December 22, 2005
What should I do, how shall I live, and whom should I become? Many of us ask such questions, and, modern life being what it is, we don’t have to go far to find answers. Wisdom is now so cheap and abundant that it floods over us from calendar pages, teabags, bottle caps, and mass e-mail messages forwarded by well-meaning friends. We are in a way like residents of Jorge Luis Borges’s Library of Babel – an infinite library whose books contain every possible string of letters and, therefore, somewhere an explanation of why the library exists and how to use it. But Borges’s librarians suspect that they will never find that book amid the miles of nonsense.
Our prospects are better. Few of our potential sources of wisdom are nonsense, and many are entirely true. Yet, because our library is also effectively infinite – no one person can ever read more than a tiny fraction – we face the paradox of abundance: Quantity undermines the quality of our engagement. With such a vast and wonderful library spread out before us, we often skim books or read just the reviews. We might already have encountered the Greatest Idea, the insight that would have transformed us had we savored it, taken it to heart, and worked it into our lives.
This is a book about ten Great Ideas. Each chapter is an attempt to savor one idea that has been discovered by several of the world civilizations – to question that in light of what we now know from scientific research, and to extract from it the lessons that still apply to our modern lives.
Jonathan Haidt is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. His research examines the emotional basis of morality and the ways that morality varies across cultures, including the cultures of liberals and conservatives. Is the co-editor of Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.