Alain de Botton is a not a philosopher’s philosopher. This means that his work is given little consideration inside academia. It also means that he speaks to many, many more people---ordinary people hungry for humanist ideas about living---than his peers. In his six-part video series, Philosophy:A Guide to Happiness, de Botton tells us that he’d always looked to philosophy as a discipline that “has wise things to say about everyday worries…. Philosophy promised something that might sound a little naïve, but was in fact rather profound: A way to learn to be happy.” I’m still not sure if this sounds more naïve or profound, but de Botton’s videos, each nearly 25 minutes long, concern thinkers who surely knew the difference. Each video also functions as a travelogue of sorts, as de Botton visits the cities that produced the thinkers, and tries to square their histories with the modern world around the relics.
Above, de Botton discusses Roman stoic philosopher and tragedian Seneca. An advisor to Nero, Seneca’s life may have been happy, at times, but it was hardly restrained. In any case, he had something to teach us about the futility of anger, and he was also, like de Botton, a great popularizer of other people's ideas. Seneca characterized anger as a rational response that nonetheless relies on false premises, namely that we have more control over our circumstances than we actually do, and that our optimism about outcomes is unfounded and sets us up with unrealistic expectations. De Botton has before professed an affinity for the tragic view, and Seneca’s horribly bloody works, which inspired the Elizabethan genre known as “Revenge Tragedy,” are particularly grotesque explorations of anger. But perhaps it is those who most clearly see the pernicious effects of an emotion, or lack of it, who understand it best.
Take Arthur Schopenhauer, whom de Botton consults as his authority on love. Like Seneca, Schopenhauer seems very much at odds with much of his philosophical writing on love and compassion. His essay “On Women” earned him a permanent reputation as a misogynist, deserved or not. He's rumored to have had a violent temper and wrote approvingly of keeping one's distance from the mass of people, most of whom annoyed him disproportionately. Schopenhauer also famously wrote that it would have been preferable not to have been born at all, a position of extreme misanthropy known as antinatalism.
But there are other aspects of Schopenhauer's romantic life to discuss, both its early successes and later failures. "Nothing in life," says de Botton, "is more important than love for Schopenhauer." Even with all of its pains of rejection, romantic love, Schopenhauer wrote in The World as Will and Representation, "is more important than all other aims in man's life; and therefore it is quite worthy of the profound seriousness with which everyone pursues it."
Another popular British philosophical thinker, John Gray, has a very different take on the great German pessimist, calling his philosophy “more subversive of humanist hopes than any other.” But de Botton’s technique seems in many ways calculated as a mild subversion of expectation, choosing as he does such contradictory, and often very solitary figures.
One solitary thinker who occupies a treasured place in the library of every humanist is Michel de Montaigne, the genial French essayist who invented the literary term essai, and who some might say also perfected the form. Montaigne has always struck me as the happiest of men, even in, or especially in his long stretches of solitude, punctuated by conscientious public service (despite his lifelong painful kidney stones). While both Schopenhauer and Montaigne engaged in lengthy self-examination, Montaigne seems to have genuinely liked himself and others. He treats himself in his writings as an old and honest friend with whom one can be perfectly candid without any fear of reprisal. This is perhaps why de Botton chose him to illustrate self-esteem.
Montaigne comes from a tradition much friendlier to philosophy as memoir (he invented the tradition). And so, in this age of the memoir, he has seen a great resurgence. In 2011, at least three popular books on Montaigne came out, one titled How to Live and another subtitled Montaigne and Being in Touch With Life. Of all the six philosophers de Botton surveys in his series, which also includes Nietzsche, Epicurus, and Socrates, Montaigne would seem the most complimentary to de Botton’s casual, personal approach to philosophy, which seeks not to dig new ground nor discover distant countries but to confront the vexing human questions that meet us always at home.
You can view all six episodes in the embedded playlist below:
Download 90 Free Philosophy Courses and Start Living the Examined Life
Alain de Botton Proposes a Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success
The Daily Habits of Highly Productive Philosophers: Nietzsche, Marx & Immanuel Kant
Alain de Botton’s Quest for The Perfect Home and Architectural Happiness
The Art of Living: A Free Stanford Online Course Explores Timeless Questions
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Alain de Botton’s first novel in 23 years – his quirky, autobiographical debut, Essays in Love, was written when he was just 23 – again takes love as its theme. Like its predecessor, it explores the myths and minutiae of courtship and relationships. It charts a couple’s marriage from the first flowering of attraction and the glow of the proposal to the everyday business of life as husband and wife. It maps the small shifts in their sex life and explores the way in which habits and behaviour which once endeared them to one another become sources of irritation and frustration.
Rabih and Kirsten’s story is an intentionally ordinary one. They meet, they fall in love, they marry, they encounter small obstacles in their personal and professional lives, they have children. One of them is unfaithful. The marriage strains but does not crack.
The Course of Love is at its strongest when De Botton steps back and allows the couple to breathe
While the book is being promoted as a novel rather than a work of philosophy, De Botton’s interests as an essayist, in work, sex, happiness, in how we live and what we live for, are still very much to the fore. The narrative is intercut with a series of italicised interjections, unpicking the couple’s motivations and impulses, dissecting their decisions. For example: “Nature imbeds in us insistent dreams of success”; and “The accusations we direct at our lovers make no particular sense. We would utter such unfair things to no one else on earth.”
The contrast between these passages and the world of the characters makes for some appealing juxtapositions. Sometimes the observations are acute and telling – De Botton is good on the politics of laundry, the compromise of domesticity – but there’s an insistence on universality that borders on the smug.
He lays out his thesis, that society builds in us the expectation that our stories will play out in certain ways, that it’s healthy and necessary to document disappointment and disillusionment, that so much of the tension in a marriage is self-generated, a product of the gulf between the life people feel they should be living and the life they are living.
Alain de Botton – your questions answered, on art, God and ugliness
The Course of Love is at its strongest when De Botton steps back and allows the couple to breathe. There’s a lot of truth and humour in his account of the earliest days of their marriage as he highlights the intricate web of pressures, both self-imposed and external, that lead them to make certain choices. Rabih loves Kirsten, but he’s also tired of a life alone. They marry, in part, because they feel it is time to marry, that they are in the marrying stage of their lives, and in the beginning, for both of them, marriage is a kind of performance: they are both playing roles, the choices they make shaped as much by their own emotions as by their family histories, their upbringings, the city in which they live, and the paths their peers are going down.
While Rabih and Kirsten’s story is always engaging and there’s an ease and believability to them as a couple, the outside voice comes to feel grating and intrusive after a while, in its pronouncements and the narrowness of its outlook, in its continual desire to pin down the mess and complexity of the human experience, to bind it and box it.
The Course of Love is published by Hamish Hamilton (£14.99). Click here to buy it for £11.99