The Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live, By Roman Krznaric


Perhaps it is a sign of the times. Everywhere you look, philosophers are climbing down from their ivory towers, abandoning more abstract pursuits in favour of practical advice on how to live. Roman Krznaric is best known for his work promoting empathy as an active force for change and his questioning of modern patterns of work. His latest book is based on a premise so simple it is surprising no one has highlighted it before.

If we want to change our way of living, we don't have to start from scratch; as Goethe said, "he who cannot draw on 3000 years is living from hand to mouth". History has the answers, if we care to hear them. Goethe is a touchstone for Krznaric, partly because he had the courage to abandon his position in Weimar and set out on a journey at three in the morning – an odyssey recorded in Italian Journey – and partly because he understood that to know oneself a man must look outward, both through travel and the pursuit of knowledge.

Human history provides examples of almost every possible lifestyle or philosophical position; Krznaric selects some of the most telling, assembling them in a Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities. Our responsibility, he argues, is not just to take inspiration from the past; we also need to recognise where we have inherited damaging or limiting attitudes.

The first shibboleth placed under the historical microscope is romantic love. The exclusive relationship idealised in Western culture, in which one partner provides everything needed to fulfil the other, perhaps originated in medieval Persia, travelling across the Pyrenees into France from Moorish Spain to be transformed into the tradition of courtly love. It spread to the masses, Krznaric argues, largely because of capitalism's interest in selling Valentine's cards and diamond rings, achieving predominance over all other forms of loving relationship.

In contrast, the ancient Greeks identified six different kinds of love, of which only one, Eros, resembled the ideal promised in an X-Factor ballad. They included Philia, the love practised between family and friends, as well as Agape, love selflessly extended to one's whole community. Not to mention the mature love, Pragma, found between long-term partners, or even Philauteo, the love of oneself they saw as fundamental to being able to give love to others. Even flirtatious banter in the office or bar should not be dismissed: such playful affection was valued by the Greeks as Ludus. Rather than exploring these different possibilities, many of us load our relationships with impossible expectations, leading to inevitable disappointment and breakdown.

As with love, so with the other forces that shape our lives: work, money, gender roles, the desire to travel, belief systems and our attitude towards death. Krznaric's examples are not all drawn from the Western canon. Aka pygmy fathers share all childcare duties. In rural China, over 60 per cent of ageing parents live with their children. The Balinese escape the tyranny of a linear concept of time by seeing it as a wheel.

Perhaps the most interesting section for this reader was "Deathstyle", in which the tendency to hide death away in hospitals is contrasted with the tradition of the Day of the Dead in Mexico and the 15th-century European Danse Macabre. How far we use these startling contrasts to change our behaviour is up to us. The cabinet of curiosities can stand open, its contents prized and handed down from generation to generation, or quietly gather dust in the corner.

James Attlee's 'Nocturne: a journey in search of moonlight' is published by Hamish Hamilton