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 another book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work explores the joys and anxieties of working life. He talks 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.
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. 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.
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.”
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.”