Smells evoke the past – memories of newly mown grass on a hot summer’s afternoon, lavender-scented soap in a forgotten drawer, and a bonfire burning in a damp autumnal garden. And who doesn’t know that if you want to sell your house, put coffee beans in a warm oven before the prospective buyers arrive.

It seems that smells can also provoke good or bad behaviour. The book L’influence de l’odeur des croissants chauds sur la bonté humaine (et autres questions de philosophie morale expérimentale) by French philosopher Ruwen Ogien (Grasset, 2011) touches on this idea. What a wonderful title! “The influence of the smell of warm croissants on human goodness (and other questions of experimental moral philosophy)”.

Don’t be put off. The book is easy to read and extremely entertaining, even if the subject seems theoretical. “You are standing next to a railway line in a narrow cutting. Ten men are working to repair storm damage when you see a runaway truck hurtling towards them. They will not have time to run away and will be killed, but you have time to pull a lever that will send the truck on a parallel track where there is only one man working who will be killed. What do you do?” That sort of problem.

Ogien presents many similar case studies that demand nuanced thinking. He goes on to explore what makes people decide one way or the other when it comes to ethical questions, describing how a researcher set up an experiment to ask people in a shopping mall if they would give him change for a dollar. Those who were standing next to a bakery from which emanated smells of fresh bread and pastries did so willingly; those who were in a place that didn’t smell of anything in particular did so much less willingly. It seems that good humour tied to an agreeable smell is the determining factor. As Ogien points out, “All you need is the good smell of a warm croissant!”

Food for thought. Meanwhile, “Digging” by the English poet Edward Thomas (1878-1917), about whom a new biography by Matthew Hollis has appeared called Now All Roads Led to France.

“To-day I think
Only with scents, – scents dead leaves yield,
And bracken, and wild carrot’s seed,
And the square mustard field;

Odours that rise
When the spade wounds the root of tree,
Rose, currant, raspberry, or goutweed,
Rhubarb or celery;

The smoke’s smell, too,
Flowing from where a bonfire burns
The dead, the waste, the dangerous,
And all to sweetness turns.

It is enough
To smell, to crumble the dark earth,
While the robin sings over again
Sad songs of Autumn mirth.”


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