Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Five top books on philosophy & everyday living

Emrys Westacott, a Professor of Philosophy at Alfred University, is the author of The Virtues of Our Vices: A Modest Defense of Gossip, Rudeness, and Other Bad Habits.

One of five books on "Philosophy and Everyday Living" he discussed with Sophie Roell at The Browser:
by George Eliot

Let’s talk about Middlemarch, which I haven’t read in a while but is just fabulous. Before this interview, you told me that George Eliot was something of a philosopher – she translated Feuerbach and Spinoza – and that this book presents everyday moral dilemmas and issues in all their messy complexity.

It is a fantastic book. I think Virginia Woolf described it as the only English novel written for grown-ups. It’s got everything – it’s beautifully plotted, the characters are wonderfully drawn. When I come to the end of a semester I always treat myself to a big, long classic novel, and I just reread Middlemarch. What struck me is what a wonderful psychologist George Eliot is. One very nice thing about her is that, for instance, Casaubon, the dry, self-centred scholar who Dorothea marries, and the banker, Bulstrode, who is a pious hypocrite… she calls on the reader to pity them, because she sees they’re trapped in their way of being. No one in the book likes Casaubon – except Dorothea – and I don’t think any reader ever likes him. But several times she says, pity him, because he’s stuck. I love the sympathy with which she portrays characters that, from a moral point of view, we have to be very critical of. Casaubon has got no business asking Dorothea to marry him – it’s very much a self-centred, self-interested request.

What insights does the book give into the philosophy of the everyday?

Eliot is very good at showing how people act against their best interests because of subtle social pressures that lead them a certain way. One of the central characters is Lydgate, the doctor, who marries a rather shallow woman. He’s trapped into this marriage and they get into debt. He’s a noble character, who is ambitious in his profession, who wants to do good work in the world, and he finds himself dragged down. With the best will in the world, and very noble intentions, he can’t prevent the subtle social pressures of people’s expectations of him from dragging him down.

Another thing I noticed in the novel is that time and again social expectations prevent people from talking directly to others about difficult matters, such as whether they love each other or are critical of each other. But when they do, when they break through those social expectations, then something good happens. Lydgate, for example, is suspected of having taken a bribe from the banker Bulstrode. Dorothea crosses the threshold of social convention and says to him: “Just tell me directly. What happened?” She’s warned against doing this by her friends, who say, “You can’t do that.” But she does, and the fact she is very open and honest and truthful makes a big difference to Lydgate’s life. That happens several times in the book. The most admirable characters are people like Caleb Garth, who always speaks very directly and openly. For him, there is no fannying around, no dithering, no masking of intentions or euphemisms.

Aren’t social conventions a lot more relaxed these days though? Does it still apply?

It’s true they are a lot more relaxed and we probably find it easier today than in the 19th century to be straightforward and open because of the growing informality of social life – something I talk about in my book. There’s still a fair bit to be learned from Middlemarch though. The moral I’m drawing isn’t that everyone in all cases should always be straightforward and open and blunt. There are...[read on]
Read about the other books on the list.

Middlemarch also made John Mullan's lists of ten of the best marital rows, ten of the best examples of unrequited love, ten of the best funerals in literature, and ten of the best deathbed scenes in literature. It is among Selma Dabbagh's top 10 stories of reluctant revolutionaries, Philip Pullman's six best books, Rebecca Goldstein's five best of novels of ideas, Tina Brown's five best books on reputation, Elizabeth Kostova favorite books, and Miss Manners' favorite novels. John Banville and Nick Hornby have not read it.

See: The Page 99 Test: Emrys Westacott's The Virtues of Our Vices.

--Marshal Zeringue