Posts Tagged ‘Alain de Botton’

“How Proust can change your life”

December 21, 2012

That was Alain de Botton’s breakout book, back in ’97, followed by the British docudrama with Ralph Fiennes I enjoyed last night.

(Happy Mayapocalyse, btw. We’re fortunate indeed, to have lives to change.)

So, how can he change my life? By reminding me to do what William James and others had already encouraged: pay attention, day in and day out, to the personal perceptual details of life.

Great advice, especially if we then turn our attention to acting in healthy ways that reflect what we’ve attended to. Great, if we’re then encouraged to write À la Recherche Du Temps Perdu. Greater still, if it propels us to act in ways that address not only our own perceptions and compulsions but also the interest and well-being of our fellow humans.

If I decide to spend more time with Monsieur Proust, these will be my working questions: was he ultimately concerned to turn his attention to humanity and its destiny, to what life might make of itself in the great unfolding of time still to come? Or was he mainly preoccupied with time past and lost? Is he an enduring voice and a reliable guide in the salutary search to transcend narrow egoism? Or was he just another self-indulgent parlor aesthete, albeit the one who wrote those magnificent books?

Whatever the answer, I’m pleased with the way the story ended last night, Proust declaring that books and words will carry us only so far. “Reading is at the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it. It does not constitute it.” Don’t throw away your books, but also don’t join them on the shelf.

Another of his lines I like, although I still prefer *Goober’s way of putting it:

One cannot change, become a different person, while continuing to acquiesce to the feeling of the person one has ceased to be. [*”If a man’s hisself, how can he change?”]

But the out-of-context, probably out-of-character (for MP) quote I like the most is:

May you always see a blue sky overhead, my young friend; and then, even when the time comes, as it has come for me now, when the woods are black, when night is fast falling, you will be able to console yourself, as I do, by looking up at the sky.

I suppose he meant a figurative blue sky, since you can’t see much of the real sky from a cork-lined sarcophagus. I prefer the sky that lights our walks, myself.

“Thank you Plato”

November 16, 2012

Thank you Shakespeare, thank you Jane Austen!

That’s what Alain de Botton imagines “religious atheists” exclaiming in “church,” instead of Thank you Jesus!

Well, no thank you. But it’s a good TED Talk anyway, a nice complement to Don Cupitt’s Jungian nonrealist God-talk (that we talked about yesterday in CoPhi). And, conveniently in time for the holidays and the latest “war on XMAS“!

Alain de Botton is of course a humanist, like Don Cupitt. “Commitment to co-humanity has become my religion,” says former Father Cupitt. Humanists aren’t in it for merely-personal salvation, they seek more and better life here and now. If you don’t believe in heaven or hell or god, as Edrell said in class yesterday, you’re going to want to make life on earth as beautiful as can be. It’ll never be “perfect” by Plato’s standards or even by ours, but surely we can make it better.

So on that note: please sign our petition. Thanks. “God” bless.

Safe at home

November 15, 2012

Alain de Botton has interesting thoughts on home. “Perfect” is probably out of reach, but we could definitely do a lot better. Too many of our homes do make us “cross and angry.” Our true home, after all, extends well beyond walls. “Look again at that dot…”*

We need a home in the psychological sense as much as we need one in the physical: to compensate for a vulnerability. We need a refuge to shore up our states of mind, because so much of the world is opposed to our allegiances. We need our rooms to align us to desirable versions of ourselves and to keep alive the important, evanescent sides of us.


buildings are able to solve no more than a fraction of our dissatisfactions or prevent evil from unfolding under their watch.


Architecture, even at its most accomplished, will only ever constitute a small, and imperfect (expensive, prone to destruction, and morally unreliable), protest against the state of things.

Right. The state of things is that our little mote of terra firma, our modest corner of real estate, is in a volatile and fragile market. We delude ourselves to think we can go on forever playing the territorial game, regions and states, one against the others. Our buildings may be aesthetically appealing or not, may provide shelter from the storm or not, but they cannot sustain our belligerent nationalistic pride. We must come to think of home as the entire human abode, spaceship earth, the ultimate earthship.

Neil Tyson came to Vanderbilt, night before last, and reminded us that “the universe has a shipload of stars.” That could be bad for one’s ego, or it could be mind-expanding. “We are stardust.”

Home as safe haven, as  sturdy vehicle into the future, as mirror of our sustainable souls… the essence of home has far more to do with our states of mind than with our building design and materials. It’s a small ship, in a big  sea of stars. We are not alone, and as Thoreau said: why should we feel lonely? “Is not our planet in the Milky Way?”


Gentle bliss & an uplifting dream

September 10, 2012

We’re talking Epicurus (among others, Lord knows) today in CoPhi. Jennifer Hecht‘s got his number. It’s listed.

For an Epicurean, somewhere there are beings that are truly at peace, are happy… The mere idea of this gentle bliss is, itself, a kind of uplifting dream. After all, we human beings know a strange thing: happiness responds to circumstances, but, basically, it is internal. We can experience it when it happens to come upon us; we can induce it with practices or drugs; but we cannot just be happy.

No, we must work to “solve the schism” between how we feel and how we want to feel. Happiness is a choice and a lifetime endeavor, and though it comes easier for some than for others there are tips and tricks we can use to trip our internal happy meters and achieve ataraxia, peace of mind, simple contentment.

Stop fearing the harmless and remote gods, he said. Stop fearing your own death, it’s not (as Wittgenstein would echo, millennia later) an event you’ll ever experience. “Life is full of sweetness. We might as well enjoy it.”

That’s Alain de Botton, author of a text I used to use in this course, and controversial proponent of religion for atheists. (Don’t confuse him with Boethius.) His interview with Krista Tippett aired yesterday again. Like Jennifer Hecht, he wants us to use philosophy to enhance our bliss and sweeten our dreams.

The dream of restorative environmentalism growing from the grassroots also continues in EEA today. We begin with Rachel Carson’s Silent SpringIt’s serial publication in 1962 was greeted by one reader with the claim that “we can live without birds and animals” but not without business.

Many of our fellow Americans still believe, with Mr. Mitt, that corporations really are people too. Not just legally-contrived “persons,” but individuals with rights and dignity and grace and a capacity for bliss in their own right. Dream on.

The religion of humanity, for extra credit

April 2, 2012

It’s another exam day in CoPhi. The most interesting question is for extra credit:

What do you think of English Deist John Toland‘s version of pantheism, defined as “belief in no other eternal being but the universe,” and involving a “civic religion with meetings, community rituals, and a secularist liturgy”? Would YOU ever join such a “community of doubters”? Why or why not?

The question barks up the same tree we’ve been discussing all semester in A&P. I’ve finished Alain de Botton’s controversial Religion for Atheists, which proposes something very similar to Toland’s civic religion and draws directly on Auguste Comte‘s “religion of humanity.” But

Comte’s greatest conceptual error was to label his scheme a religion. Those who have given up on faith rarely feel indulgent towards this emotive word, nor are most adult independent-minded atheists much attracted to the idea of joining a cult.

They don’t want priests or temples. It’s ironic for de Botton to be pointing that out, his critics are sure he’s every bit as insensitive to such secular sensibilities as he says Comte was. And yet, he insists, secular society needs its own institutions to “take the place of religions.” But they say religion’s place needs simply to be eliminated.

And so the debate continues, and the sensibilities of this humanistic pluralist remain conflicted. For extra credit: resolve your professor’s ambivalence on this matter.

ecology of desire

February 14, 2011

It’s St. Valentine’s Day, more than just a Hallmark holiday for those of us who choose to use the occasion to profess real affection for our natural and chosen relations.

Note to STUDENTS: Next time we commence Nature’s Way, ch.1 & 2.

Also next time: give me a very brief summary, if you can,  of your intended midterm report topic and tell me if you’re planning to do an essay or a presentation.

Daniel Wildcat’s  Red Alert!, which we conclude today, professes abiding love for Mother Earth and concern for her future. I worry more about the future of our relationship. She may soon have had enough of our promiscuity and indifference.

For instance, the near-extermination of the American bison in the 19th century…

The relationship presumably would benefit if we “allowed places to give us homes” and lived in a “coextensive present with the past and future.” I’m still vague on precisely what that implies, except for the advisability of returning large tracts of the naturally un-hydrated American west (for instance) to its relatively unpeopled primordial state– which seems an unlikely choice (though we may soon have none)– and generally embracing longer-term thinking, beyond the commercial bottom line. It’s hard to be against that, but also hard to see how we translate such unobjectionable Right Thinking into constructive Right Action.

Edward Glaesser’s new book says the solution to toxic suburbia is obvious: move to town.

Suburbanization is producing an ecological disaster. Growth that’s restricted in temperate areas like coastal California is pushed into intemperate ones like Las Vegas, where air-conditioning is leading to a carbon emissions nightmare. What will happen, he asks, if China and India emulate us?

Greater density is the goal: more people means more possibility. Even when writing about the developing world, Glaeser is unfazed by threats of overwhelmed sanitation systems, unsafe housing or impossible congestion. These, he suggests, are problems more readily solved than the environmental consequences of sprawling suburban life.

Wildcat’s complaints about our “unimaginative houses” hits close to home. We selected our 50s ranch for its location, not its charm. It’s easy and disturbing to think that our conceptual/spiritual life has been “boxed” by our abode, our perception dimmed, our natural openness to the nature on the other side of the box inhibited. A bit, anyway.

But some wonder: do we give architecture too much credit? And others fear: no, we don’t. As Alain de Botton says, where we are does indeed heavily influence who we can be. And, how happy– Epictetus notwithstanding.

The Ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus is said to have demanded of a heart-broken friend whose house had burnt to the ground, ‘If you really understand what governs the universe, how can you yearn for bits of stone and pretty rock?’

Legend recounts that after hearing the voice of God, the Christian hermit Alexandra sold her house, shut herself in a tomb and never looked at the outside world again, while her fellow hermit Paul of Scete slept on a blanket on the floor of a windowless mud hut and recited three hundred prayers every day, suffering only when he heard of another holy man who had managed seven hundred and slept in a coffin. Architecture of Happiness

Looking beyond Mother Earth for meaning and the promise of redemption may not be the best recipe for happiness. Clearly it’s not a good prescription for the planet’s own well-being, and if we’re paying attention (as Wildcat constantly implores) we’ll not see ours as separate and apart.

*Michael Pollan, discussed below, first caught my attention years ago with his exploration of the human meaning of architecture in A Place of My Own:

Backwoods survivalist types living “off the grid,” as they like to say, may flatter themselves about their independence, but in fact it is only the beavers & groundhogs who truly build locally, completely outside the influence of culture and history…

[we need] to walk away from the cartoon opposition of nature and culture… it was evolution that generated human culture– and language– in the first place, and that culture ever since has been working to modify evolution…

As Walden itself teaches us, we humans are never simply in nature, like the beasts and boulders, but are always also in relation to nature… What other creature, after all, even has a relationship to nature?

More big topics squeezed into Wildcat’s final few pages: toxic suburban lifeways, “buffalo commons,” “earth lodges,” “500 year floods,” childhood obesity, fast/slow/local food, the impact of technology on community, the importance of passing on good stories.

*Picking one: food activist Michael Pollan (Botany of Desire, Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, A Place of My Own, Second Nature) has been all over many of these issues, with the “nature-culture nexus” his anchoring theme throughout. He’s another non-indigenous thinker (like John Dewey) whose wisdom merits honorary native status.

Like Wildcat, Pollan wishes to understand the world through a non-human-centric lens which is wide enough to take in all the co-evolved and dynamically co-existent plurality of life forms on our complexifying planet. He understands that we should be sending valentines to plants and animals (and sun and wind and lakes and rivers and mountains et al) as well as one another. If we treat them right, they’ll love us back.

500 days

January 22, 2011

You never know what you’re gonna get, when Older Daughter picks the Friday night flick. But I liked 500 Days of Summer a lot. Roger Ebert did too:

…so rarely in the movies do we find characters arguing for their aesthetic values. What does your average character played by an A-list star believe about truth and beauty?

Here is a rare movie that begins by telling us how it will end and is about how the hero has no idea why.

It wasn’t as cynical about the redemptive possibilities of True Love as I thought it would be, and it featured one of my favorite Alain de Botton books too: The Architecture of Happiness. We do have to build it, don’t we? And most times we do take our original inspiration from one source, and end up living with another. It had a nice, happy, not-totally-Hollywood ending: the possibility of love and happiness suddenly appears, for the re/dejected hero who’s been busy making other plans. But there’s no promise of “happily ever after.” He and we can live for now on possibility, just like young Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (cleverly evoked in this film).

It joins my short list of favorite stories featuring greeting card writers. (Richard Ford’s Lay of the Land is the other.)

But what about True Love, and the One Right Person? That still sounds too Platonic for me, in the way of the Symposium:

Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half…

And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and would not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell…

The “something else” Plato imagines is the eternal abstract essence of Beauty. Real love is more precise, particular, transient, and lower-case. Isn’t it? Tom loves what about Summer? “I love her smile, her hair, her knobby knees…” But also how she makes him feel like a better person, makes him happy enough to break into gleeful (Glee-full!) song and dance on the way to work. That feeling doesn’t last forever, but it’s a good one.

And that was a fun flick. “Ive just seen a face” is the beginning, and the end, and the beginning…


September 21, 2010

Socrates offers deep consolation for unpopularity, says Alain de Botton.* He still serves up a powerful shot of self-confidence. The “think for yourself” theme pioneered by the pre-Socratics, not always with the most impressive results, gets his dying endorsement.

Euthyphro didn’t understand what he meant, by asking if the pious or holy (or good) is so because the gods decree it, or if they decree it just because it’s so.  I hope you do.  Think of it this way: if the ref decrees that you’re not offside, does that make it so? Even if the replay shows otherwise?

We’ll discuss, and maybe take a look at the thrilling Philosophers’ Cup final. But leave the vuvuzellas at home.

P.S. If that’s not enough comic relief for you, read Socrates’ Apology and then Woody Allen’s. But then, sober up for the most moving final scene in all of philosophy.


into thin air

April 12, 2010

We circle back ’round to Nietzsche, and Alain de Botton‘s last Consolations of Philosophy chapter, today in Intro. (Follow AdB on Twitter)

Nietzsche is not my favorite philosopher, though he was one of ’em back in the day– back in what I think of as my misanthropic pre-democratic early grad school phase. He’s still more fun to read than just about anyone, but I definitely wouldn’t want to be him. He was self-isolating, took himself much too seriously even before the syphilitic bug turned his brain to egocentric mush, and had much too little sympathy for his fellow mortals. And yet…

And yet there are times in every life when self-imposed hardship is better, healthier, than comfort and pleasure and ease. Self-overcoming is inseparable from self-actualization, and there are no more intoxicating moments for any of us than those at the peak of a long hard slog over difficult terrain. The air is thin up there, and bracing. And I happen to agree with him about  this: the best thoughts are indeed those that come while walking.

But for a German to renounce beer!

And maybe it is “stupid” to want to change the weather, as I do every February. It would have been this weekend, I’ll give him that much.

[slideshowDrunk on the groundbdayhammerMillDarwinNietzscheeternal recurrencemusicbeautyconsolationsunnyformula for happinessfree spiritlast manwanderer]

Germans (mostly)

March 24, 2010

Here they come, let’s see if they can put some life into the match. But first a Frenchman, a Scot, a Swiss, an Englishman.

But before that, and speaking of believers: did you catch the debate on ABC’s Nightline last night between Michael Shermer and Sam Harris arguing against “the future of God,” versus Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston? It was a riveting show of belief and counterpoint, though the edited-for-TV version barely conveyed the rare excitement of actual ideas being exchanged in public for purposes of both enlightenment and entertainment. So I stayed up to catch the whole thing in its entirety, online. Check it out. All of the participants had interesting things to say, Sam Harris stole the show, and Deepak Chopra lived up to Julia Sweeney‘s past billing. He really does “layer” the quantum flap-doodle in ways that imply a specious expertise. There should be more of this sort of fare in the popular media! We’ll watch, you & me, and they’ll get decent ratings. Right? But back to our business…

Voltaire. Hectored by a parish priest on his deathbed to repent and declare Jesus’ divinity he protested: “In the name of God don’t speak to me any more of that man and let me die in peace.” He thought hell was a pretty silly idea, and like his friend Ben Franklin he was a Deist and a friend of the Society of Friends, a Quaker-sympathizer.

Hume. “By what arguments or analogies can we prove any state of existence, which no one ever saw, and which no wise resembles any that was ever seen?” Such were the sentiments that roused Kant from his slumbers and led him to “postulate” the unseen noumenal/transcendent realm of God, freedom, and immortality. But “le Bon David” was a skeptic to the end. “The morality of every religion was bad,” though he admitted having known some good religious men. By all accounts he was a good man too. His pal Adam Smith called him as close “to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man” as could be. He was calm in the face of his demise, cheerful and in good humor, without anxiety.

Rousseau. Difficult, paranoid, vain, ungrateful to his benefactor Hume [Rousseau’s Dog, Philosophers’ Quarrel], and “born again” (and then  eventually killed, Critchley speculates) at the paws of a Great Dane.  A strange man, but given to saving spurts of calm– especially when walking.

Bentham. Stranger still: he attends meetings of the University College London council, but does not vote. His perpetual presence in corpore is intended as “a posthumous protest against religious taboos surrounding the dead.” Inspiring.

Kant. Another strange dude. Obsessive, punctual of habit, semi-gregarious, a mouth-breather, fond of Cicero, and also a philosophical walker (but with a weird aversion to sweat). Famous last  word: “Sufficit.” Enough. (I like his countryman Goethe’s better: “Mehr licht.” More light. (Or was it “Mehr nicht,” No more?) Famous living words: “Sapere aude.” Have the courage to think.

Hegel. “The negation of the negation…” Sounds like gobbledy-gook of the sort that might inspire another philosopher to ingest laughing gas, but it is possible to read Hegel non-mystically as saying some very sensible things about life in its experiential and historical unfolding. He did not believe in disembodied spirits or the immortality of the soul, but he did believe in Spirit as communal self-knowledge. Turn it over and you get hard-boiled history and the political struggle for justice that Hegel (and Feuerbach) provoked in Marx. Hegelian philosophy resembles his student Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge, an impressive structure built on sand.

Feuerbach. “The philosophical cure consists in overcoming alienation, demystifying Christianity and bringing human beings towards a true self-understanding.” We should stop kneeling before visions of remote perfection that we’ve projected onto Christ (and other iconic objects) and stand up on our own feet.

Schopenhauer. When we’ve stood up, he says, we need to look mortality in the eye. Life is “a loan received from death, with sleep as the daily interest on this loan.” Why, if he felt this way, didn’t he stuff it? Apparently because he didn’t want to feed the voracious monster “Will.” The problem with suicide is that it maintains the illusion of wilfullness. The only permissible suicide is the self-starvation of the ascetic. No thanks, I’ll just keep eating and pushing that round object. Move over, Albert. You must consider us happy. Even if, like Artur, we’ve had our poor hearts broken. As Emerson prods: “Up again, old heart.” (Is there consolation for too much grading?)