Authors who simplify and popularise complicated problems run the risk of sliding down a slippery slope. Their writing might slip from factual to facetious to frivolous to facile. These three writers know how and where to stop. Not hitting the brakes could lead to what the French wryly call "vulgarisation".
As a title, How To Be Perfect captures what is surely the most pretentious intention in the history of philosophy. Michael Schur, a television writer and producer, is convinced that civilisation comprises "one very long unbroken conversation about ethics". Would that it were so, is one reasonable response to that proposition. Schur proceeds to offer "the correct answer to every moral question". Critics might draw breath at the words "correct" and "every".
Schur has already produced a Netflix series, The Good Place, on moral philosophy. In book form, his approach to ethics is to provide us with a few commonplace conundrums, each containing a bit of ethical baggage. "Should I punch my friend in the face for no reason" is not one dilemma which has arisen for me, but even implausible parables might supply lessons for life. After all, few young maids now need to trim their lamps while waiting for a groom to arrive.
"Can I still enjoy great art even if was created by terrible people" is a First World, slightly woke query. Leni Riefenstahl's artistic reputation remains intact. Schur moves to firmer ground when he inquires about the ethics of not returning a shopping cart.
In times like these, when circumstances provide us with far too much to worry about, the Stoics have come back into vogue as ethical guides. Nonetheless, the likes of Epictetus, Zeno and Marcus Aurelius evidently have little to teach Schur. No entry for Stoicism is included in his index. In fact, the index notes two references to Jeffrey Epstein, but none to Epictetus.
Schur does insist that being ethical requires daily thought, introspection and hard work. His first two requirements entail hard work in themselves. The examined life demands more than a yoga pose, a wellness class or an uplifting quote of the day. For those, like me, intimidated by the effort involved, Schur reminds us of Samuel Beckett's counsel. Beckett's six brief sentences seem still more wise over the past few years. "Ever tried, Ever failed. No matter, Try again. Fail again, Fail better."
Rather than simply heeding Beckett, Schur invites readers to imagine a "Definitive Goodness Calculation" from a "Universal Goodness Accountant". If the terminology is confusing, then think of Santa deciding whether kids have been naughty or nice. Other references are more artful, whether to Aristotle (who "wrote the most important stuff about the most important stuff") or to contemporary culture (both The Matrix and Home Alone 2 are cited). Schur's argument is sweetly summed up in a chapter written as a letter to his children.
Epictetus does better in Mortals; he provides an epigraph blaming "fear of death" as "the origin of all human evils". His fellow Stoics are characterised here as advocating "neutral acceptance", a phrase which does seem to diminish both the intellectual power and the continuing popularity of their teachings.
The couple Menzies, both psychiatrists specialising in death anxiety, have chosen to examine our strategies "to combat foreknowledge of our passing". They do so in a briskly combative manner, occasionally annoyed with humankind.
The Menzies are a strict and didactic pair. They conclude that "most human coping mechanisms have involved little more than denial". They lament that we have "continued desperately to crave immortality in any form we can get it". Consumerism and over-population are savaged with particular vigour and rigour.
Rather than seeking to be perfect, humankind here merely recoils from the prospect of inevitable death. In support of that judgement, the Menzies offer an abbreviated - but still opinionated - survey of how religion, art, culture, architecture and love have all addressed the issue of death.
Although some creeds might feel short-changed, the Menzies are good on the fun to be had in Valhalla, the worries of a tribe in eastern Papua New Guinea, and Shakespeare's fear that his corpse might be exhumed.
The historical allusions are a bit easier to digest than the Menzies' commentary on the "terror Management Theory" or their explanation of a "mortality salience research design".
With both books, the sage Albert Einstein - a man neither perfect nor bluffed by death - comes to mind - "Make everything as simple as possible -but no more simple than that". What we need is for science, in quest for perfection and in defiance of death, to clone David Attenborough. Then his quiet, intimate, confiding, informed voice could advise us what to seek and what to shun.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.