Here’s the truth most people are ashamed to admit:
Philosophy books can be boring and inaccessible.
In truth, we don’t read them unless we want to or have to. And many of us fail to see their relevance and practicality in our modern lives.
Alain de Botton is one of those modern thinkers who ironically understands this best.
As a philosopher, public speaker, and bestselling author, his prolific work focuses on transforming philosophy into something easier to digest.
Because let’s face it, not all of us care to study such books for years on end.
But like it or not, philosophy is relevant. It is important. And it has the power to change our lives.
In this article, we’ll go through Alain de Botton’s most life-altering ideas and how philosophy can still revolutionize ordinary lives into the extraordinary.
Keep reading for the full article, or you can skip directly to the section you’re most interested in below.
Table of Contents
On why philosophy matters
Alain de Botton’s harshest critics would accuse him of “dumbing down” or “popularizing” philosophy.
That’s nothing new. The academia is known for its elitism – the disdain for anything “mainstream” or popular.
Ultimately, it’s just an attempt at gatekeeping wisdom that should be accessible to people who could use it, without having to grab a dictionary to understand everything.
Otherwise, philosophy would collect dust and remain in the theoretical world forever.
Alain understands this, and he’s prepared to accept that we need to modernize philosophy to make it relevant in today’s world.
“People are understandably confused about what philosophy is. From a distance, it seems weird, irrelevant, boring and yet also – just a little – intriguing. But it’s hard to put a finger on what the interest really is. What are philosophers? What do they do? And why does one need them?
“Luckily, the answer is already contained in the word philosophy itself. In Greek, philo means love – or devotion – and sophia means wisdom. Philosophers are people devoted to wisdom.
“Though a rather abstract term, the concept of ‘wisdom’ isn’t mysterious.
“Being wise means attempting to live and die well, leading as good a life as possible within the troubled conditions of existence. The goal of wisdom is fulfillment. You could perhaps say ‘happiness’ but ‘happiness’ is misleading, for it suggests continuous chirpiness and joy, whereas ‘fulfillment’ seems compatible with a lot of pain and suffering, which every decent life must by necessity have.”
His career-defining book, The Consolations of Philosophy, encapsulates the idea. By deriving valuable ideals from some of the greatest philosophers of all time – Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche – he addresses the social and personal dilemmas we’re grappling with every day.
For better or for worse, he’s the face of “pop philosophy.”
And whether his critics like it or not, he’s gotten people reading about philosophy.
A kinder, gentler philosophy of success
“I think we live in an age when our lives are regularly punctuated by career crises, by moments when what we thought we knew — about our lives, about our careers — comes into contact with a threatening sort of reality.”
Call it a career crisis or identity crisis. We all go through phases when we ask, “what am I doing with my life?” or “is this meaningful or successful enough?”
Alain de Botton’s famous TED Talk, A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy To Success, explores the struggle we have with identity, social conformity, and our ideas of what it means to be successful.
He tackles what he calls “job snobbery.” How we judge everyone’s worth by asking the most iconic 21st-century question, “what do you do?”
Alain claims that this need for social acceptance is the ultimate cause of our career anxiety.
Other philosophers would claim we live in a materialistic society.
To Alain, however, materialism isn’t the means to an end. Rather, it’s the emotional rewards that we crave.
“You know, we’re often told that we live in very materialistic times, that we’re all greedy people. I don’t think we are particularly materialistic. I think we live in a society which has simply pegged certain emotional rewards to the acquisition of material goods.
“It’s not the material goods we want; it’s the rewards we want.”
So how do we stop ourselves from falling into that dangerous trap?
Alain proposes we dig deep and find if what we want isn’t at all influenced by what society tells us we should want.
“What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but we should make sure that they are our own.
“We should focus in on our ideas, and make sure that we own them; that we are truly the authors of our own ambitions.
“Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want, and find out, at the end of the journey, that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.”
On the surprising benefits of pessimism
Have you been to a bookstore lately?
If so, have you noticed the space “self-help” books occupy?
Right now, the self-improvement industry is worth $10 billion.
And it more or less says the same tune:
“Be positive. You can achieve anything if you keep your mind to it.”
These books are well-meaning. And some of them can help people live better lives.
However, the message they give is a double-edged sword.
It’s our optimism that is primarily to blame for bittering and angering us.
We are made to believe that having grandiose aspirations will guarantee our success. This is completely incompatible to the reality of life.
Alain de Botton wants people to be more realistic. He believes that healthy pessimism will help us sustain happiness when life gives us setbacks.
“There is a real relationship between the capacity to endure suffering and the capacity to do great things.
“Pessimism is a feature of life. It’s a feature of life we often run away from.
“By running away from it too quickly, we cut ourselves off from the opportunity to embrace this darkness and to embrace the lessons that it often brings. And we often also cut ourselves off from the deepest kind of relationships which we can have with other human beings which are relationships based around a confession of suffering.
“And I think, essentially, all good friendships are about confession of one sort or another. They are confession of things that the rest of the world thinks as unacceptable, but are in fact part of human life.”
In short, pessimism helps us manage our expectations. It allows us to remain rooted and grateful, instead of having our heads in the clouds all the time.
Pessimism allows us to live our life as it is, right now, instead of how it could be and should be.
Alain de Botton also wants us to embrace a little more pessimism in love.
His article, Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person, was New York Time’s most-read article of 2016.
In it, Alain poignantly argues that romance has spoiled us when it comes to true love. Media has influenced us into thinking we need to be with the “perfect” person.
But what if, we re-examine our views of love?
Here’s his comically honest take on why we should be a little pessimistic in choosing a romantic partner:
“We need to swap the Romantic view for a tragic (and at points comedic) awareness that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us — and we will (without any malice) do the same to them. There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness. But none of this is unusual or grounds for divorce.
“Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.”
So, if not someone perfect for us, then what should we look for in a relationship?
According to Alain, at the end of the day, we should look for someone who chooses to be with us – someone who will work with us.
“The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently — the person who is good at disagreement.
“Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the “not overly wrong” person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.”
Envy isn’t always evil
Our society loves to label emotions between good and bad. Good emotions – happiness, love, inspiration – are the only ones we should be feeling. While we are shamed for having bad emotions – pain, heartbreak, sadness, envy.
Alain de Botton believes that negative emotions are essential to our growth.
In particular, he believes that envy isn’t always a sin. That in fact, it’s an important motivator.
In his article, Ideas for modern living: envy, he writes:
“Envy is a highly beneficial emotion insofar as it goads us towards things we are capable of getting. It becomes noxious and destructive when we become unaware we are feeling it.”
“We are in danger of missing out on something valuable when we simply label envy a sin. Like many of our drives, it has positive and negative components, which need to be balanced and managed rather than simply cut out like a cancer. We might respect envy as the first step towards generating something we can be proud of – something that will make others envious…”
Envy is only bad if you use it wrong. But if you use envy as a motivator – not as a distraction – it can actually be healthy for your personal growth.
On why you should travel more
Nothing gives us peace more than being at home. It’s a safe space we’ve built for ourselves. And for the most part, being at home has its numerous health benefits:
According to US News’ How to Live to 100:
“Physical places endure while memories and people fade, so homes and neighborhoods become “memory machines” that help us keep alive some of the strongest sources of what has given our lives meaning, well-being, and happiness.”
However, Alain de Botton believes that being at home too much can have a negative impact on our happiness.
“Though we tend to love our homes and think of them as anchors of identity, there are also disturbing ways in which they can fix us unhelpfully to a version of ourselves we no longer wish to side with. The familiar curtains and pictures subtly insist that we should not change because they do not; our well-known rooms can anaesthetise us from a more urgent, necessary relationship with particular questions.”
Traveling feeds our souls, our minds, and our hearts. It is only when we travel, Alain says, “that we start to have the strength to probe at certain assumptions.”
Being somewhere unfamiliar challenges us to question our existence, our comforts. Furthermore, it is when we are traveling that we’re able to “take implausible but important leaps, encouraged by the changes all around us.”
You don’t need to understand philosophy in big words. Alain de Botton is a perfect reminder that you only need to understand philosophy deeply within you.
Life is beautiful when it has meaning, when you question everything, and when you don’t take anything for granted.
You might not agree with Alain’s way of digesting philosophy, but you can’t deny that it helps us navigate life more astutely, albeit in a simpler, uncomplicated manner.