‘Almost like a broken record that offers us no real guide to how we turn the record off’ – On Kindness by Adam Phillips & Barbara Taylor

This small persuasive book about kindness, its history, psychology, and politics, could be alternatively titled Why People Are Unkind.

It is a mere 117 pages, small format, and contains a potted history of kindness from roughly AD 56 to the modern day, a psychoanalytic (mainly Freudian) reading, with a bit of modern politics, gender politics and Christianity thrown in. Informative, yet rushing through centuries of philosophical, political and psychological debate in five chapters, it is a book for the intellectual rather than the spiritual.

Reviews in the broadsheets say the following: ‘an absorbing overview’ and ‘a concentrated essay’ (The Guardian); ‘although the book is a little too Eurocentric, this is intelligent, concise and challenging stuff’ (The Times Online); a ‘fascinating little book’ and ‘a thoughtful and thought-provoking book’ (The Independent).   

Yet, it was possibly too cerebral for me, focusing on theoretical perspectives from the Stoics, Epicureans, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Hobbes, David Hume, Malthus, Freud, Winnicott and from many other Western perspectives. It resembles a thesis (introductory chapter, chapter on history, chapters on psychoanalysis, chapter on the modern day and draw it all together in a fairly neat conclusion) and phrases such as ‘we will argue that…’ highlight that this book veers towards the academic.

It is written in an accessible way, but is probably more of a niche read. There are no examples of kindness explored, for example, or no suggestions given as to how one might become more of a kind person. This book is more about exploring theories of why the world is not a kind place.

In a nutshell, their argument is – kindness makes us feel good, so we should do it more, but we don’t, there are many different theories as to why we are not more kind and in fact why we can be very unkind, but being unkind just makes us feel bad, so we should be kind.

Of course I am missing out all the interesting debate: whether we begin our lives ‘naturally’ kind or selfish, how post-Augustine Christianity suppressed the joy in being kind as kindness became more of a duty or self-sacrifice, how pagans saw it as an expression of humanity, how Hobbes argued that we are all ‘selfish beasts’, how according to Rousseau we are born kind but are ‘perverted by society into selfishness’. Many questions are raised about how kindness is linked to social conscience, happiness, parenthood, gender, welfare politics, and sexuality. It is deeply interesting.

But there are times in the book where different concepts overlap, and I was never quite sure of the authors’ definition of ‘kindness’. It seems to shift depending on the theoretical perspective they are exploring, and seems to become synonymous with love, happiness, benevolence, the Christian concept of ‘caritas’, maternal love, sympathy, altruism, attachment.

There were lots I agreed with: how kindness could be perceived as a risk because it can make us vulnerable, how it has largely become feminized, and that we have an ambivalence to kindness seeing it as a weakness rather than a strength.

But then we entered the Freudian parts of the book, and I’m afraid I felt a bit lost and cross at concepts such as aggression being a form of kindness, and also kindness being like foreplay because (according to Freud, if I am reading this right…) people are only kind to others they want to have sex with, including our own parents?

It seems that Freud had a lot of interesting views, but took them a little too far for my mind, and the authors argue a persuasive case, but put too much focus on the psychoanalytical argument for my liking. 

I found the first and last chapters most useful for my understanding of kindness. How in Western Society we value independence so much that kindness suffers, that needing others and ‘dependence’ is seen as weakness, and that dependence or thinking of others too much can leave us feeling vulnerable so we focus back on ourselves.

I particularly enjoyed reading about Rousseau who advocated kindness and sympathy between people, but at the same time was a cantankerous sod, put his five children into orphanages, and sounds like a total selfish bugger to me.  

But the real point behind the book seems to be that actually kindness makes us feel good so we should do it more. It is almost like a broken record that offers us no real guide to how we turn the record off, if you know what I mean. Like, so OK, our society is in a selfish mess and we have forgotten (in general terms) how to be kind, but what do we do about it? 

Any Cop?:  A very interesting, insightful and well-written book/essay, but not one I would buy for £7.99 (Penguin weren’t feeling particularly kind when they came up with that price)


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