Interview: Alain de Botton

Nicholas Tufnell 31 October 2011

Alain de Botton was born in Zurich, Switzerland in 1969 and now lives in London. He is a writer of essayistic books that have been described as a ‘philosophy of everyday life.’ He’s written on love, travel, architecture and literature. His books have been bestsellers in 30 countries.

Alain also started and helps to run a school in London called The School of Life, dedicated to a new vision of education. Alain’s latest book is titled Religion for Atheists and is published in the Netherlands, Italy, Korea, Turkey and Brazil in 2011 and in the UK, US and other territories in 2012.Alain started writing at a young age. His first book, Essays in Love, was published when he was twenty-three.

Speaking at Google’s Zeitgeist Conference in Hertfordshire, Stephen Hawking recently claimed, “Philosophy is dead”. What are your thoughts on this?

For a long time, between the end of the 19th and the 20th centuries, philosophy lost the interest of the general public. It became too abstract, too much based on the analysis of language and off beat metaphysical ideas. Previous to that, it had of course been right at the centre of civilised enquiry. Philosophers told you how to govern, how to be good – and how to live. Only recently have these wonderful ambitions re-entered the public realm. Only recently have philosophers relearnt that their task may (in part) be to analyse the problems of everyday life and society – and arrive at answers that can motivate and console us.

Perhaps surprisingly for some, you studied History at Cambridge, not Philosophy. Was your interest in philosophy something that only occurred later in life?

Though I am sometimes thought of as a philosopher, it’s not the way I see myself. I’m a historian by training, and my interests really circle around the novel, art history, political theory and psychoanalysis.What you study at university rarely defines the pattern of your whole life and what i remember most about my course was not a particular set of topics, but a way of approaching learning: a rigour and a thoroughness that continue to inspire me. This said, I was particularly inspired in my course at Cambridge by the writings and teachings of Quentin Skinner and other members of the history faculty focused on political theory.

Did you enjoy your time at Cambridge? Did you find it to be a place that is conducive to intellectual curiosity, or did you find that it mitigated against this?

The further away I get from Cambridge, the more I enjoy it. It was a fascinating time, I was often unhappy, for my own reasons. I was deeply worried about what I’d do with the rest of my life. I wanted to be do something creative and knew that I’d have very little time after graduation to figure out what. So I threw myself into lots of reading (outside of my course) and lots of writing too. I didn’t find an enormous circle of friends keen to discuss the great questions – but one or two certainly. The teaching was often outstanding.

You have been quoted as saying you hope your children never read a book in their lives. My understanding of this is that people turn to books for consolation, to escape a certain form of distress. Does this mean you disagree with John Stuart Mill’s statement that it is better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig?

I was being playful, but like every father, I hope to give my kids some advice, and one particular lesson I hope to impart is: never become a writer. I have a deep admiration for architecture and engineering, and as I have two boys, am very keen that one does one and the other the other. I am leaving the choice up to them, they are happy to work that one out down the line. They are currently 4 and 6 and very keen on Lego.

You have recently founded The School of Life in London, which is described as “a new enterprise offering good ideas for everyday living.” Could you expand on this and explain why you created it? Is it providing an education that is meant to compliment or replace a typical college or university education?

The harsh truth is that if you went to any university in the country and said that you had come to study ‘how to live’ or ‘how to become a better and wiser person’, you would be politely shown the door – if not the way to an asylum. Universities nowadays see it as their job to train you either in a very specific career (like law, medicine) or to give you a grounding in arts subjects like literature or history – but for no identifiable reason, beyond the vague and unexamined notion that three years studying medieval literature may be a good idea.

The contemporary university grew out of religious institutions like monasteries and seminaries. These bodies were actively concerned with making learning practical: they wanted to save your soul, they wanted to teach you to become wise and good. But as we’ve become a more secular society, so we’ve grown embarrassed about wisdom or ideas of right and wrong, good and bad. Elite opinion associates wisdom with self-indulgent therapy and Oprah Winfrey (and meanwhile, the streets are on fire). If an academic ever appears on TV, his colleagues will treat him like he has ‘sold out’. Doing your job properly in the eyes of most academics generally consists in writing books for a narrow group.

There are few places in the modern world where people get protection from the pressures of making money and can spend time reading and thinking. Universities are these places, they receive massive subsidies from us, the taxpayers – and should be idyllic refuges from the harsh winds blowing up and down the country. But modern universities have often betrayed such ideals.

We live in a largely secular country, where the majority of people find themselves unable to take the teachings of the Church (or Mosque or Synagogue) seriously. I believe it should therefore should be the role of culture to take up the slack. It is art, philosophy, religion and history that should be helping to guide us as the biblical books once guided us.

To make this point in practical terms, a few years ago, I came together with a group of similarly disaffected academics, artists and writers and decided to start a new kind of centre of learning that we called plainly: The School of Life. The place opened its doors in a modest shop and teaching space in central London near King’s Cross. On the menu of our school, you won’t find subjects like ‘philosophy’ ‘French’ ‘History’ and ‘the Classics’. You’ll find courses in ‘Death,’ ‘Marriage’ ‘Choosing a career’ ‘Ambition’ ‘Child Rearing’ or ‘Changing your world’. Along the way, you will learn about a lot of the books and ideas that traditional universities serve up, but angled towards greater relevance. There’s even a bookshop in the school which does away with the traditional categories in bookshops like fiction or history and just sells books according to particular problems. So we’ve got a shelf titled ‘For those who worry at night’ and another titled ‘How to be happy though married’. We call the shop a ‘chemist for the soul’.

It’s always tempting to stick at standing on the sidelines complaining about a problem, but it’s perhaps one better to try to make a change yourself. The School of Life is our modest attempt to alter the way that learning gets done in this country – and to remind us that culture, if handled rightly, should actually feel entirely relevant and exciting and always make life more manageable and interesting.

Are there any philosophers whose writing particularly rings true for you, who touch a nerve or move you in a way others do not?

I love the work of the philosopher John Armstrong. He has written six books, among them a terrific study of the meaning of beauty entitled, THE SECRET POWER OF BEAUTY. I recommend it to anyone interested in design, art, architecture and the meaning of life.

Many of your books such as, How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Consolation of Philosophy and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work are forms of self-help.You encourage people to embrace philosophy and in so doing, hopefully attaining a better quality, or better understanding of life. Seeing as philosophy can be so beneficial to a person’s life, why do you think so few people study it?

It generally isn’t very helpful to people’s life, so the public has a fair appreciation of its value. Far more useful to the psychological problems that trouble most of us is psychology, for which there is a huge demand for places. Philosophy courses are generally not angled towards the problems that afflict us. Nietzsche, if he was alive today, could not get a job teaching at a university – a sign that the sort of engaged philosophy he wrote, still doesn’t have a place on the curriculum.

Your most recent book, A Week at the Airport, is based on the premise that, for one week, you were the ‘writer-in-residence’ for Heathrow Airport. Could you explain the thought process behind this fascinating, but somewhat unusual idea and were the results as you hoped?

Without quite grasping the extent of our debt, we rely on writers to help to explain the world to us. It’s they who give us a feel for what it’s like to fall in love, who give us words for describing the landscape around us and who help us interpret the dynamics of our families. Such is their power that we can name whole slices of experience with adjectives built of their names. We can speak of encountering, sometimes in the most unlikely settings, dynamics most succinctly described as ‘Proustian’, ‘Austenesque’ and ‘Kafkan’. Writers are our map-makers.

However, there’s a notable gap in what most contemporary writers can tell us about a key area of our lives: our work. If a proverbial alien landed on earth and tried to work out what human beings did with their time simply on the evidence of what is recorded in the literature sections of an average quality bookstore, he or she would come away thinking that we devote ourselves almost exclusively to leading complex relationships, squabbling with our parents and occasionally murdering people. But what is too often missing is what we really get up to outside of catching up on sleep, which is going to work in the office, retail space or factory.

It used to be a central ambition of novelists to capture the experience of working life. From Balzac to Zola, Dickens to Kafka, they evoked the dynamism and the beauty, the horror and the tedium of the workplace. Their books covered the same territory as is today featured at copious length in the financial pages of newspapers or in the breathless commentaries of the 24 hour newscasters, but their interest was not primarily financial. The goal was to convey the human side of commerce, where money is only one actor in a complex drama about our ambitions and reversals.

That’s really where the airport book arose from – it was an attempt to describe a working environment in great detail, to embed a writer (me) in one of the most complex and busy workspaces anywhere in the UK. The real problem with airports is that we tend to go there when we need to catch a plane – and because it’s so difficult to find the way to the gate, we tend not to look around at our surroundings. And yet airports definitely reward a second look – they are the imaginative centers of the modern world. It’s here you should go to find, in a concrete form, all the themes of modernity that one otherwise finds only in an abstract forms in the media. Here you see globalisation, environmental destruction, runaway consumerism, family breakdown, the modern sublime etc. in action.

You are a founding member of the architectural organization “Living Architecture” and an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Is architecture and philosophy closely linked for you?

My interest in architecture stems from the belief that the sensory surroundings we are in affect us just as much as the ideas we have. IN other words, like a Catholic (though I am a secular jew), I believe we have to care about architecture for the sake of good ideas: with the wrong sort of architecture, we’ll be the wrong sort of people!

Judging from the success of interior design magazines and property shows, you might think that this country was now as comfortable with good contemporary architecture as it is with non-native food or music.

But scratch beneath the metropolitan, London-centric focus, and you quickly discover that Britain remains a country deeply in love with the old and terrified of the new. Country hotels compete among themselves to tell us how ancient they are; holiday cottages vaunt that they were already in existence when Jane Austen was a girl. The draughty sash window shows no signs of retiring. Inheriting furniture and not bothering with plumbing continue to function as mysterious symbols of status.

A few years ago, I wrote a book about architecture critical of our nostalgia and low expectations. It got a healthy amount of attention, on the back of which I was invited to a stream of conferences about the future of architecture. But one night, returning from one such conference in Bristol, I had a dark moment of the soul. I realised that however pleasing it is to write a book about an issue one feels passionately about, the truth is that – a few exceptions aside – books don’t change anything. I realised that if I cared so much about architecture, writing was just a coward’s way out; the real challenge was to build.

So on the back of a notepad was born a project which officially launched last year: Living Architecture is a not-for-profit organisation that puts up houses around the UK designed by some of the world’s top architects and makes these available to the public to rent for holidays throughout the year. We describe it as a Landmark Trust for contemporary architecture.

Our dream was to allow people to experience what it is like to live and sleep in a space designed by an outstanding architectural practice. While there are examples of great modern buildings in Britain, they tend to be in places that one passes through (airports, museums, offices), and the few modern houses that exist are almost all in private hands and cannot be visited. This seriously skews discussions of architecture. When people declare that they hate modern buildings they are on the whole speaking not from experience of homes, but from a distaste of post-war tower blocks or bland air-conditioned offices.

You are occasionally both praised and criticised for making your philosophy ‘accessible’. Is making your work accessible a conscious decision? What are your thoughts on the idea of ‘accessibility’, do you believe it to be a condescending assumption about a certain target audience or do you believe it to be a realistic necessity?

I don’t believe in accessibility, I believe in good writing. For me, the ideals are the prose of Virginia Woolf and Voltaire. They were both clear writers, because they believed that the greatest insult to the reader is to bother them before you’ve worked out what you want to say. I have learnt from them.

You wrote and presented a fascinating TV series called “A Guide to Happiness”, in which you made enjoyable and relevant the thoughts and ideas of 6 major philosophical figures. Are there any other series similar to this planned for the future?

I will be doing future work for Channel 4 and the BBC, but I think the controllers are still recovering from having allowed me to take up hours of airtime discussing Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. UK broadcasters generally allow one show about philosophy every 30 years.

Finally, do you have favourite philosophical quote?

Yes, from Seneca: ‘What need is there to weep over parts of life? The wholeof it calls for tears.’

Nicholas Tufnell