Interviu cu Alain de Botton

by Andreea Vasile

Alain de Botton

Interviul cu Alain de Botton este primul pe care l-am făcut pentru Tabu, anul trecut. La vremea respectivă nu a intrat integral în revistă. Azi l-am regăsit în varianta în limba engleză aşa că îl postez, needitat, aici. Enjoy!

Your writings have been described as “philosophy of everyday life”. Is that correct and if so, what does “philosophy of everyday life” mean? What is your “everyday life philosophy”?

In Ancient Greece and Rome, philosophy was closely connected to the meaning of life; you went to philosophers to help  you to interpret and deal with such issues as financial anxiety, political disgrace, unhappy relationships and the fear of death. Philosophers, among the cleverest people in their societies, were understood to be in the business of giving advice and helping their clients to achieve self-knowledge. This vision of philosophy explains our continuing expectation that philosophers may know how to live. But of course, for the past century, philosophy has retreated from practical questions. In the west, it became focused on language, logic and the meaning of words… and ceased to have much to do with everyday life. So saying that I’m a philosopher and interested in daily life is both a very banal thing and a very revolutionary thing: I would like it to be more banal. I believe that philosophers should return to to an interaction with ordinary situations and dilemmas.

You even started a school in London called “The School of Life”. Why do people have to learn how to live? Isn’t it a little bit strange that it doesn’t come natural for us to live, but it is actually something we have to learn? What is the “everyday life philosophy” people learn in The School of Life and how does this philosophy improve their lives?

At the end of last year, some colleagues and I came together to start a little educational institution in London that we’ve called The School of Life ( The idea was to offer instruction in the great questions of life in a way that would be intelligent, imaginative, revolutionary and playful. At the school, you can sign up for courses in politics, work, family, love – or indeed, talk to a therapist, learn how to garden in the city or go on a communal meal for strangers. The spirit of the place is anarchic and yet serious at heart. We’re throwing down a gauntlet to traditional education, trying to reinvent how learning gets done. There are similarities with what I have tried to do in some of my books, though here we’re attempting to demonstrate, rather than simply describe, the advantages of the examined life.

You often talk about the status anxiety and most times you relate this anxiety to what others think of us. In western societies, where it is thought people can be anything they want, thus reality can have thousand faces, why are we still scared of other people’s judgments?

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.

Even Bill Gates could suffer from status anxiety – because he compares himself to his own peer group. We all do this, and that’s why we end up feeling we lack things even though we’re so much better off than people ever were in the past. It’s not that we’re especially ungrateful, it’s just we don’t judge ourselves in relation to people far away. We cannot be cheered for long by how prosperous we are in historical or geographical terms. We will only take ourselves to be fortunate when we have as much as, or more than, the people we grow up with, work alongside, have as friends and identify with in the public realm. That’s why the best way to feel successful is to choose friends who are just that little bit less successful than you…

How can one overcome the status anxiety without visiting psychologists and taking anxiety pills? What is the advice The School of Life gives in this matter?

Think about death. It’s the best way to stop worrying so much about what others make of you. To discover whose friendship you should really care about, ask yourself who – among your acquaintances – would make it to your hospital bedside. If need be, look at a skeleton: what others think about you will soon start to lose its intimidating power.

Who are the people that sign up for The School of Life classes and what are they looking for?

They are a huge variety of people, from bankers to postmen, from housewives to fashion models. The place is very cheap, so we have all kinds of people coming. It is the opposite of a club,it’s an open door. What unites people though is that they are searching. They are curious, they are ready to show their cards to strangers.

You said that The School of Life is dedicated to a new vision of education. What is this vision about?

If you went to any university in the modern world and said that you had come to study ‘how to live’, you would be politely shown the door – if not the way to an asylum. Universities see it as their job to train you either in a specific career (law, medicine) or to give you a grounding in ‘the humanities’ – but for no identifiable reason, beyond the vague and unexamined notion that three years studying the classics or reading Middlemarch may be a good idea.

The contemporary university is an uncomfortable amalgamation of ambitions once held by a variety of educational institutions. It owes debts to the philosophical schools of Ancient Greece and Rome, to the monasteries of the Middle Ages, to the theological colleges of Paris, Padua and Bologna and to the research laboratories of early modern science. One of the legacies of this heterogenous background is that academics in the humanities have been forced to disguise, both from themselves and their students, why their subjects really matter, for the sake of attracting money and prestige in a world obsessed by the achievements of science and unable to find a sensible way of assessing the value of a novel or a history book.

The chief problem for anyone in a history or an English department today is that science has been too successful. Science can make your car work, fix your liver, send spaceships to Mars and turn sunlight into electricity. In other words, science is to be valued because it gives us control over our fate, whereas in W. H. Auden’s defiant words, “poetry makes nothing happen”. Auden’s stance may be an heroic rallying cry for the freelance poet, but it becomes more alarming as a job description for a young academic who has just completed a doctorate on Biblical references in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s later verse.

The response of humanities departments to their status anxiety has been to mimic their colleagues in physics or astronomy, in a move that has had short-term gains, but is in danger of asphyxiating their subjects in the long run. Academics in the arts have decided that they, too, should be viewed as ‘researchers’ and that their principal value should come from their capacity to discover new things, like chemists might uncover new molecular structures. There are clearly occasions when scholars do make genuine discoveries which can be compared to breakthroughs in science, but it surely represents a distortion of the value of the arts as a whole to make their value entirely dependent on factual, verifiable criteria.

To do so is to behave like a man who has fallen deeply in love and asks his companion if he might act on his emotions by measuring the distance between her elbow and her shoulder blade. In the modern academy, an art historian, on being stirred to tears by the tenderness and serenity he detects in a work by a 14th-century Florentine painter, typically ends up answering his emotions by writing a monograph, as irreproachable as it is bloodless, on the history of paint manufacture in the age of Giotto.

It was in the 16th century that the greatest anti-academic scholar of the West launched his attack on the bias of universities. Michel de Montaigne, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of all the great texts, nevertheless deplored the way in which academics tended to privilege learning over wisdom. “I gladly come back to the theme of the absurdity of our education: its end has not been to make us good and wise, but learned. It has not taught us to seek virtue and to embrace wisdom: it has impressed upon us their derivation and their etymology. We readily inquire, ‘Does he know Greek or Latin?’ ‘Can he write poetry and prose?’ But what matters most is what we put last: ‘Has he become better and wiser?’”

It was during my own education at Cambridge university that I started to dream of an ideal new sort of institution which could welcome Montaigne, or indeed Nietzsche, Goethe or Kierkegaard – a University of Life that would give students the tools to master their lives through the study of culture rather than using culture for the sake of passing an exam.

This ideal University of Life would draw on traditional areas of knowledge (history, art, literature) but would angle its material towards active concerns (how to choose a career, conduct a relationship, sack someone and get ready to die). The university would never take the importance of culture for granted. It would be calculatedly vulgar. Rather than leaving it hanging why one was reading Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, an ideal course covering 19th-century literature would ask plainly “What is it that adultery ruins in a marriage?” Students would end up knowing much the same material as their colleagues in other institutions, but they would have learnt it under a very different set of headings.

On the menu of my ideal university, you wouldn’t find subjects like ‘philosophy’ and ‘history’. Instead, you would find courses in ‘death’, ‘marriage’, ‘choosing a career’, ‘ambition’, and ‘child rearing’. Too often, these head-on assaults on the great questions are abandoned to the second-rate efforts of gurus and motivational speakers.

So I came to feel it was high time for serious culture to reappropriate them and to consider them with all the rigour and seriousness currently too often lavished on topics of minor relevance. That’s how I started the School of Life…

Why do you think people need a new kind of education and how is this different from the classic way of education? Does your vision resemble, in any way, with Sir Ken Robinson’s vision? If so, in what way?

What the humanities departments of universities are truly concerned with is pretending that they are in truth branches of science, the most prestigious and well-funded of disciplines, which can speak in obscure ways in a technical vocabulary, intimidate and awes the public at large and never has a problem securing funding from politicians. In an attempt to flee suggestions of amateurishness, departments of the humanities strive to come across as complex, manly and remote, capable of standing their ground next to the discoveries of nanotechnology and no less worthy of subsidy.

The humanities dread the inevitable, occasional calls from governments, students and renegade freelance authors to make their teaching more ‘relevant’. They haughtily reply that they are not in the business of making anyone, Catullus or T. S. Eliot ‘relevant’, that the point of great literature has nothing whatever to do with the vulgarity of trade and industry – and that they should simply be left to their own devices, to carry on as they have long done, with money provided by taxpayers or the guilty rich.

Academics recoil from those who are intent on crassly shaking the tree of culture in search of immediate fruit. They have a particularly acute nose for the mentally restless and fragile beings who hope that the university curricula may contain material for enlightenment or consolation. They mock those who ask of culture that it should yield ideas on how to choose a career or survive the end of a marriage, contain sexual impulses or face up to the news of a medical death sentence. The desired audiences of scholars are robust creatures uninclined to drama and self-involvement, serene minds ready to put their own needs aside for the sake of a three year investigation into contract law in seventeenth century Holland or the presence of the infinite in Kant’s noumenal realm.

Within the vastness of the field of knowledge, one can designate a small corner with the word wisdom; wisdom defined as the part of knowledge concerned with things that are not just true, but also helpful, of assistance to us in the face of the inexhaustible set of challenges that daily life throws at us, from a confrontation with a furious child to the discovery of a fatal lesion across our liver.

The academy prefers to leave wisdom alone. The material is overly combustible, the situations which call for it too intense. Furthermore, the acquisition of wisdom is unquantifiable, one cannot run examinations on the subject, only a life-time will reveal whether the lessons have been absorbed. Far easier to test whether a student can translate ten lines of Sophocles into passable English or enumerate the philosophical influences on American transcendentalism than ask how readily someone has overcome their narcissism or reformed the institution of marriage.

The university may from a distance appear committed to culture, and is its most prestigious and well-rewarded guardian, but for temperamental and structural reasons, it cannot focus on anything other than culture’s most innocuous dimensions. If its pedagogical approach fails to connect with our inner concerns, the problem is inherent rather than occasional. The academy is boring by nececessity. It has neither the capacity nor the desire to change your life.

The 10th commandment in the Decalogue says we should not envy what others posses. But you claim envy is not at all bad and it is in fact an important feeling and we shouldn’t feel embarrassed by it. What do you mean by that?

Here’s a shameful secret: all of us spend a lot of time feeling envious. It’s something we’re taught to keep hidden, even from ourselves, but we’d be better off coming clean. To refuse envy is to refuse to know ourselves, for how could we realise what we wanted in life if we weren’t made ill by those who already have all the kit? The trick is to become energised by envy rather than bitter. We should respect envy as the first painful but inevitable step towards generating something we can be proud of – something that will make others envious!

What does it mean to live successfully?

To find what you really love and to try to turn it into a product or service that you can sell to other people – and that the world will respect. This is very hard.

Culture is often seen as something big, important and hard to get. But you managed to turn philosophers like Socrates, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer into friendly, easy to understand figures. What made you pick on their philosophical ideas and show that they’re actually useful advice for everyday life?

Montaigne likes to point out that philosophers don’t know everything, and that they would be a lot wiser if they laughed at themselves a little more. He also writes in a personal and often very frank way designed to shock the prudish. ‘Kings and philosophers shit, and so do ladies,’ he says, ‘Even on the highest throne in the world, we are seated still upon our arses.’

Seneca belonged to the Stoic school of philosophy, which is all about teaching you how to respond calmly to disaster. We tend to imagine that cheering people up involves saying happy things. But Seneca says the saddest things and strangely enough, he is very consoling. ‘What need is there to weep over parts of life?’ he asks, ‘The whole of it calls for tears.

Arthur Schopenhauer is another great pessimist who makes you feel happier. He makes some brilliant analyses of why love affairs tend to go wrong (he’s perfect to read after a break up). His general drift is that you’d be mad to expect happiness from a relationship.

A much misunderstood philosopher, seen as barking mad, but actually very wise and sane. He tells us nice things about the need for struggle in life. No pain, no gain, or as he put it; ‘That which does not kill you makes you stronger.’

Epicurus was the first philosopher to say that pleasure was the most important thing in life. People took him to mean sensual pleasure and the word ‘epicurean’ has been linked to gluttony ever since. But read the real Epicurus and you’ll see that his idea of pleasure was quite unmaterial; in fact, it was all about having a group of good friends and reading books together outdoors.

Plato recounts the last days of his mentor and teacher Socrates, famously made to drink hemlock by the people of Athens. It’s a tear-jerking account, as the funny and wise Socrates is put to death by his ignorant contemporaries. It’s also a lesson in how to stand up for your beliefs and inspiration for anyone standing up against the will of the majority.

Just like the aforementioned philosophers, if it were for you to leave some teachings behind for the future generations, what would they be?

I am writing my books for my generation and for those of my children. I would  hope that my books, especially The Architecture of Happiness, will still be read in a hundred  years.


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Mihaela Carlan September 9, 2011 - 12:37 pm

bravo Andreea 🙂 e un tip grozav.

Andreea September 9, 2011 - 2:57 pm

multumesc. este, intr-adevar 🙂


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