What is the right way for human beings to live? The question is as old as human beings, and it would be extremely surprising if after all this time someone had come up with what the blurb for this book calls “a new theory of human thriving”. Happily the author, an eminent Swiss paediatrician, does not himself quite make such a claim. His decades studying child development have inspired him to formulate what he calls the Fit Principle: “Every human, with their individual needs and talents, strives to live in harmony with their environment.” To the extent that they are supported in doing so, they can live a good life.
That sounds agreeable in the abstract, though it is based on some debatable assumptions and leads to some odd recommendations. Have you ever considered, to begin with, how different you are from other people, and how different other people are from one another? If so, you are ahead of the introduction of this book, which claims most curiously that: “We think and behave as though we were all the same.” But what Remo Largo really means is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to human flourishing, including education.
In his view everyone is born with a set amount of potential in different fields – mathematics, sport and so on – and children should be encouraged to fulfil their potential, but not pressured to try to exceed it. Because, Largo insists, “There is no way of advancing beyond your own individual talents.” It’s not clear that this is the most inspirational message a teacher can offer a child, and anyway the history of recent British cabinet ministers refutes it adequately. Meanwhile, Largo says the education system needs overhauling to allow for more “self-directed learning”, which sounds nice enough, but the claim that “things learned by rote and practised mechanically are quickly forgotten again” will seem peculiar to anyone who still remembers their times tables.
There are, though, some surprising and interesting corollaries to Largo’s approach. Modern industrial societies say they value “social mobility”, but they only ever mean upward mobility. Largo bites the bullet and says that downward social mobility can be equally good. “Descending the social scale,” in terms of, say, moving to a less desirable job, “protects people from … being constantly overstretched and inevitably failing”. He also points out astutely that “resilience” – the ability to succeed after traumatic experience – is really a matter of moral luck, and that too many children are being left behind if they lack it; and he makes a good case for a universal basic income as a mechanism to encourage individual flourishing.
Aiming to be a widescreen epic of non-fiction in the style of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel or Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, the book whizzes through millions of years of evolution, rapidly taking in palaeontology, biology, developmental psychology, genetics, neuroscience and so forth. One discipline the author rather neglects, which is odd because it has spent so long addressing the question of human flourishing, is philosophy. Largo quotes Socrates as having said “every creature can only be good in his own way” to support his own view that humans have unique ideals and desires; in fact, though, Socrates (according to Plato) thought that the only way for a human creature to flourish was to live a morally virtuous life.
Largo takes it for granted, by contrast, that we will agree morality is a matter of personal or cultural opinion and that there is no objective universal ethic. But he also observes that the golden rule appears in all major civilisations and is somehow tied to the very fashionable (but controversial) topic of “mirror neurons” supposedly found in the human brain. To be consistent, he ought therefore to identify as a “moral realist”, one who thinks certain values just are facts about the universe. His form of argument, throughout the book, is to say that because humans are like this by nature, therefore human society must be arranged in this way. He seems unaware that this is known as deriving an ought from an is, which most philosophers since David Hume have considered an unacceptable sleight of hand.
Nor does Largo ever stop to consider some obvious objections to his benign laissez-faire philosophy. We don’t complain that a tiger exercises his individuality in harmony with the environment (as Largo would put it) by killing and eating buffalo. But if a human is burdened with murderous or paedophilic proclivities, for example, it is not obviously a good idea that they should be encouraged to practise them to their heart’s content. It’s fine to say that everyone should “live according to their individual nature”, but the indulgence of some natures is not compatible with civilised life.
Like many cultural conservatives, he is constantly harking back to a golden age that it is possible to doubt really existed, while evincing curiously little understanding of modern life. Gloomily, he says that people don’t experience communal dancing and music any more, as though he has never heard of nightclubs and karaoke bars.
Because he thinks the only point of art and culture is to be a participatory activity, he complains that modern people sit alone “being entertained” by television, without revealing whether he thinks it equally bad to read novels. Today’s students, he moans, greet Socrates and Kant “with a weary smile”, as though all schoolchildren of yore lapped up that stuff insatiably; and he speaks of ancient communal life among the peasantry as though it weren’t a gruelling cycle of oppression and nasty death.
We have “cut ourselves off from nature”, Largo laments nonetheless, and abandoned “the ancient structures of communal life”. It is possible to argue that both of these are excellent developments, since nature was always trying to kill us by means of large predators and infectious disease, and those static ancient structures were very efficient at keeping people in their place.
The largest hole in Largo’s morose diagnosis, it turns out, is friendship. Employing, as he often does, a mysterious royal we, he says: “We lead our lives as if we could afford to do without enduring and sustainable interpersonal relationships.” Do we really? Throughout this book he casts aspersions at lifestyles in the modern city, which is nearly always accompanied by the epithet “anonymous”. But many urbanites, myself included, adore the city precisely because they don’t have to live among busybodies who know their business. Instead, they design their own communities of friends: people they actually like and want to spend time with.
Largo’s kind of nostalgic anti-urbanism, by contrast, always risks sliding into dark places. To feel “like a citizen of the world doesn’t create an identity”, he complains, sounding dangerously like Theresa May in her spiteful attack on cosmopolitanism (“If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”). And city life, Largo even asserts, makes us “less and less able to develop and use many of our competencies”, which is surely exactly the opposite of the truth. Try finding a drum teacher or setting up a qigong studio in a tiny country village, and then see how well exercised those competencies feel.
• The Right Life, translated by Ruth Martin, is published by Allen Lane (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.