Alain de Botton
is himself, in a good sense, a perpetual student – and he wants us all to go back to school. Nick Spencer joined him on 18 March 2009 in his study in a leafy part of north London.
Photography: Andrew Firth
Your first languages were French and German. Did that inheritance give you a different perspective on life?
I don’t exactly know. It’s true that many of my favourite books, both fiction and non-fiction, are French and German, and perhaps I’m closer to the sensibility I find in many of them. Maybe you acquire these things by osmosis. I grew up in Switzerland, in a French-speaking household (though my mother is a native German-speaker). I came from a Jewish family and I was proud of that in a secular way, and culturally aware.
Do you think your parents had a particular influence on the formation of your early mind?
Not directly. I was never told as a child to read Montaigne or anything; but I saw that my father (who was a businessman) was a very keen reader and so, though no one ever said ‘Books are important,’ I just picked it up.
Another influence, I think, was the spirit of Switzerland. It’s very committed to a certain vision of democracy and egalitarianism, and so even though in many ways it’s a very privileged place, and some of its gains are slightly ill-gotten (in two world wars etc), at the same time it’s the quintessential bourgeois republic, that believes in comfort, the family and a kind of modest patriotism. When I first came to England, I remember being very struck by the polarisation of society into rich and poor, and by the very low levels of community feeling and community involvement.
You studied history at Cambridge and then went on to do a master’s degree in philosophy…
That’s right, and slightly flailed around, and began and gave up two PhDs as I tried to work out… I was very good at academic work and it seemed very logical and natural to become an academic, and yet I couldn’t get on with the sort of stuff I would have to write in order to prove myself an asset to an academic department. In the end, I just thought: Maybe this really isn’t for me.
I also couldn’t work out which department I would go in, because, you know, I liked literature but why did I have to choose between English and French literature? I couldn’t understand the limitations imposed on philosophy – and what is this subject called ‘history’? I always imagined myself moving from topic to topic and trying out different things – like Roland Barthes, who wrote essays about all sorts of things.
Is there a link between your upbringing in Switzerland, with its porous borders and its openness to different cultures, and your sense (which seems to be so important to the way you think and write) that in everyday life we can make connections with all sorts of different things?
Yes, I think that’s right. I get distressed at the thought of ideas not finding a home in day-to-day life, and similarly of day-to-day life going by without the interpretation I think it can sustain. People will say, ‘Oh, this is just an ordinary moment’ or ‘just an ordinary event’ and I’ll always think: ‘Yes, but you can compare it, contrast it and connect it to something else.’
The other day someone said to me, ‘What do you do?’ and I said, ‘Philosophy’ and he said, ‘Philosophy? You’ve lost me there already.’ This is what I’m fighting against
So, yes, I do like building bridges, and tethering (as it were) the abstract idea to something more everyday, and the everyday to something grander. These are exercises that I do naturally in my own head and that I feel that perhaps we don’t do enough of in our culture. I was talking to someone the other day and he said, you know, ‘What do you do?’ and I said, ‘Oh, well, I – Philosophy’ and he said, ‘Philosophy? You’ve lost me there already.’ And I thought: Oh dear, this is really bad, you know? This is sort of what I’m fighting against.
The Continental approach to philosophy is very different from ours, isn’t it?
That’s right, yes. If you read one of the more serious German newspapers, there will be a philosophy section. There is very much the idea of the philosopher as a public intellectual, which does not exist here.
It was Wittgenstein, really, who reoriented Anglo-American philosophy in a very narrow direction based on logic and the analysis of language. It’s no surprise that a lot of people in Britain see it as a very arid topic – it is arid as it’s been taught by the universities. When someone like me comes along and says, ‘Let’s talk about travelling!’, they’re like: ‘Who on earth is this guy? He’s a trespasser. He’s misunderstood what philosophy is.’
Is there a kind of intellectual snobbery in that attitude?
Yes, I think there is. I think it’s odd (though I guess it so often happens at times of crisis) that while most of the country seems to be falling into illiteracy, a cultural elite seems to be incredibly worried about ‘dumbing-down’ over things that in the grander scheme of things really are not that significant, and while the television stations are being stormed (as it were) and the libraries fall into ruin, I am slammed for not using footnotes.
My view is that anyone who is trying to do anything to reintroduce people to cultural ideas etc is at least not a semi-criminal, as I’m sometimes accused of being.
Trying to put a finger on the ‘big idea’ in your writing, it seems to me to be that philosophy should be embedded in our lives as an aid to living. Can you talk about that?
It didn’t occur to me to think of myself as a philosopher for a long, long time: I just thought of myself as an essayist. And then I wrote The Consolations of Philosophy, and because it was my most successful book in this country and because I’ve got a French-sounding name and French people are supposed to be philosophers, the idea took hold: This man is a philosopher. I’d rather not use that word necessarily, because it’s so loaded. I prefer to say that I’m an intellectual (by which I mean that I like to think about things and I believe in the communication of ideas) and I believe in the examined life.
Actually, most people who have written as philosophers I don’t get on with. Descartes is not my favourite writer. I have very little time for Kant. Heidegger I find very boring. I’m not interested in most philosophers – and most of them are not interested in me.
Connecting ideas with day-to-day life is something the church was once known for, but nowadays people tend not to see Christianity as a source of wisdom for living. Do you regard your kind of ‘examination’ of life as in some way competing with Christianity, or replacing it?
I look at it historically: before Christianity, the Graeco-Roman world was deeply influenced by schools of philosophy that were very involved in day-to-day life. I think the church felt jealous of the hold that they had and to some extent tried to appropriate it. I think there has always been a tension within Christianity: is its role principally philosophical, imparting wisdom for everyday life, or is it more of a religion relying on revelation and trying to save souls?
I’m very alive to this tension because it reflects on tensions within secular education. I am very interested in the idea that knowledge educates us and I think there are some very different assumptions about what a human being needs in order to learn and to be affected by knowledge. I think it is an absolutely central incoherence in the modern liberal view, that education can change everything but we’ll just send people to university for three years.
I think that a lot of what people do under the banner of Christianity is basically to have their characters educated. Christianity takes education very seriously, like most faiths, and for much of its history the church has believed that we need to be reminded of ideas daily. It’s not enough to go to university for a few years, or to read a book occasionally: in order to be persuaded of certain ideas, you need a whole system to wrap you around which involves everything from architecture and art and ritual to what we are going to be eating tonight.
Is that what you’re trying to achieve with The School of Life: to educate people’s character?
Yes, absolutely. My idea was, we don’t have the means to start a university or anything major, but can we start a very small institution that has a big goal: to make a polemical point, that learning needs to be part of life?
And we looked explicitly at what Christianity does. I mean, we’ve got a series of sermons that runs every Sunday. In a lecture you impart some knowledge, but in a sermon you try to convert somebody, to bring about a change in their life; and this seems to me much closer to what it should be all about.
How do the ideas of the examined life and the School connect with the ‘time of crisis’ you see in our culture?
One thing is that it’s very easy to be distracted all the time, and I think it’s very hard to be alone and it’s very hard to place the human ego in a wider context. It used to happen just naturally: you couldn’t travel so easily, you couldn’t watch television, you didn’t know what other people were thinking etc. Nowadays, we live in a world where human achievements are beamed back at us all the time and human chatter is always with us and it’s very much focused on the present, and so there’s a loss of a connection with the non-human and a loss of connection with the past as a kind of force that guides us, and then a loss of a sense that it’s right and good to try to be intelligent and read books and all the rest of it.
I think the intellectual elite has failed us. It’s almost as if the people who were supposed to love knowledge forgot what the point of it was and so were unable to explain it to anyone else
A lot of it has got to do with the fact that the intellectual elite has, I think, failed the nation. It’s almost as if the people who were supposed to love knowledge forgot that they loved it and forgot what the point of it was and hence were unable to explain it to anyone else. And everybody else, having sat there for a long, long time very politely and deferentially, finally got bored and just left. And that’s why no one reads serious books nowadays, because people have just given up.
Some of the ideas in your books seem to me to resonate particularly with Christian thinking. One of them, which comes out especially in The Architecture of Happiness, is that we are not disembodied minds but are profoundly influenced by where we are and what is around us.
There have always been divisions in Christianity over the importance of the sensory world and, you know, does it matter where you are? Does it change who you are? If you just look at church-building, on the whole the Catholic tradition has considered it very important to spend a lot of money on your church and make it very, very pretty, because that is going to affect the sort of thoughts you can have there. The more Puritanical tradition suggests that faith is transmitted through language, not through the senses. In that sense, I’m much more Catholic: I believe that it matters what’s in front of your eyes. What we call ‘ugly’ is, I think, a version of the Bad incarnate, and beauty is a version of the Good incarnate and can tug us in the right direction.
That’s why advertising is so important, but also so pernicious…
That provides a neat link to your idea of ‘status anxiety’. You argue that we are profoundly relational beings and in order to understand who we are we have to know a little about who everyone else is.
That’s right – and of course most of these relationships are ‘mediatised’. We find out what other people are like partly by reading the newspaper, looking at the internet, watching television and so on – but often there’s a real disjunction between how something is mediatised and its reality.
I think one of the functions of art is to create a feeling of community and deepen our knowledge of what other people are like in a truer way than the media do. You get secret knowledge from books, as it were, that makes you feel less lonely.
In your book about Proust, you argue that it’s idolatrous to make a pilgrimage to the village where he happened to grow up and you say: ‘The worth of sight is dependent more on the quality of one’s vision than on the object viewed.’ That struck me as really profound, and for me connected with the Christian idea of worship, in that you are trying to appreciate things for what they are worth.
Yes, absolutely. I think that art is an act of worship in many ways. Certain kinds of art.
It’s like, what is despair or sadness? In a way, it’s thinking that you’ve been cut off from the realm of what is interesting, what is valuable etc – and frequently it has to do with the fact that you’re just not looking at things in the right way.
In a piece on ‘religion for atheists’ for Standpoint last year, you imagined a network of secular churches that you feel could improve us…
I am only saying that playfully. I think what I am advocating is that secular society should learn a lot more of the manoeuvres of religion. For example, if you are defining what art should be about, I think having a good grasp of what religions thought art was about is a very good starting point. It would be possible to imagine an art that in many ways looks like the art that’s being made now but in subtle ways is informed by a kind of moral mission that religions would recognise. And similarly with education and literature and a lot of other things.
I think there have been two things that religions have done really well. One is to teach us how to live together, how to live communally. The other is to teach us how to face disappointment, disaster and, ultimately, death. These are the two great things that religions have been useful for, as it were, and I think we have a lot to learn from them.
You began that Standpoint article by saying that one of the most boring questions about religion is whether it’s true or not. Surely our values and the virtues we practise are in a sense a response to what we believe to be true? If we set that question aside, isn’t there a danger that our values and our way of life will change with the wind?
I think that’s a sort of postmodern anxiety, isn’t it: that unless we have some authoritative account of what is right and wrong, we won’t know at all. You know, how do we know how we should behave with other people? One traditional view is that we should pay attention to the commandments in scripture: that is where we will find the bedrock of a moral code. Otherwise, what are we left with? Just do what feels nice! Go with your feelings! And that’s a source of anxiety. Maybe it’ll feel nice to kill somebody.
Obviously there are things to be depressed about, but there are also things to be cheerful about. I’ve studied enough history to know that basically things are going pretty well
I would like to champion a more commonsense view. Maybe we should just trust that human beings are sufficiently alike, and their interests sufficiently aligned, that what will result from individual choices, and our individual sense of what is good, will not be wildly off-target. There are reasonable conclusions we can reach without revelation about what good behaviour is. (Actually, this is something that Aquinas would probably have agreed with. He would have said, because God gave us reason.)
We may not be able to pin it down absolutely – you know, there may be some argument about whether envy is a sin or can it sometimes be justified? – but still reasonable people should agree. And I think they do. You only have to look at how people actually behave. In Britain today we have people from all sorts of faiths and we do more or less agree on this sort of thing. Don’t kill anyone! Try to be nice! Don’t be mean, etc. It’s just part of our natural endowment to know this.
You make the point in your books that there is a modern myth that we almost deserve happiness…
I think that a lot of people suffer from feelings of persecution and paranoia, that somehow their life has gone wrong when it was supposed to be flawless. I think one of the great things about Christianity (and also Buddhism) is that its starting point is: Earthly life is imperfect. And that is something that is kind of denied in our modern society, where every problem comes to seem like an accident that we must have an inquiry into and must try to eradicate. Of course we must sometimes; but the broader point is that there is always going to be something – if it’s not one thing, it’ll be another.
Perhaps there’s a connection between that unreasonable optimism and the diminishing influence of Christianity?
Yes, that’s right, that’s right.
I think it’s easy to see how that Christian idea of the brokenness and the fallenness of the world can be used in a bad way – you know, ‘I’m living in a terrible house and my job is terrible.’ ‘Well, that’s the way it is’ etc. I think that one should do absolutely everything one can to make life on earth as pleasant as possible, while realising that one will only ever get so far. But, yes, I think that message has got lost.
Oliver James, who I interviewed for High Profile in 2008,1bit.ly/1UwVirR has written quite a lot about a general sense of ennui in this country and a profound sense of dissatisfaction with where we are. Would you agree with that?
I’m always wary of delivering grim messages like that because that’s not my style. I think he’s right in many ways, but I suppose I have a more optimistic temper.
I think that it’s always been bad in different ways and it’s always been good in different ways. Obviously there are things to be depressed about, but there are also things to be cheerful about. I’ve studied enough history to know that basically things are going pretty well compared with other periods of history. You know, there are lots of people leading lives now that are probably more sensible, good, accomplished and rich in every way than ever before.
I think that what’s wrong is (as it were) the bigger narratives of what life’s about: you know, the political narrative – what are we doing this for? What is business for? Or, what is the point of starting a family? Why not get divorced? I don’t think that as a society we have very good answers to those questions.
Or the questions are not even being asked.
Exactly. And I think that’s the saddest thing, because the answers are out there. The internet has connected people and has enabled knowledge to be shared and approaches to be tried communally. And in a modest way I’m trying to change things.
This edit was originally published in the May 2009 issue of Third Way.
[ + ]
To find out more about the agenda behind our interviews, read our manifesto. To read more interviews like this, browse our library. To access our entire archive of almost 250 interviews, take out a subscription – High Profiles is funded entirely by its readers.
Alain de Botton was born in Zurich in 1969 and came to Britain with his family eight years later. He was educated at the Dragon School in Oxford and was then a boarder at Harrow.
He took a double starred first in history at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and completed a master’s degree in philosophy at King’s College London in 1992. He was then a PhD candidate at both Harvard and KCL.
His books have been best-sellers in 30 countries. His first novel, Essays in Love (1993), was followed by two more, The Romantic Movement (1994) and Kiss and Tell (1995), before he turned to non-fiction with How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), The Consolations of Philosophy (2000), The Art of Travel (2002), Status Anxiety (2004), The Architecture of Happiness (2006) and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009).
He has written a weekly column for the Independent on Sunday, and has contributed to many other newspapers and magazines. He lectures extensively.
He owns and helps to run a TV production company, Seneca Productions, which has made a number of television documentaries based on his books.
In 2008, he founded The School of Life, a ‘miniature university’ in central London, which he helps to run.
He married in 2003 and has two sons.
Up-to-date as at 1 May 2009