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How Should We Live?: Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life Hardcover – November 1, 2013
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“A fascinating rattlebag of intelligent, stimulating essays on everything from work to love, time to empathy . . . densely researched but readable, wise, and witty. By taking the long view to debunk some myths of modern life . . . Krznaric frees us from passing trends to answer the fundamental question: how should we live now?” —Financial Times
“This modern guide to living a good life by nurturing relationships, giving more to others, and resisting the self-imposed tyrannies of work, time, ambition, and achievement, is entertaining and instructive.” —Times
“An intriguing upmarket self-help guide. . . . The virtue of this book is that it takes a number of ideas that we might regard as givens of the natural order of things . . . and makes clear how historically contingent they are.” —Guardian
“Human history provides examples of almost every possible lifestyle or philosophical position; Krznaric selects some of the most telling. . . . Our responsibility, he argues, is not just to take inspiration from the past; we also need to recognize where we have inherited damaging or limiting attitudes.” —Independent
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This book teaches that the fast paced and stressful life is not conducive to happiness or fulfilment. The author, cultural thinker and philosopher, Roman Krznaric, believes that we must consciously `deprogram' ourselves to achieve a satisfying life and look to the "Ancients" for guidance. "I think of history as a wonderbox, similar to the curiosity cabinets of the Renaissance -- what the Germans called a Wunderkammer. Collectors used these cabinets to display an array of fascinating and unusual objects, each with a story to tell..... There is much to learn about life opening the wonderbox of history."
In the Introduction, Krznaric writes, "How to pursue the art of living has become the great quandary of our age. I believe that the future of the art of living can be found by gazing into the past. If we explore how people have lived in other epochs and cultures, we can draw out lessons for the challenges and opportunities of everyday life.... It is astonishing that, until now, we have made so little effort to unveil this wisdom from the past, which is based on how people have actually lived rather than utopian dreamings of what might be possible."
The book is reminiscent of George Myerson's writings about attaining happiness from learning the lessons of history.
The book is divided into four parts: Nurturing Relationships, Making a living, Discovering the world and Breaking conventions. These are each composed of three sections. Krznaric expounds on empathy, family, love, money, time, work, nature, senses, travel as well as belief, creativity and deathstyle. He gives examples throughout the ages from ancient Greece to modern times and from various cultures, from Japan to the Olmecs and the Toltecs - The ideas of Socrates to the writings of Matsuo Basho (17th century master of haiku), the philosophy of Thoreau and the career of Van Gogh - about gender roles in housework and child rearing, career choices, job satisfaction, and freedom from time restrictions to allow for a more contemplative existence, "anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough."(Gustave Flaubert).
In the chapter about Love, Krznaric defines two great tragedies; the loss of the Greek definition of the different varieties of love - eros, phila, ludus, pragma, agape, and philautia -that could be found in sex, family, friendships, amongst strangers and self. The other falsehood is the notion of romantic love found exclusively in a soulmate; this began in the music and poetry of Abbasid Persia to the Middle Ages European courtly love and finally to the Dutch Golden Age of the seventeenth century. It has been with us ever since.
Krznaric reminds us that empathy is not the Golden Rule, but as George Bernard Shaw said, "Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you -- they may have different tastes." It requires imagining others' views and then acting accordingly. "Empathy matters not just because it makes you good, but because it is good for you." The author uses St. Augustine and George Orwell to make his point. The latter is "one person who did more than most others to transform this experiential form of empathy into an extreme sport." He goes on to give a summary of Orwell's upper middle class privileged family, his military career in Burma and how that job made him "see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters" and left him oppressed "with an intolerable sense of guilt." After leaving the army, Orwell for several years, deliberately experienced poverty by living as a tramp, from several days to a few weeks, in the streets of East London; penniless and homeless he joined the destitute begging for money, hungry and sleeping in shelters. Orwell succeeded in experiencing the injustice of poverty and feeling true empathy by "standing in the other other men's shoes."
Krznaric devotes a chapter to "our strange relationship with time" complete with metaphors and its effect on our lives, thoughts and emotions. We have become controlled by Time since the invention of the mechanical clock in the 13th century and, 500 years later, we were all captive to pocket-size timepieces and wristwatches - that are now being supplanted by electronic digital devices.
The advent of the Industrial Revolution transformed time into a commodity subordinated to the Protestant ethic that associates hard work/efficiency with virtue. It made shift work possible and the eight-hour work day with an hour break for lunch (a German notion). However in Britain 20% do not have a lunch break and the siesta has almost disappeared from Italy, Spain and Latin countries.
We let ourselves be regimented by Time the author adds because, "On some level we fear boredom. A deeper explanation is that we are afraid that an extended pause would give us the time to realize that our lives are not as meaningful and fulfilled as we would like them to be. The time for contemplation has become an object of fear, a demon." Krznaric even goes as far as suggesting a"chronological diet" without any mechanical/digital timepieces, to make you "less likely to interrupt a conversation or a thought with a glance at your watch which sends you scuttling off to the next task." He gives the example that, "Aboriginals did not work all day but spent time with family, friends and idle pleasures."
In the "Epilogue," Krznaric concludes that, "We might live our lives in a thousand different ways. And the civilisations of the past enable us to recognize that our habitual ways of loving, working, creating and dying are not the only options before us. We need only open the wonderbox of history and look inside to see new and surprising possibilities for the art of living. Let them spark our curiosity, captivate our imaginations and inspire our actions."
The book is a fascinating compilation of the various cultures and their legacy, the individual lives, deeds and thoughts of luminaries and humanity's collective morality and conscience. The exhortation to `slow down and live in the moment', which permeates the entire work, is the "mindfulness" of Buddha's teachings presented in a new light. The reader should benefit from the philosophical tracts, historical vignettes and a compendium of mythology, necrology and traditions of various cultures presented in a lucid crisp narrative.