The word ‘magic’ derives from the Latin, the Greek, the Old Persian, and, ultimately, the Proto-Indo-European magh, ‘to help, to be able, to be powerful’, from which also derive the words ‘almighty’, ‘maharaja’, ‘main’, ‘may’, and… ‘machine’. We come full circle with Clarke’s Third Law, which states: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’

Magic, like religion, is deeply embedded into the human psyche. Though it has, effectively, been banished from the land, still it surfaces in thought and language, in phrases such as ‘I must be cursed’ and ‘He’s under your spell’; in children’s stories and other fiction; and in psychological processes such as undoing, which involves thinking a thought or carrying out an act in an attempt to negate a previous, uncomfortable thought or act.

Examples of undoing include the absent father who periodically returns to spoil and smother his children, and the angry wife who throws a plate at her husband and then tries to ‘make it up’ by smothering him in kisses. The absent father and angry wife are not merely trying to make amends for their behaviour, but also, as if by magic, to ‘erase it from the record’.

Another example of undoing is the man who damages a friend’s prospects and then, a few days later, turns up at his door bearing a small gift. Rituals such as confession and penitence are, at least on some level, socially condoned and codified forms of undoing.

‘Magic’ is difficult to define, and its definition remains a matter of debate and controversy. One way of understanding it is by comparing and contrasting it to religion on the one hand and to science on the other.

Historically, the priest, the physician, the magician, and the scholar might have been one and the same person: the shaman, the sorcerer.

In the West, pre-Socratics such as Pythagoras and Empedocles moonlighted as mystics and miracle workers—or perhaps, since the term ‘philosophy’ is held to have been invented by Pythagoras, moonlighted as philosophers. Pythagoras claimed to have lived four lives and to remember them all in great detail, and once recognized the cry of his dead friend in the yelping of a puppy. After his death, the Pythagoreans deified him, and attributed him with a golden thigh and the gift of bilocation.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates argues that there are, in fact, two kinds of madness: one resulting from human illness, but the other arising from a divinely inspired release from normally accepted behaviour. This divine form of madness, says Socrates, has four parts: love, poetry, inspiration, and mysticism, which is the particular gift of Dionysus.

While Socrates, in some sense the father of logic, seldom claimed any real knowledge, he did claim to have a daimonion or ‘divine something’, an inner voice or intuition that prevented him from making grave mistakes such as getting involved in politics, or fleeing Athens: ‘This is the voice which I seem to hear murmuring in my ears, like the sound of the flute in the ears of the mystic…’

Far from being a thing of the distant past, this trope of the philosopher-sorcerer outlived the sack of Athens and the fall of Rome, and perdured well into the Enlightenment. The economist John Maynard Keynes, upon buying a trove of Isaac Newton’s papers, observed that Newton and the physicists of his time were ‘not the first of the scientists, but the last of the sorcerers’. Other notable later occultists include: Giordano Bruno, Nostradamus, Paracelsus, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and Arthur Conan Doyle, yes, the father of Sherlock Holmes.

Yet since antiquity, the West has had an uncomfortable relationship with magic, usually regarding it as something foreign and ‘Eastern’. In Plato’s Meno, Meno compares Socrates to the flat torpedo fish, which torpifies or numbs all those who come near it: ‘And I think that you are very wise in not [leaving Athens], for if you did in other places as you do in Athens, you would be cast into prison as a magician.’

For the Greeks as for the Romans, magic represented as improper and potentially subversive expression of religion. After centuries of contra-legislation, in 357 CE, the Christian Roman emperor Constantius II finally banned it outright:

No one shall consult a haruspex, a diviner, or a soothsayer, and wicked confessions made to augurs and prophets must cease. Chaldeans, magicians, and others who are commonly called malefactors on account of the enormity of their crimes shall no longer practice their infamous arts.

The Bible, too, inveighs against magic, in more than a hundred places, for example, picked almost at random:

  • Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. —Exodus 22:18 (KJV)
  • Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God. —Leviticus 19:31 (KJV)
  • But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. —Revelation 21:8 (KJV)

Early Christians, perhaps unconsciously, associated magic with mythopoeic thought, in which all of nature is full of gods and spirits, and therefore with paganism and, by extension, with demons. During the Reformation, Protestants accused the Church of Rome, with its superstitions, relics, and exorcisms, of being more magic than religion—a charge that transferred all the more to non-Christian peoples, and that, notoriously, served as a justification for large-scale persecution, colonization, and Christianization.

Today, magic, like mythopoeic thought, is seen as ‘primitive’, and has largely been relegated to fiction and illusionism. But as a result, people have come to associate magic with delight and wonder; and with the retreat of Christianity, at least from Europe, a growing number are returning to some form of paganism as a path to personal and spiritual development.

So, what exactly is the difference between magic and religion? It is often held that magic is older than religion, or that religion was born out of magic, but it may be that they co-existed, and were not distinguished.

Both magic and religion pertain to the sacred sphere, to things removed from everyday life. But, compared to religion, magic does not split so sharply between the natural and the supernatural, the earthly and the divine, the fallen and the blessed. And whereas magic involves harnessing the world to the will, religion involves subjugating the will to the world. In the words of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (d. 2009), ‘religion consists in a humanization of natural laws, and magic in a naturalization of human actions.’

Hence, magic tends to be about specific problems, and to involve private rites and rituals. Religion, in contrast, tends towards the bigger picture, and to involve communal worship and belonging. ‘Magic’ said the sociologist Emile Durkheim (d. 1917), ‘does not result in binding together those who adhere to it, nor in uniting them into a group leading a common life. There is no Church of magic.’

So, one hypothesis is that, as man gained increasing control over nature, magic, as it came to be called, lost ground to religion, which, being communal and centralized, evolved a hierarchy that sought to suppress those practices that threatened its dogma and dominance.

But now religion is, in its turn, on the decline—in favour of science. What is science? Within academia, there are, in fact, no clear or reliable criteria for distinguishing a science from a non-science. What might be said is that all sciences share certain assumptions which underpin the scientific method—in particular, that there is an objective reality governed by uniform laws, and that this reality can be discovered by systematic observation.

But, as I argue in my book, Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking, every scientific paradigm that has come and gone is now deemed to have been false, inaccurate, or incomplete, and it would be ignorant or arrogant to assume that our current ones might amount to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The philosopher Paul Feyerabend (d. 1994) went so far as to claim that there is no such thing as ‘a’ or ‘the’ scientific method: behind the facade, ‘anything goes’, and, as a form of knowledge, science is no more privileged than magic or religion.

More than that, science has come to occupy the same place in the human psyche as religion once did. Although science began as a liberating movement, it grew dogmatic and repressive, more of an ideology than a rational method that leads to ineluctable progress.

To quote Feyerabend:

Knowledge is not a series of self-consistent theories that converges toward an ideal view; it is rather an ever increasing ocean of mutually incompatible (and perhaps even incommensurable) alternatives, each single theory, each fairy tale, each myth that is part of the collection forcing the others into greater articulation and all of them contributing, via this process of competition, to the development of our consciousness.

A common trope in fantasy fiction is the ‘thinning’ of magic: magic is fading, or has been banished, from the land, which is caught in a perpetual winter or otherwise in deathly or depressive decline, and the hero is called upon to rescue and restore the life-giving forces of old.

It is easy to draw the parallel with our own world, in which magic has been progressively driven out, first by religion, which over the centuries, became increasingly repressive of magic, and latterly by science with its zero tolerance.

When we read fantasy fiction, it is for the side of the old magic, always, that we root, for a time when the world, when life, had meaning in itself.

In my next article, I will look at the psychology and philosophy of magic.

Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

The psychology and philosophy of laughter.

When looking for romance, on dating sites and apps, people often ask for, or promise to offer, a good sense of humour (GSOH).

Today, we tend to think of laughter as a good thing, but, historically, this has not always been the case. Laughter seldom features in Plato’s dialogues, and, when it does, it is usually in the mouths of sophists and fools. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates advises that, to set a good example, heroes in myths and stories should never be portrayed as being overcome with laughter.

Later, the stoics also frowned upon laughter, as did, for centuries, the monasteries. Even the mild Rule of St Benedict—the most commonly adopted monastic rule—condemns laughter in the strongest terms, for example, in Chapter VI, Of Silence: ‘Coarse jests, and idle words or speech provoking laughter, we condemn everywhere to eternal exclusion.’

The notion that laughter can overcome reason or corrupt moral character finds an echo in the superiority theory of laughter, according to which laughter is a way of putting oneself up by putting others down. The superiority theory is most closely associated with the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (d. 1679), who conceived of laughter as ‘a sudden glory arising from sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.’

When we think of mediaeval mobs jeering at people in stocks, or, in our time, Candid Camera, we can see that Hobbes had at least half a point. But the superiority theory is unable to account for all cases of laughter, such as laughter arising from joy, surprise, or relief.

According to the relief theory of laughter, most often associated with Sigmund Freud (d. 1939), laughter represents a release of pent-up nervous energy. Like dreams, jokes are able to bypass our inner censor, enabling a repressed emotion such as xenophobia (or, at least, the nervous energy associated with the repression) to surface—explaining why, at times, we can be embarrassed by our own laughter. By the same token, a comedian might raise a laugh by conjuring some costly emotion, such as admiration or indignation, and then suddenly killing it.

More flexible than the superiority theory, the relief theory is able to account for how we might use laughter as a form of release, or to tell or reveal an uncomfortable truth. But, arguably, not all laughter arises from a release of pent-up energy—not, for example, laughter at a pun or word play—and those who laugh the hardest at offensive jokes are not generally the most decorous or repressed of people.

Much more popular today is a third theory, the incongruity theory of laughter, associated with the likes of Immanuel Kant (d. 1804) and Søren Kierkegaard (d. 1855), according to which the comedian raises a laugh, not by conjuring an emotion and then killing it, but by creating an expectation and then contradicting it—a technique first advocated, in fact, by Aristotle in the Rhetoric.

For the story, both Kant and Kierkegaard were terrible at telling jokes. Here is Kant in the Critique of Judgement, telling a joke to illustrate his theory of laughter:

A merchant returning from India to Europe with all his wealth in merchandise was forced to throw it overboard in a heavy storm, and grieved thereat so much that his wig turned grey the same night!

In the Poetics, Aristotle states that ‘the ridiculous may be defined as a mistake or deformity not productive of pain or harm to others…’ Leaning on Aristotle, Kierkegaard highlights that the violation of an expectation is the core not only of comedy but also of tragedy—the difference being that, in tragedy, the violation leads to pain or harm.

Possibly, it is not the incongruity itself that we enjoy, but the light that it sheds, in particular, on the difference between what lies inside and outside our heads. Kant compares the pleasure of laughter, the free play of thought, to the pleasure of music, the free play of sound, and the pleasure of gambling, the free play of fortune. Perhaps the only difference between the comedian, the psychologist, and the philosopher is that you can’t pretend to be a comedian.

The incongruity theory is arguably more basic than the relief and superiority theories. When someone laughs, our inclination is to search for an incongruity; and though we may laugh for superiority or relief, even then, it helps if we can pin our laughter on some real or imagined incongruity. At times we laugh with the truth, at others against it.

In Umberto Eco’s novel, The Name of the Rose, the monk Jorge de Burgos commits a string of murders to prevent the sole surviving copy of Aristotle’s treatise on comedy (the lost second book of the Poetics), hidden in the abbey’s labyrinthine library, from ever coming to light. For Jorge, the book is dangerous, because laughter, once understood, could undermine the very foundations of religion and society.

After Aristotle, the first major philosopher to write a book specifically on laughter was Henri Bergson.

In On Laughter (1900), Bergson begins by making three observations.

  • Laughter is a human preserve: ‘Many philosophers have defined man ‘a laughing animal’, but they could also have said a ‘laughable animal’—for if another animal can make us laugh, this is only insofar as it reminds us of man.’
  • More than that, laughter is a social activity. Even when we laugh alone, it is because we have conjured up a social context, a gathering of ghosts—’for laughter implies a certain complicity with others, whether real or imaginary.’
  • Emotion is the enemy of laughter, inasmuch as laughter presupposes a certain distance, a certain indifference, even if it is only momentary—and, in fact, creating this distance can be one of the purposes of humour.

These, then, are the conditions for laughter: a human dimension, a social aspect, and a detached attitude. But what is laughter, all laughter, actually about? It is, replies Bergson, about a kind of mechanical rigidity, either in body or mind.

Nature is full of vital energy and never exactly repeats itself, but we human beings tend to fall short, to fall into patterns and habits, to ossify, to lose ourselves to ourselves—and laughter is how we point this out to one another, how we up our collective game.

For example, we may laugh at one who falls into a hole through absentmindedness, or at one who constantly repeats the same gesture or phrase. More subtly, we may laugh at a pun or a literal interpretation of a figure of speech; or at a misunderstanding that arises from a scene so formulaic that it is able to belong at the same time to two completely independent series of events (in French, a qui pro quo).

I would add that we may also laugh at, or from, an unusual or unexpected lack of rigidity, as, for instance, when we break a habit or have an original idea—although this kind of divine laughter, as I call it, may only arise out of contrast with our usual rigidity.

Ultimately, says Bergson, we are laughable to the extent that we are a machine or an object, to the extent that we lack self-awareness, that we are invisible to ourselves while being visible to everyone else.

Thus, the laughter of others usually draws attention to our unconscious processes, to our modes or patterns of self-deception, and to the gap, or gulf, between our fiction and the reality. This gap is narrowest in poets and artists, who have to transcend themselves if they are to be worthy of the name.

In the end, Jorge de Burgos accidentally burns down the entire abbey, destroying not only the last copy of the second book of the Poetics, but also every other manuscript in the library. Jorge de Burgos is the antithesis of a poet, a destroyer of the arts, a fanatic who might have been cured by the laughter that he scorned.

Another way to understand laughter is to look at it like a biologist or anthropologist might. Human infants are able to laugh long before they can speak. Laughter involves parts of the brain that evolved long before the language centres, and that we share with other animals. Primates in particular produce laughing sounds when playfighting, play-chasing, or tickling. As with human children, it seems that their laughter functions as a signal that the danger is not for real—which may be why characters such as Batman’s Joker, who send a misleading signal, are so unsettling.

While laughter may not be a human preserve, Bergson was surely right in highlighting its social dimension. Most laughter, even today, is not directed at jokes, but at creating and maintaining social bonds. Humour is a social lubricant, a signal of acceptance and belonging. More than that, it is a way of communicating, of making a point emphatically, or conveying a sensitive message without incurring the usual social costs. At the same, humour can also be a weapon, a sublimed form of aggression, serving, like antlers or plumes, to pull rank or attract a mate. The subtlety and ambiguity involved is in itself a form of play, and we know that laughter is associated with stress reduction and other health benefits.

If laughter began as a signal of play, it has, in human beings, evolved a number of other functions, none of which are mutually incompatible. Humour is shaped by culture and education, and, if people laugh differently in Berlin, imagine how differently they must have laughed in Ancient Greece or Ancient India. Kant must have thought his joke funny, but in the age of TikTok we have come to expect something more, or different.

Zen masters teach that it is much easier to laugh at ourselves once we have transcended our ego. At the highest level, laughter is the sound of the shattering of the ego. It is a means of gaining (and revealing) perspective, of rising beyond ourselves and our lives, of achieving a kind of immortality, a kind of divinity.

Upon awakening on her deathbed to see her entire family around her, Nancy Astor quipped, ‘Am I dying, or is this my birthday?’

Today laughter gives us a bit of what religion once did.

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In Umberto Eco’s novel, The Name of the Rose, the monk Jorge de Burgos commits a string of murders to prevent the sole surviving copy of Aristotle’s treatise on comedy (the lost second book of the Poetics), hidden in the abbey’s labyrinthine library, from ever coming to light. For Jorge, the book is dangerous, because laughter, if properly understood, could undermine the very foundations of religion and society.

Since Aristotle, who lived in the 4th century BCE, few philosophers have taken laughter seriously, devoting at most a footnote or a digression to the subject—until, that is, Henri Bergson, whose treatise on laughter (Le Rire, 1900) I found refreshingly readable.

Laughter, says Bergson, is a strictly human property: “Many philosophers have defined man as ‘a laughing animal,’ but they could also have said a ‘laughable animal’—for if another animal can make us laugh, this is only insofar as it reminds us of man.”

More than that, laughter is a social activity. Bergson tells a joke about a sermon at which the entire congregation cried, except for one man. When asked why he didn’t cry, the man replies, “Because I’m from a different parish.” Even when we laugh alone, it is because we have conjured up a social context, a gathering of ghosts—”for laughter implies a certain complicity with others, whether real or imaginary.”

Life, wrote the tragedian Jean Racine, is a comedy to those who think, and a tragedy to those who feel. Bergson concurred: Emotion is the enemy of laughter, for laughter presupposes a certain distance, a certain indifference, even if it is only momentary—and, in fact, creating this distance can be one of the purposes of humour.

These, then, are the conditions for laughter: a human dimension, a social aspect, and a detached attitude. But what is laughter, all laughter, actually about? It is, replies Bergson, about a kind of mechanical rigidity [raideur de mécanique], either in the body or in the mind.

Nature is full of vital energy and creativity and adaptability, and never exactly repeats itself; but we human beings tend to fall short, to ossify or petrify, to lose ourselves to ourselves—and laughter is how we point this out to one another, how we up our collective game.

For example, we may laugh at one who falls into a hole through absentmindedness; or at one who constantly, and sometimes inappropriately, repeats the same gesture or phrase; or at one who expends much effort only to end up in exactly the same place.

More subtly, we may laugh at a pun or a literal interpretation of a figure of speech; or at a misunderstanding that arises from a scene so formulaic that it is able to belong at the same time to two completely independent series of events.

I would add that we may also laugh at, or from, an unusual or unexpected lack of rigidity, as, for example, when we break a habit or have an original idea—although this kind of divine laughter, as I call it, only arises out of the contrast with our usual rigidity.

Ultimately, says Bergson, we are laughable to the extent that we are a machine or an object, to the extent that we lack self-awareness, that we are invisible to ourselves while being visible to everyone else.

Thus, the laughter of others usually draws attention to our unconscious processes, to our modes or patterns of self-deception, and to the gap, or gulf, between our fiction and the reality.

This is also how our body and bodily functions can lead to laughter, by diverting attention from, and contrasting with, our higher being—which is why tragic heroes rarely eat or drink or sit down in the middle of a soliloquy. After conquering the Prussian city of Magdeburg, Napoleon, ever the fine psychologist, punctured the pleas of Queen Louise of Prussia by asking her to sit down.

Every comical character is, almost by definition, a caricature, a stereotype [Greek, ‘a solid kind’], which is why a comical character can be turned into a noun, but a tragic one never. We might speak of a Scrooge or a Pollyanna, but never of a Cleopatra or a Hamlet. We never say, “Oh that guy, he’s such a Hamlet!” Because Hamlet is complicated and alive and free.

The purpose of laughter is to flush out our faults, but a fault is not necessarily a vice, and it is easier to laugh at a rigid virtue than at a supple vice—for it is rigidity, rather than vice per se, that society scorns. By the same token, the opposite of the risible is not the virtuous or the beautiful, but the graceful.

To survive and thrive as a species, we as individuals need to develop the highest possible degree of elasticity and sociability. Although it is at rigidity that we laugh, rigidity usually coincides with vice, and it is to the credit of humanity that the social ideal and the moral ideal are not so far apart.

Of all the vices, the most pernicious, and the most proper to laughter, is vanity—which is why, in the absence of free speech and a free press, medieval monarchs had a joker in their court.

Of course, laughter can be misused or misdirected, for example, to mock others, or in a manic illness, but this does not remove from its proper, corrective function. At the same time, even the most altruistic, pro-social laughter contains a grain of malice, for to be laughed at is also to suffer une petite humiliation.

So, how not to be laughed at? I think I’ve already answered that question, but I’ll answer it again in a different way. If laughter draws attention to the gap between our fiction and reality, this gap is at its narrowest in poets and artists, who need to transcend themselves if they are to be worthy of the name.

In the end, Jorge de Burgos accidentally burns down the entire abbey, destroying not only the last copy of the second book of the Poetics, but also every other manuscript in the library.

Jorge de Burgos is the antithesis of a poet, a destroyer of the arts, a fanatic who might have been cured by the laughter that he scorned.

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Many of our utterances carry much more than their literal meaning.

Suppose I am hosting a dinner party at 7pm. At 4pm, one of my guests texts me, “I’m free from 6pm”. From that, I will understand, “I’m free from 6pm and I’d like to arrive early if that’s OK?”

As the evening progresses, another of the guests says something horribly rude. I respond with, “So, what did you think about the fish?” From this, my guest ought to understand that he has overstepped the mark.

As a writer, I am acutely aware that I am conveying much more than the words on the page. As a psychiatrist, I am acutely aware that my patients are disclosing much more than the face value of their words.

So, how do our words and sentences work so hard?

The British philosopher Paul Grice (d. 1988) attempted to answer this question by his theory of implicature.

Grice distinguished conventional implicatures, inherent in certain words such as “but”, “therefore”, and “indeed”, from conversational implicatures, which arise from a sort of game-playing, and rule-observing, between speakers.

Let me give you an example of each.

If I say, “She was poor but honest”, I am, by the simple use of the word “but”, also conveying or betraying a certain prejudice that poor people are generally dishonest.

A few hours before my dinner party, I bump into a friend while stepping out of a bakery with three loaves under my arm. My friend asks, “How are you?” To which I respond, “My first dinner party tonight!” By which she understands, “I’m excited because tonight I’m throwing a dinner party for the first time since the U.K. coronavirus lockdown.”

With conversational implicatures, our utterances can take on added meanings, or different meanings, according to the situation or context in which they are uttered.

When we speak to our partner in a crowded place, they are able to derive much more meaning from what we have said than the strangers who are also in earshot, in part because they are leaning upon background information that is privy only to the both of us. Our partner is capturing not only our words, but also how they fit in, and work with, push against, or wrap around, the world that we share.

More interesting, I think, is that non-literal meaning can also be created by pushing against certain general and deeply ingrained principles of communication and co-operation. In particular, meaningful conversation can only take place on the assumption that the speakers are, at least on an epistemic level, cooperating with one another.

Grice divided this so-called cooperative principle into four maxims of conversation:

  1. Maxim of quality: That utterances ought to be sincere, justified, and truthful.
  2. Maxim of quantity: That the right amount of information ought to be provided.
  3. Maxim of relevance: That the information provided is in some way pertinent.
  4. Maxim of manner: That the information provided is as clear and unambiguous as possible.

Whenever one or more of these maxims appears to have been flouted, we reflexively assume that the speaker must somehow have observed the maxims and start searching for a likely non-literal meaning.

In other words, implicature arises when the Gricean maxims are flouted, or would have been flouted had it not been for the implicature. Category examples of floutings that, by implicature, are not true floutings include irony (maxim of quality), metaphor (maxim of relevance), and euphemism (maxim of manner).

But, of course, the maxims are not invariably observed. Politicians in particular often flout the maxims, for instance, by answering a different question to the one asked, or providing a much longer answer when a simple “yes” or “no” would have sufficed, or been preferable. In such cases, most of the interviewer’s interjections are, in effect, attempts to return the politician to the maxims.

Conversational implicatures serve a number of important functions such as: increasing the efficiency of communication; making communication more lively, varied, and humorous; and introducing ambiguity or restraint to avoid being ostracized or otherwise penalized for speaking hard truths.

But this slipperiness, this malleability, also gives rise to a number of ethical and legal problems—which is why legal contracts, witness statements, and the like are expected or even required to be as concrete and literal as possible.

More fundamentally, while we can be held responsible for what we say, to what extent can we be held responsible for what we implicate?

Today, many politicians resort to implicature, on Twitter and elsewhere, to get away with saying the unsayable.

In the words of the Persian poet Hafiz, “The words you speak become the house you live in.”

Ataraxia series

In my work as a psychiatrist, I help to treat mental disorder—and, I’m delighted to say, most of the people I see do get better.

But why stop here?

I believe that there is much more to mental health than the mere absence of mental disorder.

Mental health is not just about surviving, but about thriving, about developing and expressing our highest, fullest potential as human beings.

Before Christianity, there were, of course, the pagan gods, Zeus and Jupiter and their ilk. But, especially for the high-minded, there were also a number of philosophical schools, the major ones being cynicism, stoicism, skepticism, and epicureanism. Although each with its own outlook and method, all four schools aimed at the attainment of mental tranquillity and mastery, or ataraxia—making them, in my view, much more similar than different.

Ataraxia [Greek, ‘lack of disturbance or trouble’] is also the guiding principle of this series, with each book, like each philosophy, adopting a distinct but complementary approach to peace of mind: exploring the deep origins of our distress in The Meaning of Madness; guarding against the demons of self-deception in Hide and Seek; refining our emotions in Heaven and Hell; regulating our relations with others in For Better For Worse; and, finally, honing our thinking skills in Hypersanity.

To recap, the five books in the series are:

  1. The Meaning of Madness
  2. Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception
  3. Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions
  4. For Better For Worse: Essays on Sex, Love, Marriage, and More
  5. Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking

Although the series is numbered, each book can happily stand on its own—meaning that you can read just one or all five, and in whichever order you like.

Ataraxia is closely linked with eudaimonia, which is often translated as ‘happiness’ but which is, in fact, a much deeper, fuller, and richer concept, sometimes articulated in terms of flourishing, or living a life that is worthwhile and fulfilling.

The stakes could not be higher.

[The first book in the series is currently free to download from Amazon.]