On Kindness — Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor

On Kindness seeks to answer why “It is now generally assumed that people are basically selfish and that fellow feeling is either a weakness or a luxury or a more sophisticated form of selfishness.” Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor quickly demonstrate that up until the “so-called dawn of modernity” in the Enlightenment, people simply believed themselves to be naturally kind. The advent of the ideals of self-reliance and independence (along with the appeals of aggressive mercantile capitalism) led to a zeitgeist–one that still exists–in which kindness is a form or weakness, or a type of duty, like philanthropy, that negates its own purity. In short, Phillips and Taylor point to a general feeling that real kindness might not exist–and then argue, quite convincingly, against this general feeling.

The book’s second chapter, “A Short History of Kindness” outlines the philosophy and social practice of kindness from the time of Seneca through to Freud. Phillips and Taylor choose Jean-Jacques Rousseau as their champion, with Thomas Hobbes (and his famous dictum of bellum omnium contra omnes) as a recurring villain. But it’s Freud who dramatically problematizes modern attitudes toward kindness, with the radical idea that “aggression itself can be a form of kindness; that when aggression isn’t envious rage or the revenge born of humiliation, it contains the wish for a more intimate exchange, a profounder, more unsettling kindness between people. In short, psychoanalysis makes sentimentality and nostalgia, not hatred, the enemies of kindness.” This complicates the relationships between children and parents; psychoanalysis renders kindness unnatural. The resulting confusion leaves us open to the idea that acts of kindness might leave us radically exposed or otherwise in harm’s way. Even worse, modern society elevates and idealizes kindness into “a virtue so difficult to sustain that only the magically good can manage it” — this “destroys people’s faith in real or ordinary kindness.” But, Phillips and Taylor want to assure us, real and ordinary kindness does exist. “We depend on each other not just for our survival but for our very being,” they argue in their final chapter. “The self without sympathetic attachments is either a fiction or a lunatic.” So, what are the solutions? Philips and Taylor clearly argue that the pleasures of kindness they advocate cannot stem from “moral superiority or domineering beneficence or the protection racket of good feelings. Nor are acts of kindness to be seen as acts of will or effort or moral resolution.” Instead, our authors argue for “a revived awareness of something that is already felt and known.”

On Kindness is a compact, tightly-wound tract of 114 pages that can be read quickly by a general audience, but nevertheless takes some time to digest. Picador’s trade paperback edition (new this month) is handsome and small enough to fit into a cargo pocket, purse, or beach bag. It seems of a piece with Picador’s Big Ideas/Small Books series, erudite works that consider big subjects without ever falling into traps of academic solipsism. Recommended.

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