Kate Latimer on learning from the worldly philosophers

Speaker Key:

AL              Andrew Leigh

KL              Kate Latimer


KL               If you can articulate what a good society is, then whether you like it or not, all your decisions will support that.

AL               My name is Andrew Leigh, and welcome to The Good Life, a politics-free podcast about living a happy, healthy and ethical life. In this podcast, we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teach us about living life to the full, with humour, pleasure, meaning and love. We’ll chat with musicians and athletes, CEOs and carers, about making the most of this one precious life. If you like this podcast, please take a moment to tell your friends or rate us on Apple Podcasts. Now, sit back and enjoy the conversation.

                   Founded in 1993, the Cranlana is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organisation. The aim is to promote informed discussion on matters of responsible leadership and ethical practice. It’s trained thousands of business, community sector and public service leaders to think more carefully about values and justice. Drawing unashamedly on the Western canon, its graduates rave about the Cranlana approach and how it’s changed their lives.

                   But most Australians will never get to do the programme, so today’s episode looks to lift the lid on the Cranlana approach. What can each of us learn from a bunch of long-dead philosophers? How can reading ancient Greek plays help us live a better life?

                   My guest is Kate Latimer, who has been Cranlana’s Chief Executive Officer since 2009. A former journalist, documentary maker and public servant, she moved into the Cranlana programme from her work with high-level policymakers. Kate, welcome to the podcast.

KL               Thank you, Andrew. Pleasure to be here.

AL               So tell me how you got into the ethics and values game.

KL               Oh. So just before I turned 40, a very close member of my family was killed. And it was abrupt and out of the blue, and I was plunged into a kind of a sea of not only despair but grief. How do you make sense of that sort of thing?

                   And at the time, I had a lot of work on overseas with my… I had a small business where we looked at settlement issues in immigration. And we brought together groups of people who were either geographers or researchers, who had done the surveys over a long amount of time of what makes people stay in a country and what makes them happy. And we brought them together with policymakers. It was a very simple idea.

                   But I was overseas at the time, running one of these, and I was still trying to work out how to get through the grief. Grief is a funny old phase. Everyone has it, and we’re not prepared for it. And if you are not religious, there’s very few ways that you can exercise the way through your grief.

                   So I was overseas and I was looking at a section that had been roped off in Rome. And I was looking down, and there were cats there. And I said to my colleague, what do you think this is? And they said, I have no idea. And I had no idea. And at that moment, without any other thought, I just felt that I was bored with my own ignorance. I was unable to say who came first, Augustus Caesar or Julius Caesar, and what does it matter? And why is this section roped off?

                   So when I came back to Australia, I went back to uni. And I went back to square one and I studied classical history. And there was something about looking at the continuum of humankind that relieved my grief. It gave purpose. It gave a real sense that we’ve been struggling with ideas, with injustice, with things beyond our control since humans started writing, and of course before then, when we were all not committing to paper.

                   So there was something that gave great relief and also provoked thoughts that I needed to think. I remember sitting once, reading about how the Greek elite treated their farmers. And often, their farmers were slaves. They kept them in a big dorm. And there was no five days’ work for two days off. They basically worked until they died.

                   And it was going through, being quite prescriptive about what you needed to give your farming staff. And they gave them wooden shoes once a year as a treat, but they took their old shoes away. And there was just something in that about the immense cruelty of privilege. These are the thoughts that it prompted.

AL               I guess if we want to understand suffering, reading about the past has got to be a good way to do it, given that previous generations have experienced far more suffering than us. The notion of losing a child was once fairly normal. The idea of doing backbreaking work was par for the course. Holidays were unusual. So…

KL               And never owning your own home, never owning the land you’re working on, and how your fortune can change, depending on who is in power.

AL               So of those philosophers, do you remember one that spoke to you in particular?

KL               Oh, philosophers, yes. I’m going to throw in a two cents for Thucydides too. There’s a clear-sightedness and a… He’s a historian, not a philosopher. There is a clear-sightedness and a… He wants to understand the moral reasons why Athens lost the war. So as an Athenian, he is highly critical of his people really. He loves…

AL               This is the war between… The Peloponnesian War was between Athens and Sparta. Is it that…?

KL               Thank you. Yes, that one that went on and Athens was convinced it was going to win, there was no way it was going to lose, and in that hubris, they started losing. Thucydides was a general in that war, and there was a small skirmish that he lost the battle with. And for that, he got sent in to Coventry.

                   And from a distance, he writes history almost in real time. He’s got the connections. He sees the war as it devolves. And he’s watching Athens, his beloved country. From exile, he’s watching them lose. I love his clear-sightedness. I love his criticism of his own people and trying to find… Because it’s trying to find the moral reasons why they failed. And it’s to do with leadership, it’s to do with hubris, it’s to do with, oh, absolute arrogance and a forgetting of the past.

AL               I guess too for those Greek philosophers so much, they’re engaged with the community so deeply. The idea of somebody who led troops into battle, who had seen his own men killed in front of his eyes, then to go away and write a philosophical or a political treatise is kind of unusual these days. When you think about books written by generals, you don’t normally expect that they will attain the same level of philosophical wisdom as a book written by a philosopher.

KL               So have you read anything of a modern-day general that’s written something that concerns the morality of the people?

AL               You see generals striving towards this. But often, those books are written in collaboration with others. Often, they’re a collection of battlefield stories rather than trying to draw greater lessons, certainly in the limited reading I’ve done of that genre.

KL               Yes. So philosophers. So the philosophers who were operating at the same time, or his contemporaries really, are the big three, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. So our readings start with those. We start with Plato. And the reason why we look at the Western canon… I think we could really take any philosophical school of thought, from China or India. They’ve got extraordinary resources in their philosophers.

                   We do the Western canon. And we do it because we’ve almost absorbed their ideas. Even if we haven’t read them, we’ve absorbed them through our skin. I remember for years using the great Hobbesian line, life is nasty, brutish and short, without knowing where it came from. It was just part of the atmos.

                   So we start with the classics. We start with Plato and we start with Aristotle. We then zoom into the modern era with Locke and Hobbes. We touch on a few, until we get to the 20th century of Marx, Sartre, Simone Weil, a lot of the isms, utilitarianism, those sorts of things. And then we come to modern-day philosophers such as Singer and Nussbaum, Sen and others.

AL               So let’s unpack that a little and think about a DIY Cranlana for our listener who is not going to do your programme but might want to put it together at home. One of the great things about all of these readings is they’re essentially available freely online, apart from a few of the recent philosophers. So starting with Plato, I guess often regarded as the father of philosophy or one of the key founders, why should people read Plato?

KL               Plato has got a very dispassionate eye. He’s a member of the elite, of the Athenian elite. He was born into a very good family so he had the excellent education. And then he joined Socrates and learned more from Socrates. Socrates has a manner where he doesn’t actually tell you what the answer is. He just keeps asking you questions. So we work with the Socratic method. And it’s a very good way of working out the corollary of your logic. So you think this. Keep asking questions, keep asking questions. Where will that take you?

                   Plato was his student. Plato is looking at the structure of society. He does a couple of things. He wrote, I’m going to say eight books, but it could be ten, books on The Republic, which is an examination of how we really put together a society, what we have.

                   He talks about an unhealthy society and what those elements are. He’s quite prescriptive. He has a healthy society that’s where we do what it is that our gifts are. We don’t live to excess. We don’t have more than we need. And then he talks about an ideal society. A lot of people get into deeper waters with Plato in the ideal society because it’s quite confronting and it sounds a bit barking mad at times.

                   But there are some great things. One of them is that he thinks that we should be ruled by philosophers. And then another one is if you asked anyone to be a ruler, by their very inclination, they’d say no, and that’s a good ruler. So there we go, Andrew. Ask all of your colleagues if they would like to be rulers, and maybe vote the one in that says no.

AL               Well, in Burley Griffin’s original plan for Canberra, Capital Hill has not a parliament on top of it but a Pantheon on top of it.

KL               Oh.

AL               Paying tribute to the great thinkers of Australia. And so it was the hubris of parliamentarians to get rid of the Pantheon and put the parliament on top of the big hill.

KL               And a place for themselves.

AL               But as you say, it’s…

KL               That’s great.

AL               Plato pops up in all kinds of things. I did an interview with Manny Noakes, who wrote The CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet. And one of the amusing things about that conversation is the recognition that the Total Wellbeing Diet, which advocates grains and a little bit of meat and fruit and all things in moderation, seems to hew quite closely to Plato’s ideal diet recommendations. So he had his fingers in everything. And I guess so much of what he wrote survived too, which is the great luck of our understanding of Plato.

KL               Yes. A luxury, isn’t it?

AL               Yes. And then moving on to Aristotle, Plato’s student, what insights do your Cranlana participants draw from Aristotle?

KL               Well, Aristotle starts talking about the virtues. What do you need in place? If we have a great society, it needs to be made up of great people. So what does that mean? He is the student of Plato, so he’s a student of Socrates by two. And he starts talking about the virtues and what the virtues are. Prudence…

AL               What does Aristotle tell us about prudence?

KL               Prudence is the greatest of all the virtues. Prudence is the one that we aim for, prudence. And it has a very complicated history. It means that you have a sense of what has happened in the past and that you’re very clear-sighted about it. So we see prudence when people don’t rush in when there’s a great orator who is very convincing.

                   We weigh up what they’re saying because we’ve got our feet firmly on the ground. We know where we stand. We’re not swayed by great rhetoric. There’s also a prudence about we’re not trying to get rich quick. We’re trying to work out what is good for society. There would be thrift in there. There would be concern. There would be not stretching ourselves beyond our needs.

AL               So this must be a fascinating lesson to be teaching to some of your participants who presumably are very driven Type A personalities who have spent their entire life rushing forward and moving quicker than those around them. How do they react when you’re talking about prudence?

KL               See, my feeling, my gut feeling is that people who come to Cranlana are wanting something other than what they’ve got. So they’ve been climbing the career trajectory. They’ve got to the top. They’ve got their holiday house. They’ve got everything, every physical thing that they need, but it’s actually not enough. And there’s something that happens to you that you want something that means something.

AL               Yes.

KL               Work no longer means something. And there’s a sense that of course it means something, but it doesn’t mean everything. I think people are hungry for this sort of discussion, and ideas. And we’re not getting it anywhere else, unless you’re religious, where you have that conversation all the time. But in a secular society, you’re not really getting those questions of meaning coming your way.

                   We can see the popularity of Alain de Botton, his School of Life, which I think is fantastic. It brings out things like how to be happy in your marriage or how to lead a good life. These are central questions in philosophy. We approach it differently. But where else are you going to get these… Where are you going to get challenged on this? If I were to ask you, how do you lead a good life, what is a good life, do we have those questions at our fingertips, those answers?

                   So amongst our participants, I think there’s a hunger for it. We want to take these things seriously. The average age is, I guess, over 40 in our participant group, and they’ve achieved great success in, what we would say, the temporal world. But they’re clever and they’re capable and they’re enormously adroit at doing things in society.

                   So to flip this, why do we focus on these people who are really the most privileged people in our society? It’s because they can act immediately. They have at their fingertips an enormous workforce, an enormous power. And there’s something about the leadership in Australia, that we actually want them to think about the idea of what is a good society, and once they articulate it, to go forth and bring it to being.

AL               And moving on through quasi-chronologically, we then come to Hobbes and Locke and Mill. Any of those thinkers who you want to sell to us?

KL               Look, Hobbes has got a very simple proposition. He studied the Greeks. He translated Thucydides histories, for example. He knows what the Greek position is. In fact, there’s a great line in philosophy that everything is a footnote to Plato, that philosophers are not only talking to their contemporary audience but they’re also answering questions that were first posed by Plato.

                   And Hobbes is talking about, this is all very well and good, Plato, with your good society and your people who are virtuous and leading, but what if they’re not? And we all have the experience that people behave badly if they’re not being observed. Some people. Most people? All of us? There’s things that we think we can get away with if no one is watching.

                   So what do we do in a society where we know people behave badly? And he puts it in terms of physical threat. If I am weaker than you, then you can just come and club me. But if I have a gun, then I can… He doesn’t have a gun, but might and power will always dominate. So he asks us to make a pact that we hand over our authority, our power, to another source, the leviathan. Now, I think he’s wrong, and I’m not going to say why he’s wrong, but it’s a very hard argument to deal with because of course bad things happen all the time.

                   If I can get slightly distracted, there was a time when I was driving and I heard the news report that Darcey Freeman, a little girl, had been driving with her father in a car and had been thrown off the West Gate Bridge. And I just pulled over. It was so shocking. It was so extraordinary and cruel and shocking. And it prompted me to investigate not the happy virtues of how we should be living and how great our society is and what a good society is, but what do we do with a fairly frowsy society? How do we stop that sort of thing?

                   And our newest programme is called Violence in Society. And it’s an investigation into the darkness. It’s an investigation into violence of all sorts. So looking at it philosophically, violence is where we’re going to flip the Greek’s idea of what virtues are, which is to lead to a flourishing society. Happiness is a flourishing society. Violence is where you have a society where flourishing cannot exist.

                   So, in a philosophical sense, it’s not just violence where you get stabbed or hit, although of course that’s part of it. But looking at it philosophically, violence is where you create the conditions where people do not flourish. So, for example, if we know that foreign aid stops child mortality, educates young girls, which then has a blossoming effect on the rest of society, is it violence to cut our foreign aid?

AL               So this sounds like moving on now to Peter Singer and that idea that if you think it’s unethical to be worried about ruining a pair of shoes to wade into a lake…

KL               Oh, that’s right.

AL               To save a drowning child, then presumably it’s unethical not to spend that amount of money that the shoes would cost to save the life of a child overseas.

KL               Yes.

AL               And that purely utilitarian view, I guess, which is at odds with how we typically think about violence in society…

KL               Yes.

AL               Where we’re focused very much on the, I suppose, categorical moral reasoning.

KL               Yes. And we’re complicated.

AL               Yes.

KL               We’re complicated. If there was a child… He makes this case that if you are walking past a house and there’s a child flailing in a pool, of course you’d jump in. And yet we know, we know in the back of our mind, children are dying all the time. We’re complex.

AL               Yes. And the Violence project presumably draws on part of the work that you did as a documentary filmmaker looking at family violences as well. Do you find you’re able to bring some of those practical stories into the more philosophical, theoretical approach to violence?

KL               It’s an interesting question. I don’t really know what to make of the violence of those documentaries. I did the campaign, the domestic violence campaign for the Federal Government and stayed with a family who had just turned upside down with a terrible story. And I think about them constantly, where there’s not much you can do with that sort of violence as a way of thinking about things. Good things have happened to that family since, but man, oh man, what they went through and still go through.

                   There’s a bit at the end, one of the readings. In fact, we finish with a reading in Violence in Society. We finish with a reading which is Helen Garner’s report on the Farquharson case, which isn’t far away from Darcey Freeman. And even if you don’t read the book, it’s harrowing, but the last chapter is sensational for making sense or helping us at least come to some sort of understanding.

                   And it talks about her visiting the graves of the three young boys that were murdered in the dam by their father. And she talks about how these children belong to all of us. You can’t complain that strangers are looking at the tombs and leaving flowers and toys for these children. These children belong to all of us.

                   And actually, I think this is a better way to go with violence, domestic violence or violence against the self or violence against a country. We need to look at it. We need to acknowledge it. And it belongs to us. Things are done in our name all the time. We need to claim it.

AL               So who are the philosophers who you draw on in Cranlana to get that more holistic thinking, to have people thinking of themselves, not only thinking about behaving well in their narrow personal relationships, but taking that broader, society-wide approach? Is that something that comes out of Nussbaum in particular?

KL               Oh, that was a clue. Yes. I think asking a question. How would you like us all to live? What is the destination of a good society? That is the central claim of a lot of our philosophers, especially the bits that we choose in the course. So even asking the question and trying to come with an answer. Nussbaum and Sen have got a great take on equity, and Singer of course. You could pick up a book by Peter Singer today and have it read by tomorrow night. He’s eminently readable. And I think Sen probably is too, Amartya Sen.

                   There’s a great philosopher called Kwame Appiah, and he runs a column in the New York Times, like an agony aunt, and asks common ethical questions. But he is a great thinker. He’s very accessible and he gets you thinking about, well, what’s my role in a good society? What’s my position? And I think that small acts and big acts all add up. We can’t dismiss the small acts too. You can’t be a great philosopher on the world stage and be a ratbag at home. Small acts matter.

AL               What changes do your Cranlana graduates report in their lives when you go back and check in with them after doing the intensive course? How do they say it shapes them?

KL               This is a very hard question to answer. We do seem to get positive responses, but I think that’s because we’re answering a question that people are hungry for. I don’t know at what stage our participants are going to go, oh. But the aha moment is one of the great things.

                   So they can come in and be very happy with the ideas of Plato and Aristotle and Locke and others, even though they’re in disagreement with those philosophers. But there will be a moment, guaranteed, during the week, if they are engaged in the texts, where they’re going to go, oh. And everything turns upside down. And that’s the bit you can’t unknow.

                   So they go back, hopefully, with a new vision. If you can articulate what a good society is, then whether you like it or not, all your decisions will support that. If I think a great society would have free public transport, and I’m in that realm, then all of the decisions that I do, whether I’m conscious of it or not, will be heading towards that. So that’s why we work with people in the public service who are in positions of leadership, because they have the power to make those sorts of calls.

                   So our participants regularly go back and say that meetings are longer. That’s a downside. Meetings are longer because they need to know what the end result of the decisions are. They need to be sure.

                   Or they will report that decisions are quicker. Because you can still be faced with two options that you have to make a call on, and it’s a wicked problem. Both outcomes are terrible. I’ve only got a certain amount of money. Do I spend it here or do I spend it here? Either way, somebody is going to miss out. So those sorts of decisions, they report, are easier to make because they’re clearer about what they stand for and what they hope to achieve.

                   Some people report that they get a sense of anxiety that time is short. And I think that’s a really good one. I think that their career at the top is only for what? another decade perhaps, and they need to make changes now, that they can’t cruise through and get another holiday house. That’s not important to them anymore. They know what they want to achieve and they need to get going. So I’m very happy about that anxiety.

                   And generally, they come… One of the most surprising things that people talk about is that their staff respond to them differently when they come back, that the staff and their partners notice a difference. And I think that working with philosophy, which is akin to beliefs, your belief system, where you stand, it’s actually very hard to measure, that yesterday I would’ve responded in this way, but now that I’ve done the programme, I respond in this way. But when the people who work with you or live with you notice a difference, that’s fantastic.

AL               Is it that your graduates are then more present for those around them? Is it that they’re better at thinking through decisions? What sort of changes do those close to them notice?

KL               I don’t think you can look at philosophy and divorce yourself from your role in the world. I said earlier, small acts and big acts.

AL               Yes.

KL               It has to have an impact. You have to see that the way that you’re behaving with others or treating others or dismissing or disrespecting others has an impact. It has to. It has to be there. You can’t unknow that. So I think that there would be more consideration. I think that there would be a sharper focus and more consideration of what you’re actually doing in the workplace, that it’s not just about achieving the triple bottom line.

AL               Now, we’ve talked exclusively about blokes in our discussion of philosophers. How do you bring in a feminine perspective, or are there particular women philosophers who you draw in to the Cranlana conversation?

KL               This, Andrew, is the bane of my existence. Apparently, women didn’t exist until the 20th century. So there are religious writings by women. But really, the great philosophical writings of women, and I’m very happy to bring more women into the programme, but if you’re looking at almost a continuum, it’s bloke, bloke, bloke, bloke, bloke. It really is. It’s wall-to-wall men. It’s as if there was no other brand of human being.

                   We have Harriet Taylor Mill talking about power. And she is surgical in the way that she cuts up the reason why men won’t let women vote. Power makes itself the centre of moral obligation, she writes, which is that you start seeing ethics with your own glasses on. Ethics becomes what the power elite say it should be.

                   She’s probably our earliest female philosopher. I love Simone Weil. When they opened up the universities in France to women in the 19th century, 19th/20th century, I’m dodgy on dates, she came in first and she was the first admitted. Second was Simone de Beauvoir and third was Jean-Paul Sartre.

                   Anyway, Simone Weil. She wrote a very interesting set of responses to how a society should be, following the Second World War, at a time when we really needed to think about how we are with each other, that things that had gone so badly really, following the war, that we never wanted to repeat this, and therefore what needs to be in place in our society. She’s worth looking up.

                   And she goes through, and some of the things that we need in society are quite surprising. So, for example, the need for punishment. And on the surface, you want to go, really? The need for punishment? But actually, people need to make good and then be readmitted, and they’ve paid their penance. I think it’s very good.

                   Martha Nussbaum, of course, is a contemporary philosopher of ours. I think her ideas are great. To be honest, I find the way that she writes a bit difficult to read, but that’s just me maybe.

AL               She takes a different view on that punishment notion, right?

KL               She does.

AL               She’s much less… Or she’s very critical about the idea of anger and about wanting to hurt others.

KL               Oh, she says that it just corrodes the soul. So her latest book… Ah, that is Nussbaum. It is fantastic, her latest book. Have you read it?

AL               No.

KL               Well, I think she was an Aristotelian, which means that she really engaged with the ideas of Aristotle. And then she really veered more towards the stoics. And you can see parts of their philosophy made real in her reading now. But in Anger, she talks about the Furies and how the Greeks had these three women who were mad as cut snakes and created all sorts of havoc.

                   But then, in the later re-writing of the Furies, they became these three wise women and they gave over power. They gave up their anger and they gave over power. And she uses this as a springboard for talking about anger, that we do have power in our anger, but not of a great sort. Not of a great sort for those around us and not for ourselves. And then she goes through and talks about those who have managed, so that it’s possible, this is the thing, who have managed to forgive their enemies.

                   And of course, in our lifetime, Nelson Mandela is this beacon of forgiveness. He learned Afrikaans so that he could talk to his jailers. He introduced his jailers to his guests as if he was in a hotel and that these were the doormen, please, I’d like you to meet so and so, I’d like you to meet so and so, and presented them to them. A beacon for the way to live.

                   And imagine South Africa without Nelson Mandela. He was just somebody that you could say, look, if he can get over the great abuse and violence that was done to him and his people, if he can forgive his enemies, then man, oh man, we should at least try. So her book is fabulous. Actually, I take everything I just said about Nussbaum back. I stayed up and read it. It was one of those page-turners, which is something that you don’t normally say about philosophy.

AL               Absolutely, yes.

KL               But Anger… I can’t even remember its title. Anger and its… Do you remember its title? It just came out earlier this year. It’s part of our Violence in Society readings. Because you have to, you have to counter a way of dealing with violence that’s perpetrated to yourself, and to others. Anger and Forgiveness, I think it is.

AL               Martha Nussbaum, you like her new stuff better than her old stuff.

KL               Yes. I love Singer. Can I talk about Singer for a second?

AL               Please do.

KL               Singer put out this…

AL               We had him on the podcast a while back. He was brilliant.

KL               I bet he was. He did a book in the late 70s, 1970s, called Animal Liberation. And it’s a really beguiling book. You just start reading it, yes, yes, yes, yes, and go along. And you’re travelling down the road with him, very comfortably, going yes, yes, yes, and then he just hits you with logic.

AL               Yes.

KL               If animals are sentient beings and they feel pain like you feel pain, then how are you able to live with yourself, knowing this? So when I read that, I started with chickens because he did a… If you don’t want to give up meat, then don’t read this book. But he just talks about chickens and the way that we treat chickens.

                   And I thought, I can’t do this anymore. You read the book and you stop eating pigs, you stop eating lobster, you stop eating everything. And that changed. If I have to say one thing that did really change my life, Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. I can’t go back. Once you know, you can’t unknow.

AL               It’s still, I understand, the founding text for some of the animal liberation movements, right? And the question upon joining is, do you accept the fundamental text in Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation?

KL               Oh, really? Wow.

AL               That’s my understanding, yes.

KL               Wow. Okay. It’s very hard to disagree with. It’s like Hobbes, violence. People behave badly. It’s very hard to argue with. But animals being sentient beings and you’re still going to go and cause their death? Well, you have to live with that and make peace with that one.

AL               So you’re purely vegetarian? No fish?

KL               Oh, I eat fish when I have to. Does that make sense? There are some times you go to dinner parties and you go, oh, fish, no one told you I was a vegetarian. So about twice a year, I’ll eat fish. I used to love fishing. Bummer. Do other things now.

AL               So philosophy really has changed the way you live.

KL               Yes.

AL               Are there other changes you’ve seen in your own life as a result of your deep engagement with philosophy?

KL               I think we kind of know where we need to be going. And when you read philosophy, it just gives you more strength to push through because it makes a logical case on how you need to live.

AL               So I’m quite drawn to the stoics. I like their approach to living a disciplined life, to accepting the role of pain and suffering, and to thinking about the impact that you have on a broader society. How important are the stoics in the Cranlana curriculum?

KL               I’m quite drawn to the stoics too. We don’t specifically pull out any stoic writers. We borrowed a great philosopher from Melbourne Uni, Dan Russell, who is an American philosopher. And he talked about the stoics and he gave us the hard bits, which is how you need to accept what is in front of you. And he gave an example of a man who didn’t mourn the death of his child. And so I have to say, at that stage, I don’t think I’m a stoic.

AL               Yes. There’s a sense of stoicism in extremis which can become a little ludicrous. Yes.

KL               It’s not 100 miles from Buddhist teachings about not being too grasping of what’s in front of you. But yes, there we go.

AL               And that Buddhist notion that suffering is an inherent part of life rather than something to be avoided and…

KL               Yes.

AL               Glossed over on a path to eternal smiling happiness and…

KL               That’s right.

AL               Eating ice cream in the middle of meadows and so on.

KL               On a fluffy cloud?

AL               Exactly. Exactly.

KL               But there is also something about… One of the awful things about suffering is that there is clarity. It does bring clarity.

AL               Well, it certainly sounds like it made a big difference in your life in terms of what you then devoted your career to.

KL               I think it saved me. I think it did. I think suffering plunged me into a new adolescence, where up wasn’t down and down wasn’t up. Or up was down and down was up. You don’t want to be back in that zone. I feel sorry for adolescents, where everything is up for question. But it gave me ballast. It gave me a way of thinking about things that did seem true. And in a sea of confusion, that was most welcome.

AL               Which segues naturally to the question, what advice would you give to your teenage self?

KL               I struggle with this question. I know that you like this question, Andrew. I struggle with this one. I don’t know. I can go flippant and say, don’t get a perm, don’t wear that dress, don’t go out with that person, get a licence. Man, don’t wait till you’re 24. But I think I’m going to not answer it with an answer, which is going to be very irritating for you.

                   I wonder if we are the people that we wanted to be when we were teenagers. So when we were teenagers and we thought that we’d grow up and what we’d stand for and what we would be and what we would learn and what we would do, that’s a question that I can deal with. I don’t know about the teenage self. Let that teenage self go out there and do all that nonsense.

AL               It’s almost like you think of your teenage self as a bit of a different person, who the things they do, the path they follow is not determinative to how you end up. Is that almost how you’re approaching the question?

KL               No, I think it really is. But the concerns of a teenage self and the big questions and the way that you are in the world, that’s stuff that I don’t think about anymore, or I think about them differently. And I think you need to do the stuff at the right time. I think your concerns of teenage, you want to investigate those now. You don’t want to become somebody who is still trying the things that you did from a different era. But no, I’m absolutely the person, plus decades, that I was as a teenager.

                   Another way of thinking about what was the expectation of my teenage self is, what are the expectations of the past on the present? So not just my teenage self, but I think about what did my family, and going way back, what were they trying to establish for this generation, and are we responding appropriately?

                   Kwame Appiah’s great essay, it’s online, it’s in the New York Times, is a text that we use at Cranlana. And it’s what will future generations condemn us for? And he goes through and he just uses a couple of examples, the way we treat animals, the way we treat our elderly. I can’t remember the others. It seems so clear.

                   And he goes through and uses the example of slavery. And he says, in slavery, when slavery was around, it wasn’t as if one day we thought slavery was great and then the next day, we thought it wasn’t, that there were voices of dissent during the time of slavery saying, this isn’t right, this isn’t the way to behave, and all sorts of other indicators. And he says those indicators are in these elements today.

                   What else can we think of? So the way we treat our elderly. There are still voices, there are voices now that say, this is ridiculous that elderly people aren’t respected, that they’re parked away. There are some stories in the news that come every three months about people being dehydrated or not looking after or these sorts of things. I reckon future generations are just going to go, are you kidding me? You did what to your elderly?

                   So what would my teenage self say? I don’t know. Get on with it. I think what my ancestors would say is… I think the question is, am I leading a life that respects what they put out, what they suffered for and what they did and what their expectations were. And I think future generations, it’s a very easy philosophical question to ask yourself. What will future generations condemn us for?

AL               Yes. What is something you used to believe, but no longer do?

KL               I think I used to believe that people were very self-interested in public life, and I don’t know that I do anymore. Oh, I’m pretty sure I don’t.

AL               When are you most happy?

KL               I’m most happy, I am most deliriously happy when I’m with my partner at the fresh food market at Victoria Market on a Saturday morning, buying up what’s in season and the day is full of promise. I love that. That’s my nirvana.

AL               Do you have a favourite fruit that you’re enjoying at the moment?

KL               I am rekindling my love affair with the tomato.

AL               What, a particular kind of tomato?

KL               The tomatoes have just gone… Oh, okay, have we got another hour?

AL               Absolutely.

KL               The tomato is just…

AL               Treatise on tomato. Please go.

KL               The tomatoes used to be tasteless and watery.

AL               Yes.

KL               And you’d always say, oh, I’ll just grow my own. And they were delicious, and they were like these orbs of deliciousness. But now you can buy those. I love the Adelaide tomatoes. I love the beefsteak tomatoes. They are delicious. You can smell them. They’ve got a perfume. And you can buy them. You don’t have to grow them anymore. You have to grow other things, but you don’t have to grow them.

AL               Yes. What’s the most important thing you do in your life to stay mentally and physically healthy?

KL               It’s common garden. I see friends, I cook, and I hang out at home. I renovate. I am renovating. I am obsessed with renovation. I am a very bad handyperson. But, man, give me a paintbrush, I’m happy. Give me a paintbrush and a very bad radio station.

AL               So that’s when you allow yourself to listen to trash radio?

KL               Yes.

AL               Is that your chief guilty pleasure?

KL               Oh, I think so. I think so. I like to complain about the music station. I like to give them… They’ve got three strikes, batter out. But if they play Huey Lewis and Billy Joel and Air Supply in a row, then they’re gone.

AL               And it’s on to the next trash radio station.

KL               That’s right. That’s right.

AL               And finally, which person or experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?

KL               I couldn’t say one. My parents, my friends, people who have shown me great kindnesses. Peter Singer has messed up dinner parties for all of my life. There was…

AL               Tell me a little more about that.

KL               Oh, because I’m a vegetarian and they’re really awkward.

AL               Right, okay. So not personally, but through his…

KL               No.

AL               His impact on your culinary expression.

KL               No, I can’t…

AL               I just imagined Peter Singer being a complete bore and getting drunk and smashing plates and so on.

KL               No.

AL               No, you’re talking about his effect via his books.

KL               I would love to have dinner with Peter Singer. There have been people who have shown me enormous kindnesses, and there are too many to name.

AL               Kate Latimer, thank you for sharing your wisdom on The Good Life podcast today.

KL               Thank you, Andrew. Pleasure.

AL               Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life. We love getting feedback, so please leave us a rating or a comment on Apple Podcasts, formerly known as iTunes. Next week, I’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.