The ego! You’ve actually been writing a lot about egoism, and how it can be useful to our everyday lives. What’s been the thinking behind that?
I realised I had a deficiency in the other direction. I’d spent much of my life running away from anyone who showed egoistic behaviour.
Of course, I’m egoistic on occasion, but when I discover I have been I berate myself, and swear never to go there again.
And so I actually become extremely timid and unwilling to put myself forward, even to the point where I don’t realise I’m suppressing my desires. We went for dinner on my final night in Perth, and they asked me where I’d like to go. I thought, What do I want? I really want green Thai curry. And we had to walk a really long way to this curry place, and I started feeling awkward, suggesting we go somewhere else, and we finally get there and I didn’t want to be there anymore.
Then I was eating it, and I remembered, I actually want this. I was really happy to be eating it. But that fear of being a hindrance to other people had naturally suppressed my desire.
I think many people can relate to that. Why do we do it, do you think, put others before ourselves in this almost debilitating way?
I think we do it a lot out of fear. The fear that when we do put our preferences forward we might face rejection.
And we have this message from ethics which says altruism and self-sacrifice is always the way.
I would prefer to see a more balanced approach where we recognise the value of those things, but we also have a thoughtful discussion around the need to have a strong ego, and to put our desires in the picture, and to be confident around that on some occasions.
Well, one instance is when you need to raise a difficult topic with a partner. Something like, “You squeezed the toothpaste from the wrong end.” Or “I really don’t want to go to your parents’ this Christmas.”
And you’re saying it for the first time and you know it’s going to be a mess. The feeling you have is that by saying those words you’re really going to throw the situation open, it’s going to go from a nice breakfast to a disaster. In my work, I say, “At that moment, we feel like the guy smashing the bottle—we’re holding the bottle right there” and we’re really afraid of that. But perhaps the bottle smasher can teach us a lesson in that case. He can teach us the capacity to turn a situation from one of order to disorder and unpredictability.
You’re writing a book that explores these questions.
Yes. It’s on the ethics of ego. So it’s this idea that we have key fears in our life: we fear being called selfish, we fear being called arrogant, egoistic. And these fears are often well-founded, but in running so far from these behaviours, we are perhaps missing some important lessons. Maybe from the things we most hate, there is something we can learn.
What could we learn from, say, the narcissist do you think? As something our current culture seems to struggle with.
The narcissist gets a lot wrong, but the one thing he gets right is he’s appreciative of himself. He has affection for himself. That’s something we find quite difficult in our everyday lives, and we do counter the fear of being called narcissistic.
I think he can teach us something that is more than being introspective, because one can be introspective but quite critical, and we’re very good at that, but the narcissist can teach us to be appreciative of our inner life. Schopenhauer made that point very strongly: that in order to understand ourselves, we need to like ourselves at a basic level. If we’re constantly critical and anxious about who we are, we will flee from ourselves and never look at ourselves clearly.
He thought we should take some time out of each day, get a cup of tea, and reflect on who we are, reflect on how we’ve behaved, what we’ve done and what we’re doing. So to do that in a tender and gentle way.
What are we talking about when we talk about ethics?
Ethics is really about finding the best way to live. The Greek word ethos means style. So what we’re looking for is a good style of living. That brings ethics back to its original focus: how we live across all areas of life.
I think in the modern day it’s become quite specific, but really ethics belongs to fields such as holidays and how we have good holidays, how we design our rooms, the values behind the objects around us. The other word around ethics is morality, which comes from the Latin word mores, which means the habits and conventions of society. So you can see how the two words play out together.
It sounds like ethics are something we have to consciously foster in our everyday lives.
Right. Ideally, it’s a ritual we build into our daily lives, something that furthers self-knowledge, which for me has meant doing psychoanalysis. It’s something I never would have thought I’d get into. Because my undergraduate was in neuroscience, I was always very critical of it. I came to it because I was extremely anxious.
This was a year ago and at the time I was big fan of The School of Life, and I was really wanting to work there, so I put forward this proposal, and they said it wasn’t quite what they wanted. And I felt my life had utterly fallen apart. I remember saying to myself, “All I can see is a great black hole.” But I did reflect and think, perhaps you’re exaggerating just a bit. It might be helpful to talk through these anxieties. So that was the trigger.
What’s the process been like?
It was fascinating. I walked upstairs to the GP’s office and this very lovely woman talked to me, and arranged for me to come back once a week. So I lie on this bed, and she sits behind me, like Freud.
It was very awkward at the beginning, I didn’t know what to do, which in itself of course was something we talked about. She wants to leave it completely open for me to go wherever. And now I go five times a week. I chat about my dreams or the feeling I had on the way up on the bus. I go through every single emotional situation in my life. She knows everything about my life now, more than anyone I know.
The main barrier for me is intellectualising everything, and what I need to do is think: What do I feel? It’s different from a normal conversation because there’s much more scope for being fragmentary and nonsensical.
Is it enriching to speak about your experiences like that, really raw, without attaching any story, just saying it as it is?
It’s hugely liberating. We have so many good, healthy habits with conversations. Be clear, considered, wanting to ask the other person questions. To slowly learn I didn’t have to do that in this context was great fun. I could say whatever was on my mind and talk through the craziest things.
One day she was slightly delayed in opening the door to let me in, and we talked about that for an entire hour. I felt she was resenting me for some reason, and I realised I do that with many people, on the slightest cue.
It sounds very stressful to be you at times! [Laughs].
[Laughs]. Yeah, it is. I don’t know how my therapist does it sometimes.
How do you reflect on your personal relationships?
One of my best friends in Oxford is called Henry, and when I first met him he was this big American wearing a baseball cap, and I immediately thought, we’re not going to get along.
It turns out he writes poetry really well, speaks ancient Greek, but he’s a complete frat boy, and one thing he used to do was steal salt shakers at restaurants he went to and then smash them on the way home, so leave this beautiful trail of salt.
What’s fascinating about Henry is that’s really his personality, that attitude makes him a great conversationalist, because he brings whatever’s on his mind to the fore, and he’s so much more open and exciting to talk to. He has the confidence, and really he’s the basis of my discussion around egoism.
He’s the bottle smasher!
Exactly. It’s played out in some not-so-appealing ways as well, but it made me think, there’s a psychological trait there that’s valuable.
How easy is it to apply ethics to our everyday lives?
In general it’s really difficult. And I think the Greeks understood that. Plato says he didn’t really like books, he much preferred to have a conversation.
And the way they did philosophy in the ancient world was much more participatory. You’d join a school and spend a lot of time there doing difficult things like fasting, practising rituals; those schools essentially turned into the monasteries.
The underlying insight was that to make ideas part of your life, you need repetition, you need a community to support you. Our brains are so skittish that when we hear or read a good thought we forget it 15 minutes later. To get that thought to stick we need to rehearse it 20, 30 times. The big effort is to build structures and institutions that will help us.
There’s the website Books as Therapy that you worked on where you help readers find answers to important life questions by directing them to related books. What was the inspiration behind that?
Basically we decided that much of what makes a book good is reading it at the right time for us. And we want to make that process a little less random. To link books to the need we have at a particular moment.
So if you press on the category, “Love,” for example, and then the problem, “I don’t give enough compliments,” the answer is in Plato’s Symposium, because Plato argued that compliments were essential to love, he thought love was really admiration, and that we don’t put enough efforts into compliments. We don’t sit down and think, why is that quality good in that person?
What’s something you’re consciously working to change in yourself?
I’d really like to be a more tender person, to be more confident around physical intimacy, around touching people. And I’m not necessarily talking about lovers. I mean friends, family.
I’m quite a standoffish person physically, so I admire people who are much warmer and can just stroke someone else’s arm or rub their back—like my friend Henry who gets lots of hugs.
I really try to push myself with that.
Have you gotten better at it?
I think so, but I still have this overriding instinct to withdraw and shut down when things are challenging, which is really annoying. I come across as very cold to people sometimes. I had this idea for The School of Life where you have a relationship gym, and you practise, among other things, the physical aspects of a date—like flicking the other person’s knee or touching their elbows.
I love that. You’ve taught a few classes at The School of Life now. What do you get out of that?
It’s been really interesting to see people outside of the academy who are very interested in ideas.
In universities the atmosphere is very critical and not interested in applying knowledge to better their lives. And one becomes very defensive in that environment.
So it’s been an amazing experience to teach these classes to incredibly intelligent people working in accountancy or graphic design.
The interest in being a better human seems to be quite prevalent in our culture today. Is this specific to our times do you think?
If you look at the ‘50s, the postwar period, we had people clinging to a highly developed, worked-out model of how to live, which was the school of traditionalism. And then you had the rebels, who genuinely identified some deficiencies with the model: it was too puritanical, it wasn’t sensual enough, there wasn’t enough freedom to play around. But it was an extreme reaction with the answer being living in communes and totally free love. So they were quite polarised.
And it feels to me now we’re at a stage where we’re feeling clearer and saner about integrating those different ideas, those different ways of living. We’re willing to take ideas from everywhere.
What are the three things you think are most important to living a good life?
Well, time for reflection is one. Making time for space in your day that is completely open, where you’re not pursuing any purpose.
Maybe that’s having a bath or going for a walk that is not about exercise or getting somewhere or solving a problem, just wandering.
That open space will then be filled by all the thoughts you need to have, thoughts that you would otherwise push away only to have them come back on your pillow at night. Those thoughts are the causes for insomnia a lot of the time. So making that time is really important for pursuing self-knowledge.
The second thing is being realistic. Being able to cope with suffering and the mess of the world, with our inadequacies and the fact that good people do bad things. We’ve got to be realistic about all this. We have to have the courage to confront the bad and either act or just get on with things.
Idealism would be the third. That’s the ability to love the good moments in life, to appreciate them. To appreciate beauty and the best parts in the people you know. And to be able to hold onto those things, and articulate them back to yourself. Idealism is really about celebrating the good in everything and everyone.
So how did you get into philosophy?
When I was 14 I watched a TV show about the philosopher Nietzsche. And it ended with a shot of a man on top of a snowy mountain with clouds all around him. It was one of those helicopter shots, zooming around him with the wind blowing his hair and he has this great cape on. And I just thought, whatever that is, that’s what I want to do.
I went off and printed his essay, “The Use and Abuse of History for Life,” which is a slightly obscure title, but is really about how we should use knowledge for living. And at his stage the academy was becoming dominated by history, people wanting to learn more and more about the past, not really thinking how they could improve the present with that knowledge.
Nietzsche was saying if this trend continues, the academy would become irrelevant. He had this inspiring vision that we could use knowledge from everywhere for our everyday lives. And I really bought into that.
It was the catalyst for you studying philosophy?
My path there was slightly windy. I did my undergraduate in neuroscience. I liked the glamour of neuroscience, it was slightly cutting edge. It told us about the brain which is a physical object but also a place where our dreams happened. And I was enticed by that, even though in reality we mostly learnt about the knee reflex. It came up in four subjects! It was like, “we don’t really know much about the brain so we’ll just talk about the knee reflex.”
[Laughs]. We’re learning more and more about the brain, even its role in developing consciousness and selfhood, which for a long time have gone unexplained. I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Whether I prefer certain experiences to be illuminated by science or remain great mysteries. What would philosophy say to that?
There are a couple of things there. One is the tendency when studying small things to deflate the real wonder. So even the picture of neurons you get in textbooks is really ugly, and you think, well that has nothing to do with the beauty of being human. But neurons are wonderful objects, wispy but highly accurate machines with hundreds of thousands of tendrils—trillions of them creating elaborate patterns.
I think when one is able to describe the brain properly, it can definitely hold all the complexity that we are. When you see just how wonderful and intricate the brain is, you think, yeah that might be the place where all these wonderful things happen.
The other point is that philosophy is great at keeping perspective so you can hold onto this sense that we haven’t even started on these great mysteries yet. It’s possible in neuroscience to feel like we’re not far, but philosophy reminds us that we haven’t really grasped most of the interesting things about being human.
Well, philosophy’s interested in subjects like love, beauty, virtue, which science groups together as “emergent phenomena.” And that’s really a way of saying, “We don’t know” [laughs]. It’s not to say we won’t understand these things from different perspectives, it’s just that the method of science is not very helpful on that front at the moment.
What do think of your brain? Do you like it?
[Laughs]. It’s very annoying. It has habits that I recognise are quite disruptive to the way I work. It’s too anxious, it’s too catastrophic. I have this tendency to intellectualise everything. But I do like being philosophical. And I really enjoy thinking. I love to talk for hours and hours about particular ideas.
What philosophy lesson would you teach to every world leader right now?
I would talk about passing on wisdom, and how wisdom is knowledge that helps us to live well, how spreading that knowledge is the crucial task to building a good society, and extends far beyond government. So I’d say to get a good society we need a good citizenry that is educated in how to have good relationships, build a good career, be calm.
The government’s task should be to support that process, and give speeches about how to live well. We should have a national day where we talk about our relationship struggles and joys.
There should be favouritism for people who are doing this.
[Laughs]. What gives you hope for humanity?
Basically that the good things in the universe will always be there. Beautiful things are not going to go away. There will always be creatures who have potential to love those things. Even if we mess up civilisation and things go through a bad patch, we can always recover that again in the future, and the ideal is building a beautiful city where the love of all good qualities becomes embodied in these material forms and ways of life. The potential is always there for that, and that gives me hope.