On Kindness

Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor




Trade Paperback

128 Pages



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Kindness is the foundation of the world's great religions and most-enduring philosophies. Why, then, does being kind feel so dangerous? If we crave kindness with such intensity, why is it a pleasure we often deny ourselves? And why—despite our longing—are we often suspicious when we are on the receiving end of it?

In this book, the eminent psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and the historian Barbara Taylor examine the pleasures and perils of kindness. Modern people have been taught to perceive ourselves as fundamentally antagonistic to one another, our motives self-seeking. Drawing on intellectual history, literature, psychoanalysis, and contemporary social theory, this book explains how and why we have chosen loneliness over connection. On Kindness argues that a life lived in instinctive, sympathetic identification with others is the one we should allow ourselves to live. This brief and essential book will return to its readers what Marcus Aurelius declared was mankind's "greatest delight": the intense satisfactions of generosity and compassion.


Praise for On Kindness

"If we have all become more self-interested and self-serving, Phillips and Taylor suggest a little more altruism as an antidote to angst and alienation . . . Theirs is a true tract for difficult times."—Iain Finlayson, The Times (London)

"Part of the purpose of this short book is to reinstate [kindness] as something necessary both to our personal happiness and our communal well-being. This seems to me a totally admirable aim . . . A concentrated essay on a limited but deeply important subject is to be highly valued."—Mary Warnock, The Observer (London)

"[An] elegant meditation on kindness . . . In a competitive, stressed-out, paranoid, cynical, celebrity-obsessed, credit-crunched society, this might seem a barmy philosophy. As Phillips and Taylor show—clearly, coherently and completely unsentimentally—it's a completely sensible one."—David Robinson, The Scotsman

"In this brief work, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor offer a spirited argument in defense of the notion that ordinary kindness is sorely in need of elevation in the pantheon of modern virtues. While it's more a historical overview and psychological exploration of the concept of kindness than any sort of practical manual for those looking to inject more sympathy for others into their lives, thoughtful readers in the latter category will be enlightened and certainly not disappointed. The first of the book's two main sections, and the most engaging, is entitled 'A Short History of Kindness.' In a lively survey that ranges from Rome's Stoics and Epicureans to Enlightenment thinkers like Hobbes, Hume and especially Rousseau, the authors deftly sketch the tension between the proponents of a mutually dependent society and those who champion the idea of blunt self-interest. They deliver us to the modern world where they conclude, with no small amount of regret, that 'we are all Hobbesians, convinced that self-interest is our ruling principle.' The middle portion of the book—two chapters entitled 'How Kind?' and 'The Kindness Instinct'—parses the notion of kindness as seen through the prism of Freudian psychoanalysis. These chapters are peppered with pithy insights on the psychological evolution of kindness ('Our lives, from the beginning, depend upon kindness, and it is for this reason . . . that it terrorizes us.'), along with an analysis of the odd symbiosis between kindness and hatred. There's lots of provocative stuff here . . . [The authors] sharply question the values of the 'enterprise culture' of the United States and their native Britain, with its 'life of overwork, anxiety and culture, and isolation.' They suggest, to counter that unhealthy way of life, an unabashedly practical form of kindness that at its root is no more complex than peeling away some of our carapace of self-absorption and in the process recognizing our common humanity. Kindness does seem at odds with the modern admiration for independence and self-reliance. But in these fraught times, perhaps we need to reexamine that belief and recognize the merits of doling out an ample dose of it every day. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, 'When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old I admire kind people.' That thought, these authors suggest, is an estimable, perhaps even a vital, one."—Harvey Freedenberg, Shelf Awareness

"To live the successful modern life, we are enjoined to become less kind and more selfish. That is this small but profound volume's animating premise. Phillips and Taylor argue that in today's fast-paced, anything-to-get-ahead culture, kindness 'has become our forbidden pleasure.' Kindly behavior is perceived as both dangerous and suspicious, nothing less than empty sentiment and simplistic moralizing. Most of all, kindness is taken as a sign of weakness. Though written by a historian and psychoanalyst, On Kindness wears its erudition lightly and with great grace. It looks at attitudes toward kindness from a historical perspective, from the Stoics to Christian thought; to Hobbes, Hume, Adam Smith, and Rousseau; to Freud; and to the current day. For centuries, people thought of themselves as being naturally kind. Phillips and Taylor explore the various ways in which that attitude changed over the centuries and also comment on the often devastating and tragic consequences of that change, of 'how in giving up on kindness, we deprive ourselves of a pleasure that is fundamental to our well being.'"—June Sawyers, Booklist

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Against Kindness

Kindness, or the lack of it, has been getting a lot of press recently. Media gurus lament the selfishness of our times, while newspapers regularly feature stories like...

Read the full excerpt


  • Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor

  • Adam Phillips is a psychoanalyst and the author of twelve books, all widely acclaimed, including On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored; Going Sane; and Side Effects.

    Barbara Taylor has published several highly regarded books on the history of feminism, including the award-winning Eve and the New Jerusalem.

    Both authors live in London.

  • Adam Phillips Jerry Bauer