Christmas (we have it on the best authorities) is a time to be jolly.
Sure, like being told by your parents that “you shall not only go to your cousins, but enjoy it”, the whole thing can become paradoxically onerous, as Slavoj Žižek used to say. (Why are you telling us we should be happy when we really should, by ourselves, actually be happy …)
Science has proved itself to be a reliable way to approach all kinds of questions about the physical world. As a scientist, I am led to wonder whether its ability to provide understanding is unlimited. Can science in fact answer all the great questions, the ‘big questions of being’, that occur to us?
When Michel de Montaigne retired to his family estate in 1572, aged 38, he tells us that he wanted to write his famous Essays as a distraction for his idle mind. He neither wanted nor expected people beyond his circle of friends to be too interested.
There is a phrase you are as likely to find in a serious philosophy text as you are in the wackiest self-help book: ‘Know thyself!’ The phrase has serious philosophical pedigree: by Socrates’ time, it was more or less received wisdom (apparently chiselled into the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi) though a form of the phrase reaches back to Ancient Egypt. And ever since, the majority of philosophers have had something to say about it.
Leafing through this old A-to-Z of celebrities is like finding a Mad Magazine from the nineteenth century. The book’s lyrics and images wondrously lampoon the– mostly– old men of European civilization. Instead of being revered as timeless sages, they are brought low, returned to us as fallen flesh-and-blood creatures. Their everyday lives get the tabloid treatment. And, just like today, lust is the common sin that most often brings these high and mighty men crashing down to earth.
Socrates invented the art of cultivating a beautiful soul, perhaps because he was been born with such a famously ugly face.