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Letter from Barcelona: Sublime kiss of garlic

'WHAT INTERESTS me is not whether there is life after death, but that there should be life before. And that this life be good, and not simple survival or constant fear of dying.' This is not an unusual message in Spain where, on a good day, a carpark attendant will greet your nervous explanation about having mislaid the ticket with a comforting phrase such as 'Everything has a solution except death'.

What makes it unusual is that it comes at the end of a book on ethics written for adolescents which has become a bestseller in Spain and Italy.

Its author, Fernando Savater, is an eccentric, Anglophile professor of moral philosophy from the Basque Country. When an academic publisher in Barcelona asked him to write a school text book, as number 101 of its series 'Invitation to Philosophy', he decided to address himself in a humorous, non-academic style to his 15-year-old son, Amador. Neither he nor his publisher were expecting Ethics for Amador to sell 115,000 copies in Spain and over 150,000 in Italy since its first print run of 5,000 in 1991. Perhaps confused by its success, one French critic jumped to the conclusion that the title meant Ethics for Lovers.

A follow up, Politics for Amador, was published at the end of last year and is now following a similar if less spectacular course with sales to date of 30,000.

At first glance it is easy to see that the chapter headings of Ethics - 'Do What you Like' and 'Live the Good Life', for example - are the kind of things which teenagers would like to hear from their fathers, especially if they happened to be authoritative moral philosophers. The one big rule is simply not to be an imbecile, of which there are five varieties. The person who believes that he doesn't want anything, the person who wants two opposing things at the same time (like chewing garlic and giving sublime kisses), the person who doesn't know what he wants and can't be bothered to find out, and the person who knows what he wants, but wants it feebly and keeps putting it off. And finally there's the person who wants everything ferociously but has fooled himself about reality.

Philosophers' names are generally kept out of the text but, to give the argument more weight than the mere ruse of a demoniacally eloquent father who has decided to adopt a liberal route rather than confiscate the moped, there are a batch of quotations from the likes of Spinoza and Seneca at the end of each chapter.

It was fortunate for Savater that his accessible style coincided with ethics becoming fashionable in Spain. Before the elections this year the prime minister, Felipe Gonzalez, even appointed Victoria Camps, a well-known moral philosopher and a contributor to the same academic series as Savater, as an 'independent' candidate for the Socialist Party on the basis that it needed this kind of boost to its image, especially among the young, after a string of allegations of political corruption. As teenage Italians seem to have developed an even greater appetite for his book, it looks as if the younger generation in southern Europe are taking a withering view of the behaviour of their elders.

Savater thinks the protestant ethic of personal responsibilty has kept Anglo-Saxon countries 'a little cleaner' regarding cases of political corruption. 'They are more frequent in countries where there is a collective ethic 'a la catolica' as in Spain or Italy, or a collective ethic 'a la oriental' as happens in Japan, which are ethics which are individualised to a very small extent,' he said from his house in San Sebastian.

The very prominent role which death plays in defining his philosophy, however, he sees as a Spanish quality. 'In countries like Spain there may be more of a tendency to reflect on death compared to other countries where they harbour more fear, as you see in those novels of Evelyn Waugh like The Loved One - death as something which you cover up, prettify, hide,' he said. 'It seems to me that death forms part of the value of life, the fact that life is limited, that it is always threatened, that it is fragile and unrepeatable.'

This does not mean he wants a return to religion, the signs of which, detected in the work of some of his contemporaries, he is quick to criticise. Having lost his youthful enthusiasm for anarchism as a solution to universal problems he sees himself as being 'faithful to the ideals of the Enlightenment - modern, lay, rationalist, scientific, democratic ideals'.

Ethics for Amador is not such a hit with his academic colleagues, who accuse him of trivialising the subject. He doesn't claim to be breaking new ground and at the end of the book asks his son not to take it too seriously since, he recalls, Wittgenstein said a real book on ethics would be so difficult to write that if anyone ever succeeded it would be like an explosion which would annihilate all other books in the world. Savater's slim volume of paternal advice is not that book, but he does seem to have inadvertently filled a gap in the market.