How Should We Live? | Roman Krznaric

Summary of: How Should We Live?: Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life
By: Roman Krznaric


In ‘How Should We Live?: Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life,’ Roman Krznaric invites readers to explore connections between the past and our present-day experiences. By drawing upon ancient wisdom, the book urges us to reevaluate various aspects of our lives such as love, work, leisure, and even death. Krznaric presents ideas from the ancient Greeks on love, delves into the importance of empathy throughout history, and examines how modern consumerism has been shaped by our historical relationship with possessions. The book’s core message is that reinterrogating outdated perspectives can greatly enhance our lives and enable us to navigate modern challenges.

Love in Different Forms

Our present-day concept of love is too narrow-minded. The ancient Greeks had six unique types of love, but over the centuries, they merged into one. To find love, we need to go back to the Greek way of thinking and spread our emotional needs across different individuals.

Finding love can be a difficult and frustrating experience. We scroll through dating apps, go on endless awkward dates, and end up alone. This could be because we expect one person to fulfill all of our emotional needs. However, emotional needs are complex, diverse, and too numerous for one person to meet.

The ancient Greeks had a different approach to love. They identified six distinct types of love: Eros, Philia, Ludus, Pragma, Agape, and Philautia. Each type of love fulfilled a different emotional need, making it easier for the Greeks to find love.

Unfortunately, over time, these six types of love merged together. The medieval literature of Arabia popularized the passion of Eros and combined it with the selflessness of Agape to create cortezia, or courtly love. Chivalric culture expected knights to perform noble, selfless deeds in the name of passionate love. The Dutch made these passions central to marriage and combined them with the Philia and Pragma that spouses grew to have for each other. Finally, the twentieth-century brought the narcissism of Philautia, as love became tied to consumerism.

To find true love, we need to undo over two thousand years of history and look for different individuals to fulfill our emotional needs. We must go back to the ancient Greek way of thinking and realize that one person cannot meet all our emotional needs. By spreading our emotional needs across different individuals, we can recreate the diverse and fulfilling love of the ancient Greeks.

The Evolution of Housework and Dinner Conversations

Discover how social conventions have shaped the roles of men and women in housework and the reasons behind the decline of dinner conversations in modern families. The word “husband” originated as a man whose work was mainly focused on the home, just like a “housewife” with whom he share domestic duties. However, this concept has evolved over time. During the pre-industrial period, men and women generally shared house chores, but the Industrial Revolution forced men to work in factories, making house chores a feminine duty. Today, housewives outnumber househusbands by 40:1, making it appear “natural.” The good news is that gender equality has begun to change this. On the other hand, the lack of communication during meal times is rooted in history. Segregation, eating in silence, emotional repression, and technology are some of the factors that have contributed to this decline. Couples often watch TV instead of genuinely conversing. There’s still a long way to go before we reach the same levels of equality experienced during earlier times, and families must strive to create meaningful conversations during meal times to foster strong relationships.

Embracing Empathy

Contrary to the popular belief that humans are naturally selfish, scientific evidence suggests that empathy comes naturally to people and even evolved to help our ancestors develop communities. Empathy broadens our evolutionary horizons and can help us as individuals, as it has helped historical figures like George Orwell, C.P. Ellis, and Thomas Clarkson. By experiencing, conversing, and taking social action, we can embrace and engage our empathy to change both our own perspectives and the lives of others.

Rediscover Purpose at Work

In the past, most items were produced by individual craftspeople before the division of labor. The economist Adam Smith suggested dividing complex work into stages, which increased productivity but eroded engagement. To regain a sense of purpose at work, history suggests four purpose-providing templates. We should work towards meaningful goals, like Viktor Frankl’s determination to finish a series of books even in concentration camps. We can also find motivation in helping others, as Albert Schweitzer did. Earning respect and recognition or using our full skill set as generalists are other ways to find engagement at work. By following these templates, we can rediscover purpose at work and feel fulfilled by our roles.

The History and Future of Time

Time has evolved from a tool to track agricultural cycles to a social control mechanism during the Industrial Revolution. The growing obsession with time has led to a society that moves at an ever-faster pace. We need to reimagine our relationship with time by limiting our short-term thinking, slowing down and considering the impact of our actions on future generations.

The Evolution of Consumerism

Until the eighteenth century, a consumer was considered wasteful and consumption implied the wasting away of the body due to tuberculosis. However, with industrialization, the accumulation of wealth led to a shift in our perception of money, with material possessions becoming status symbols. By the end of the nineteenth century, shopping and lifestyle merged, and modern life was defined. The first department store, Bon Marché, opened in Paris in the late 1800s, paving the way for modern shopping malls. Today, advertisements drive us relentlessly to pursue money and the latest trends. However, living a simpler life, as demonstrated by Henry David Thoreau in his book Walden, can offer an alternative by fostering wealth that money can’t buy.

Expanding Our Sensory World

Our cultural preference for vision has limited the range of human sensory experiences. However, recent discoveries have confirmed additional senses beyond the traditional five. The dominance of vision in Western society is cultural rather than natural and has led to a deprivation of a potentially broader sensory experience. Kaspar Hauser’s story shows that our sensory preferences are learned and can be developed through experience, leading to a more vibrant life.

In Western society, vision is king. However, recent scientific discoveries have confirmed Plato’s idea that humans have more than five senses. Alongside the traditional senses, such as touch, taste, smell, vision, and hearing, there are lesser-known senses such as thermoception, equilibrioception, and magnetoreception. Our cultural preference for vision is not natural but a product of technological advancements. The printing press, the scientific method, and visual displays of wealth have all played a role in making vision the dominant sense.

This preference for vision has resulted in a deprivation of potential sensory experiences. Kaspar Hauser’s story is a prime example of this. Having been raised in isolation, Hauser possessed extremely heightened senses. As he assimilated into society, his sensitivities faded, showing that our sensory preferences are learned and can change. We need to cultivate a broader range of sensory experiences, such as the smell and texture of our food or the sounds and smells of our neighborhoods. This allows for a more vibrant life, where we can perceive the world in different ways.

In conclusion, expanding our sensory world beyond just vision can lead to a more fulfilling human experience. Our sensory preferences are learned and can change, leading to a broader range of experiences. The sensory experience of Kaspar Hauser highlights the importance of cultivating a wide range of senses and the need to move away from the cultural dominance of vision.

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