Philosophy can change your life.
I first became familiar with Alain De Botton through his book How Proust Can Change Your Life. In it, Alain argues for a specific method to approaching great literature: as a guide for life rather than passively received knowledge, and in doing so he makes a famously difficult text work as a self-help guide. This method is a bit tongue-in-cheek (Proust and urgency seem like something of an oxymoron) but for me it revealed the relevance in Proust's writing. It reminds the reader that Proust is trying to tell us something important.
And so is Alain De Botton. To continue the mission of knitting together art and life Alain, together with a group of writers, philosophers, artists and teachers of all stripes, founded The School of Life. The school's aim, he told me in an email interview, is to urge people to ask questions of art and ask those same questions of their life.
To foster this inquiry, The School of Life rented out a small, one-room shop in London where it offers weekend classes and holds "secular sermons" by great thinkers and cultural figures like author and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich. These secular sermons begin with a single surprising principle, like the benefits of pessimism, and elaborate on how that principle can and should affect all aspects of life, from sex (high expectations in the bedroom are the leading cause of sexual dysfunction) to work (expecting work to provide satisfaction in life leads us to be both unhappier in work and life).
What The School of Life preaches it also puts into practice. Rather than relying on mottos, it takes its message to the streets, connecting to people's lives through its blog, community gatherings, sermons and small-group mentorship via weekend classes. Its popularity shows that education is a profoundly personal endeavour, promising to enhance our ability to communicate not just our thoughts but also our desires and expectations of the world. I challenge you to find a university that is doing better.
I interviewed School of Life Founder Alain De Botton to find out more about the origins of the organisation, good self-help, and how to incorporate philosophy into daily life:
TANA WOJCZUK: What inspired you to start The School of Life?
ALAIN DE BOTTON: I wanted something that could do as an institution what I love and want to do in my own books. Institutions can be bigger than books, they bind a group of people together, they can accumulate more resources, they can have more importance in the world. So I saw the school as a kind of version of my writing, but in the shape of a school. It is a way of spreading what I do and reaching new people.
TW: Is there a connection between the idea of the school and your book How Proust Can Change Your Life?
ADB: Absolutely, my book on Proust takes culture and looks to it for answers on the great questions of life. At the school, this is exactly what we do: we take culture (photography, theatre, philosophy, literature etc) and we use it to point us to answers on how to live.
TW: In your talk on Pessimism you mention that you've been researching self-help books. Could you elaborate on how you think the Self Help business works?
ADB: Most self-help books are terrible. They have pink covers, they promise you immediate happiness, they tell you how to get rich immediately. We're not interested in this sort of thing at The School of Life. However, there's something wonderful about a book that can help you to live. I think of the writings of Plato, Seneca, Montaigne, Nietzsche. These are self-help books too, just good ones - and at the School of Life we are publishing a series of 'good' self-help books in May 2012, which we are excited about.
TW: Many self-help books seem to be written by charlatans, and yet there seems to be some value in the how-to model. What's the difference between Montaigne'sArt of Conversation (or your Art of Travel) and say, the Secret?
ADB: The real difference is the level of optimism. Bad self-help books are written by people who want to promise their readers that everything will be OK. Often life is not OK, and the best books realize this. There is a tragic element to human nature that a good book has to face up to and self-help books of the American kind generally don't.
TW: How has the response been to the School of Life? The sermons seem packed.
ADB: We have had enormous success, so much so that we now want to expand abroad, taking the school to Brazil, Turkey, Korea and Australia. It is hugely gratifying.
TW: What do you mean when you call these talks "secular sermons"? How is a sermon secular?
ADB: We like the word sermon because a sermon tries to change your life - whereas a lecture just gives you information. We want knowledge that is dynamic, that aims to affect change - however, we are not religious. Hence the term secular sermon.
TW: What is the role of philosophy in modern life (do you think)?
ADB: Philosophy should be the number one cultural discipline that interprets reality for us and guides us to more successful, or less painful and confused outcomes. It hasn't done this yet, but I am trying....