Our Culture, What’s Left of It by Theodore Dalrymple: my highlights

A fascinating book from a retired psychiatrist/prison doctor who has seen the sort of things most of us never encounter. Mostly skeptical and confrontational, occasionally dark and a little prudish – with ephemeral sightings of the most honest optimism. Verbose. I usually despise verbosity, but his is the sort that I like to read out loud.

There is something to be said here about the word ‘depression,’ which has almost entirely eliminated the word and even the concept of unhappiness from modern life. This semantic shift is deeply significant, for it implies that dissatisfaction with life is itself pathological, a medical condition, which it is the responsibility of the doctor to alleviate by medical means. Everyone has a right to health; depression is unhealthy; therefore everyone has a right to be happy (the opposite of being depressed).


When young people want to praise themselves, they describe themselves as ‘nonjudgmental.’ For them, the highest form of morality is amorality. There has been an unholy alliance between those on the Left, who believe that man is endowed with rights but no duties, and libertarians on the Right, who believe that consumer choice is the answer to all social questions, an idea eagerly adopted by the Left in precisely those areas where it does not apply.


It is only the sentimentalist who imagines that the profundity of a person’s response to tragedy is proportional to the length, volume, or shrillness of his lamentation.


Danger simplifies existence and therefore—again when chosen, not imposed—comes as a relief from many anxieties. [About a photographer in Vietnam]: He loved the country, but his commitment to it was only war-deep: if peace, alas, were to break out, he would have to find another conflict to photograph.


Untold numbers of my patients, with every opportunity to lead quiet, useful, and tolerably prosperous lives, choose instead the path of complication and, if not of violence and physical danger exactly, at least of drama and excitement, leading to sleepless nights and financial loss… As many have told me, they prefer disaster to boredom.


…social theorists often suppose that human beings have a clear idea what it is they want from life, and behave moreover as if they were rational calculating machines designed to procure it.


I learned early in my life that, if people are offered the opportunity of tranquillity, they often reject it and choose torment instead.


For a long time I pitied myself: had any child ever been as miserable as I? I felt the deepest, most sincere compassion for myself. Then gradually it began to dawn on me that the education I had received had liberated me from any need or excuse to repeat the sordid triviality of my parents’ personal lives. One’s past is not one’s destiny, and it is self-serving to pretend that it is.


…a rejection of everything associated with one’s childhood is not so much an escape from that childhood as an imprisonment by it.


I had assumed, along with most of my generation unacquainted with real hardship, that a scruffy appearance was a sign of spiritual election, representing a rejection of the superficiality and materialism of bourgeois life.


[About Soviet border officials]: He surmised that these border officials had been deprived of all true discretion and were deeply fearful themselves of the power to which they were subordinate… ‘automata inconvenienced with a soul’:


[About St Petersburg]: The very selection of the terrain—a freezing swamp—for the construction of a city by the fiat of the czar was an expression of contempt for humanity, for in such a place construction necessarily entailed the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men. Only where human labour—and life itself—ostentatiously counted for nothing could such a system of building maintenance have been envisaged, let alone tolerated.


An uncorrupt leviathan state is, in fact, more to be feared than a corrupt one.


The British, by contrast [to the Italians], are still attached to their state as calves to the udder. They have just voted massively for a party and a man who claim to be responsible for everything—whose government has recently issued, for example, an official booklet to every engaged couple outlining the advantages and disadvantages of marriage, as if the population were incapable of thinking for itself even about those things that most intimately concern it (which, under a regime like this, is increasingly the case).


British liberals, who habitually measure their own moral standing and worth by their degree of theoretical hatred for and opposition to whatever exists.


[About Princess Diana]: In an age when strength of character consists of being able to flaunt one’s weaknesses to the prurient gaze of millions of idle onlookers, nothing could establish her bona fides better than her confession that she induced herself to vomit after eating too much: just like a thousand or a million salesclerks anxious about their weight… That her tastes were, despite her privileged upbringing, utterly banal and plebeian appeared very clearly at the funeral, where Elton John sang his bathetic dirge immediately after the prime minister read Saint Paul’s magnificent words in Corinthians.


Those who think that an understanding of the double helix is the same as an understanding of ourselves are not only prey to an illusion but are stunting themselves as human beings, condemning themselves not to an advance in self-understanding but to a positive retrogression.


Many a man is the Macbeth of his own little world, and the measurement of evil is not the same as a body count.


Macbeth is motivated in equal measure by ambition and by the fear of appearing weak and small in the eyes of his wife… Shakespeare gives us to understand that their self-pity—and by extension all self-pity, including our own—is dangerous, permitting evil in the name of restitution… And in showing us that the line is always there, easily and disastrously crossed, Shakespeare destroys the utopian illusion that social arrangements can be made so perfect that men will no longer have to strive to be good. The prevention of evil will always require more than desirable social arrangements: it will forever require personal self-control and the conscious limitation of appetites.


…a Marxist wondering whether or not the historical inevitability of the triumph of the revolution requires his participation… As Russian Marxists needed their Lenin, so Macbeth needs his Lady Macbeth… She humiliates him into doing what he knows to be wrong, just as many of my patients who take heroin started to take it because they were afraid to seem weak in the eyes of their associates… The lesson is that any powerful emotion or desire, however virtuous in many circumstances, can be turned to evil purposes if it escapes ethical control.


Macbeth is aware throughout the play that what he does is morally wrong: he never claims (as do so many modern relativists) that fair is foul and foul is fair. He thus single-handedly refutes the Platonic theory of evil as ignorance of the good. Unlike his wife, he never deceives himself that a little water can clear them of their deeds.


Only if we obey rules—the rules that count—can we be free.


Penguin Books’ proposed publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover clearly suggests that the company knew the book could not be defended against the charge of obscenity; publication had to wait until Penguin could rely for the book’s defence upon the evidence of ‘expert,’ that is to say elite, opinion.


The idea that social perfection is to be achieved through wonderfully sensual sexual relations between men and women is a fantasy unworthy of prolonged intellectual consideration. To call it adolescent tripe is to be unfair to many intelligent adolescents.


[About Virginia Woolf]: One way to surpass her father and her uncle in achievement was, of course, to disparage and destroy all they had erected.


An incident when I practiced medicine many years later on an island in the Pacific Ocean reinforced this lesson. Next to the small psychiatric hospital, with its yard enclosed by a high wire fence, was the leper colony. Every afternoon, the lepers would gather at the fence to mock the lunatics as they were let out for their exercise, performing their strange dances and shouting at unseen persecutors.


There is a permanent temptation, particularly for intellectuals, to suppose that one’s virtue is proportional to one’s hatred of vice, and that one’s hatred of vice is in turn to be measured by one’s vehemence of denunciation.


‘Artists must continue the conquest of new territory and new taboos,’ Rosenthal continues, in prescriptivist mood. He admits no other purpose of art: to break taboos is thus not a possible function of art but its only function. Small wonder, then, that if all art is the breaking of taboos, all breaking of taboos soon comes to be regarded as art.


That civilised life cannot be lived without taboos—that some of them may indeed be justified, and that therefore taboo is not in itself an evil to be vanquished—is a thought too subtle for the aesthetes of nihilism.


This way of thinking about culture and civilisation—possible only for people who believe that the comforts and benefits they enjoy are immortal and indestructible—has become almost standard among the intelligentsia of Western societies.


At the same time, achievements are taken for granted, as always having been there, as if man’s natural state were knowledge rather than ignorance, wealth rather than poverty, tranquillity rather than anarchy. It follows that nothing is worthy of, or requires, protection and preservation, because all that is good comes about as a free gift of Nature.


[About the freedom to use drugs]: In practice, of course, it is exceedingly difficult to make people take all the consequences of their own actions—as they must, if Mill’s great principle is to serve as a philosophical guide to policy. Addiction to, or regular use of, most currently prohibited drugs cannot affect only the person who takes them—and not his spouse, children, neighbours, or employers.


No one seems to have noticed, however, that a loss of a sense of shame means a loss of privacy; a loss of privacy means a loss of intimacy; and a loss of intimacy means a loss of depth. There is, in fact, no better way to produce shallow and superficial people than to let them live their lives entirely in the open, without concealment of anything.


When sex is deprived of the meaning with which only the social conventions, religious taboos, and personal restraints so despised by sexual revolutionaries such as Ellis and Comfort can infuse it, all that is left is the ceaseless—and ultimately boring and meaningless—search for the transcendent orgasm.


The law of unintended consequences is stronger than the most absolute power.

Not saying goodbye – a book series that died

Somewhere between trashy and literary, there is a set of historical detective novels about Erast Fandorin. I was a fan when I was younger and recently, the concluding book was released, Not saying goodbye. The character has a beautiful sense of duty mixed in with a XIX century James Bond style immortality.

Spoiler alert. Until he doesn’t. The ending was disappointingly cynical. Once again, he prioritised his sense of duty over his family, just like he did in the first book, Azazel, which I never really liked. The cynicism comes from the setting: orphans, an explosion… It’s almost like fate herself came around to avenge the death of his first wife for which he is arguably responsible. I felt he wasn’t. The author seems to think he was – after all this time.

I think the author’s main concern throughout his writing has been this sense of duty to the world at large – which he felt was impossible to combine with the duty to one’s loved ones. Alas, I think the author turned into a different man to the one who wrote the books that I really liked, namely The Death of AchillesThe Coronation and Special Assignments.

What Moscow looks like 100 years on since the October Revolution

I managed to make it back to Moscow for a short stint. It has changed a lot and I am quite fascinated by its many contradictions. I also couldn’t help but notice that it’s been almost exactly 100 years since the October revolution, so it’s interesting to take snapshot of where this society is after its big experiment with socialism.

Of course, the Revolution actually happened in what we would call November, but all the same, there was nothing about it. No banners, no meetings, nothing on TV. Just the odd weathered sculpture of Lenin here and there.

1. People are surprisingly chilled out

Compared to 10 years ago, people on the street have an air of calm about them. It could be that I spent a lot of my time going to touristy places, but it seems to be more than that. One’s mind immediately goes to the economic situation as the explanation — but that just doesn’t add up.

trip to moscow review

In the naughties, with oil prices firmly above $100 and more favourable international politics, you had to always keep your guard up. As in, you had to watch what is going on around you or you would have to fight to get things done right. You would get skipped in the queue, you mightn’t get the right change, one of the apples in the bag you bought at the market would be gone off – minor stuff, but it’s very draining. I remember approaching a shop door as a 13 year old girl. It was a glass door, so I could see that on the other side a man was nearing it too, much faster than I was. Then he stopped and just stood there. I opened the door to go through and he nearly knocked me off my feet with the words “How can people be so slow!” What the actual fk?! Anyway, that’s just anecdote to illustrate what I mean when I say you have to keep your guard up.

The naughties, however, was a time when the country was swimming in money. Now, with the sanctions, the rock bottom oil prices, the exchange rate the way it is, with the last remnants of unreplaced Soviet industry disintegrating, it seems that the macro economic situation is very gloomy. Somehow the people don’t mind. Maybe there is less inequality among the people who have lived there for a long time? As in, everyone’s life is worse, but there is less flashiness that grates on people’s nerves? I don’t honestly know. Talking to taxi drivers is always a good way to guage what’s current, only in Russia they’re not very talkative…

2. The silent but telling taxi drivers

A 40 km ride cost me 15 euro.

40 km. 15 euro. That’s 24 miles for $17.

How?! In Ireland, it would cost at least 50 euro.

The answer is as follows.

1. Petrol is much cheaper. In Ireland, unleaded petrol is 1.36 euro. In Moscow, it’s 0.68 euro. That’s exactly half price. And it’s not just selling below market price, Irish prices attract duties and taxes and whatever else.

2. Labour is much cheaper. You know where this is going…

Russian demographics are very difficult to figure out. People don’t trust the census gatherers, so many just wouldn’t participate in the census. The 2010 official population of “natives” is 10.5 million. Plus 1.8 million legally resident immigrants. The estimated number of undocumented immigrants is a million.

My feeling (that’s very subjective, I know, but still) is that the number of people from the former Soviet republics has grown exponentially in the last two years. I have taken seven YandexTaxi rides and six times I had a driver who had clearly moved here within a year or two. They don’t really talk to you — they’re there to do a job. They visibly rely on the satnav lady. I fear to consider how much they are paid.

At one point we were passing a metro depot and there was an advert for the vacancy of a cleaner. The staring salary was 22,000 rubles a month. That’s 325 euro or $385. Per month. I asked my mam about it and she wasn’t even sure that people get paid the nominal amount even, which brings me onto accounting tricks…

3. Fine cuisine with a side of accounting tricks

If you happen upon a restaurant in Moscow and it’s in any way decent, chances are it belongs to a man by the name of Arkadi Novikov. It’s actually scary how many restaurants he holds. They are all themed and well decorated. The food is generally very good. And for what they are, they are very cheap.

arkadi novikov restaurants moscow review
Georgian Hinkali, Harcho soup and Harachapuri went down very well
Characteristically, about half of the floor staff strike me as recent additions to Moscow’s population, coming from those same couple of countries.

The accounting trick isn’t really a trick at all, it’s just stealing. We were brought a bill for 2000 roubles and got a receipt for 500 roubles. The super friendly central Asian man must have been counting on our tiredness and fondness for beer to not notice. Mr Novikov, I am sure, will notice. I guess if you are attracting clients with low prices and that comes from low extremely low labour costs, you have to expect this kind of thing to go on. A far cry from socialism…

4. Zaryadye Park: 350 million euro gone where exactly?

The most recent addition to the Kremlin area is a park. It has a pretty cool floating bridge. A bridge that brings you where you came from – you can reflect on the metaphor…

zaryadye park moscow review

There used to be an old hotel where the park is now. The original budget for the park was approximately 90 million euro, but it ended up costing 350 million (converted based on the Russian Wikipedia page). I am not much of an architect or developer, but I really struggle to see how they spent so much money on a park… More accounting tricks? It did, of course, underwhelm me given the amount of publicity it got. I also heard that the translations are all wrong. The sign for Red Square is in Russian, English and Chinese. The Chinese translation apparently reads Red Sausage. Oh well.

On the other hand, I was very impressed with this feat of Russian design and engineering (not in Zaryadye, it’s in a park called Neskuchnii Sad):

stairs a feat of Russian engineering

You wouldn’t want to have poor depth perception walking down this stairs and I am not sure how functional it would be when it’s covered in ice in winter, but the idea is pretty cool. And then there are hardy Russian roses that manage to blossom in cold October:

Russian roses blossom in Autumn

5. There is a wake boarding station right off the Red Square

The wake boarders do impressive stuff to blasting rap music a few hundred metres from comrade Lenin’s tomb. Interesting changes.

6. Red squirrels are doing well

They come over and ask for food. How cute. People must be treating them kindly then. I didn’t see any of this 10 years ago. Red squirrels are native to Ireland, but were outcompeted by the more adapted Grey squirrel. Most Irish people won’t have seen a red squirrel, but if they can do well in the middle of Moscow, I am reassured they will do just fine.

Red squirrel in Moscow

7. Cosmonauts are still in high esteem

A random children’s playground. There was a little banner to say that this was built after a “mini-referendum”: as in people voted on the theme of their local playground.

moscow cosmonauts are still in high esteem

8. There is no fresh juice anywhere

I really struggled to find not from concentrate juice anywhere. I struggled to find this bottle and it had a security tag on it in the shop! I wanted orange juice, but could only get apple or pineapple. You can get actual fresh juice, but bottled fresh juice is a rare find. A business opportunity for any busy beavers, though I do recall Tropicana being available some years ago. I wonder what made them leave.

moscow doesn't have fresh juice

Ostrich eggs and escargot, on the other hand, are an occupied niche:

ostrich egg in moscow

What to make of it all?

As we can see, capitalism is hard at work despite the socialist dream. The most disadvantaged people of 1917 were the native peasants and factory workers. In 2017, they are more ethnically diverse and still powering the economy.

I have also travelled out towards the Volga and saw some interesting things I will describe soon!

The French nose triumphed over the Bashkir arrow

“During the course of an exchange of fire, we took prisoner a French lieutenant colonel whose name I have now forgotten. To this officer’s ill-fortune, nature had bestowed on him a nose of extraordinary size, and to make matters worse, this nose had been shot through with an arrow which was embedded to half its length. We helped the lieutenant colonel down from his horse and set him on the ground so that we could free him of this distressing adornment.

A few Bashkirs were among the curious people who gathered around the sufferer. Our medic grabbed a saw and prepared to cut the arrow in two so as to remove it painlessly from either side of the enormous pierced nose, when one of the Bashkirs recognised the weapon as one of his own and seized the medic by both hands.

‘No,’ said he, ‘my good sir, I won’t let you cut my arrow. Don’t offend me, sir. Please don’t. It is my arrow. I’ll take it out myself.’
‘Are you raving?’ we said to the fellow. ‘How will you get it out?’
‘Well, sir, I’ll take one end and pull it out, and the arrow will stay in one piece.’
‘And the nose?’ we inquired.
‘And the nose,’ he answered, ‘the devil take it!’
You can imagine the roar of laughter that greeted his words. Meanwhile, the French officer, not understanding a word of Russian, was trying to guess what was going on. He begged us to chase the Bashkir away, which we did; the affair was settled, and in the end the French nose triumphed over the Bashkir arrow.”

Memoirs of Denis Davidov

Are you good at writing stories, be they fictional or real?

Where do you start?

Photo by Henry Chuy on Unsplash

Words as violence

The Russians have a law against offending the feelings of religious followers.

It came up again today because a magazine did a (somewhat) explicit photoshoot in a church they considered abandoned:

offending feelings of religious people russia ethics
Source: Vkontakte

It turns out the church wasn’t entirely abandoned and was occasionally used. This may result in a court case against the model/photographer/publication involved: not because they perpetrated land belonging to the church, but because they offended people’s religious beliefs.

A man recently received a suspended sentence for catching Pokemon in another church for this reason.

Is the fact that the Russians want to protect the religious any different to the snowflakery millennials are getting accused of?

In West it is kind of the opposite, but the same principle applies. We’re most worried about offending those who fight for more modern things, e.g. non-traditional genders.

It’s a past time of mine to observe the parallels between two places that most people consider as different as night and day. And it allows me to ask: why is there such a global cross-cultural tendency to protect the feelings of minorities through law?

In a recent case, a woman was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter because of what she said. Of course, her words were evil. It was emotional abuse taken to the limit.

But can words really be equated to violence?

I think that this would only encourage physical violence by closing a steam valve. It makes little of victims of real violence. There’s something wrong with putting genuinely violent people in the same category with someone who likes to rant.

Incitement to hatred? Obviously it would be ideal if we all agreed and lived in peace and love. But assuming that we’re not moving to a utopia any time soon, isn’t it better to allow people to peacefully rant and speak freely than to encourage them to band into groups and get violent against the establishment which is what we achieve by marginalising them? In fact, ranters of a denomination could verbally spar with other types of ranters. Might it even be a healthy debate?

Perhaps non-violent hating is like a small forest fire:

“Small forest fires periodically cleanse the system of the most flammable material, so this does not have the opportunity to accumulate. Systematically preventing forest fires from taking place ‘to be safe’ makes the big one much worse.” – Nassim Taleb. Antifragile : things that gain from disorder.

Similarly, marginalising the “haters” just leads to real violence.

Having said that, I can relate. I have often felt like I needed trigger warnings. I get very upset at certain images in films and documentaries. But I would never feel that someone owes it to me to prevent me from them: if I made a choice to watch a film, that’s just part of the consequences. Being honest, I don’t watch that many films for this precise reason.

Virtually every book or film I process results in an overwhelming spillage of thoughts and emotions (hence, this blog). In fact, I am still haunted by a number of books I read.

When I was in school, we were always given a book list for the summer. Part of me wishes I’d never read Three Comrades and The Collector. Part of me is enraged that there wasn’t a trigger warning on those books. But by reading these books I learnt what I do and don’t like – and why.

But let’s just imagine that words aren’t violence and flip the question: should it be a crime to offend people’s feelings?

P. S. I am meant to be working on Philip Larkin‘s poetry, but I’m not a fan, hence, all this 🙂

The wheat from the chaff: philosophy vs self-help

There is something cringy about the notion of self-help. Yet blogging in the philosophical rambling genre invariably has a whiff of it. Even more generally, be it the Bible, Seneca, Leo Tolstoy, Viktor Frankl, Daniel Kahneman or Oprah, or in fact, any autobiography, aren’t they all essentially trying to answer the same question, namely how to make the most of our time here?

what is the difference between philosophy and self-help

Where do we draw the line?

Some writers, psychologists and philosophers have been using a quagmire of specialist terminology to warden off any suspicion of belonging to the self-help family. Religion is many things to many people, but it definitely ticks all the self-help boxes. What about picking up a new hobby? Is that a self-help action? What about ringing up a friend? What about going to the gym to get some endorphins? While we usually draw the line at solitary activities, preferably done alone, by overweight single middle-aged single women called Bridget in the company of Ben and Jerry… But being serious, it isn’t clear how to actually draw the line between legitimately working on oneself and being the gullible victim of charlatans.

Following a discussion on a wonderful Facebook group, Scott Brizel suggested an interesting approach: the problem is solved by noting the distinction between philosophy and ‘wisdom traditions’, even though wisdom traditions are (possibly wrongly) often called philosophies. Wisdom traditions propose strategies for living well, while philosophy is a method of inquiry into the meaning of ideas. Despite the loose use of ‘philosophy’ with respect toward it, Buddhism, for example, is a wisdom tradition, not ‘philosophy’ nor even ‘religion’. Religions tell creation stories, yet they may attempt to add value by establishing an associated wisdom tradition. The three ideas are often conflated, with some systems being both religions and wisdom traditions, but if you note the distinctions I draw, it will be easy to distinguish them.

Why people buy self-help books

The biggest predictor of whether a person will buy a self-help book is whether they have bought one before.

It is possible that the soothing feeling people get from buying and/or reading literature in the self-help genre is simply the reassurance that there is a solution to the problem.

As human beings, we have a profound desire to affect the world around us. This even applies to very young children, who can be taught to pedal a bike. While they don’t understand the significance of pedalling, the fact that the wheels are turning seems to motivate them to do more of it. Seeing tangible results of our actions gives us the feeling of control.

The feeling of control, the belief that our actions will deliver an impact, is probably our number one motivator. So no wonder people buy these books: by buying a book, they are buying equity in the belief that they can change themselves or even the world around them.

why people buy self-help books

Anyone who questions the ability of self-help methods to genuinely address the problem they aim to address seems like a party pooper who is stealing our dream of control. Indeed, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safety and security, in this case it is the belief that there is an answer and a role model to guide hold our hand, is more important than the need for self-actualisation.

Self-help books give a sense of safety and certainty. Placebo and religious texts have this in common too.

The authors inevitably portray themselves as a role model for whom these rituals have worked. Indeed, studies done on laboratory animals in helpless positions try to do things that are somehow associated with a reward or schedule. It’s an anxiety-defying ritual, not a solution to the problem per se.

As a child I spent a lot of time in Russia where books were very cheap and ubiquitous – and in the pre-internet era, well, they were the internet. Fiction never really did it for me, unless it was detective stories, and they, as we know, tend to be less than well written for the most part. Encyclopaedias were a bit hit with me, but also books on psychology.

As Western culture came flooding in, so did Dale Carnegie, Tony Robbins and their friends becoming an instant hit with a society turned upside down. My peers and I read some of these books, and they’ve left a negative impression congruent with the aftertaste of much of the rest of Western culture with its endless brands: the obvious repackaged and presented as a revolutionary discovery.

By the time The Secret came around, I was starting college. It wouldn’t occur to me to read that. I got a summer job in a book shop (the shopkeeper suggested I take the academic section, hmm, wonder why). The manager, when he wasn’t schooling me for being late, was perplexed at the proverbial middle-aged women who buy The Secret merchandise: he wasn’t sure how an adult could be convinced that by writing their wishes in a notebook that says The Secret on it (€7.99) as opposed as normal writing pad (€1.99) is better. I guess he just didn’t get why people buy things.

Years later I saw the film Little Miss Sunshine that I would highly recommend to anyone who wants to forget that they’ve held a self-help book in their hands.

why self-help doesn't work

What does the self-help obsession tell us about the society we live in?

Based on my reading of Durant’s The Lessons of History, the rise of the self-help genre is nothing unusual: whenever the role of religion diminishes in society, we flee to other sources of wisdom, or surrogate wisdom as the case may be.

For most millennials I see around me, our moral word seems to be a quilt of Christianity, Western liberalism with a touch of yoga-driven mysticism. I often think that it’s better to be confused and forced into questioning values than to unconditionally accept a bunch of dogma.The wishful thinking of self-help puzzled me for a long time. Is it really that different to a prayer? As a professor of psychology Rami Gabriel puts it:

Popular psychology comes with a message about the possibility of surmounting obstacles through the free will of the almighty self, as well as continual exhortations to practise hopeful optimism and disable despair and hopelessness: in all, a reflection of an individualistic, even narcissistic, culture in the contemporary US.

I would change US to the West. The cultural shifts in the US may be modulated as the cross the Atlantic, but Europe feels the reverberations of these developments for decades. I strongly agree with the narcissistic piece: all of this literature proclaims that you can change the world by changing yourself. While it may seem humble at first, it is actually enragingly self-centred. Of course, the purpose isn’t to be self-centred. It is to keep building the sense of control that would (in theory) allow one to rise above whatever circumstances that are holding them back.

So what is the difference between philosophy and self-help?

Self-help is hedonistic: do this and life will get better. Philosophy doesn’t aim to change one’s life, only to understand it.

Philosophy doesn’t provide any real recommendations. Self-help is bursting with answers: it is prescriptive. I guess the reason I am even asking this question is because if I hear someone say “don’t think about the negative”, I am keen to think of what the reasons and implications are, in other words, I think of the philosophy of the recommendation. To me, self-help is a truncated philosophy, though it doesn’t try to be.

Philosophers don’t tend to solve problems, they tend to ask and sometimes try to answer questions. Self-helpers have all the solutions. In fact, they tend to only have one solution, for all ills.