Alain de Botton Gives Us Our Daily Wisdom

A Q&A with the philsopher.

BB: When you set out to redefine everyday reality and preoccupations on Twitter, do you do so for yourself (i.e. to clarify/articulate thoughts) or do you play to your audience of 100,000+ followers?

AdB: I used Twitter in part because I have always been attracted to the aphorism as a genre; that is, trying to distill complex situations in a sentence or so. My favourite aphorist is La Rochefoucauld, and it was his Maxims that inspired me to become a writer in the first place. So in a very modest way, I am following in distinguished footsteps. Twitter enables one to self-publish at the click of a button, and also provides instantaneous feedback.

BB: Does the School of Life challenge common wisdom or strengthen/endorse it?

AdB: The School of Life is interested in promoting the kind of wisdom that is found in the humanities, from a feeling that the way that British universities teach the humanities never focuses on this aspect. If you went to any university in the country and said that you had come to study ‘how to live’ or ‘how to become a better and wiser person’, you would be politely shown the door – if not the way to an asylum. Universities nowadays see it as their job to train you either in a very specific career (like law, medicine) or to give you a grounding in arts subjects like literature or history – but for no identifiable reason, beyond the vague and unexamined notion that three years studying medieval literature may be a good idea.

Because the situation so plainly deserves to change, a few years ago, I came together with a group of disaffected academics, artists and writers and decided to start a new kind of university that we called plainly: The School of Life. The place opened its doors in a modest shop and teaching space in central London near King’s Cross. On the menu of our school, you won’t find subjects like ‘Philosophy’, ‘French’, ‘History’ and ‘Classics’. You’ll find courses in ‘Death,’ ‘Marriage’, ‘Choosing a career’, ‘Ambition’, ‘Child Rearing’ or ‘Changing your world’. Along the way, you will learn about a lot of the books and ideas that traditional universities serve up, but you are unlikely ever to get bored, you’ll make friends – and you’ll come away with a different take on the world. There’s even a bookshop in the school which does away with the traditional categories in bookshops like fiction or history and just sells books according to particular problems. So we’ve got a shelf titled ‘For those who worry at night’ and another titled ‘How to be happy though married’. We call the shop a ‘chemist for the soul’.

BB: Is it an affectation or an anxiety to dread being middle class?

AdB: A proper anxiety that I was the first to describe as ‘status anxiety’ is the worry of NOT being middle class in a society which takes a measure of financial success as a sign of virtue and goodness. Status anxiety is a worry about our standing in the world, whether we’re going up or down, whether we’re winners or losers. We care about our status for a simple reason: because most people tend to be nice to us according to the amount of status we have – if they hear we’ve been promoted, there’ll be a little more energy in their smile, if we are sacked, they’ll pretend not to have seen us. Ultimately, we worry about having no status because we’re not good at remaining confident about ourselves if other people don’t seem to like or respect us very much. Our ‘ego’ or self-conception could be pictured as a leaking balloon, forever requiring external love to remain inflated and vulnerable to the smallest pinpricks of neglect: we rely on signs of respect from the world to feel acceptable to ourselves.

While it would be unusual to be status anxious in a famine, history shows that as soon as societies go any way beyond basic subsistence, status anxieties quickly kick in. In the modern world, status anxiety starts when we compare our achievements with those of other people we consider to be our equals. We might worry about our status when we come across an enthusiastic newspaper profile of an acquaintance (it can destroy the morning), when a close friend reveals a piece of what they naively – or plain sadistically – call ‘good’ news (they have been promoted, they are getting married, they have reached the bestseller list) or when we are asked what we ‘do’ at a party by someone with a firm handshake who has recently floated their own start-up company.

Status anxiety is certainly worse than ever, because the possibilities for achievement (sexual, financial, professional) seem to be greater than ever. There are so many more things we expect if we’re not to judge ourselves ‘losers.’ We are constantly surrounded by stories of people who have made it. For most of history, an opposite assumption held sway: low expectations were viewed as both normal and wise. Only a very few ever aspired to wealth and fulfilment. The majority knew well enough that they were condemned to exploitation and resignation. Of course, it remains highly unlikely that we will today ever reach the pinnacle of society. It is perhaps as unlikely that we could rival the success of Bill Gates as that we could in the seventeenth century have become as powerful as Louis XIV. Unfortunately though, it no longer feels unlikely – depending on the magazines one reads, it can in fact seem absurd that one hasn’t already managed to have it all.

BB: Define a loser

AdB: A loser is someone who is believed to have started off with an average share of advantages, and who has messed up their life and is deserving of no pity. It is worth remarking that in the Middle Ages, people at the bottom of society used to be termed ‘unfortunates’. The journey from the description of people as unfortunates to their being termed ‘losers’ is the history of the modern west, a story of individualism and capitalism.

BB: Young children are the most conformist. Is eccentricity a mark of maturity and sophistication or just a euphemism for someone who is grown up, quite batty and affluent?

AdB: When we think of eccentricity, we might imagine strange clothes and weird habits in terms of food or interior decoration (ie. Oscar Wilde). My feeling is that a measure of eccentricity is important, but that true eccentricity has none of the obvious markers of the word: it is about an inner state of mind, a freedom from habit and common sense opinions, a generosity of spirit. None of this has anything to do with wearing a cape or smoking cigars.

BB: I was going to ask if you thought philosophers had any relevance today and then I read your Wikipedia entry, saying your books emphasise philosophy’s relevance to everyday life. Do you agree with this assertion (assuming you haven’t written it)?

AdB: My interest is very much in how culture can illuminate and connect with every day experiences. This is generally an unfashionable stance in academia.

BB: Do you think philanthropy is a form of vanity or narcissism even?

AdB: Vanity and narcissism are everywhere. The key point is that some societies are clever enough to harness selfish personal traits to selfless and useful public goals. So we should pride ourselves on a world where in many areas, people can gain social esteem in exchange for giving away their money. This is a win-win situation, where no one loses and the natural selfishness of humans can be assuaged and transcended.

BB: You often write about love and marriage. Our expectations of romantic love and marriage, and ‘happily ever after’, seem to be defined by Hollywood. Is this the reason for so many divorces?

AdB: The high expectations we have of love definitely colour how we interpret things when our own relationships run into difficulty. We are unlikely now to see suffering in love as ‘normal’, we have high expectations, which are in a way good, and in a way very dangerous. I am sure that most of us wrestle daily with the question, ‘Am I asking for too much?’

BB: Is old age a disease?

AdB: It’s certainly very sad. As I reach 41, I would definitely love to have the agility and beauty of a 20 year old. So yes, old age is a disease from which all of us will end up suffering.

BB: Is architecture only relevant to those who can afford to consider it (or know how to spell the word)?

AdB: Good architecture is not a luxury by any means, it is a fundamental constituent of a good life. When we call a chair or a house beautiful, really what we’re saying is that we like the way of life it’s suggesting to us. It has an attitude we’re attracted to: if it was magically turned into a person, we’d like who it was. It would be convenient if we could remain in much the same mood wherever we happened to be, in a cheap motel or a palace (think of how much money we’d save on redecorating our houses), but unfortunately we’re highly vulnerable to the coded messages that emanate from our surroundings. This helps to explain our passionate feelings towards matters of architecture and home decoration: these things help to decide who we are.

Of course, architecture can’t on its own always make us into contented people. Witness the dissatisfactions that can unfold even in idyllic surroundings. One might say that architecture suggests a mood to us, which we may be too internally troubled to be able to take up. Its effectiveness could be compared to the weather: a fine day can substantially change our state of mind – and people may be willing to make great sacrifices to be nearer a sunny climate.

Then again, under the weight of sufficient problems (romantic or professional confusions, for example), no amount of blue sky, and not even the greatest building, will be able to make us smile. Hence the difficulty of trying raise architecture into a political priority: it has none of the unambiguous advantages of clean drinking water or a safe food supply. And yet it remains vital.