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The School of Life: An Interview with Alain de Botton

The author of "How Proust Can Change Your Life" tells it like it is

Alain de Botton is one of my favorite living writers. Best known for brilliant, genre-rattling books that include How Proust Can Change Your Life, Essays in Love, Status Anxiety, and most recently How To Think More About Sex, the Swiss-British philosopher, television presenter, public intellectual, and entrepreneur has made a career out of smuggling high-minded topics onto bestseller lists as way of getting "ideas to impact on the way we actually live.” In 2008, de Botton helped to found an educational establishment in London called The School of Life, "devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture" by offering courses on the important questions of everyday life, including "how to find fulfilling work, how to master the art of relationships, how to understand one's past, how to achieve calm and how better to understand and, where necessary change, the world." The School of Life has been highly successful and now has satellite operations around the world.

The scion of a wealthy Jewish family, Alain de Botton was born in Zurich and spent the first twelve years of his life in Switzerland (where he was brought up to speak French and German), attended the Dragon School in Oxford (where English became his primary language), and went on to Cambridge and King’s College, where he earned a Master's degree in Philosophy. In 2009, he became a founding member of the new organization Living Architecture and was elected two years later as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. De Botton has done several popular TED talks (on topics ranging from “A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success” to “Atheism 2.0”) and written many other books, including The Architecture of Happiness,The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Religion for Atheists, and Art as Therapy. As the most relentlessly eloquent, entertaining public intellectual in our midst, de Botton occupies a unique if controversial position on both sides of the Atlantic. This interview was an eye- opener.

What was your impetus for founding The School of Life?

I started it from a sense that schools forget to teach you so much of the stuff we need to get by in this world. Where is instruction in relationships, in the management of career, in the raising of children, in the pursuit of friendship, in the wise approach to anxiety and death. All this sort of stuff I craved to learn about when I was a student and down to this day. I wanted to make the school a one-stop shop for information about the area of life I call emotional intelligence. We have been going five years now and we have done a lot. We have a good deal of expertise and some wonderful staff doing great work every day. We've published books, we have seen 100,000 people through our doors, we offer therapies of various sorts, and next year we'll open branches in 6 new locations around the globe. We're even starting to meet our profit targets. It's the thing I'm proudest to have done in my life. We have created a brand in an area that used to be totally unbranded. We're trying to bring order and coherence to a confusing part of everyone's life.

Art is certainly therapeutic. But can it be called therapy?

I mean therapeutic rather than therapy in the professional sense. I'm using language loosely here, not clinically. The essential argument in the book, Art as Therapy is that art enjoys such financial and cultural prestige that it's easy to forget the confusion that persists about what it's really for. Questions like "What is this painting about?" or "Why should this old sculpture matter to me?" have a way of sounding impudent and crass. Nice people generally don't ask such things, except in the privacy of their hearts, on their way down the concrete steps of white-walled galleries. Meanwhile, the art establishment proceeds under the assumption that art can have no purpose in any instrumental or utilitarian sense. It exists "for art's sake," and to ask anything more of it is to muddy pure and sacred waters. This refusal to name a purpose seems profoundly mistaken. If art is to deserve its privileges (and it does), we have to learn how to state more clearly what it is for and why it matters in a busy world. And I would argue that art matters for therapeutic reasons. It is a medium uniquely well suited to helping us with some of the troubles of inner life: our desire for material things, our fear of the unknown, our longing for love, our need for hope. We are used to the idea that music and (to an extent) literature can have a therapeutic effect on us. Art can do the very same thing. It, too, is an apothecary for the soul. Yet in order for it to act as one, we have to learn to consider works through more personal, emotionally rich lenses than museums and galleries employ. We have to put aside the customary historical reading of works of art in order to invite art to respond to certain quite specific pains and dilemmas of our psyches.

Many people are bored by philosophy. Why do you think that is?

Well, philosophy is a tricky subject in that a lot of it as taught in universities is boring. The philosophy I love is very selective. It is really just the bit that is involved in a search for wisdom and this means a short roll call of names; Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epicurus, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche... I realised at a certain point though that I didn't just want to study the history of philosophy, I wanted to look philosophically at the world, hence a series of books I wrote which philosophise about topics that catch my eye: sex, architecture, travel, status...

You occupy a unique position as a public intellectual and catch a fair amount of flack for daring to popularize high brow topics (such as philosophy). What are the challenges of playing your chosen role?

I feel that the great challenge of our time is the communication of ideas. The world isn't short of good ideas, but what we're lacking is for these ideas to be effective in a public realm otherwise dominated by third rate commercial nonsense. How do you get wisdom to shout a little louder? Many people in the intellectual elite are very scared of shouting. They insist on very quiet murmurs. This is touching, but also deeply dangerous—for if the only ones who shout are the crazies and the propagandists, society suffers. So I've tried to do work that is both rigorous and alive to the need to find a big audience. I've had my successes and failures. I know many academics in my field loathe me. I've come to loathe them back, as it seems only polite to do so. But at heart it's absurd, we should band together against the big common enemies.

Atheism is having a heyday in the born-again United States. Can atheism save the world from Bible- (and Koran-) banging fundamentalists? How are spirituality and atheism compatible? When did you realize that you were not a believer? (You've written about this, I know, but our readers may not be familiar ...)

The most boring question to ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true”. It’s a measure of the banality of recent discussions on theological matters that it is precisely this matter which has hogged the limelight, pitting a hardcore group of fanatical believers against an equally small band of fanatical atheists.

We’d be wiser to start with the common-sense observation that, of course, no part of religion is true in the sense of being God-given. There is naturally no holy ghost, spirit, Geist or divine emanation. Dissenters from this line can comfortably stop reading here, but for the rest of us the subject is henceforth far from closed. The tragedy of modern atheism is to have ignored just how many aspects of religion continue to be interesting even when the central tenets of the great faiths are discovered to be entirely implausible. Indeed, it’s precisely when we stop believing in the idea that gods made religions that things become interesting, for it is then that we can focus on the human imagination which dreamt these creeds up. We can recognise that the needs which led people to do so must still in some way be active, albeit dormant, in modern secular man. God may be dead, but the bit of us that made God continues to stir.

It was our 18th-century forebears who, wiser than us in this regard, early on in the period which led to “the death of God” began to consider what human beings would miss out on once religion faded away. They recognised that religion was not just a matter of belief, but that it sat upon a welter of concerns that touched on architecture, art, nature, marriage, death, ritual, time—and that by getting rid of God, one would also be dispensing with a whole raft of very useful, if often peculiar and sometimes retrograde, notions that had held societies together since the beginning of time. So the more fanciful and imaginative of thinkers began to do two things: firstly, they started comparing the world’s religions with a view to arriving at certain insights that transcended time and place, and secondly, they began to imagine what a religion might look like if it didn’t have a god in it.

In the early, euphoric days of the French Revolution, the painter Jacques-Louis David unveiled what he termed “A Religion of Mankind”, a secularised version of Christianity which aimed to build upon the best aspects of the old, discredited tenets. In this new secular religion, there would be feast days, wedding ceremonies, revered figures (secularised saints) and even atheistic churches and temples. The new religion would rely on art and philosophy, but put them to overtly didactic ends: it would use the panoply of techniques known to traditional religions (buildings, great books, seminaries) to try to make us good according to the sanest and most advanced understanding of the word.

Unfortunately, David’s experiment never gathered force and was quietly ditched, but it remains a striking moment in history: a naive yet intelligent attempt to confront the thought that there are certain needs in us that can never be satisfied by art, family, work or the state alone. In the light of this, it seems evident that what we now need is not a choice between atheism and religion, but a new secular religion: a religion for atheists.

What would such a peculiar idea involve? For a start, lots of new buildings akin to churches, temples and cathedrals. We are the only society in history to have nothing transcendent at our centre, nothing which is greater than ourselves. In so far as we feel awe, we do so in relation to supercomputers, rockets and particle accelerators. The pre-scientific age, whatever its deficiencies, had at least offered its denizens the peace of mind that follows from knowing all man-made achievements to be inconsequent next to the spectacle of the universe. We, more blessed in our gadgetry but less humble in our outlook, have been left to wrestle with feelings of envy, anxiety and arrogance that follow from having no more compelling repository of our veneration than our brilliant and morally troubling fellow human beings.

A secular religion would hence begin by putting man into context and would do so through works of art, landscape gardening and architecture. Imagine a network of secular churches, vast high spaces in which to escape from the hubbub of modern society and in which to focus on all that is beyond us. It isn’t surprising that secular people continue to be interested in cathedrals. Their archi¬tecture performs the very clever and eternally useful function of relativising those who walk inside them. We begin to feel small ¬inside a cathedral and recognise the debt that sanity owes to such a feeling.

In addition, a secular religion would use all the tools of art in ¬order to create an effective kind of propaganda in the name of kindness and virtue. Rather than seeing art as a tool that can shock and surprise us (the two great emotions ¬promoted by most contemp¬orary works), a secular religion would return to an earlier view that art should improve us. It should be a form of propaganda for a better, nobler life.

It is in German philosophy of the late 18th century that we find the most lucid articul-ations of this idea of idealising propaganda. In his On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794), Friedrich Schiller proposed that artists should present us with portraits of secular “saints,” heroic figures of insight and sym¬pathy whose example should inspire us. Rather than confronting us with evocations of our darkest moments, works of art were to stand as an “absolute manifestation of potential”; they were to function like “an escort descended from the world of the ideal.”

A third aspect of secular religion would be to offer us lessons in pessimism. The new religion would try to counter the optimistic tenor of modern society and return us to the great pessimistic undercurrents found in trad¬itional faiths. It would teach us to see the unthinking cruelty discreetly coiled within the magnanimous secular assurance that everyone can discover happiness through work and love. It isn’t that these two activities are invariably incapable of delivering fulfilment, only that they almost never do so. And when an exception is misrepresented as a rule, our individual misfortunes, instead of seeming to us quasi-inevitable aspects of life, will weigh down on us like particular curses.

In denying the natural place reserved for longing and incompleteness in the human lot, our modern secular ideology denies us the possibility of collective consolation for our fractious marriages and our unexploited ambitions, condemning us instead to solitary feelings of shame and persecution. A secular religion would build temples, and anoint feast days, to disappointment.

A secular religion would deeply challenge liberal ideology. Most contemporary governments and even private bodies are devoted to a liberal conception of help; they have no “content”— they want to help people to stay alive and yet they make no suggestions about what these people might do with their lives. This is the opposite of what religions have traditionally done, which is to teach people about how to live, about good (or not so good) ways of imagining the human condition, and about what to strive for and to esteem. Modern charities and governments seek to provide opportunities but are not very thoughtful about, or excited by, what people might do with those opportunities.

There is a long philosophical and cultural history which explains why we have reached the condition known as modern secular society. Yet it seems there is no compelling argument to stay here.

What is the source of your greatest joy? Your deepest despair?

My greatest joy comes from creativity: from feeling that I have been able to identify a certain aspect of human nature and crystallise a phenomenon in words. Or perhaps that I have found a way of satisfying a psychological desire that lay unattended. For example, i had a wonderful time a month back designing an app to go with my new book. You can find it here; I liked that it was a creative challenge at the level of technology and content – and that it was squarely aimed at bringing psychological benefits to users.

As for despair, it comes about when i have been a fool and hate myself and despair of my personality. I am prone to gloom, but not depression as such.

Are you now or have you ever been in psychotherapy?

I have been in therapy for 4 years. It is a wonderful discipline. I learn about the origins of some of my feelings in relationships. I appreciate the delightfully peculiar ways in which I am neurotic. I learn to separate projections from reality. I learn to be angry about some things, grateful about others—and in general more on top of myself. I am a great believer in therapy and think everyone should be able to have it, as naturally as one goes to school. The problem in the UK is that therapists are badly regulated and they present themselves to the world in an often creepy and unreliable way. If they could be properly arranged, they could make a huge impact on the world,but there are many bad therapists who bring the whole field into disrepute. In short, I'd love to brand therapy a little better...

Do you have a daily writing schedule? Are you a sufferer-at-the-keyboard or does writing come easily to you? What are you working on now?

I am writing a novel—about a married couple. I began writing fiction, my first book ON LOVE was a novel. Now I return to the form to explore what goes on in a couple. The book will be out in February 2015, tomorrow in publishing terms!

I do suffer a lot when I haven't given myself enough time to think. I now realise that writers block is just the unconscious failing to process material fast enough and asking for more time.

You strike me as having an American soul (I don't mean that literally or religiously, of course), a forward-looking, freethinking, fearless way of writing, thinking, and teaching. What do you think of the United States?

I love that idea. It makes me think of Walt Whitman, I'm not comparing myself (heaven forbid) just that that Whitman seems to me to exemplify that ideal of the good American soul in all its glory. I love the United States but am so sad about some of its developments. Back in the 90s, it was so much easier to love the US, but now—like so many people around the world—it's become deeply worrying to observe certain tendencies in your great land. There is militaristic-hegemonic-plutocratic side of the US which is getting out of hand and threatens to corrup the whole republic. I remain a deeply concerned, committed admirer, but also a very worried one.

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