A Celebration of Joy with a Naive Streak by Theodore Zeldin, book review

Zeldin considers different categories of pleasure in relation to writers and thinkers of the past

Natalie Haynes
Thursday 28 May 2015 14:50 BST

Are life's pleasure's forever hidden from view, or can you find them in the simplest interactions with your fellow man? Theodore Zeldin is determined to reappraise them by considering different categories of pleasure in relation to writers and thinkers of the past, ranging from Einstein and Thomas More to Haimabati Sen, an impoverished Bengali doctor, and Samuel Augustus Maverick, a 19th-century Texan cattle owner. Zeldin's book is a collection of biographical essays, interspersed with lessons learned from these lives.

The biographies are often neatly expressed, and full of intriguing details, though sometimes Zeldin sacrifices accuracy to make his point: Socrates didn't go barefoot because he was too poor to afford shoes, as Zeldin suggests. Rather, his imperviousness to standing on icy ground – at least when Alcibiades relates it in Plato's Symposium – is merely because he is lost in thought, and too high-minded to feel the cold.

Similarly, the lessons drawn from Xenophon might have come as a surprise to the Greek. Writing about relationships between men and women, Zeldin concludes that Xenophon, whose Oeconomicos examines household management and the differing roles of husbands and wives, "takes one back to the most basic form of human interaction, which is communication". But one of the most famous exchanges in this treatise is when Socrates asks his friend Critobulus if there is "anyone to whom you speak less than your wife?" No one, comes the response, treated by all involved as uncontroversial. That doesn't sound much like a true meeting of minds.

Zeldin has an almost unnerving streak of optimism, to the point of naivety at times. "Why is it not possible for us to create our own passports, saying what we want others to understand or appreciate about us?" he asks. Why, the reader may long to ask, do we need any kind of document to tell others what we see as important about ourselves? Can't we do that in person? By all means, try telling the guy at Customs about your passion for stamp-collecting, but he only really needs your name and date of birth.

He also has a curious habit of presenting controversial information with no gloss whatsoever, which produces an uneven, uncritical tone. The World Bank, whose monetary ethics have been called into question many times, is explained simply as an organisation "whose mission it is to end world poverty".

A fascinating section on religion is weakened by the description of Northern Ireland as "one of the most merciless of religious wars", as though politics had nothing to do with it. Still, that does nothing to diminish the impact of his subsequent extraordinary statistic that only "21 per cent of the youngsters and only 54 percent of those aged over 65 [of Northern Irish people] know that there are four gospels".

Zeldin is an engaging travel companion, flitting between biography and philosophy with an easy charm. If this book isn't quite a hidden pleasure, it certainly offers the reader a few tasty treats.

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