British based philosopher Alain de Botton is a man of many talents. Author, speaker and founder of The Philosophers’ Mail, the Swiss born de Botton is on a mission to bring back the lessons of history’s great thinkers. His recently launched newspaper aims to be the antidote to the repugnant Daily Mail, using stories about celebrities and the powerful to promote understanding and sympathy rather than adulation and scorn. Rather than laugh at Gwyneth Paltrow (as we would at The Daily Banter), The Philosophers’ Mail suggests we look at her marriage from a philosopher’s point of view. Paltrow’s marriage is “In that zone of everyday dissatisfaction and enduring loyalty which most of us inhabit, divided between compromise, occasional moments of rage, then a return to calm and order,” writes the Mail.
“It’s extremely useful to us, those of us in ordinary marriages, that a couple who would seem to have so many options to leave have chosen to remain married.”
De Botton also launched “The School of Lifee,” a drop-in shop in central London that offers “a variety of programmes and services concerned with how to live wisely and well.”
The Daily Banter chatted with de Botton about his newspaper, his school and wider ambitions regarding bringing philosophy to the masses:
The Daily Banter: You’re a big believer in the power of philosophy to help people live their every day lives. How has philosophy helped you personally?
Alain de Botton: Philosophy is very idealistic: it helps you to ask the largest questions like: What is the meaning of your life? What is the ultimate purpose of money? What does love aim at? This focus on the big themes helped me to clear up my laziness and confusion in a number of areas. It’s helped to make me into a more productive person, I know more what I want (even if I don’t always get it!).
The Daily Banter: Would you regard yourself as an atheist or an agnostic? Is the difference meaningful?
Alain de Botton: I am an atheist, utterly convinced of the non-existence of god. I argue that believing in God is, for me as for many others, simply not possible. At the same time, I want to suggest that if you remove this belief, there are particular dangers that open up – we don’t need to fall into these dangers, but they are there and we should be aware of them. For a start, there is the danger of individualism: of placing the human being at the center stage of everything. Secondly, there is the danger of technological perfectionism; of believing that science and technology can overcome all human problems, that it is just a matter of time before scientists have cured us of the human condition. Thirdly, without God, it is easier to loose perspective: to see our own times as everything, to forget the brevity of the present moment and to cease to appreciate (in a good way) the miniscule nature of our own achievements. And lastly, without God, there can be a danger that the need for empathy and ethical behaviour can be overlooked.
Now, it is important to stress that it is quite possible to believe in nothing and remember all these vital lessons (just as one can be a deep believer and a monster). I am simply wanting to draw attention to some of the gaps, some of what is missing, when we dismiss God too brusquely. By all means, we can dismiss him, but with great sympathy, nostalgia, care and thought…
The Daily Banter: Do we need something to replace religion, and is philosophy a viable alternative?
Alain de Botton: I think what needs to replace religion is CULTURE, not just philosophy. So I’d include literature, art, psychotherapy, theater, film, music etc. The issue is that we need a more therapeutic vision of culture; we have to be more explicit in asking culture to answer the dilemmas we once went to religion with.
The Daily Banter: Do you regard atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris as fundamentalists? Are they helpful in promoting alternatives to religion?
Alain de Botton: I’m currently not so stimulated by them because the issue they are fascinated by is: Could people please stop believing! I don’t believe and have never believed and I’m untroubled by the belief of most people. So this is not where I am at.
The Daily Banter: How did the School of Life come about?
Alain de Botton: One of the paradoxes of modern consumer society is that while you can find thousands of stylish businesses that will sell you the perfect coffee or jumper, disappointingly few enterprises are interested in serving up anything that could benefit your mind. A Londoner keen to take in some ideas in an attractive and lively setting has a serious shortage of options to hand. Most education open to the general public takes place in gloomy lino-floored institutions, under the auspices of people who remind us of why academic is also a synonym for remote and boring, and why we were once probably quite glad to quit school or college.
So I cam together with a group of others to start an educational establishment with a difference. For a start, the School of Life has a passionate belief in making learning relevant – and so runs courses in the important questions of everyday life. Whereas most colleges and universities chop up learning into abstract categories (‘agrarian history’ ‘the 18th century English novel’), The School of Life titles its courses according to things we all tend to care about: careers, relationships, politics, travels, families. An evening or weekend on one of its courses is likely to be spent reflecting on such matters as your moral responsibilities to an ex partner or how to resolve a career crisis.
The School also offers up a service it calls bibliotherapy, based on the idea that the real reason why most of us don’t read much nowadays is that there are far too many books around. It also has a division offering psychotherapy for individuals, couples or families – and it does so in a completely stigma-free way. For the normally reserved British, it must be a first to have an institution that offers therapy from an ordinary high street location and moreover, treats the idea of having therapy as no more or less strange than having a haircut or pedicure, and perhaps a good deal more useful.
In a culture where anyone who attempts a serious conversation is at once accused of belonging to the ‘chattering classes’ and where anything too intellectual is in danger of being called pretentious, the school is a place that attempts to put learning and ideas back to where they should always have been – right in the middle of our lives.
The Daily Banter: The school is presumably for-profit, and therefore inaccessible to many people. Would you like to open up its services to a wider audience? How would you do this?
When we make more profit, we’ll be able to widen access.
The Daily Banter: What is the idea behind The Philosophers’ Mail?
Alain de Botton: The website looks identical to the ordinary Mail one, many of the stories are similar, but the content is radically different. The goal of the Philosophers’ Mail is to prove a genuinely popular and populist news outlet which at the same time is alive to traditional philosophical virtues. For too long, philosophers (like serious news-people) have been happy merely to be wise and right. This has offered them huge professional satisfaction but it has not influenced the course of society. The average work of philosophy currently reaches 300 people. Hence the challenge that explains the birth of the Philosophers’ Mail, which is rooted in the popular interests, sensibilities and inclinations of the day — but tries to read and caption the news with an eye to traditional central philosophical concerns; for compassion, truth, justice, complexity, calm, empathy and wisdom. The site views the rolling succession of the day’s news as an occasion for the development of insight, generosity and emotional intelligence.
News is not simply information about what is happening in the world. It is one of the key places where we daily shape our underlying assumptions about life — about what is important, admirable, scandalous, normal; where we rehearse attitudes to fear, hope, good and evil. This is why the news should be a major target of concern for real philosophers. The Philosophers’ Mail makes use of popular starting points — the stories a lot of people like to read and talk about already. It is generous to our natural inclinations: to read celebrity gossip, look at erotic images and read shock stories. It is sympathetic (as a starting point) to popular biases: anxiety about whatever feels foreign, a taste for vengeance, lack of empathy for the very poor, envy of the very rich, resentment of the powerful, suspicion of those who seem clever, dislike of awkward truths…
We start by acknowledging that it isn’t strange to be unnerved by a Romanian family begging on a French train; it would be thrilling to have sex with Jennifer Lawrence; one can empathize with the feeling that George Osborne doesn’t quite know what real life is like; it is natural to want to switch off when hearing about trouble in Africa.
We don’t start by asking what the wise or good or serious outlook might be. There are plenty of people pushing such lines already — for that one could turn to the Economist, or the New York Times. The epochal challenge is to reach the people who don’t engage with complex news.
The division between high and low news is at heart a fiction — which breaks down the closer one comes to it. Sophocles, Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Flaubert all took so-called ‘low’ stories and turned them into great art. They were alive to the enduring, serious themes in regular murders and divorces. The problem is not that modern news talks too much about low subjects. It’s that it doesn’t know how to do anything serious with them, it can’t raise them into high ones, the way Sophocles could.
The Daily Banter: The layout is clearly Daily Mail like, and there’s lots of photos of celebrities, some of whom are in bikinis. Do you think this is necessary to grab people’s attention?
Alain de Botton: Absolutely!
The Daily Banter: Why do you think you’re so popular now?
Alain de Botton: I’m very interested in reaching lots of people, not for money or ego, but because I want to help change society.
The Daily Banter: What’s next for you?
Alain de Botton: A utopia.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.