On Kindness. Adam Phillips & Barbara Taylor

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9780141039336: On Kindness. Adam Phillips & Barbara Taylor

What is kindness? Does it make us happier? And does it have a place in a selfish world?Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor present an elegant, thoughtful and concise analysis of kindness in history, in life and in the modern world. Suggesting that acts of kindness occur when we are at our most open and honest, they ask why it is that our faith in kindness has been shaken - and why we are all too ready to believe that antagonism has taken its place.

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About the Author:

Adam Phillips, formerly Principle Child Psychotherapist at Charing Cross Hospital, London, is a practising psychoanalyst and a visiting professor in the English department at the University of York. He is the author of numerous works of psychoanalysis and literary criticism, including most recently Unforbidden Pleasures, and Missing Out. He is General Editor of the Penguin Modern Classics Freud translations, and a Fellow of The Royal Society of Literature.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Against Kindness

Kindness, or the lack of it, has been getting a lot of press recently. Media gurus lament the selfishness of our times, while newspapers regularly feature stories like the one about a wealthy stockbroker who, at the peak of his career, decided tospend his weekends doing volunteer work with deprived children. He was amazed at his own reaction. “Helping kids just makes me so happy, I feel like a different person.” His astonishment is echoed in headline reports of studies of “what makes people happy,“ which show kindness registering much higher on the happiness scale than self-focused behavior. A recent report described an experiment carried out by the American psychologist Martin Seligman (author of Authentic Happiness), who recruited a group of university students to test out “philanthropy versus fun.” “Guess which one gave them the bigger kick?” the reporter chortled. “I’ve felt that kick too, every time I buy someone a pint.”

Reading these stories, we began to wonder why people today are so surprised by the blindingly obvious. Why do the pleasuresof kindness astonish us? And why are stories about kindness often so corny or silly, so trivializing of the things that matter most to most people?

The pleasures of kindness were well known in the past. Kindness was mankind ’s “greatest delight,“ the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius declared, and thinkers and writers have echoed him down the centuries. But today, many peoplefind these pleasures literally incredible or at least highly suspect. An image of the self has been created that is utterlylacking in natural generosity. Most people appear to believe that deep down they (and other people) are mad, bad, and dangerous to know; that as a species— apparently unlike other species of animal—we are deeply and fundamentally antagonistic to each other, that our motives are utterly self-seeking, and that our sympathies are forms of self-protection.

This book explains how and why this has come about. It shows how the kind life—the life lived in instinctive sympathetic identification with the vulnerabilities and attractions of others—is the life we are more inclined to live, and indeed is the one we are often living without letting ourselves know that this is what we are doing. People are leading secretly kind lives all the time but without a language in which to express this, or cultural support for it. Living according to our sympathies, we imagine, will weaken or overwhelm us; kindness is the saboteur of the successful life. We need to know how we have come to believe that the best lives we can lead seem to involve sacrificing the best things about ourselves; and how we have come to believe that there are pleasures greater than kindness. Kindness, we will argue in this book—not sexuality, not violence, not money—has become our forbidden pleasure. What is it about our times that makes kindness seem so dangerous?

In one sense kindness is always hazardous because it is based on a susceptibility to others, a capacity to identify with their pleasures and sufferings. Putting oneself in someone else ’s shoes, as the saying goes, can be very uncomfortable. But if the pleasures of kindness—like all the greatest human pleasures—are inherently perilous, they are nonetheless some of the most satisfying we possess. How have we come to repudiate them? In 1741 the Scottish philosopher David Hume, confronted by a school of philosophy that held mankind to be irredeemably selfish, lost patience. Any person foolish enoughto deny the existence of human kindness had simply lost touch with emotional reality, Hume insisted: “he has forgotten the movements of his heart.” How do people come to forget about kindness and the deep pleasures it gives to them?

On Kindness seeks to answer this question. Written by a historian and a psychoanalyst, it reveals the cost and, froma historical point of view, the peculiarity of modern attitudes to kindness. For nearly all of human history—up to and beyond David Hume ’s day, the so-called dawn of modernity— people have perceived themselves as naturally kind. Thisbook shows when and why this confidence evaporated and the consequences of this transformation: how in giving up on kindness—and especially our own acts of kindness—we deprive ourselves of a pleasure that is fundamental to our sense of well-being. “We mutually belong to one another,“ the philosopher Alan Ryan writes, and the good life is one “that reflects this truth.” Today this truth has gone underground. Independence and self-reliance are now the great aspirations; “mutual belonging” is feared and unspoken; it has become one of the great taboos of our society. Why?

To answer this we begin by looking back at ideas about kindness from the classical age onward. Kindness’s original meaning of kinship or sameness has stretched over time to encompass sentiments that today go by a wide variety of names—sympathy, generosity, altruism, benevolence, humanity, compassion, pity, empathy—and that in the past were known by other terms as well, notably philanthropia (love of mankind) and caritas (neighborly or brotherly love). The precise meanings of these words vary, but fundamentally they all denote what the Victorians called “open-heartedness,“ the sympathetic expansiveness linking self to other. “No less indiscriminate and general than the alienation between people is the desire to breach it,“ the German critic Theodor Adorno once wrote, suggesting that even though our alienation, our distance from other people, may make us feel safe, it also makes us sorry, as though loneliness is the inevitable cost of looking after ourselves. History shows us the manifold expressions of humanity’s desire to connect, from classical celebrations of friendship, to Christian teachings on love and charity, to twentieth-century philosophies of social welfare. It also shows us the degree of human alienation, how our capacity to care for each other is inhibited by fears and rivalrieswith a pedigree as long as kindness itself.

For most of Western history the dominant tradition of kindness has been Christianity, which sacralizes people ’s generous instincts and makes them the basis of a universalist faith. For centuries, Christian caritas functioned as a culturalcement, binding individuals into society. But from the sixteenth century, the Christian rule “love thy neighbor as thyself “ came under increasing attack from competitive individualism. Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651)—the urtext of the new individualism—dismissed Christian kindness as a psychological absurdity. Men, Hobbes insisted, were selfish beasts who cared for nothing but their own well-being; human existence was a “warre of alle against alle.” His arguments were slow to gain ground, but by the end of the eighteenth century— despite the best efforts of David Hume and others—they were becoming orthodoxy. Two centuries later it seems we are all Hobbesians, convinced that self-interest is our ruling principle. (The French psychoanalyst Lacan suggested that the Christian injunction “love thy neighbor as thyself “ must be ironic, because people hate themselves.) Kindly behavior is looked upon with suspicion; public espousals of kindness are dismissed as moralistic and sentimental. “It’s just human nature,“ we say of selfish behavior; what more can we expect? Kindness is seen either as a cover story or as a failure of nerve. Popular icons of kindness—Princess Diana, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa—are either worshipped as saints or gleefully unmasked as self-serving hypocrites. Prioritizing the needs of others may be praiseworthy, we think, but it is certainly not normal.

So is it time to give up on being kind? Or at least to drop kindness as one of the things we claim to value, and instead just enjoy the apparently spontaneous but fleeting moments of kindness in our lives while acknowledging that, for selfish creatures like ourselves, these moments are the exceptions that prove the rule?

Today it is only between parents and children that kindness is expected, sanctioned, and indeed obligatory. But before we condemn the mother who rages at her toddler in the street, we might stop to consider what it feels like to be a parent in a society where kindness is incidentally praised while being implicitly discouraged. Kindness—that is, the ability to bear the vulnerability of others, and therefore of oneself— has become a sign of weakness (except of course among saintly people, in whom it is a sign of their exceptionality). No one yet says parents should stop being kind to their children. Nonetheless we have become phobic of kindness in our societies, avoiding obvious acts of kindness and producing, as we dowith phobias, endless rationalizations to justify our avoidance. All compassion is self-pity, D. H. Lawrence remarked, and this usefully formulates the widespread modern suspicion of kindness: that it is either a higher form of selfishness (the kind that is morally triumphant and secretly exploitative) or the lowest form of weakness (kindness is the way the weak control the strong, the kind are only kind because they haven’t got the guts to be anything else). If we think of humans as essentially competitive, and therefore triumphalist by inclination, as we are encouraged to do, then kindness looks distinctlyold-fashioned, indeed nostalgic, a vestige from a time when we could recognize ourselves in each other and feel sympatheticbecause of our kindness—if such a time ever existed. And what, after all, can kindness help us win, except moral approval; or possibly not even that, in a society where “respect” for personal status has become a leading value.

Most people, as they grow up now, secretly believe that kindness is a virtue of losers. But agreeing...

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Adam Phillips, Barbara Taylor
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Descrizione libro Penguin Books Ltd, United Kingdom, 2010. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. What is kindness? Does it make us happier? And does it have a place in a selfish world?Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor present an elegant, thoughtful and concise analysis of kindness in history, in life and in the modern world. Suggesting that acts of kindness occur when we are at our most open and honest, they ask why it is that our faith in kindness has been shaken - and why we are all too ready to believe that antagonism has taken its place. Codice libro della libreria AAZ9780141039336

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Descrizione libro Penguin Books Ltd, United Kingdom, 2010. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. What is kindness? Does it make us happier? And does it have a place in a selfish world?Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor present an elegant, thoughtful and concise analysis of kindness in history, in life and in the modern world. Suggesting that acts of kindness occur when we are at our most open and honest, they ask why it is that our faith in kindness has been shaken - and why we are all too ready to believe that antagonism has taken its place. Codice libro della libreria AAZ9780141039336

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Descrizione libro Penguin Books Ltd. Paperback. Condizione libro: new. BRAND NEW, On Kindness, Adam Phillips, Barbara Taylor, What is kindness? Does it make us happier? And does it have a place in a selfish world? Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor present an elegant, thoughtful and concise analysis of kindness in history, in life and in the modern world. Suggesting that acts of kindness occur when we are at our most open and honest, they ask why it is that our faith in kindness has been shaken - and why we are all too ready to believe that antagonism has taken its place. Codice libro della libreria B9780141039336

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