Alain de Botton… Philosopher ordinaire
Alain de Botton just might be to philosophy what Michael Palin is to travel: an enthusiastic everyman who has made his passion accessible to all by dint of alight, deceptively simple, touch.
Perhaps we find it harder to love our philosophers though, because – although recently described by the Observer as ‘the people’s philosopher’ and by John Updike as ‘dazzling’ – Alain de Botton has attracted some fierce critics over the years. The Guardian’s Nietzsche-meets-Delia-Smith comment is mild in comparison with Charlie Brooker’s vitriol: the least of which was accusing de Botton of forging ‘a lucrative career out of stating the bleeding obvious’.
Critics aside, Alain de Botton has been prolific, hugely successful and unerringly relevant over the last 20 years. The spotlight of his philosophical musings has illuminated such universal topics as: love (Essays In Love, 1993), loss (How Proust Can Change Your Life, 1997; The Consolations of Philosophy, 2000), travel (The Art of Travel, 2002; A Week at the Airport, 2009), work (Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, 2009), home (Status Anxiety, 2004; Architecture of Happiness, 2006), religion (Religion for Atheists, 2012), sex (How To Think More About Sex, 2012), art (Art as Therapy, 2013) and now the news (The News: A User’s Manual, 2014). Some might call it obvious, others very sharp indeed.
Alain de Botton was born in Zurich, Switzerland in 1969 to Sephardic-Jewish-turned- fiercely-atheist parents (de Botton recalls how one Christmas his father brutally rubbished the existence of Santa to his younger sister, who was eight at the time). Father, Gilbert de Botton, was a banker for the Rothchilds, co-founded Global Asset Management and left an estimated fortune of £420m on his death in 2000. He was also an avid supporter of the arts: the only person to be painted by both Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, with a gallery named after him at the Tate Modern. Some speculate that Alain de Botton – a non-English speaker, sent away to an English boarding school at the age of eight – uses philosophy to publically process his own issues. Others, that his father set a precedent to be lived up to. Either way, Swiss-thinker Alain de Botton’s ideas regarding the role of philosophy in our day-to-day lives has prompted him to create some fascinating social initiatives.
Jennifer Cox: The Daily Telegraph said you ‘restore to philosophy a long-lost part of its character, the purpose to console’. Do you see this as the role of philosophy, to console?
Alain de Botton: For me, that’s a beautiful and vital role. Culture in general should be something we use for practical ends: to help us to live with greater dignity, wisdom, courage and creativity.
JC: Your work seems to have enjoyed astonishing success and attention. Has it surprised you how well philosophy sells in these so called dumbed-down times?
AB: Yes, I’m always surprised and truly grateful: there are definitely people out there hungering for brain-food. The mass media dumbs people down and then argues that no one is intelligent enough for anything more serious than it provides. But at heart, we’re all pretty serious.
JC: Your work has attracted some astonishingly hostile to criticism. Great publicity, but personally it must sting?
AB: I’m touching on a lot of nerves and taboos – from our secret feelings about love, to money, status and other touchy issues. I know this can upset people who like their books on the less raw side.
JC: How long does it take you to write a book: for example The Art of Travel, what was the idea behind that?
AB: A book takes two to three years, very hard work and lots of procrastination. The idea … for most of us, when we think of how to be happy, we think of one (or all) of three things: falling in love, finding satisfaction at work and going travelling. Travelling can form some of our greatest fantasies: we lie in bed reading a travel supplement, looking at pictures of faraway places and think: ‘Here I could be happy!’
But the reality of travel seldom matches our daydreams. The tragi-comic disappointments are well-known: the disorientation, the mid-afternoon despair, the lethargy before ancient ruins. And yet the reasons behind such disappointments are rarely explored.
The Art of Travel was an attempt to tackle the curious business of travelling– why do we do it? What are we trying to get out of it? In a series of essays, I write about airports, landscapes, museums, holiday romances, photographs, exotic carpets and the contents of hotel minibars. I mix my own thoughts about travel with those of some great figures of the past: Edward Hopper, Baudelaire, Wordsworth, Van Gogh and Ruskin among them. The result is a work that, unlike existing guidebooks on travel, actually asks what the point of travel might be – and modestly suggests how we could learn to be happier on our journeys.
JC: Can the musings of great thinkers truly help in the face of grotty hotel rooms and lost luggage?
AB: One insight is that it may be useful to accept that the anticipation of travel is at times the best part about it. Our travels are never as satisfying as they are when they exist in an as-yet unrealised form: in the shape of an airline ticket and a brochure.
I’ve continued to travel in spite of all these caveats. And yet there are times when I feel there might be no finer journeys than those provoked in the imagination by remaining at home, scrolling through a website.
JC: You wrote that certain landscapes provoke the feeling that ‘you are very small and something else is very big and dangerous’. Is this one reason we love to travel: a sense of controlled vulnerability and privation?
AB: We may think we always want to feel ‘big’, but there’s a curious relief to be found in being put in our place by something obviously larger than anything human: by the starry heavens, the glaciers, oceans etc… Rather than competing for ego and status, we accept that we’re all pretty small and insignificant next to the mighty mysteries of the universe. This brings calm to the soul.
JC: You once wished for more time to hang around airports, watching planes coming and going. You must then have revelled in your week-long experience as Writer in Residence at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 (A Week At The Airport, 2009).
AB: What really tempted me was the access: airports are incredibly secretive and closed-off places. I’ve tried to write about Heathrow before and been escorted off the premises. The real problem with airports is that we tend to go when we need to catch a plane. And because it’s so difficult to find the way to the gate, we tend not to look around at our surroundings. Yet airports definitely reward a second look: they are the imaginative centres of the modern world. It’s here you should go to find, in a concrete form, all the themes of modernity: globalisation, environmental destruction, runaway consumerism, family breakdown, the modern sublime… in action.
Airports always bring us into greater proximity with the possibility of death: this unconscious or semi-conscious awareness has the habit of releasing us from inhibitions, and therefore making love potentially more possible. We break free of everyday habits and, sensing our mortality, are more open to the unusual encounter. People who have been in loveless marriages for decades will suddenly say unexpectedly romantic things in airports. The prospect of an air crash can do wonders for a sagging relationship.
JC: In 2008, you set up the School of Life: a quirky later learning centre, offering activities such a walks around the M25 and day trips to Folkestone with a Magnum photographer. What was the idea behind it?
AB: One of the paradoxes of modern consumer society is that while you can find thousands of stylish businesses that will sell you the perfect coffee or jumper, disappointingly few enterprises are interested in serving up anything that could benefit your mind.
The School of Life runs courses in the important questions of everyday life. Whereas most colleges and universities chop up learning into abstract categories (‘agrarian history’, ‘the 18th century English novel’), the School of Life titles its courses according to things we care about: careers, relationships, politics, travels, families. An evening or weekend on one of its courses is likely to be spent reflecting on such matters as your moral responsibilities to an ex-partner or how to resolve a career crisis.
The school also offers up a personalised recommended reading service called bibliotherapy, based on the idea that the real reason why most of us don’t read much nowadays is that there are far too many books around. In a culture where anyone who attempts a serious conversation is at once accused of belonging to the ‘chattering classes’ and where anything too intellectual is in danger of being called pretentious, the School of Life attempts to put learning and ideas back to where they should always have been: right in the middle of our lives.
JC: And Living Architecture – your holidays in architecture concept, which includes the boat-hotel currently perched on the roof of the Southbank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall?
AB: A few years ago, I wrote a book about architecture critical of British nostalgia and low expectations. It got a healthy amount of attention, on the back of which I was invited to a stream of conferences about the future of architecture. But one night, returning from one such conference, I had a dark moment of the soul. I realised that however pleasing it is to write a book about an issue one feels passionately about, the truth is that – a few exceptions aside – books don’t change anything. I realised that if I cared so much about architecture, writing was just a coward’s way out; the real challenge was to build.
Living Architecture is a not-for-profit organisation that puts up houses around the UK designed by some of the world’s top architects and makes these available to the public to rent for holidays throughout the year. We describe it as a ‘Landmark Trust for contemporary architecture’.
Our dream was to allow people to experience what it is like to live and sleep in a space designed by an outstanding architectural practice. While there are examples of great modern buildings in Britain, they tend to be in places that one passes through (airports, museums, offices), and the few modern houses that exist are almost all in private hands and cannot be visited. When people declare that they hate modern buildings they are, on the whole, speaking not from experience of homes, but from a distaste of post-war tower blocks or bland air conditioned offices.
Living Architecture’s houses are deliberately varied. One hangs precariously off the edge of a hill in Suffolk. Another, by the young Scottish practice NORD, is a stark black box in the shadow of Dungeness nuclear power station. I wouldn’t have driven this project forward if I didn’t believe that architecture changes our character: we are simply not the same people in whatever room we are in. My hope is that a holiday in a Living Architecture house will, in a modest but determined way, help to change the debate about what sort of houses we want to live in in Britain.
JC: Your books examine the pressures of life through the medium of philosophy. But now with the School of Life and Living Architecture, not to mention your recent temple-for-atheists building initiative, your role seems to be changing from observer to doer. Can you be both?
AB: I very much hope so. I’m a person of action as well as thought. I’m interested in changing the world both through projects and through ideas. It’s an unusual combination, but I relish it.
JC: In Religion for Atheists you write: ‘We have grown sick from being left to do as we please’. Is there a danger of you turning into a Jamie Oliver-style militant-philosopher, haranguing people into a healthy emotional diet?
AB: I much admire Jamie Oliver and would love to do for emotional intelligence what Oliver has done for intelligence about our diet.
JC: You said in an interview with the Guardian last December: ‘We live in a crowded but lonely world’ – in one sentence, what’s the solution?
AB: To recognise that our most private fears are shared by millions – and by revealing them, we help to save ourselves.
How To Think More About Sex (Macmillan, £7.99).
The News: A User’s Manual (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99)
For more information on Alain de Botton, visit:
Top image of Alain de Botton by Phil Fisk.