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Ten lessons from philosophy: Guard your privacy, forgive your enemies, lean into happiness

Unthinkable: Søren Kierkegaard would hate this listicle but Albert Camus and Hannah Arendt might approve

Some philosophers are quite snooty about journalism. Frederick Nietzsche complained that “the journalist, servant of the present moment, has taken the place of the genius”. Ludwig Wittgenstein applied “journalism” as a term of abuse for any kind of sloppy thinking.

Søren Kierkegaard, who had run-ins with a satirical magazine in his native Denmark, wrote: “The lowest depth to which people can sink before God is defined by the word ‘journalist’ ... If I had a son who became a journalist and continued to be one for five years, I would give him up.”

Well, sorry Søren: You will be turning in your grave today because this newspaper hack is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Irish Times Unthinkable column.

The first Unthinkable ran in November 2013 on the Culture pages as an experiment in showcasing philosophical perspectives on current affairs. It’s hard to pick out a favourite philosopher now, but two thinkers merit particular attention on this occasion – if only to annoy those intellectuals who regard themselves as above the media.


Albert Camus and Hannah Arendt broke from a tradition of armchair philosophers to become reporters, the former for Combat, the second World War resistance newspaper, and the latter for the New Yorker, most famously covering the 1961 trial of former Nazi official Adolf Eichmann.

Combining the best values of journalism with loftier intellectual inquiry, they have several lessons for us today. Let’s make it 10 lessons because Kierkegaard would hate a listicle:

1. Press pause: “There’s an English idiom, ‘Stop and think.’ Nobody can think unless he stops,” said Arendt. Her message was directed at our growth-oriented, always-on society that promotes action ahead of reasoning.

2. Check your humanity: “A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers.” So wrote Camus in his novel The Fall. It reflected his central moral concern that people were unmoved by cruelty and had allowed violence to be normalised.

3. Keep a private life: “A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow,” said Arendt. Authoritarian regimes like China and Russia are trying to obliterate the private lives of their citizens. Those of us who live in democracies should not surrender our privacy as cheaply as we do.

4. Don’t jump to conclusions: Camus and Arendt saw themselves as chroniclers of the human condition rather than preachers or dispensers of knowledge. We like to be spoon-fed truths but Camus said he was “more at ease with the process of thinking than ... making categorical statements”. Opinion columnists take note.

5. Try to understand before condemning: Arendt, a German-born Jewish refugee, went to the Eichmann trial expecting to see a monster but instead found a bureaucrat. Her analysis of the “banality of evil” – and her attempt to explain why ordinary people commit atrocities – drew fierce criticism from certain quarters, particularly in Israel. To understand, however, is not necessarily to forgive.

6. Imagine your enemies as friends: In a remarkable wartime series, Camus wrote four Letters to a German Friend, addressing his imagined Nazi foe. What is striking about the essays is not just his willingness to dialogue with a corrupted peer, but his confidence that fascism will fail – because the best thing one can tell a friend is the truth.

7. Don’t take the State for granted: Ireland is an outlier in not having an independence day. Arendt brings some perspective, having herself been displaced by war. Slavery is better than being stateless, she says, as “to be a slave was after all to have a distinctive character, a place in society more than the abstract nakedness of being human and nothing but human”.

8. Get out more and try to reach those isolated: Solitude can be healthy – it aids deep thinking and creativity – but loneliness is another matter. Arendt feared the latter was spreading – an EU research study last year found over 20 per cent of respondents in Ireland reporting feeling lonely, the highest rate in Europe.

Aside from immediate health effects, Arendt worried about the long-term consequences for our politics: “What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience.”

9. Practise forgiveness: Since humans aren’t fully in control of their actions, it’s inevitable they’ll cause offence or “trespass”. You have a choice between mercy and revenge. The former “serves to undo the deeds of the past”, says Arendt: it “releases” the transgressor from their crime and allows us to collectively write a new history. Arendt didn’t believe in forgiving every crime but she warned against revenge as it binds the two parties together in a death-grip – it “encloses both doer and sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process, which by itself need never come to an end”.

10. Lean into happiness: Given the world’s problems, “happiness is like a crime”, said Camus. But those of us lucky to be in a democracy and to have some good things in life should not always search for stuff to complain about. Don’t be one of those people who – in Camus’ words – are “unhappy to be deprived of their unhappiness”.