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Alain de Botton – enriching life through philosophy

Alain de Botton – enriching life through philosophy

Leading modern day philosopher, Alain de Botton has revolutionised attitudes towards the study of philosophy. His books like How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Consolations of Philosophy, The Art of Travel and The Architecture of Happiness, have successfully shifted philosophy from the inaccessible realm of academia to practical everyday life. With his wit and sensitivity, Alain de Botton skillfully distils the essence of philosophy and places it squarely within a modern context, allowing it to enrich our lives. In 2008, de Botton helped start the School of Life in London, a social enterprise determined to make learning and therapy relevant in today’s demanding world.

His latest book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work explores the joys and anxieties of working life. He talks to Mashaal Gauhar about what prompted him to write a book on the workplace.

 As a philosopher, what drew you to study the workplace?

 “My goal in writing The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work was to write about the world of work in a way that an economist or business journalist would not. I wanted to bring out the drama and humanity of the workplace. I was challenged to write as a novelist might.

 My goal was to shine a spotlight on the sheer range of activities in the working world from a feeling that we don’t recognise these well enough. And part of the reason for this lies with us writers. If a Martian came to earth today and tried to understand what humans do from just reading most literature published today, he would come away with the extraordinary impression that all people spend their time doing is falling in love, squabbling with their families – and occasionally, murdering one another. But of course, what we really do is go to work… and yet this ‘work’ is rarely represented in art.

It does appear in the business pages of newspapers, but then, chiefly as an economic phenomenon, rather than as a broader ‘human’ phenomenon. So to sum up, I wanted to write a book that would open our eyes to the beauty, complexity, banality and occasional horror of the working world – and I did this by looking at 10 different industries, a deliberately eclectic range, from accountancy to engineering, from biscuit manufacture to logistics.”

Your book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, coincides with a massive global recession which has seen huge redundancies, how do you think this has changes people’s perceptions of work?

“In the course of writing my book, one of the more consoling ideas I discovered was just how rare and historically ambitious is the modern idea that our work should deliver happiness to us on a daily basis. The strangest thing about the world of work isn’t the long hours we put in or the fancy machines we use to get it done; the most extraordinary aspect of the work scene is in the end psychological rather than economic or industrial. It has to do with our attitudes to work, more specifically the widespread expectation that our work should make us happy, that it should be at the centre of our lives and our expectations of fulfilment. The first question we tend to ask of new acquaintances is not where they come from or who their parents were, but what they do – presuming thereby to discover the core of their identity.

 When work is not going well, it’s useful to remember that our identities stretch beyond what is on the business card, that we were people long before we became workers – and will continue to be human once we have put our tools down forever. As an entirely secular person, I’m struck by St Augustine’s injunction that it is a sin to judge a man by his status or position in society. In other words, when work is not going well, we need to remember to distinguish our sense of worth from the work we do.

A lot of your satisfaction at work is dependent on your expectation. There are broadly speaking two philosophies of work out there. The first you could call the working-class view of work, which sees the point of work as being primarily financial. You work to feed yourself and your loved ones. You don’t live for your work. You work for the sake of the weekend and spare time – and your colleagues are not your friends necessarily. The other view of work, very different, is the middle class view, which sees work as absolutely essential to a fulfilled life and lying at the heart of our self-creation and self-fulfilment. These two philosophies always co-exist but in a recession, the working class view is getting a new lease of life. More and more one hears the refrain, ‘it’s not perfect, but at least it’s a job…”
What advice would you give to people struggling in today’s highly competitive and precarious work environment from a philosopher’s perspective?
“I think we have to put our own personal, private anxieties into context: the more we can see our private sorrows as part of broader political and economic currents, the less persecuted we will feel. It is very easy to feel that our anxieties are the result of things that we did wrong. But while this is sometimes true, in most cases our professional setbacks and disappointments take place in a deeply terrifying, haphazard and competitive working environment which pays very little attention to true merit.

 Also, it is worth considering just how ambitious many educated people are today. For thousands of years, work was viewed as an unavoidable drudge and nothing more, something to be done with as rapidly as possible and escaped in the imagination through alcohol or religious intoxication. Aristotle was only the first of many philosophers to state that no one could be both free and obliged to earn a living. In Europe, a more optimistic assessment of work as a whole had to wait until the eighteenth century, the age of the great bourgeois philosophers, men like Benjamin Franklin, who for the first time argued that one’s working life could be at the centre of any ambition for happiness. It was during this century that our modern ideas about work were formed – incidentally, at the very same time as our modern ideas about love and marriage took shape.

In fact, there were remarkable similarities between the two realms of love and work. In the pre-modern age, it had widely been assumed that no one could try to be in love and married: marriage was something one did for purely commercial reasons, to hand down the family farm or ensure a dynastic continuity. Things were going well if you maintained a tepid friendship with your spouse. Meanwhile, love was something you did with your mistress, on the side, with pleasure untied to the responsibilities of child-rearing. Yet the new philosophers of love now argued that one might actually aim to marry the person one was in love with rather than just have an affair. To this unusual idea was added the even more peculiar notion that one might work both for money and to realise one’s dreams, an idea that replaced the previous assumption that the day job took care of the rent and anything more ambitious had to happen in one’s spare time, once the money had been hauled in.

 We are the heirs of these two very ambitious beliefs: that you can be in love and married ­– and in a job and having a good time. It has become as impossible for us to think that you could be out of work and happy as it had once seemed impossible for Aristotle to think that you could be employed and human. Are we perhaps too optimistic?”

After writing The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, how would you define success?

“Success is doing your talents justice, it is taking what is inside of you and giving it a form in the outside world, turning it into something which will give satisfaction and be useful to others.”

You quote extensively from Western philosophers; do you think philosophy can transcend national and cultural boundaries?

“Fortunately, good ideas, and beautiful writing, always transcends boundaries – just like great mathematical and scientific work will. There is a remarkable similarity between what Jesus, the Buddha and Socrates thought.”

As a philosopher living in London, have you noticed any changes in attitude towards money?

“There is now a deep scepticism towards the banking industry – and generally a suspicion of capitalism. Ideas which would have been regarded as extreme Marxist positions have now become entirely common-place. What is lacking, of course, are clear answers about where we go next.”

You have tackled diverse themes in your books, love, travel, happiness to name a few, what is the leitmotif of your work?

“I try to examine topics of everyday concern and to illuminate them both with my own ideas and those of key artists, philosophers, thinkers who examined them in the past. I like to think of myself as an essayist, that is, not a professional academic, but someone who wants to show the reader his personality while at the same time looking out at the world. Not least, I am keen to find some answers, or at worst, to raise some interesting problems that need to be discussed. I see myself as a public intellectual in the old-fashioned sense.”

You have set up the School of Life to help people apply philosophy to practical life, what motivated you to do this?

“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. A Londoner keen to take in some ideas in an attractive and lively setting has a serious shortage of options to hand. Most education open to the general public takes place in gloomy lino-floored institutions, under the auspices of people who remind us of why academic is also a synonym for remote and boring, and why we were once probably quite glad to quit school or college.
     That’s why I started the School of Life ( It has a passionate belief in making learning relevant – and so 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 all tend to 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 service it calls 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. The School of Life’s bibliotherapists offer to come and meet you for an in-depth chat about your character and aspirations and then arrive at a reading plan for the future, which zeroes in on the books that could really pick up on your underlying interests and enrich your way of looking at the world.

 Then again, not everything is light hearted. The School has a division offering psychotherapy for individuals, couples or families – and it does so in a completely stigma-free way. For the normally reserved British, it must be a first to have an institution that offers therapy from an ordinary high street location and moreover, treats the idea of having therapy as no more or less strange than having a haircut or pedicure, and perhaps a good deal more useful.

 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, I feel proud of a place that attempts to put learning and ideas back to where they should always have been – right in the middle of our lives.”

Who are you favourite writers?

“Among the classics, I like Montaigne, Stendhal, Baudelaire, Virginia Woolf. Among moderns, Milan Kundera, Roland Barthes, John Armstrong, Adam Phillips.”

What are you reading at the moment? 

“A wonderful book called THE TEA CEREMONY, which takes you through the Zen Buddhist history and philosophy of tea drinking. I am fascinated by the idea that an everyday action like drinking tea could be raised into a philosophic/ religious ritual.”

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