ when they calm down and realize the Age of Love hasn’t arrived, and, in the words of Steely Dan, ‘all those day glo freaks who used to paint their face, they’ve joined the human race’.

Again and again, collective outpourings of ecstasy have ended in orgies of scapegoating, as Cohn’s book explores

It gets more dangerous when the ecstatic hordes decide that a particular individual or group stands in the way of the Age of Love, and therefore they must be banished or executed. Again and again, throughout history, moments of collective ecstasy have degenerated into bloody orgies of scapegoating. Ecstasy often leads to a supercharged version of the ‘Us versus Them’ mentality. A group feels mystically fused together, and then refuses to tolerate bystanders or outsiders. It’s like a homicidal version of the Hokey Cokey: either join the dance, or die.

The Enlightenment was built, after centuries of religious violence, on the basis that religious ecstasy is dangerous and we need to contain it, marginalize it, even pathologise it as ‘enthusiasm’. As philosophers like John Locke and Adam Smith recognised, ecstasy is a threat to reason, tolerance, industry and public order. We need to lock it up.

And yet, like King Pentheus trying to lock up Dionysus, somehow ecstasy always escapes. Over the last three hundred years, there have been various ecstatic resistance movements, from Methodism to Pentecostalism, from rock and rave to football hooliganism and fascism (as Bernard Knox pointed out, one of the Homeric words for fighting, charmê, comes from the same root as the word chairô—‘rejoice’.). Considering the global rise of neo-Pentecostalism today, ecstasy does not seem to be going anywhere. The Enlightenment’s War on Ecstasy has failed.

So here’s my question: could there be a skeptical ecstasy? Could we rehabilitate ecstatic experiences, and somehow de-toxify them of their tendency to fanaticism and scapegoating?

Richard Holloway’s liberal evangelism

This brings me to Richard Holloway’s Leaving Alexandria, which came out last year, and which is that rare thing – a book about Christianity that actually sold well in the UK. Its success is not surprising, as Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, has quite a tale to tell – from failed monk to horny missionary in Africa, from socialist priest in the slums of the Gorbals, to his time ministering among the dying during the AIDS epidemic. Finally, fatally, Holloway is made a bishop, and he has a serious run in with the evangelical wing of the Anglican communion.

The crisis comes at the Lambeth conference of 1998, where a ‘pincer movement’ of evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics vote that homosexuality is ‘incompatible with Scripture’. Holloway is disgusted by the homophobic hatred and bile expressed by the evangelicals, and offended by their utter certainty that they know God’s opinion on matters of sexuality and gender.

His stance in solidarity with the marginalized is admirable, but rather than trying to defend it with reference to Scripture (the gospels, say), as would befit a bishop, he brings out a book called Godless Morality the year after the conference, suggesting that we leave God out of public discussions of morality. The idea of God, he comes to believe, simply muddies the waters of civil debate. Who knows what God thinks anyway? Archbishop Carey denounces the book, and Holloway’s own congregation vote him out. This offends Holloway but really, what did he expect – if God should be left out of public discourse, then what’s the point of bishops?

He ends the book in a mood of weepy elegy, declaring that Christianity is ‘on its last legs’, that the Anglican communion is ‘unraveling’, that God probably doesn’t exist, and religions deserve no more respect or obedience than other artistic creations like, say, the works of Proust or Nietzsche (who he quotes repeatedly). He admits that evangelical churches may be growing, but that’s only because they peddle easy answers – not like Richard, the heroic skeptic. He briefly wonders if there could ever be a ‘liberal evangelism’, one not so sure of itself, one less keen to pronounce and condemn, open to the possibility it’s wrong.

I think there could be a liberal evangelism – a form of spirituality that is open to ecstatic experience but also socially inclusive, non-homophobic, and humble as to its own truth-claims. But it would need to have a little more faith than the thin gruel offered us by Holloway. Never mind God, he doesn’t even believe in free will. The central assertion of his memoir is that we can’t choose our path in life, nor improve our characters through practice – instead, time reveals to us who we essentially and immutably are. Time reveals that Holloway is an uncertain and vain man, and it couldn’t have been any other way. I find this sort of genetic fatalism depressing and, in Holloway’s case, self-serving. If there is one thing I like about Christianity, it’s the belief in second chances and the possibility of liberation from sin and suffering. Give me that over Holloway’s genetic fatalism any day.

Towards a skeptical ecstasy

So what would a ‘skeptical ecstasy’ look like? Let me attempt an answer:

1) People want and need channels for ecstatic experience. They give our lives meaning and colour, they free us from boredom, and they make us feel less separate from other people and from God and / or Nature.

2)  We need to be careful in our search for ecstasy, and aware that it’s not an unmitigated good, that it can harm ourselves and others.

3)  There are better and worse channels for ecstasy – anti-social channels which direct us towards self-destruction or violence against outsiders, and pro-social channels which direct us towards compassion and love. There is ecstasy which seeks to police borders (we’re in and you’re out) and ecstasy which knocks down borders (we’re different but at a deeper level we’re the same).

4) Having ecstatic experiences doesn’t make you special or unique. Everyone feels ecstatic sometimes. What counts is what it leads to. Many artists have felt divinely inspired, for example, but few of them have actually turned that inspiration into good art. Likewise, many spiritual seekers have had ecstatic experiences, but not all of them have built genuinely good lives. Ecstatic inspiration is not enough, it needs to be supported by beliefs, learning and daily practices.

5) Don’t think you’re better or holier than other people because you have moments of ecstasy. You may simply have a more emotional temperament. Likewise, don’t think you’re less spiritual because you don’t have such experiences. There are many ways to lead a good life – sobbing, babbling, passing out and waving your hands in the air are fun but not essential.

6) Don’t be too sure you know what God wants. Test your intuitions. Be open to the possibility you’re wrong. Have a flexible, experimental and open-minded attitude to your ecstatic experiences. It’s OK not to have all the answers.

7) Ecstatic experiences don’t give your arguments special status in the public square. You need to give reasons for your arguments, and expect to defend them rationally. Bodily sensations are not an argument.

8) Above all, we need to watch out for the tendency to scapegoat in ourselves. We need to watch for the tendency to project our shadows onto others, to blame outsiders for our own divided and unhappy natures. That demon is within us all, and ecstasy often lets him out. Jesus warned again and again, don’t judge others, don’t point the finger, love your enemies, love those different to you, love those who society looks down on, cross the road to help them. If your ecstasy isn’t serving that end, then it’s just a self-congratulatory feeling.

St Paul, writing to a young church that was fixated on speaking in tongues and other ecstatic phenomena, put it well:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.


In other news:

I’ve been on holiday so don’t have much extra reading for you, but here’s a handful:

A friend introduced me to the work of Daniel Mendelsohn, a classicist and critic for the NYRB. Here’s his wonderfully scathing critique of the film ‘Troy’.

It’s the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. The BBC brought together some people to reflect on its impact.

The Papacy is considering making GK Chesterton a saint. The Spectator lays out the arguments against canonisation.

Here’s a WSJ piece on Philip Zimbardo’s ‘time perspective therapy’.

Here’s an FT piece about the Sunday Assembly, or ‘church of no religion’ – which is what people used to call Esalen, the California New Age commune, by the way.

Finally, I’m sorry to hear of the passing of Seamus Heaney, the last poet whose work meant something to millions of Irish and British people. Here he is on Desert Island Discs.

See you next week,


PS I used a photo by a photographer, Simon Barber, without his permission. He got in touch, and very kindly let me off paying once I’d removed the image. Thanks for the reprieve Simon – check out his work here.

Socrates among the Saracens

Is it possible to for a professional sports team to put character before external success? I visited Saracens rugby club to find out.

It can still feel weird discussing having had depression and anxiety to strangers in public talks. Although I’m fairly used to exposing myself these days (as it were), there are still occasions when I think ‘is this really a good idea?’ I had that feeling this week, standing in front of a gym full of colossal rugby players at Saracens rugby club, staring at me stony-faced as I discussed how ancient philosophy helped me through panic attacks. What the hell am I doing here? 

I was invited to Saracens’ training ground in St Albans to give a talk about ancient philosophy, virtue ethics, and the Greeks’ ideas on the good life. I believe, and Saracens also believe, that ethics are right at the heart of sport. Sportspeople, on a daily basis, are faced with the questions that Socrates first raised: is it worth being an ethical person?  What is the appropriate trade-off between external and internal goods? What does it mean to succeed at life? How do we cope with external pressures and still maintain a good character?

We, the spectator-public, like to think that professional sportspeople are shining knights, that sports coaches are founts of moral wisdom like Coach Taylor in Friday Night Lights. We look to professional sportspeople as moral guides – recently I was at a conference on well-being at work, where the keynote speaker was Sally Gunnell, who was greeted like a demi-goddess by the assembled businesspeople. But professional sports looks much better from the outside than the inside, and what’s good for external success (prizes, profits) is not necessarily good for a person’s character or well-being. You can be a highly-successful athlete and still a very messed-up human being.

Professional sports is not necessarily the character-forming crucible we amateurs think it is. It’s big business and razzle-dazzle spectacle, with huge amounts of money involved and an intense focus on winning at any cost. David Priestly, who is head of the Personal Development Programme at Saracens, says: ‘People have an incredibly romantic view of professional sports. But it can be a very brutal world, a machine that squeezes everything out of a person and then tosses them aside. Most of the people in that world are very far from being role-models. Most people in professional sports shy away from anything explicitly about ethics. It’s just about winning. Younger players can see people at the top of their sport who are doing very well while still behaving in a questionable manner.’

The Saracens revolution

Which brings us to Saracens. The club was 50% bought by a South African consortium in 2009, who appointed Edward Griffiths as the CEO – the man who’d managed South African rugby in the run-up to their nation-building 1995 World Cup victory. Griffiths promised a ‘Saracens Revolution’ which would turn rugby into a glitzy, entertaining and crowd-pleasing spectacle. Saracens matches would alternate between Wembley and a new astroturf stadium in north London, match attendance would rise from 14,000 to 80,000, spectators would be able to watch replays on their smartphones, even order pizzas from their seats. The club was now in the business of ‘making memories’.

Brendan Venter

But the other side of the Saracens Revolution was a focus on character and virtues, as proclaimed by the South African director of rugby, Brendan Venter. He’s a doctor, a Christian, and something of a rebel, who’s surprised journalists with comments like: ‘You can’t think about winning all the time. I’m far more interested in my players, along with me, improving as people. That’s basically the only thing that really matters.’ He’s also said: ‘If we win everything there is to win but we’ve broken relationships, we’ve lost the plot. We’ve missed our point of being on earth, it’s as simple as that.’

Venter, who studied to be a doctor while playing rugby, insisted the players need to be well-rounded and prepared for life after rugby. They need to be cared for as individuals with souls rather than commodities shoveled into the money-furnace. Their academic pursuits should be just as important as their physical fitness.  Players were asked to write essays on ‘the ideal 20-year-old’ and to think about questions like: ‘How does the ideal 20-year-old treat women? How does the ideal 20-year-old treat alcohol? How does he handle his finances? How does he deal with life in general?’

Alex Goode, the 25-year-old Saracens and England full-back, saw the revolution first-hand, having come through the Saracens Academy as a teenager. He says: ‘The old Saracens was not a particularly friendly place. There’d be quite brutal banter. Players lived spread out across Hertfordshire and hung out separately  A lot of the players were in it for their own benefit and not the team, they didn’t make sacrifices for the team. Now, there’s much more of a feeling of togetherness. The players and families are really taken care of, and the flip-side of that is we have to work incredibly hard.’

The Revolution seems to be succeeding. Having never won the English rugby premiership, Saracens were runners-up in Venter’s first season (2009-2010), then won it in 2010-2011. This season, however, has been tough – they led the Premiership by wins and points, but then lost in the play-off semi-final, and also lost in the Heineken Cup semi-final to Toulon. The defeats raise the age-old question again: is it worth putting character before external success?

The Jerry Maguire of sports coaching

Venter stepped down as director of rugby and went back to South Africa in 2011, following a series of family bereavements back home, but he’s still technical director. The ethical revolution, meanwhile, continues through the Saracens Personal Development Programme, which is run by David Priestly and David Jones. The latter David is a philosophy grad, who read my book and got in touch. He has the unique vision that philosophy has a place in professional sports – and he’s stuck his neck out by inviting me to speak to the lads.

His boss, 34-year-old David Priestly, has a remarkable, zen-like calm about him. He is something of a Jerry Maguire-figure in that he genuinely believes winning isn’t everything. He says the ‘performance-based myopia’ of professional sports can be morally corrupting for players and staff. This is somewhat heretical in professional sports, even in the world of ‘performance lifestyle coaching’, which is meant to be provide care and guidance for sportspeople but is often just as obsessed with winning at any cost.

Priestly is different. He’s nick-named ‘The Priest’ at the club because he is something like a moral compass for the team, keeping them honest, challenging them to live by their mission-statement, rather than just hanging it prominently on the wall. For example, if a match-winning player fails to meet the ethical standards of the club, will that player be dropped before a big game? Is the club’s commitment to virtues just window-dressing, or does it translate into actions? The players will watch to see how the management acts, and will adapt their behaviour accordingly.

David Priestly is the Jerry Maguire of performance consultants

Priestly tells me: ‘Players can smell it a mile away when you say one thing but behave differently. But if you genuinely live by what you teach they will respond to that.’  He has the backbone to stand by his beliefs even in a high-pressure workplace, and the wisdom to recognise that even hard-as-nails rugby men need the occasional opportunity to be vulnerable.

He has written:

In my opinion it is neither ‘soft’ nor ‘fluffy’ nor easy to listen to someone sharing their innermost difficulties. In fact, when someone feels able to bare their soul and be completely vulnerable in my company, I actually believe it to be an incredibly privileged experience. [Sports psychologists] obsessed with performance will never even get close to touching this kind of information…When you are told that you need to be tough, why show that you are vulnerable?

He gives me some advice as I go in to talk to the players: ‘They will be interested. They might put forward a tough-guy front, but they’ll be listening intently.‘

Virtue ethics and sports psychology

There’s a good turn-out for my first workshop, 20 or so players and coaches, including various internationals like Chris Ashton and Steve Borthwick. And so, with these assembled tough guys in front of me, I launch into my talk. It feels slightly surreal at first, but I tell myself to keep going.

After the initial weirdness of exposing my soul to a room full of rugby players, I settle into it, confident that virtue ethics has important things to say to sports psychology (and vice versa). Sports is a lot about emotional control, and no one understood emotional control better than the Stoics. They insisted our emotions come from our judgements and perceptions. We can change our emotions by becoming more aware of our beliefs and attitudes, and more skillful in what we say to ourselves.

This is a familiar idea to sportsplayers, who have already been drilled in the importance of ‘attitude’ to winning, although one of the players asks me if the Stoic idea of controlling your perceptions and emotions means ‘always being positive’. I reply that no, being ‘philosophical’ is not necessarily the same as never feeling negative emotions. Aristotle thought sometimes anger and grief were appropriate responses to life’s tragedies. I say this not realizing that one of the team’s core values is ‘be relentlessly positive and energized at all times’…which sounds a bit exhausting. Surely it’s OK to be frightened, angry, upset or lost sometimes?

Not sure about the last one…

The Greeks’ techniques for creating ethical habits are also obviously useful to sportspeople, particularly the idea of repeating maxims to yourself over and over. Sportspeople already use ‘mantras’ and mottos to ingrain attitudes, and Saracens has its mission statement posted on the walls around the gym. I talk about the Greeks’ idea that excellence isn’t just about how you perform in the classroom (or the rugby pitch) – that it extends out into all your interactions, how you treat your wife, your children, the younger players, the referee, how you cope with setbacks in your life. Everything is training.

The players are particularly interested in Epictetus’ idea of focusing on the things you can control in life without freaking out over the things you can’t completely control (your reputation, your body, other people, the weather etc). Again, this is not a new idea in sports psychology (or management – it’s one of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits), but it still resonates.

One player tells me, privately, they’ve not been picked for a big game this coming weekend, but they’ve decided that the coach’s choices are beyond their control. Rather than sink into a week-long funk of resentment and depression, the player has decided to focus on what’s in their control – their own beliefs, their own attitude.

We talk about not using externals as an alibi for your own bad behaviour – the referee, for example, your team-mates, your wife, your childhood. Letting go of the past is such a key skill for sportspeople – whether that past is your childhood, the last match or the last point. Andy Murray said in a recent BBC documentary that one of the main things he’s worked on in the last year is not wasting energy thinking about past points during games. Priestly says to me, ‘So much of what I’m trying to get across comes down to the three words: ‘Let it go’.

We also talk about the idea of not caring too much about your status and reputation, not building your house on sand as Jesus put it. Professional sports people have to deal with an incredibly volatile status throughout their life, as Alex Goode tells me. ‘It’s a big shift from schoolboy rugby to professional sports. Suddenly, you go from the blue-eyed boy of your school team to a situation where no one cares if you’ve played England Under 18s, and you’re on the bench and not playing all the games. That’s hard to deal with.’

Alex Goode playing for England against South Africa

Then, like Goode, you might get to play for England, another huge step-up in terms of pressure and publicity. He says: ‘Suddenly, everyone wants to talk to you about rugby. By the end of last season, for the first time, I didn’t want to talk about rugby any more, I needed something separate from it.’ Goode was then injured and side-lined, thereby perhaps missing the Lions tour. Injuries can be existential crises for sportspeople, depriving them of the activity by which they define and validate themselves. Alex got through the disappointment of his injury partly by having ‘something separate’ – he tells me he’s found pleasure in reading novels, and is interested in becoming a journalist after rugby.

A lot of the volatility of elite sportspeople’s status comes from the media, which can be a circus mirror, distorting reality into simplistic narratives. In 2006, the 19-year-old Andy Murray was being interviewed with his friend Tim Henman. They were teasing each other about the World Cup and Murray joked he’d support ‘anyone but England’. The joke was seized on by a journalist and hung round his neck like an albatross for years. It prompted Tony Parsons to fulminate that the comment was ‘the tip of a toxic iceberg of anti-Englishness’. Journalists divide humanity into heroes and villains, and sports stars can be canonized one day, demonized the next. They have to live with that volatility of image, accept that its out of their control, and let it go. Not easy.

Not just means, but ends

Saracens centre Nils Mordt doing some inner training

So there are many meeting points between sports psychology and virtue ethics. What philosophy brings to the table – why Saracens asked me there – is that philosophy isn’t just about techniques for on-the-field success. It’s also a way to question what success actually looks like, what end or goal we’re using all these techniques for. Is winning your ultimate goal – your God – or is there something higher? It’s possible to win a lot of medals and lose at life.

I put it to the players that there is something more important than external success, that you can live a good life even if you fail to win the World Cup, say, or to win the league.

This does not go down that well with the players. ‘I don’t even consider failing’, says one player. ‘It’s not an option. If you think you won’t get a goal, why bother trying to get there’. It’s a fair point, and I am reminded again of the difference between philosophy and professional sports – sometimes there is a tension between internal and external goods. A complete obsession with winning might be very good for professional sports, while in some sense…bad for the person?

After the talk, several players came up and shook my hand, which was heart-warming, because I’d wondered how my talk would go down, as a small philosopher in a world of big athletes. I subsequently went back for a second workshop, and this time I talked less and let the discussion flow – what was really interesting was how the players started listening to each other, swapping stories, letting themselves be vulnerable. The best way to learn is not to teach from the front, perhaps, but to let the group help each other along. Anyway, I’ve applied for funding from the AHRC to prepare and teach a course in 2014 at Saracens, as well as in Low Moss prison in Scotland and a mental health charity in London. Fingers crossed we get it and we can continue exploring the role of ethics in professional sports.

How do you balance collectivity and individuality?


The cult of nationalism versus the cult of rock and roll

The history of popular religions can be compared to the natural history of species. Sometimes a new species arrives in an environment, and a fierce battle ensues with the native species. They may also interbreed, as the first homo sapiens interbred with earlier species of humans. The same thing happens with religions and cults: a new cult goes viral among a population, and the defenders of the old cult attack it, but then often some sort of compromise or interbreeding takes place.

With this in mind, I want to examine the love-hate battle between two cults in the last 60 years: the cult of nationalism, and the cult of rock and roll.

First we need to look at the role of music in the cult of nationalism. During the Enlightenment, rationalist philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and and the Baron de Montesquieu challenged the supernatural authority of monarchs and the Church, and instead put forward a social contract model of the state, in which people join together in a state through rational self-interest and the desire for safety and profit. Music played no role in these philosophers’ understanding of politics.

To Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the first philosopher of Romanticism, the rationalist account of politics seemed an incredibly tepid and unheroic vision of community. Rousseau put forward an alternative vision of the state, in which citizens would be magically fused together through their heroic and self-sacrificing passions. The passionate cult of Christianity would be replaced by the passionate cult of the nation. He tentatively imagined that music could play a role in this, by shaping the public consciousness and rousing patriotic sentiments.

Nationalist anthems

In 1789, the year after Rousseau’s death, the French Revolution seemed to offer a practical example of this sort of passionate politics, with the French populace joined together in a common sense of Romantic nationalism, symbolised by their Roman salutes. And that Romantic nationalism was in part fostered by a ditty composed by a young army engineer called Roger de Lisle, called La Marseillaise.

The Tennis Court Oath during the French Revolution – the crowd’s arms are in the Roman salute

At the same time, in Prussia, the philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder was researching the folk myths of various cultures, and suggesting that folk stories and ballads helped to create the volksgeist or genius of a nation. This idea elevated the artist and composer to the exalted position of national spirit-channeler. “A poet”, he wrote in 1767, “is the creator of the nation around him, he gives them a world to see and has their souls in his hand to lead them to that world.”  Over the next 150 years, many composers would take up Herder’s challenge, and try to create national folk epics for their nations, such as Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies (1847), Sibelius’ Finlandia (1899), Grieg’s Peer Gynt (1875), Mussogorsky’s Boris Godunov (1873) and, above all, the Ring-Cycle of Richard Wagner (1869).

Such pieces were unofficial national anthems, though national governments also started to create official anthems, to be played and sung when large crowds were gathered together, at the theatre, at sport, even for large dinners (in the City of London, the national anthem is still sung at the end of big dinners), and especially to be sung during war-time. Such anthems, repeated over and over, would help to inspire patriotic passions and forge a national identity, just as the repetition of Christian psalms and hymns helped to forge a Christian identity.

But nationalist songs, rather than glorifying God, would glorify the nation’s leader or the nation itself. They would define the national identity and defend it against foreign invasions – in this famous scene from Casablanca, for example, a group of German soldiers singing their anthem is drowned out by the crowd singing La Marseillaise. Note how La Marseillaise also defends the tribe’s women from the risk of breeding with the alien species – the woman being chatted up by the Nazis resists their advances once she starts singing the anthem.

The new cult

After World War II, a new cult emerged to challenge the cult of nationalism: rock and roll. It took rhythms that had emerged from African-American jazz, gospel and blues, and the emotional expressiveness and intensity connected with those musics, and electrified it, making it louder, and spreading it further through record-players, radio and TV. The impact on young people was intense and somatic: the first rock and roll concert, organised by radio DJ Alan Freed in 1952, turned into a riot. The mass hysteria shown by teenage female audiences at shows by teen idols like Elvis Presley or Ricky Nelson struck some disapproving adults as close to the emotional excesses of fascism.

Rock and roll often challenged nationalism, at least in its militaristic and jingoistic incarnation. The most obvious example is the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen, released on the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, which got to number one despite being banned from airplay. In that song, the punk subcult declared its independence from the ubiquitous nationalist propaganda. Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On, with the Stars and Stripes on the cover, was a dark reflection of an America torn apart by race riots, and African-Americans’ desire to escape somewhere else – to Africa, or one’s drugged-out inner space.

Sometimes, rock and roll involved a contestation over what the nation stood for, like Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Our Land’, which was written in response to Irving Berlin’s jingoistic ‘God Save America’, and which later became an anthem for the Civil Rights movement. Likewise, when Jimi Hendrix played the Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock, he wasn’t necessarily ridiculing America, but rather declaring (as he later explained) ‘we’re all Americans’, even hippies opposed to the Vietnam War. Sometimes rock and roll expressed a simple celebration of national pride, as in Chuck Berry’s Back in the USA or the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ USA, or local pride as in Tupac’s California Love or Lily Allen’s LDN.

A band’s devoted following could be a sort of mini-nation, with its own flags, symbols, anthems and heroes – and thus a rival to the cult of the nation. Two examples from the 1970s would be the cult of Ziggy Stardust, the tour for which ended with the national anthem clearly played ironically, or the cult of Queen, who also played the national anthem at their tours, not for the glorification of the monarch, but of themselves and their fans. If you watch Queen perform at Live Aid – to my mind one of the best live rock performances – you see the audience waving banners saying ‘Queen Works’ and putting their hands up in the Roman salute to Freddie Mercury as he sings ‘We Are The Champions’. It is a rival to the nation-cult, and a much less toxic one than militaristic nationalism.

The new cult is absorbed into the old

The guardians of the nation-state responded, initially, with deep alarm. Critics of rock and roll often used the language of infection and invasion – the invasion of the white nation’s psyche by alien rhythms from the African jungle. Racist critics were also often terrified by the prospect of interbreeding or ‘miscegenation’ – in the old cult, the ‘nation’ was often defined racially, while in the new cult, all the races seemed to mingle together. In 1956, Nat King Cole was attacked on stage in Alabama by a group of white supremacists who claimed he slept with his white teenage fans. What particularly worried the Establishment was the cultural power wielded by rock and roll stars. Through radio, they seemed to have a direct line straight into the psyche of the nation’s youth, and thus exerted far more power and influence than monarchs or politicians. Presidents came and went, while Elvis remained the King.

Politicians, the press and the church tried to protect the nation’s youth initially by going after radio DJs like Alan Freed, the pioneer of rock and roll (and inventor of the term) who was driven to an early grave by political campaigns against him. Then they went after the musicians themselves, for sex offences (Chuck Berry), for drug offences (Keith Richards), for tax offences (James Brown), for weapon offences (Lil Wayne). In the 1980s, churches and ethical campaigners went after pop for its Satanic influences and its obscenity. In the 1990s, the British government went after rave music by passing the Criminal Justice Bill, outlawing any outdoor parties playing repetitive beats. But rock and roll always managed to escape, like Dionysus escaping the prison of King Pentheus.

The smarter members of the Establishment, however, recognised that the new cult could be a new form of power for the nation-state, as shown by a reception for the Beatles held at the British Embassy in Washington on their first, epoch-making visit to the US in 1964. ‘Come now and do your stuff’, a young embassy official told John Lennon on that occasion. ‘I’m not going back through that crowd – I want a drink!’ Lennon replied. ‘Oh yes you are’, said the official. And he did. The Beatles and later British bands like Bowie, the Stones and Led Zeppelin did more to forge a ‘special relationship’ between the US and UK than any post-war politician. Capitalism, unlike communism, managed to absorb rock and roll, and turn it into a commodity like any other. A new generation arose of LSD-popping rock and roll entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and Steve Jobs.

By the 1990s, the cult of rock and roll had become successfully absorbed into the cult of the nation-state, just as Christianity eventually became the official cult of the Roman Empire. Tony Blair strummed an electric guitar for the cameras and welcomed Oasis to Number 10. Bill Clinton played sax during his campaign and helped to make a 1997 documentary for VH-1 called Bill Clinton: rock and roll president (he even named his daughter after the Joni Mitchell song Chelsea Morning). Now, at major national events like the Super-Bowl, the Olympics opening ceremony or the funeral of Princess Diana, we don’t play Elgar or Haydn or Aaron Copeland, we play Elton John, Paul McCartney or Underworld. While the Queen’s silver jubilee may have been a battle between patriotism and punk, by her diamond jubilee thirty years later, rock was all-conquering, and the Queen was forced to attend a rock concert. Supposedly it was in her honour, but really, the honour was all rock’s.

Of course, once the cult of rock has become the official religion of the establishment, some might say the cult has lost something, just as Christianity lost something when Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. It is no longer the music of poor outsiders. It is the music of the rich and powerful. What strange new cult is bubbling to birth in the underground?

In other news:

Here is a new podcast I did for Aeon Magazine, all about empathy, featuring interviews with Roman Krznaric, Maria Konnikova and Tobias Jones. Check it out, it’s good – and if you like it, please share it etc.

Here’s something I wrote on Stoicism for the Guardian this week.

My boss at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, Thomas Dixon, presented a cultural history of weeping on Radio 3 this week, which you can listen to here.

Next Tuesday I am starting to teach a free six-week evening course in practical philosophy at Queen Mary in London, which is open to the public. Details here .

On Wednesday next week at the School of Life, I’m interviewing the philosopher Havi Carel about how philosophy can help us through illness.  Still a few tickets left, here.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright’s new book on Scientology has been dropped by its publisher in the UK for fear of legal battles, but it’s out in the US. Here’s a podcast interview with him.

Here’s Ross Andersen writing in the Atlantic about those crazy Oxford bioethicists’ latest claim: that we have a moral obligation to take ‘love drugs’.

A programme from Wales whereby GPs prescribe self-help books is being rolled out in England. Pity the government has closed thousands of libraries.

I’m doing the Alpha course at the moment, and enjoying it (although I don’t feel massively changed). Here is Jon Ronson’s excellent article about it, including the dreaded ‘Alpha weekend’ where everyone starts speaking in tongues (I’m going on it in two weeks…).

That’s all for this week.  Here, after a week of crappy weather, are some springboks pronking.

See you next week,


PoW: the flourishing university

There are few areas of our society going through such bewildering change at the moment as higher education. It is a difficult and distressing time for academics and students alike. But this upheaval also means we have a rare opportunity not merely to defend the status quo but to experiment with new models of higher education. And, because of the phenomenal expansion of higher education in BRIC and middle income countries, these models could then be exported around the world.

On Wednesday, I attended a debate between the universities minister, David Willetts, and Martin Rees, the distinguished Cambridge astrophysicist and member of the Council for the Defence of British Universities. Despite the pre-fight hype, they found a lot of common ground. Both wished to see a much more diverse ecology in higher education, with many different types of institution. They just disagreed on how to pay for it.

I asked Willetts and Rees two questions. Firstly, I asked how we could ensure that undergraduates receive better pastoral care. As Ed Pinkney of Mental Wealth UK uncovered recently, student suicides per year have grown by 36% for men and by 88% for women in the last four years. Students at present are left almost entirely to their own devices, as if they were fully-fledged emotionally mature adults. They’re not. The idea of universities being in loco parentis may be controversial (what students wants universities telling them how to behave?) but the pendulum has swung too far the other way.  Today universities are absent parents, obsessed with their own careers rather than their wards’ well-being.

Rees countered that pastoral care at British universities is much better than at American universities. I’m not sure that’s true. Anecdotally, this from a friend:

Second year of [a leading British university] I was not in a good way either.  This was only remarked upon once by a member of the establishment: the Provost who looked down his nose at me and described me as “dizzy”.  No help from anyone.

Last few weeks of [an American university] I came a bit unstuck again, checked in to the Psych Centre (yep – a whole building full of it) via a discrete online form.  Got an amazing therapist who put me back together.  The whole thing is so beautifully handled: you never even have to speak to a receptionist.  When you arrive at the centre, you check in via a computer that asks you some really relevant questions, namely are you thinking of topping yourself.  Then you wait in reception until you are collected.  A quiet, calm place with a view over the playing fields.  An hour with a highly skilled practitioner.  No bill.

I look back on that year in [a leading British university] and shudder.  I was alone in that flat without any heating and was lonely and isolated.  “Dizzy”?!

I have been encouraging Ed Pinkney’s Mental Wealth UK and other organisations like Students for Happiness to launch a ‘well-being audit’ of British universities, to find out what support services they provide, how good they are, to what extent students are made aware of them, and so on. Then make that information public, so that students and parents can make informed decisions when choosing universities. There should be a student well-being league table as well as an academic league table.

Professor Robert Tombs of Cambridge suggested to me that the reason universities might not be good at pastoral care or teaching “because that’s how we get funded” – to do research, not pastoral care. Willetts agreed: “There is a bias in the system in favour of research and against teaching.” Well, if students start going where the teaching and pastoral care is best, universities will rapidly take it more seriously. It’s a question of gathering and circulating the information properly.

The liberal arts model

Secondly, I asked the two speakers how we could improve the honours degree system so they are less specialized and students come out with a broader and more rounded education, in both the sciences and the humanities. They both agreed this was an issue. Rees said: “The ability to take degrees that balance the sciences and humanities is the one good reason for students to study at Harvard rather than Cambridge.”

Both Willetts and Rees suggested that the American model of a liberal arts college might be usefully imported into the UK. Such a model might (a) offer a well-rounded education in both the sciences and the humanities and (b) offer better pastoral care.  The liberal arts model is “a great gap in the system”, Willetts said. I would not be surprised if US liberal arts colleges opened campuses in the UK, which would really put the cat among the pigeons.

In fact, British universities are increasingly interested in the liberal arts model. Winchester University launched a liberal arts course in 2010, University College London launched one in 2011, Kings College London launched one this year, Exeter is launching one next year, as is Birmingham.

Cardinal Newman: back by pope demand

We’re also seeing new institutions launched in the American liberal arts mold. Students at AC Grayling’s New College of the Humanities get to choose four modules from other courses and also take compulsory classes in science literacy and critical thinking.  There are also plans afoot, supported by the philosophers Roger Scruton and Anthony O’Hear, to launch a Catholic liberal arts college called Benedictus, where students will get to study a broad curriculum including large dollops of Newman and Aquinas, and also to spend a year at a campus in Italy (assuming the project gets off the ground).

Liberal arts colleges are increasingly popular around the world too – a new liberal arts college was set up in China this year, there’s another being set up in India, while South Korea held a conference this year called ‘the Renaissance of liberal studies at Asian universities’.

Ironically, while the rest of the world moves towards the American liberal arts model, the model is in crisis at home. Of the 18 million students in American higher education, less than 100,000 are enrolled in liberal arts courses (so this article tells me anyway). Because of the whopping tuition fees and the grim jobs market, more and more students are opting for business and vocational degrees, and humanities scholars, in particular, are struggling to make a case for public funding. American universities’ famous ‘general education’ courses have become too general, some say – they have dissolved into ‘aimless eclecticism‘. But the shift to vocational degrees, some academics complain, is creating a generation of office stooges rather than free-thinkers. As the conservative magazine the Weekly Standard puts it:

those who graduate from college are probably more conformist, and therefore likely to be more dependable, than those who do not. Paul Goodman, one of the now-forgotten gurus of the 1960s, used to argue that what finishing college really meant is that one was willing to do anything to succeed in a capitalist society.

Still, a university education should be useful and should prepare us for society, shouldn’t it? In a much broader sense than simply preparing us for an office cubicle. Let me end by briefly sketching my ideal ‘general education’ course, which I will offer as soon as I get funding for my new college, the Sarah Connor School for the Apocalypse (what follows is somewhat tongue-in-cheek…)

My dream academy

Firstly, the course would include a module on flourishing, similar to the course I sketched out in Philosophy for Life, which would balance ancient wisdom with modern psychology. It would also include lessons in sexual education and theology (not at the same time), and introductions to the wisdom of non-western traditions.

Tolstoy, head of the husbandry department at my dream academy

Secondly, the course would include ‘husbandry’, in which students would learn farming, carpentry, self-sufficient energy and basic engineering (fixing car engines, generators etc). The college would have adjacent allotments and workshops in which the students would work for at least two hours a day, becoming proficient in manual as well as mental labour. Thirdly, the course would include a compulsory athletics module – students could pick their sports, but would also have to learn basic first aid and martial arts (this is the Sarah Connor school for the apocalypse, after all).

Fourthly, the students would take an economics module, which would include social work in the local community, an introduction to evidence-based politics, and also advice on setting up your own business or social enterprise. Fifthly, a science module would include astrophysics, genetics, and medicine. And finally, students would study a component on mathematics and computer programming, which would include digital creativity.

The college would put student well-being at its centre, rather than periphery, and students would be invited to a Quaker silent service every morning and evening (it wouldn’t be compulsory).

None of this, of course, tackles the difficult question of financing. We may all admire American universities’ lofty vision of liberal education, but as Willetts pointed out, there is a ‘dark side’ to Ivy League universities: they are kept afloat by rich alumni buying places for their children via endowments.

That dark side was exposed this week in an extraordinary story about Dr Chang, the dean of St John’s University, a Catholic liberal arts college in New York. Dr Chang took her own life after being convicted of the most flagrant fraud, including getting students to do manual labour in her house for free, spending thousands of the college’s dollars in casinos, and even hiring a hitman to kill her husband. She got away with all this, she said, because she was a ‘money tree’, skilled at winning donations from rich Asians. Read this great NYT article on the case, which ends with a sentence worthy of Raymond Chandler.

The question of how to finance ‘liberal education’ remains a tricky one. But, in all seriousness, I think there’s a wonderful opportunity right now to design a new type of university course, perhaps even a new type of university. Of course, my ideal course is quite prescriptive and guided. It involves less student choice, and more pastoral guidance. But I think, paradoxically, that is what students want.


Just a few links as the newsletter was quite long this week.

Here’s an interesting Guardian piece on research from Durham Uni showing young British students are drinking less and taking less drugs.

Another Guardian piece on an important new reform from Nick Clegg, which allows people to choose their psychiatrist in the NHS. A step in the right direction, although, as Peter Kinderman points out, choosing among psychiatrists still limits one to the psychiatric biomedical disease model of mental health.

Over-eating is now a bigger health risk globally than malnutrition

A huge study called the Global Burden of Disease 2010 has found that over-eating is now a bigger health risk than malnutrition, as this New Scientist article explores.  There’s also a report on obesity in The Economist, which notes that a quarter of British men and women are obese. In the words of Edmund Burke, “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites”.

Here is an interesting report on the pampered generation of ‘Little Emperors’ growing up out of China’s one-child policy.

Here is a great review of the year in psychology, from the BPS Research Digest. Lots of scandals!

The 2011 British census, published this week, showed us quite how much Britain changed under New Labour, with immigration up by three million over the decade, mainly from Poland, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Caucasians are now in the minority in London. The number of people calling themselves Christians has declined by 13%, as alas has the Jedi congregation, while the number of those without religion is up by 10%. There are 70,000 pagans and 6,000 worshippers of heavy metal. The number of people renting their homes doubled, while the number of homeowners fell by 750,000.

Finally, here are six of my favourite minutes of cinema, from Room With A View. George Emerson in a tree, declaring ‘the eternal Yes’.

See you next week,


PS If you want to help me earn a living, pop into a bookshop today and order a copy of my book. You don’t have to buy it, just order it. Then someone else will buy it, read it, and get the benefit of your actions. As will I. And thank you to the latest reviewer on Amazon, who gave it five stars while writing: ‘I have got it as a present to give for Christmas so can not comment as not actually read it.’ Hey, they all count.

Set the controls for the heart of happiness

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed there was no newsletter last weekend. Apologies. The reason for this is I have journeyed deep into the warm, pulsating heart of the happiness movement. Last Thursday I took part in a conference on Positive Psychology at Wellington College (the pioneer of well-being classes), and then I went down to Dartington, in Totnes, Devon, to take part in an Action for Happiness two-day happiness festival.  I left Dartington, I kid you not, while a choir stood on the misty lawn singing ‘happy, happy, happy clappy!’ I felt like a rehab patient leaving the Priory.

Anyway, abandoning my usual dour demeanour, I admit that both events were great fun, and encouraging. My sense is that the Positive Psychology / happiness movement is becoming less positivistic (in other words, less dogmatic in its claims to objectivity and scientific truth) and more responsive to the role of philosophy and ethical reasoning in the search for the good life. (On that point, it’s sad that Christopher Peterson, one of the more philosophical voices within Positive Psychology, died this week. Here’s his beautiful last blog post).

I organised a philosophy discussion circle at Dartington – the first time I’ve facilitated one – and I think everyone involved really felt the benefit of that sort of open Socratic inquiry into what the good life means for us. As the Quakers well knew, there’s something very egalitarian and democratic about a discussion circle – there’s no expert or priest or higher authority ‘up there’ while the masses kneel beneath them. Everyone is equally at the front or at the centre. And facilitating a circle discussion seemed to involve letting go of control and letting silences happen – both quite difficult for me!

I also came away from the events hopeful that the Positive Psychology / happiness movement is aware of the risk that, in deifying certain emotional states or personality types as ideal, you pathologise their opposites. If you say that happiness is ideal, there’s a risk that sadness becomes an unacceptable failure. If extroversion is absolutely good, then introversion could be deemed absolutely bad. If optimism is always healthy, then pessimism becomes toxic. That sort of thinking is far too black-and-white, and I believe it actually causes suffering rather than mitigating it, by making introverts or pessimists feel worse about themselves. After all, introverts and pessimists have important social roles to play too, particularly in chronically optimistic short-term societies like ours.

We have many different moods and dispositions, and sometimes the best way to transform the difficult ones is to accept them rather than demonise them. In the words of Rumi, in what I think might be my favourite poem:

Learn the alchemy true human beings know: the moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given, the door opens.
Welcome difficulty as a familiar comrade.
Joke with torment brought by a Friend.
Sorrows are the rags of old clothes and jackets that serve to cover, and then are taken off.
That undressing, and the beautiful naked body underneath, is the sweetness that comes after grief.

I’ve given a lot of talks in the last month or so on the relationship between ancient philosophy and CBT,  and often someone in the audience criticises CBT for being shallow, simplistic, mechanistic, capitalist and ‘not dealing with root causes’. Usually such critics are therapists or counsellors in other traditions, annoyed that they didn’t get any public money. My answer is typically that I expect other forms of therapy to get public funding in the future – it’s already happening for approaches like mindfulness therapy – but you can’t expect to get any government funding without a convincing evidence base. Anecdotal case studies by psychologists simply won’t cut it anymore. As Freud proved, they’re too easy to fake.

It is also clear to me, however, that CBT is not for everyone and the research still has a long way to go to work out how to help more people. But what saddens me is that some therapists fail to find anything to celebrate in the government’s new support for talking therapies. Nor do many lay-people see the young national mental health service as something to fight for. The Improved Access for Psychotherapies (IAPT) policy is still very young, and vulnerable (as Paul Burstow MP, former minister for care services, recently emphasised). We shouldn’t assume it will stay in existence without our protection.

Richard Layard, the economist who more than anyone helped get IAPT funding, warned at Dartington that not all allocated funding is coming through and that as much as half of all children’s therapy services are being closed (I’ve asked him for stats to back up that claim). It is a very recent phenomenon for government to take mental illnesses like depression and anxiety seriously. If you believe in talking therapies, not just CBT but any talking therapies, then please support IAPT. I am all for expanding the range of therapies available on the NHS, as long as they are evidence-based.

Idealistic champions of adult education like RH Tawney are long gone.

Meanwhile, one thing that struck me as we discussed various ‘happiness policies’ at Dartington, was how little anyone spoke of adult education. Likewise, not one political party mentioned adult education at their conference. Schools, academies, universities – they’re all in the news constantly. But adult education is completely off the political radar at the moment. Adult education was a central part of the socialist vision for thinkers like RH Tawney. But no one in parliament cares about it now, none think it worth fighting for. At least Action for Happiness is trying to do something for adult education, albeit in a rather informal and unstructured way. It is a noble attempt to spread ideas about the good life and the good society – inspired, I believe, by Richard Layard’s experience of attending a Quaker reading group for many years.

The Octagon Room at Queen Mary, University of London

Talking of reviving adult education, we had a seminar at Queen Mary, University of London yesterday evening, in the beautiful Octagon Room, which was once a library for East End workers back in the 19th century when Queen Mary was known as the People’s Palace. We had a great group of participants come and talk about their work – including Philosophy Now, Philosophy In the Pub, Skeptics In the Pub, Pub Psychology, Sapere (a charity that does a lot of work with Philosophy 4 Children), Niki Barbery Bleyleben (good name!) who runs discussion groups for mums, and many others. We videoed the presentations and will put them up soon, along with the report I’m writing on philosophy clubs, and the website,, which will finally launch next week, I promise!

One of the things I suggest in the report is that the contemporary grassroots philosophy movement is in part a product of the 1960s, and that decade’s radical reformation of academia and demand that it ‘look beyond the campus’ (in the words of the Port Huron Statement). In that spirit, here is a 2008 BBC Radio 4 documentary by Nick Fraser on ‘1968: Philosophy in the streets’, with contributions from philosophers including Simon Critchley and Alain Badiou.

One of the participants at our seminar was Paul Hains, who together with his wife Brigid recently launched the excellent online magazine Aeon. I’m not just saying that because he occasionally sponsors our philosophy club events – the essays it publishes are really very good. Check out this one by Ross Andersen (whose Atlantic articles on philosophy are typically excellent) on dendrochronology and the threats facing the oldest trees in the world

Here, from the Futility Closet blog, is some advice from 1820 on how to fight ‘low spirits’, in a letter from Sidney Smith to Lady Georgiana Morpeth:

Dear Lady Georgiana,

Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done — so I feel for you. 1st. Live as well as you dare. 2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°. 3rd. Amusing books. 4th. Short views of human life — not further than dinner or tea. 5th. Be as busy as you can. 6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you. 7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you. 8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely — they are always worse for dignified concealment. 9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you. 10th. Compare your lot with that of other people. 11th. Don’t expect too much from human life — a sorry business at the best. 12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy, sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion, not ending in active benevolence. 13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree. 14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue. 15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant. 16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness. 17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice. 18th. Keep good blazing fires. 19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion. 20th. Believe me, dear Lady Georgiana,

Very truly yours,

Sydney Smith

Did you see the BBC 2 series on the history of the stiff upper lip? It was excellent, and managed to get the history of emotions onto mainstream TV. Well done to my supervisor, Thomas Dixon, for contributing to the programme (he’s now a leading historian of public crying, or a ‘sobbing guru’ as someone put it on Twitter). Check out the blog posts he wrote about the research behind the show.

Talking of stiff upper lips, a fortnight ago I participated in an excellent seminar on Stoicism and CBT at Exeter University. Here’s a blog on Stoicism and its uses today that came out of it – expect some very good posts in the future from some of the seminar participants.

I admire Jenny Hartley and Sarah Turvey of the University of Roehampton for their pioneering work over the last decade on reading groups and book clubs. Their latest project is taking reading groups into prisons. They have expanded the number of such groups from 4 to 30. Great work.

Here’s a BBC radio programme about the fast-developing science of hallucinations.

From 3 Quarks Daily, here’s communitarian philosopher Charles Taylor in an hour-long discussion with Confucian philosopher Tu Weiming, asking if we’re leaving the secular age.

And here’s an essay with Tu Weiming explains why he thinks we’re moving beyond the Enlightenment and philosophy is taking a ‘spiritual turn’.

I’ve had some wonderful emails from people who have read the book over the last fortnight – thank you very much. It means a huge amount to me and makes me feel the hard work is worth it. You can help me in my work by buying the book for yourself or others, spreading the word, or writing a review on Amazon or Good Reads. We finally got an offer from the US (hooray! thanks for your support on that). There’s still a lot of work to be done, so your help in promoting the book is hugely appreciated.

In the meantime, here is a photo of the nominees for this year’s Booker Prize, with Will Self at the back showing how to do book promotion.

See you next week,