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Writer & philosopher. PhD philosophy. Stories & ideas to make the world a better place. Next book Hello, Stranger (Granta 2021). Twitter @willbuckingham

PAST IS PROLOGUE

If we want to work better, first we need to think better

“The Seasons” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder from the Metropolitan Museum of Art online collection. Image: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

We spend much of our lives working. And much of the time we are not working, we spend talking about work, recovering from work, fretting about work, or wondering if we should work more or work less.

But less often do we stop to think more deeply about work. What, after all, is work? Why does it loom so large in our lives? And when it comes to questions like these, philosophy can help throw more light on what work is and why it matters.

What is work?

In his book on the philosophy of work, Lars Svendsen says that work, at the…


Writing fiction is like making bread. You need to know when to knead it, and when to just let it rise.

Photo by Victor Rodríguez Iglesias on Unsplash

The other day, I took a break from my writing desk and went into the kitchen to make bread. There’s something therapeutic about the process of mixing flour and yeast and water, combining it, then turning it out onto the table to knead it into shape.

When I write, sometimes words and ideas start to slip away from me. Things become intangible. At times like this, it is good to roll up my sleeves, head into the kitchen and chuck a bit of flour around. There’s something about making dough, combining it, turning it out, and kneading it into shape…


In a world obsessed with conversation, physical books bring us solitude and freedom.

“Dig” by Sadie Wendell Mitchell (1909). Public domain via Library of Congress.

Several years ago, I attended a talk by the Canadian poet Erín Moure. She talked about poetry and translation and writing. It was a talk so full of brilliant insights that, as I jotted things down in my notebook, I struggled to keep up. But after the talk, as I looked back at my hastily scribbled notes, one line stood out:

Books are emigrants. They belong where they end up. — Erín Moure

In a couple of short sentences, Moure managed to conjure something of the essence of why books matter to me, something about the solitariness and freedom this…


Myanmar helped me come to terms with grief. Now I am grieving for Myanmar.

Image of pagodas in Kayah State, Myanmar. Photograph by the author © Will Buckingham

I arrived in Yangon for the first time in January 2017, my life broken into pieces. The previous year had been punishing. In August, Elee, my partner of thirteen years, died of breast cancer. Before her death, we talked about what I would do after. I said I didn’t know. ‘You should get away,’ Elee said. ‘Once everything has settled down, you should get away.’

And because Elee’s advice was always good, that’s what I did. The week after Elee died, I saw a job advertised in Myanmar. I had never been to Myanmar before, and knew very little about…


The Greek philosopher Arete of Cyrene, and her distinctive philosophy of pleasure.

Image: Champagne advertisement. By Alphonse Mucha (1860–1939). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Arete of Cyrene was an early woman philosopher who was important in the establishment of the Cyrenaic school, which emphasised the centrality of bodily pleasure to the good life.

Arete was born into a philosophically-inclined family. Her father, Aristippus of Cyrene (c. 430–356 BCE), founded a distinctive philosophical school, known as the Cyrenaics, named after his home town, near Shahhat in present-day Libya.

We know slightly more about Aristippus than we do about his daughter Arete. He travelled to Athens when he was still a young man, and he became a part of the circle surrounding Socrates, although they had…


The Confucian philosopher Mencius argued that human nature is inherently good.

Image: Portrait of Mencius from Half Portraits of the Great Sage and Virtuous Men of Old (14th century, Anon). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“People ain’t no good,” Nick Cave once sang. But the Chinese Confucian philosopher Mencius disagreed. Human beings, Mencius argued, are naturally good, if they are given the chance to cultivate their virtues.

If you haven’t heard of Mencius and his optimistic philosophical view on human nature, you are not alone. The philosopher Bryan Van Norden has called Mencius the most influential philosopher whom you have never heard of. Even in China, where Mencius is known as the “Second Sage”—second only to Confucius himself—he is eclipsed by his predecessor. …


One of the world’s most influential philosophers was pessimistic about our appetite for truth.

Image: Plato. Etching by D. Cunego, 1783, after R. Mengs after Raphael. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Plato: the great ventriloquist

Plato was born in Athens sometime between 428 and 423 BCE, to a high-ranking Athenian family. His family took particular pride in being related to the great statesman Solon who lived two centuries before, and who put in place the laws that underpinned Athenian democracy.

Like many other philosophers in Ancient Greece, Plato wrote his philosophical works in a literary form. But where Parmenides and Xenophanes wrote in verse, Plato’s preferred form was dialogue. This makes Plato something of a ventriloquist-philosopher: in his dialogues, he channels his ideas through the mouths of others — most of all, his teacher Socrates


Zeno of Elea was famous for his paradoxes, which have fascinated and preoccupied people for millennia.

Image: 17th-century etching of a bust of Zeno of Elea. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Zeno of Elea is one of those shadowy ancient philosophers about whom we know very little. According to some accounts, he was a student of both Parmenides and Xenophanes.

Zeno appears in Plato’s Parmenides, where he is visiting Athens together with his teacher. There, the two philosophers meet the young Socrates, upon whom Zeno makes a substantial impression. If Plato’s story is true, this would mean that Zeno was born sometime around 490 BCE.

This is how Plato tells the story:

Parmenides was already quite venerable, very gray but of distinguished appearance, about sixty-five years old. Zeno was at that…


Why be a dutiful reader, when you can read self-interestedly?

Image: Women reading by Suzuki Harunobu c. 1770. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In the last article in this series on different approaches to reading philosophy, I talked about the rights of the reader to plot a course through whatever they are reading in whatever way they wish — doubling-back, skipping, haphazard and unsystematic, leaving books unfinished.

A reader who does this might seem, to their more sober peers, to be wilfully irresponsible, or failing in their duties as a reader. …


Ancient Maya philosophies of creativity, time and ritual still have a lot to teach us today

Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash

The story of philosophy is the story of human attempts to understand the world of which we are a part, and to understand ourselves. But traditions of academic philosophy have tended to give greater weight to only a small handful of traditions — for example, Greek and European philosophy, Indian philosophy or Chinese philosophy. But if philosophy is really about human attempts to understand the world, and to understand what it means to be human, then if we limit ourselves to a few traditions, we risk missing out on rich resources. …

Will Buckingham

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