Essays

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Detail from Hannah Duston Killing the Indians (1847) by Junius Brutus Stearns. Courtesy Colby College Museum of Art; Gift of R Chase Lasbury and Sally Nan Lasbury

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War and peace
American torture

For 400 years, Americans have argued that their violence is justified while the violence of others constitutes barbarism

William Fitzhugh Brundage

Aldous Huxley in 1958. Photo by Philippe Halsman/Magnum

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Philosophy of religion
Perennial philosophy

Aldous Huxley argued that all religions in the world were underpinned by universal beliefs and experiences. Was he right?

Jules Evans

Planetary System. Eclipse of the Sun. The Moon. The Zodiacal Light. Meteoric Shower. From Yaggy’s Geographical Study, 1887. Courtesy the David Rumsey Map Collection

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History of science
Naming the Universe

How the quick thinking of internationally minded astronomers avoided stamping the solar system with petty European rivalries

Stephen Case

Black clothing, a distracted gaze: the height of Elizabethan fashion. Portrait of Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland (1590-1595), by Nicholas Hilliard. Photo courtesy the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

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Stories and literature
My mistress Melancholy

In The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton gave his life to charting a Renaissance disease both alluring and dangerous

Mary Ann Lund

Dee, JoJo, Frankie and Lisa after school on Prince Street, Little Italy, New York City, in 1976. Photo from Susan Meiselas’s series Prince Street Girls/Magnum

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Love and friendship
The biology of love

Humans teeter on a knife’s edge. The same deep chemistry that fosters bonding can, in a heartbeat, pivot to fear and hate

Ruth Feldman

A cemetery in Bristol, England, seen from a hot air balloon flight in August 2009. Photo by Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

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Death
This mortal coil

The fear of death drives many evils, from addiction to prejudice and war. Can it also be harnessed as a force for good?

Jeff Greenberg

An aerial view shows a typically busy Wuhan, in China’s central Hubei province, deserted amid the deadly coronavirus outbreak that originated in the city. 27 January 2020. Photo by Hector Retamel/AFP/Getty

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Technology and the self
Collaborators in creation

Our world is a system, in which physical and social technologies co-evolve. How can we shape a process we don’t control?

Doyne Farmer, Fotini Markopoulou, Eric Beinhocker & Steen Rasmussen

Samuelson explained economic theory to the postwar American public. Photo by retrofile/Getty

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Economics
The people’s economist

Paul Samuelson’s mathematical brilliance changed economics, but it was his popular touch that made him a household name

Roger Backhouse

This colour-enhanced frontal view of the head, neck and shoulders confirms brain death by absence of blood flow to the brain. Photo by Living Art Enterprises, LLC/SPL

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Bioethics
Neither person nor cadaver

The body is warm, but the brain has gone dark: why the notion of brain death provokes the thorniest of medical dilemmas

Sharon Kaufman

Armed Armenian revolutionaries, Turkey, 1906. Photo courtesy of B Dickson/Royal Geographical Society/Getty

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Nations and empires
Roving revolutionaries

Moving between the Russian, Iranian and Young Turk revolutions, cosmopolitan Armenians helped usher in the 20th century

Houri Berberian

Five O'Clock. Plate VII from the series Intimacies (1898), by Félix Edouard Vallotton. Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago

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Love and friendship
The joy of intimacy

A polyamorous friend challenges me: are you really happily monogamous or are you just hung up about your philandering dad?

Lily Dunn

Bertrand Russell in November 1950, having been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Photo by Bettmann/Getty

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Political philosophy
The politics of logic

Should philosophy express the national character of a people? Bertrand Russell’s ‘scientific’ philosophy was a bulwark against nationalism

Alexander Klein

Couple in the kitchen, USA, 1952. From the series ‘Love Story’. Photo by Dennis Stock/Magnum

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Love and friendship
Love is a joint project

For Simone de Beauvoir, authentic love is an ethical undertaking: it can be spoilt by devotion as much as by selfishness

Kate Kirkpatrick

Aaron Hernandez of the New England Patriots celebrates a 12-yard touchdown against the New York Giants during Super Bowl XLVI on 5 February 2012. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

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Sports and games
Invisible tattoos

Many athletes are propelled by childhood trauma to succeed, but it’s a toxic myth that healing the wounds blunts the edge

William D Parham

Jewish bankers from the Canticles of Holy Mary. Codice of El Escorial. Written in Galician-Portuguese. Reign of Alfonso X. 13th century. Courtesy the Museum of the Americas, Madrid/Wikimedia

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Global history
The rumour about the Jews

Antisemitism flourished in response to the unsettling, abstract growth of finance capitalism in the early modern world

Francesca Trivellato

  Erotic ‘Spring Picture’, Ming Dynasty, 16th century, China, artist unknown. Courtesy Wikimedia

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Sex and sexuality
Anti-climax

Coitus reservatus is an ancient technique promising bliss and longevity. Does orgasm data back up these tantric ideas?

Peter von Ziegesar

Colourised photographs taken using the schlieren technique depict for the first time the shockwaves of two supersonic jets, typically heard on the ground as the sonic boom. Photo courtesy NASA

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Thinkers and theories
Before, now, and next

Pastness, presentness and futurity seem to be real features of the world, but are they? On McTaggart’s philosophy of time

Emily Thomas

Virginia Woolf pictured at Monk’s House, Sussex, England c1928. Photo courtesy Houghton Library, Harvard University

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Stories and literature
Highbrows and self-helpers

Woolf loathed it but it spurred her on. Hemingway drew ideas of manliness from it. Self-help haunted the modernist imagination

Beth Blum

Margaret Mead photographed at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, 1930. Photo by Irving Browning/The New York Historical Society/Getty

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Anthropology
The meaning of Margaret Mead

Mead argued that non-Western cultures offered alternative (often better) ways to be human. Why was she so vilified for it?

Sam Dresser

The execution of Robespierre and his accomplices, 17 July 1794 (10 Thermidor Year II). Robespierre is depicted holding a handkerchief and dressed in a brown jacket in the cart immediately to the left of the scaffold. Photo courtesy the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris

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Global history
Vive la révolution!

Must radical political change generate uncontainable violence? The French Revolution is both a cautionary and inspiring tale

Jeremy Popkin

Plaque depicting warrior and attendants (16th-17th century), Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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Global history
Africa, in its fullness

The West focuses only on slavery, but the history of Africa is so much more than a footnote to European imperialism

Toby Green

A ranger strokes a young Rhino orphaned by poachers at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya, in May 2015. He was named ‘Hope’. Photo Tom Pilston/Panos

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Animals and humans
All we owe to animals

It is not enough to conserve species and ecosystems. We have an ethical duty to care for each individual animal on earth

Jeff Sebo

The Funeral of Shelley (1889), by Louis Édouard Fournier. Photo courtesy the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool/Alamy

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Rituals and celebrations
Death by design

We can chose how we live – why not how we leave? A free society should allow dying to be more deliberate and imaginative

Daniel Callcut

Moved by fictions: Greta Garbo in Anna Karenina (1935). Photo by Bettmann/Getty

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Philosophy of language
Making up stuff

A novel, by definition, tells a fictional story – but does that make its author a liar? On the space between stories and lies

Emar Maier

Ostend, Belgium, 1988. Photo by Harry Gruyaert/Magnum Photos

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Mental health
Depressive realism

We keep chasing happiness, but true clarity comes from depression and existential angst. Admit that life is hell, and be free

Julie Reshe

The Miracles of Saint Francis Xavier (1619-22) by André Reinoso. Saint Francis Xavier was a missionary and co-founder of the Jesuit order. Courtesy Museu de São Roque, Lisbon/AKG

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Nations and empires
Architects of empire

Jesuits knew the miserable truth of European empire in India and Brazil, yet their writings rendered it grandiose and sacred

Ananya Chakravarti

At the European Southern Observatory, La Silla, Chile. Photo courtesy Alan Fitzsimmons/ESO

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Cosmology
Fate of the Universe

Are we part of a dying reality or a blip in eternity? The value of the Hubble Constant could tell us which terror awaits

Corey S Powell

At the World Chess Championships in London, 2013. Photo by Andrew Testa/Panos

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Cognition and intelligence
Concentrate!

The challenge of chess – learning how to hold complexity in mind and still make good decisions – is also the challenge of life

Jonathan Rowson

Police in Hong Kong confront demonstrators defying a ban on rallying and set against a backdrop of mounting threats from China, 31 August 2019. Photo by Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty

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Human rights and justice
Riot acts

History shows that tumult is a companion to democracy and when ordinary politics fails, the people must take to the streets

Antonia Malchik

Photo by Cavan Images/Getty

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Psychiatry and psychotherapy
Cradled by therapy

Why therapy works is still up for debate. But, when it does, its methods mimic the attachment dynamics of good parenting

Elitsa Dermendzhiyska