Love Letters: Alain de Botton

Photo above borrowed from here

I’m currently reading Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder – that popular, digestible Norwegian book about the history of philosophy you’ve been told to read as well. I’m wrestling with Berkeley at the moment and finding it’s taking an awful lot of concentrating to get any further.

For me, philosophy takes a lot of attention and focus. Even with a fictional book like this one, I’m still having to flip backwards to remember what Plato’s cave was about, who was the one obsessed with the difference between form and substance, and why Rome is such an important city for all these men.

I had always thought that philosophy was a subject confined to the back blocks of creaky universities and dusty bookshops, without much relevance in modern day life. We have behavioural economics, technology, and the social sciences (rather keen on proof) to understand ourselves. Philosophy seemed archaic, dense, and ostentatious, seemingly written for the intelligent few who could understand it.

However, the word philosophy literally means ‘love of wisdom’, and that’s certainly something I could get on board with. Philosophy’s got a bad PR problem, but I was letting that get in the way of learning something new.

One person bridged the gap for me.

Alain de Botton (AL-on de BO-ton) was the only philosopher I’d read any work of before I picked up Sophie’s World, and he was the reason I did. His work is unlike any other philosophers’ that I’d experienced.

Alain de Botton, the original gateway Philosopher.

de Botton’s interviews and quotes often pop up in a few of the places I find trusted, interesting viewpoints. He is described as “a philosopher who likes the best of religion, but doesn’t believe in God. He says that the most boring question you can ask of any religion is whether it is true. But how to live, how to die, what is good, and what is bad — these are questions religion has sophisticated ways of addressing…”

With the questions I was asking around my own faith and values at the time, this teaser was like a red rag to a bull. I found myself very quickly trawling de Botton’s site The School of Life, a global educational organisation. It’s committed to helping people lead more fulfilled lives by producing content, books and products that provoke thought, as well as providing practical services such as psychotherapy and couples’ counselling.

Their point of difference is that the School of Life is specifically designed for broad consumption.

At The School of Life, we’re very concerned with ways to make philosophy more seductive and appealing to a mass audience. We want, if you like, for philosophy to learn the right lessons from pop music.

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

de Botton is one of the best communicators around today, and his modern-day musings are nothing short of brilliant. He seems to be able to put into words what we might wonder about, but never take the time to understand.

He has a beautifully clear, no-nonsense approach to philosophy. He applies overwhelmingly large concepts to everyday living with ease. His clarity and poignancy cuts through the noise. He makes me think, but he doesn’t make it hard.

Here is an example of what landed in my inbox from The School of Life recently:

One of our great fears – which haunts us when we go into the world and socialise with others – is that we may, in our hearts, be really rather boring.

But the good news is that no one is ever truly boring. They are only in danger of coming across as such when they either fail to understand their deeper selves or don’t dare (or know how) to communicate them to others.

When we call a person boring, we are just pointing to someone who has not had the courage or concentration to tell us what it is like to be them.

de Botton’s piercing clarity and astute observations about how humans think and feel are a huge part of his ubiquitous popularity. He has made philosophy relevant, interesting and applicable in the twenty-first century. No mean feat.

His work is for you, if you’re interested in learning about:

  • Why you will marry the wrong person (the most read article on the NY Times in 2016, the year Trump was elected)
  • Where Imposter Syndrome comes from
  • The secret of a privileged childhood
  • What on earth meaningful work looks like
  • The secret to a deep friendship

One of de Botton’s best qualities is his ability to surprise with logic:

What lies behind rage, very often, is an unusual quality. We tend to think that very angry people are dark and pessimistic characters. Absolutely not. Scratch the surface of any regularly angry person and you will find a wild optimism. It is, in fact, hope that drives rage.”

Zeitgeist Minds

At the heart of a sulk… the sulker both desperately needs the other person to understand and yet remains utterly committed to doing nothing to help them do so. The very need to explain forms the kernel of the insult: if the partner requires an explanation, he or she is clearly not worthy of one.”

p 61, The Course of Love

His philosophies, writings and talks span the joys and sorrows of everyday work, what meaning we can find in architecture, how to find purpose in our tiny lives, how to navigate relationships and our anxiety around social status.

Battling through Sophie’s World, while it’s not as easy as everyone had me believe, is giving me an appreciation for where de Botton’s influences have come from.

A cultural translator with a true gift.

I’d highly recommend you give him a go.

If you want somewhere to start with de Botton, I’d recommend getting The Course of Love from your local library, watching him speak at Google here or listen to Krista Tippett interviewing him here.

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