Even the smartest among us can get bored stiff by philosophy.
You start off with a head full of bright, shiny questions about the meaning of life and you end up staring at a book of Descartes like someone who spent too long next to the front speakers at a Rolling Stones concert.
Even though many college courses require the study of philosophy and you may make the initiative to dive into its profound tomes, the truth is that a lot of philosophy can be hard to grasp, long-winded and downright confusing.
Introducing your new philosophy pal, Alain de Botton
That’s where the philosopher and public speaker Alain de Botton comes in.
This guy gets it.
If you’re sitting there wondering what the Heg-el is going on, Botton has some answers: his work as a bestselling author and renowned thinker focuses on applying philosophy to real life.
It’s not about feeling special or superior because of the high-minded ideas in your head: it’s about changing your life through philosophy, and Botton has some incredible ideas that I know have made a difference in my life and which I’m confident can make a difference in yours, too.
Here’s the rundown of what Botton is all about.
First we have to address the most basic question of all …
What You'll Learn
- Introducing your new philosophy pal, Alain de Botton
- Who cares about philosophy?
- What does it mean to be ‘wise?’
- The drive to succeed must start by asking: what is ‘success’?
- Why are we so obsessed with career?
- Being overly optimistic is bad
- What about love?
- Don’t bash yourself for being jealous
- Hit the road Jack …
- Things to remember
Who cares about philosophy?
Many a pipe-smoking professor and advanced theorist in the back of a dusty library would balk at this question and raise their eyebrows. Who cares about philosophy? Go back to munching on your cabbage, sheep.
But, like I said, Alain de Botton gets it.
The Cambridge-educated scholar understands that if philosophy has no practical use it’s going to be largely left behind and lose the important role it can play in improving and clarifying life.
For those anti-Botton folks he’s “dumbing down” philosophy for the peasants. But let’s be honest: if you’re really looking for a 400-page dissection of subject and object in the work of Immanuel Kant there are plenty of resources for you on and offline.
If you want accessible, simplified explanations of philosophy that are still very intelligent and applicable then give Botton a try.
It’s honestly not about making philosophy “basic” or for simple-minded people. I’m not simple-minded and neither is Botton. He’s just a man who understands that times change and that philosophy needs to adapt to shorter attention spans and more practical expectations if it’s going to survive and thrive in the digital age.
Whether he likes it or not, Botton has become associated with popular soundbyte style philosophy. But the truth is he’s also a splendid gateway into deeper more complex philosophy for those who are interested, and he’s gotten an entire generation back into caring about the ideas that have built our world.
As Botton says:
“People are understandably confused about what philosophy is. From a distance, it seems weird, irrelevant, boring and yet also – just a little – intriguing. But it’s hard to put a finger on what the interest really is. What are philosophers? What do they do? And why does one need them?
The answer, Botton explains, lies in the word itself.
“In Greek, philo means love – or devotion – and sophia means wisdom,” he explains. “Philosophers are people devoted to wisdom.”
What does it mean to be ‘wise?’
That’s a good question, my curious friend. And Botton has an answer.
“Being wise means attempting to live and die well, leading as good a life as possible within the troubled conditions of existence.”
According to Botton, being wise means pursuing what we’re all pursuing: not so much happiness, but fulfillment and achievement of our core mission and responsibilities.
“The goal of wisdom is fulfillment. You could perhaps say ‘happiness’ but ‘happiness’ is misleading, for it suggests continuous chirpiness and joy, whereas ‘fulfillment’ seems compatible with a lot of pain and suffering, which every decent life must by necessity have.”
Botton’s most famous book The Consolations of Philosophy is completely built around this conviction: that philosophy is about living life the best that we possibly can. He draws on the giants of philosophy from Socrates and Seneca to Montaigne and Schopenhauer to show how philosophy relates to the real.
The drive to succeed must start by asking: what is ‘success’?
It might sound overly simplistic, but one of the pithiest questions Botton has brought into the collective consciousness is the ongoing debate about what exactly it means to “succeed.”
I remember discussing this with my dad when I was 16. Who knew that I was already thinking like some of the world’s greatest philosophers?
For Botton, success is particularly elusive in our modern world which is full of “career crises” and sudden personal changes and upheavals that threaten what we thought we knew about who we are, our role and our trajectory.
If you’re having a mid-life crisis or even a quarter-life-crisis or a whole-life-crisis then Botton is your man.
In his TED talk entitled A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy To Success focuses on how preconceptions about what it means to succeed and living up to the standards of other people can sink us into a futile loop of disappointment.
Botton also faces our culture’s obsession with defining people by their jobs.
After all when we first meet someone often the first question we ask is: “so, what do you do?”
The central importance of career is a lot of what builds it up as this do-or-die, all-encompassing subject that makes you a “failure” if it’s not your only focus.
Why are we so obsessed with career?
Although some philosophers and thinkers have pegged us as materialistic and focused on career for reasons of personal gain, Botton doesn’t see it that way.
According to him, it’s more about our framework of values. We focus on a career because we think it will fulfill us. In other words, we think we want things but it’s actually feelings we want.
As Botton explains, “I don’t think we are particularly materialistic. I think we live in a society which has simply pegged certain emotional rewards to the acquisition of material goods.”
“It’s not the material goods we want; it’s the rewards we want,” he adds.
The truth, of course, is that if this mindset was easy to dismiss or overcome then none of us would be trapped in it.
But it’s not easy, because in some cases we really are defined by our career and it’s true that our society is increasingly competitive. So how do we separate out our goals from those of others around us?
Botton’s solution is to go deep into yourself and find out if what you’re working toward is really you or part of someone else’s vision of you or your version of what you think you should be.
As he says:
“What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but we should make sure that they are our own.
“We should focus in on our ideas, and make sure that we own them; that we are truly the authors of our own ambitions.
“Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want, and find out, at the end of the journey, that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.”
Being overly optimistic is bad
Another surprise twist of Botton’s philosophy that’s a nice change from New Age mantras? Sometimes being pessimistic is actually good.
The self-help industry cranks out billions in profit per year. But the sad truth is that much of it is creating a sense of pressure, shame and conformity in people by trying to tell them that their “negative” emotions like anger, fear and sadness must be cleansed or ignored.
The self-help industry is mostly built on the premise of mind over matter and creating and fostering a fanatically positive, ultra-visualizing “can-do” attitude and then “manifesting” it around you.
The truth is that there is a dark side to positive thinking.
If you buy too much into “the Secret” and ideas like that you may find yourself pushing down hard emotions and living a life that’s far from authentic.
Instead of engaging in these idealistic philosophies that are all up in our heads, Botton encourages people to face reality. Part of this is sometimes being pessimistic and accepting the limitations and disappointments of real life, including in our career and search for love.
As the Rolling Stones sing, “you can’t always get what you want.”
If nobody has told you this about life then let me be the first: life is going to cause you to suffer. Life is going to kick all of our asses in some way or other and then come back for a second, third and fourth round.
If you’re too optimistic or living in a fantasy world you’re going to get blindsided.
That’s where Botton’s philosophy of pessimism comes in. As he explains:
“There is a real relationship between the capacity to endure suffering and the capacity to do great things.
“Pessimism is a feature of life. It’s a feature of life we often run away from.
“By running away from it too quickly, we cut ourselves off from the opportunity to embrace this darkness and to embrace the lessons that it often brings. And we often also cut ourselves off from the deepest kind of relationships which we can have with other human beings which are relationships based around a confession of suffering.
“And I think, essentially, all good friendships are about confession of one sort or another. They are confession of things that the rest of the world thinks as unacceptable, but are in fact part of human life.”
The bottom line here is that tempering our optimism can humble us and keep us living in the real world.
It can bring us into the present instead of dwelling on daydreams, grand theories and wish fulfillment.
What about love?
Love it or hate it, love is one of those topics that seems to keep popping up in life. But unlike all those who tell you what’s meant to be will be or that there’s the right person for you somewhere out there, Botton wants us all to cut our groove just a little.
In fact, Botton’s article, Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person, was the most popular article in the New York Times for all of 2016.
The article slams idealistic romance movies and depictions of love as well as those fixations on finding the right one who’s made just for us.
Botton argues that this whole perfectionist love mentality is making things harder than they should be and setting us up for failure.
The bottom line – according to Botton – is that love isn’t a matter of perfection and all of us are going to make some bad choices about who we pick one way or another.
“We need to swap the Romantic view for a tragic (and at points comedic) awareness that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us — and we will (without any malice) do the same to them. There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness. But none of this is unusual or grounds for divorce.
“Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.”
Instead of seeking perfection and bliss in our love life, Botton urges us to look for reciprocity and collaboration. Of course there should be attraction, but it’s very important we end up with someone who actually wants to be with us and is on the same page in terms of their commitment.
Instead of looking for a “perfect match,” we should be looking for someone we like who we can build a relationship with, not someone who already brings a prefabricated, ideal situation to the table.
As Botton writes, you aren’t going to find this imaginary person who shares all your views and passions, but you can find “the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently — the person who is good at disagreement.”
Botton really gets to the heart of the matter – and helps us lower expectations in our search for true love and intimacy – when he explains that you should be looking for a “not overly wrong” person instead of a perfect person.
“Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the ‘not overly wrong’ person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.”
Don’t bash yourself for being jealous
Despite many assumptions of “modern” society that it’s “moved on” from traditional concepts of the past, the truth is that many concepts are still seen in a firmly black-and-white framework.
Anger is “bad,” joy is “good;” jealousy is “toxic” and thinking positive is always good. If you’re feeling heartbroken for too long it’s your fault, and jealousy is a sign of weakness, possessiveness or toxic obsession.
Well, not so fast, Botton writes.
In fact, there is a dark side to positive thinking, and pushing down negative emotions is a one-way road to even worse problems.
Jealousy is one of those emotions that Botton identifies as actually beneficial to us. In an article entitled “Ideas for modern living: envy,” Botton observes that jealousy can actually motivate and sharpen our resolve and dedication.
“Envy is a highly beneficial emotion insofar as it goads us towards things we are capable of getting. It becomes noxious and destructive when we become unaware we are feeling it.”
By calling envy a “sin,” people guilt themselves into repressing and denying their jealous feeling, leading to a trance of unworthiness and pain.
“We are in danger of missing out on something valuable when we simply label envy a sin. Like many of our drives, it has positive and negative components, which need to be balanced and managed rather than simply cut out like a cancer. We might respect envy as the first step towards generating something we can be proud of – something that will make others envious…”
Jealousy can be rocket fuel to your dreams and help you empower and accept yourself. I bet you never thought of it that way before, did you?
According to Botton it’s only bad when it starts eating us up inside without us realizing or coming to terms with it: and I think the more I experience in life I agree with him!
Hit the road Jack …
Whether your name is Jack or not, Botton wants you to travel more. Despite the mental and physical health benefits of home, Botton’s philosophy emphasizes the importance of travel and seeing the world.
The reason is that while home can be comforting and anchoring, it can also be constricting. We can start to cling to outmoded or repetitive “versions” of ourselves and use home as a reassuring pretext for not changing, not testing our boundaries, and not looking deeper inside ourselves.
Seeking out new horizons can challenge and change us in many positive ways.
As Botton explains, even though we love home and being rooted, “there are also disturbing ways in which they can fix us unhelpfully to a version of ourselves we no longer wish to side with. The familiar curtains and pictures subtly insist that we should not change because they do not; our well-known rooms can anaesthetise us from a more urgent, necessary relationship with particular questions.”
Travel not only takes us to new places physically: it can help us “start to have the strength to probe at certain assumptions.”
Things to remember
The takeaway lesson from our wonderful philosophy guide Mr. Botton is that philosophy can be accessible, real and straightforward.
You don’t need to get hung up for years on the dialectic or parsing a misunderstood text by Leibniz – although you’re certainly free to do so and please let me know what you find.
Whether you agree with him or not, Botton brings a lot of valuable and direct lessons from his deep studies of philosophy and tells you how you can apply those lessons to your life.
If you’re feeling pessimistic about the future just remember: you might be on the right track.