In London recently, and staying in the Bloomsbury area, I came across a curious little shop in a fairly nondescript street; the shop was called The School of Life. It was small but fashionably designed with clean lines and muted pastel colours and was full of people, mainly in their twenties and thirties. While I was still getting my bearings they all filed through a door at the back of the shop and disappeared down a stairway. Left to myself and a shop assistant I looked around at the uniformly designed books; How to Worry Less about Money, How to Think More about Sex, How to Thrive in a Digital Age and many more in that vein. Also in stock were little packs of cards with aphorisms from different philosophers, a tote bag with the words “Emotional Baggage” emblazoned on the side and the inevitable candles promising calm and stimulation.
I asked where had all the people gone and was informed that they were attending a class in a lecture room below the shop on how to be creative. Most afternoons from 2.30 to 5pm classes are held on different topics; “Our classes have been designed to give useful insights around the big themes in life ‑ you will be challenged to think deeply about the issues that matter most and provided with the opportunity to share your thoughts, ideas and impressions with other curious open-minded individuals ‑ designed by experts and taught by members of the faculty ‑ a mix of lectures, group activity and conversation ‑ optional homework for those who are interested in further study”. Each session costs around £40.” In addition to publications and classes the school offers “Secular Sermons” on Sundays where “maverick” cultural figures explore the values we live by today. You are told to expect persuasive polemics, pop-song hymns and artisan-made buns and biscuits.
The school has been running since 2005 and appears to be expanding its publications and range of activities and its presence overseas, in Melbourne, Amsterdam and Istanbul. The helpful assistant said that there were no immediate plans for an Irish outlet but that it was under consideration.
The founder and guiding spirit of the enterprise is the author of over a dozen popular philosophy books Alain de Botton. Critical reaction to de Botton has always been divided between those who admire his ability to explain complex philosophical ideas in simple terms and those who dismiss him as a master of the bleedin’ obvious; “nice guy but it’s not philosophy, it’s cream puff stuff”, “the toast of the aspirational tosspot community”, “comforting dribble”, and most damming of all, “a cross between Oprah and Delia Smith”. However the level of criticism has ratcheted up significantly in recent times because some of his later works, notably Religion for Atheists (2010) and Art as Therapy (2013) have been much more prescriptive in tackling their respective subjects. The latter for example had the temerity to suggest that many people are underwhelmed by their visits to art galleries and that their experience might be enhanced if paintings were exhibited under general themes; love, consolation, ambition, instead of by particular artists or historical periods. The fact that the venerable Rijksmuseum commissioned him to put his ideas into practice by writing explanatory notes for an exhibition this summer has provoked apoplexy with The Spectator running an article under the heading “Alain de Botton is a Moran”. However the sell-out Rembrandt exhibition currently on display in London’s National Gallery is presented in seven rooms under similar themes including, “contemplation”, “intimacy” and “reconciliation”.
There are a number of reasons why de Botton gets up people’s noses. The first is that he tends to encourage some people to get in touch with their inner Brendan Ogle; it is a fact not universally acknowledged that people at the top of the most venerable professions ‑ academic, medical, legal ‑ protect their patch with ferocious rigour. It is hardly a coincidence that the writer of the Spectator piece was a professional curator. Academic philosophers, instead of welcoming someone who popularises their subject, seem to take the view that de Botton is letting the side down by dismantling its mystique, notwithstanding the fact that there have been a slew of recent books written by respected philosophers presenting the main thoughts of the great philosophers in bite-sized chunks, Simon Warburtion and Dave Edmond’s successful online broadcasts, “Philosophy Bites”, being a case in point.
Another reason for the sniffiness is that de Botton’s mission to popularise a traditionally difficult subject sails dangerously close to the shallow waters of positive psychology, mindfulness and other self-help genres. Terry Eagleton has warned that “the meaning of life question is now in the hands of spiritual masseurs, the technologists of perfect contentment and chiropractors of the psyche ‑ with the correct techniques you can be guaranteed to lose the flab of meaninglessness in as little as a month”. But in fact de Botton doesn’t fall into this category; he’s not trying to make us happy, he is trying to make us understand ourselves a little better and believes that the great philosophers and artists are our best guides. The words “therapy” and “therapeutic” appear frequently in his work and his objective is to offer treatment for the social disorders of our time. The third reason why he annoys people is his relentless earnestness, the ultimate “mortaller” in an age when the importance of not being earnest is paramount. Today’s objective is to be cool, which means affecting an air of studied nonchalance and insouciance. De Botton’s exemplars, on the other hand, are the great nineteenth century British social thinkers, Mill, Arnold and Ruskin, who were all deadly earnest. Ruskin in particular permeates de Botton’s thinking: in The Art of Travel (2006) he devotes a chapter to his theories of how we can arrive at a greater understanding of the beauty of places if we try to draw what we have seen; “in the process of re-creating with our own hand what lies before our eyes we seem naturally to move from observing beauty in a loose way to one where we acquire a deep understanding of its constituent parts and hence more secure memories of it”. Ruskin makes it clear he wasn’t teaching people to draw, only to see, but his earnestness is all too evident and led to newspapers of the time guffawing at his ideas as, “windy hysterics, absolute nonsense and intolerable twaddle”, a critique with which de Botton would be all too familiar.
The full weight of the social reformer’s agenda is seen in his recent books. In Art as Therapy he argues that museums have traditionally looked at four ways of how they collect and display paintings; technical, historical, political and shock value. He suggests a fifth way, therapeutic, so that in future the Tate could have as an objective to meet the psychological needs of the nation. He even goes so far as to outline seven psychological needs which could be met by art; remembering, hope, sorrow, re-balancing, self-understanding, growth, appreciation. But the key message repeated in different guises throughout his work is that we could all benefit from regular guidance; “despite the powerful elite prejudice against guidance works of art are not diminished by being accompanied by instruction manuals ‑ art has a clear function: it is a therapeutic tool to help us lead more fulfilled lives”.
Religion for Atheists provides a comprehensive account of de Botton’s thinking on the world and its discontents. His main thesis concerns the God-like hole in society resulting from the decline in authority and practice of traditional religion: “God may be dead but the urgent issues which made us make him up remain ‑ they don’t go away just because we see scientific inaccuracies in the tale of the seven loaves and fishes”. One can be “left cold by doctrine yet at the same time be interested in the ways in which religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travel, train minds and encourage gratitude at the beauty of the Spring”. De Botton is also highly critical of our messianic secular faith in science, technology and commerce, arguing that although we may derive some benefit from computer chips and hot baths; “our lives are no less subject to accidents, frustrated ambition, jealousy, heartbreak, anxiety or death than those of our medieval forebears who had the advantage of living in a religious era which never made the mistake of promising happiness on earth”. He believes that the freedom our ancestors painfully secured over the centuries risks being squandered because we have been left to do as we please without the wisdom and guidance once provided by religion but that philosophy and art can perform the same function.
Above all De Botton shares many of the instincts of the Victorian social reformers in trying to lead people away from the soul-destroying obsession with consumer goods in a society which elevates continuous movement over reflection, to a reconnection with the “strenuous drama of human existence”. The fact that he operates from a more entrepreneurial perspective than his predecessors shouldn’t necessarily detract from his objective. In this respect a better comparison than Oprah or Delia might be David Beckham. He too evokes a sniffy response from football purists, who criticise and probably resent the amount of money made from “Brand Beckham”, but there is general agreement that he was a pretty useful footballer. I would argue that de Botton is also pretty useful. Anyone who reads his work is likely to come away with a more humane view of the world and more importantly to venture further into serious philosophy.
Books by Alain de Botton discussed in this article were:
The Art of Travel, Hamish Hamilton. 2002
Religion for Atheists, Hamish Hamilton 2012
Art as Therapy, Phaidon 2013