Essays

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Fine writing on philosophy, psychology, science, history and the arts


Detail of Battle against the inhabitants of Veii and Fidenae (c1598), by Guiseppe Cesari, also known as the Cavaliere d’Arpino. The National Gallery, London. Courtesy Wikipedia

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Nations and empires
Enlisted, enslaved, enthroned

Vandals, Goths, Alemanni, Sueves… the Romans grappled endlessly with the status of ethnic peoples in their vast empire

Douglas Boin

Photo by Adnan Abidi/Reuters

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Mental health
The seed of suffering

The p-factor is the dark matter of psychiatry: an invisible, unifying force that might lie behind a multitude of mental disorders

Alex Riley

The Tarkhan Dress is the world’s oldest woven garment with radiocarbon testing dating the garment to the late fourth-millennium BC. Image courtesy the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL

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Archaeology
The clothing revolution

What if the need for fabric, not food, in the face of a changing climate is what first tipped humanity towards agriculture?

Ian Gilligan

Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty

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Knowledge
Philosophy with children

Kids don’t just say ‘the darndest things’. Playful and probing, they can be closer to the grain of life’s deepest questions

Jana Mohr Lone

Misrata, Libya, April 2011. Photo by David Rose/Panos Pictures

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War and peace
Who counts as a victim?

Innocent, passive, apolitical: after the Holocaust, the standard for ‘true’ victimhood has worked to justify total war

A Dirk Moses

Photo by Martine Franck/Magnum

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Philosophy of religion
Reincarnation now

Modern mindfulness strips Buddhism of its spiritual core. We need an ethics of reincarnation for an interconnected world

Avram Alpert

John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner and Art Davis, live in Copenhagen, 1961. Photo by JP Jazz Archive/Getty

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Quantum theory
Quantum music

Physics has long looked to harmony to explain the beauty of the Universe. But what if dissonance yields better insights?

Katie McCormick

Locals at the Marienfluss Conservancy in Namibia meet to discuss conservation. Photo courtesy of NACSO/WWF Namibia

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The environment
The miracle of the commons

Far from being profoundly destructive, we humans have deep capacities for sharing resources with generosity and foresight

Michelle Nijhuis

Detail from a cross section of a human brain organoid revealing the formation of neural rosettes. All photos courtesy and © Muotri Lab/UC San Diego

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Human evolution
Brains in a dish

What pea-sized brain organoids reveal about consciousness, the self and our future as a species

Alysson Muotri

Proud new citizens at a US Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalisation ceremony at the New York Public Library in Manhattan on 3 July 2018. Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

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Nations and empires
The patriot paradox

Globalism is out. Nationalism is in. Progressives who think they can jump aboard are dangerously naive

Jeremy Adelman

Miami Beach, 2015. Photo by Stuart Franklin/Magnum

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Meaning and the good life
Authenticity is a sham

From monks to existentialists and hipsters, the search for a true self has been a centuries-long project. Should we give it up?

Alexander Stern

A copy of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) is believed to be the only book known to have the signatures of two of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Photo by Dai Sugano/Mercury/Getty

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Stories and literature
Milton versus the mob

He spoke truth to power and made heresy a virtue. Lessons on free speech and intellectual combat from John Milton

Nicholas McDowell

Photo by Richard Baker/Getty

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Stories and literature
Shameful

Women who write about their pain suffer a double shaming: once for getting injured, twice for their act of self-exposure

Katherine Angel

Fremont Street, Las Vegas, 1982. Photo by Harry Gruyaert/Magnum

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Mathematics
Mathematics for gamblers

If philosophers and mathematicians struggle with probability, can gamblers really hope to grasp their losing game?

Catalin Barboianu

Detail of Moonlight Landscape (1785) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Courtesy the Ringling Museum of Art, Florida State University

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Thinkers and theories
Coleridge the philosopher

Though far more often remembered as a poet, Coleridge’s theory of ideas was spectacular in its originality and bold reach

Peter Cheyne

Photo by Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

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Information and communication
The misinformation virus

Lies and distortions don’t just afflict the ignorant. The more you know, the more vulnerable you can be to infection

Elitsa Dermendzhiyska

The Course of Empire: Destruction (1836) by Thomas Cole. Courtesy Met Museum, New York/Wikipedia

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Nations and empires
The road from Rome

The fall of the Roman Empire wasn’t a tragedy for civilisation. It was a lucky break for humanity as a whole

Walter Scheidel

Photo by Elliott Landy / Magnum Photos

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Beauty and aesthetics
A philosophy of sound

From the Big Bang to a heartbeat in utero, sounds are a scaffold for thought when logic and imagery elude us

Christina Rawls

Photo by Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum

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Sleep and dreams
Nightmares becalmed

I’m a dream engineer. Through touch, scent and sound, we help people rescript the dramas of their sleeping lives

Michelle Carr

Norman Douglas (right), lounging in Capri in 1949. Photo by Ralph Crane/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

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Sex and sexuality
The case of Norman Douglas

He was a literary lion and an infamous pederast: what might we learn from his life about monstrosity and humanity?

Rachel Hope Cleves

Fiddlesticks Country Club, a gated community in Fort Meyers, Florida. Photo by Michael Siluk/UIG/Getty

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Anthropology
Safety is fatal

Humans need closeness and belonging but any society that closes its gates is doomed to atrophy. How do we stay open?

David Napier

Stinson Beach, California, 1973. Photo by Elliott Erwitt/Magnum

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Animals and humans
The joy of being animal

Human exceptionalism is dead: for the sake of our own happiness and the planet we should embrace our true animal nature

Melanie Challenger

Photo by Berenice Abbott/Getty

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Consciousness and altered states
Brain wifi

Instead of a code encrypted in the wiring of our neurons, could consciousness reside in the brain’s electromagnetic field?

Johnjoe McFadden

Photo by Steve Forrest/Panos Pictures

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Ageing and death
The gender of dementia

Are women really at greater risk from dementia? Until we reckon with social roles and inequalities, it’s impossible to say

Kate Gregorevic

Peanuts, bagged and ready for transport, are stacked in pyramids at Kano, Northern Region, Nigeria, 1955. Photo by Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images

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Global history
After slavery

Abolition in Africa brought longed-for freedoms, but also political turmoil, economic collapse and rising enslavement

Toby Green

Maxim and Ivy Litvinov in London in 1933. Photo by Hulton/Getty

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History
Madame comrade

How Ivy Litvinov, the English-born wife of a Soviet ambassador, seduced America with wit, tea and soft diplomacy

Brigid O’Keeffe

Photo by Vaishnav Munda/Unsplash

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Physics
The cosmic chasm

Physics as we know it is elegant and exquisitely accurate. It tells almost nothing about the deepest riddles of the Universe

Pedro G Ferreira

From The History of Madame Roland (1850) by John S C Abbott. Photo courtesy Internet Archive/Public Domain

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Thinkers and theories
Vive Madame Roland!

She was a French revolutionary and a politician’s wife. But Manon Roland should be remembered for her philosophical writings

Sandrine Bergès