Stern, Tom. “Complications of Philosophy: Alain de Botton’s School of Life.” The Point no. 10 (Summer 2015): 51-65.
Image: Jon Irving, The Things I’ll Have to Do Today Just to Eat, 2012 via The Point online.
“One thing I notice… about de Bottonism in general–is that it finds it difficult to tell you that you are wrong about something. …[Y]ou can never just be wrong.” (62)
“…philosophy, for me, hasn’t delivered on its promise… to be the very activity where you didn’t have to choose between what was true and what mattered to you.” (64)
“Human being are just set up to make themselves suffer, [Nietzsche] supposed, and the excuse of the pursuit of truth turns out to be as good as any. We can tell ourselves that we want to get things right in spite of the pain and difficulty involved, but perhaps we choose this route precisely because it hurts. We don’t suffer for the sake of philosophy: we do philosophy because it makes us suffer.” (65)
I have a confession to make: I love to listen to Alain de Botton the way that I enjoy porn. If you asked me directly, I would blush and tell only my closest friends that I indulge… but I would not just offer that up in most company. Of course I don’t see a 3-minute video on Nietzsche as carrying the same as wrestling through Thus Spake Zarathustra. But sometimes, I just crave a quick fix. Sometimes it’s because I’m lonely, or depressed. Sometimes I do it because I am bored. And I confess, that sadly, there are times when the hard-won insights just seem like too much work when I can get something less complicated, cheap, and fast. Alain de Botton is like a RedTube for the philosophical pathway to my limbic system. Like the students in Stern’s essay, more often than not I am a “Nietzsche user” vice a “Nietzsche scrutinizer.”
“[De Botton] doesn’t present himself as a guru with all the answers but as a lost soul navigating by the constellations of great thinkers, and he invites you to do the same.” (55)
Whatever one may think of de Botton, I thoroughly enjoyed Tom Stern’s essay about him. It is incredibly intimate and the reader can feel the Stern’s discomfort with this tension that he sets up between philosophy as a practice and meaningful living:
“…if we are using philosophy to get something right [about our lives], then a repulsive thought that cannot be true begins to hover in the background: that my colleagues and students, with their formal philosophical training, are somehow better at living than the rest.” (53)
You can feel a sort of disdain Stern has of his professional community which seems above the drudgery of writing for a dumb, general audience. Even pity… Pondering whether the world would even notice if all publishing of academic philosophy ceased. But there is also a sense of hope of finding the same philosophical “bridge” that characterized the role of philosophy in his father’s personality. But it is also an amusing and insightful read: the packaging of intellectual history into consumer products, the algorithm for creating a School of Life title, and more than anything else, the tragic separations between matter and form, what is and what ought to be, between the practice of philosophy and our desire for meaning.
I do not typically browse through the philosophy section of bookstores unless I am sensing an oncoming existential crisis… and even then, I typically reach for histories after the philosophy section seems unapproachable. When I do seem lost, I more often reach for a readymade quick fix a la de Botton. Reading Stern’s essay (and others from The Point as I am a new subscriber), I cannot help but think: If this is philosophy writing, maybe I have found something of a bridge. I look forward to reading more from Stern and The Point mag.