London is unhappy. It’s never been a city for smiling, but the clouds that have settled over its sprawl in late 2011 don’t look like leaving any time soon. Spilling out of the same tube station I did fifteen years ago, back when London was the center of the universe, I see no signs of Cool Brittania. Damien Hirst at the Royal Academy. The Heavenly Social. The ground outside our flat torn up for the extension of the Jubilee line, running to the Millennium Dome. That rubble is gone. The record store where I worked, now an off-brand clothing outlet. My markers, dust.
Earlier this year, this city tore itself apart at its neglected seams in an explosion of tension and rage. At St Paul’s, the police and the people and the priesthood are now warily staring each other down as the City pushes for the ejection of the Occupy protestors. The canon chancellor has resigned. St Paul was a tentmaker, he reminds them. Any kind of messiah that might be born now, he ventures, could well be born in one of these tents. Glimmers of the simple, of the self, of the brave.
My search for a smile takes me to a shopfront in Bloomsbury. The School of Life, the sign says. Ideas to live by, it says. Now, whenever I hear the words ‘self help’, I reach for my politely-but-quickly-backing-out-of-the-room-and-breaking-into-a-sprint manoeuvre. But this place is something else. Under headings like ‘work’ and ‘happiness’, works by the great thinkers are stacked alongside modern lit. The day before, Miranda July had encouraged an audience to auction the contents of their handbags. Its teaching space, all crumpled velvet curtains and dim light, is the sort of place I could imagine hatching Situationist plots to subvert a city. The School is a place of play and whimsy and big talk. It is accessible, it is warm, it is stylish, and it is serious. Kind of like the man behind it.
Later, in the North of London, near Primrose Hill, I’m walking tranquil backstreets towards Alain de Botton’s office. Next door to his home, a work of modern architectural beauty, he sits at the window of a small block of flats, in a surprisingly humble work space. He is one of the most generous and kindhearted interview subjects ever to have hosted me. The audio of this interview is littered with little interruptions as he stands to refill my water, while I pepper him with questions on faith and fatherhood.
Alain knows that living is hard. That the world is a place of urgent protest, and war, and famine, and disease. But against that backdrop, questions of the self are critical. What is a functioning society, after all, without happiness? Without dignity? And, for that matter, without love? If the millions who buy his books (amongst them, Essays in Love, The Consolations of Philosophy, Status Anxiety, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work), watch him on TV, listen to his radio shows and stay in his holiday homes are an indicator, these are questions that still matter.
ALAIN DE BOTTON:
I think that changes always happen because someone has sketched a vision of how an alternative might look. People get inspired by those alternatives, so any revolution that you care to think of, and it could be quite a significant political revolution, but it could be more a social revolution, economic revolution, there’s always been somebody who’s sketched a vision of how these things should go. You can call that person a philosopher, we can call them a thinker or a person of ideas or whatever it is, and I’m quite loose about the job title, because I think “philosopher” carries quite a lot of baggage.
These people are always required because I think any change requires a practical and a theoretical drive. In many ways it’s the theoretical drive that’s the hardest. Let’s conceive of a free society, let’s conceive of a society where there might be free speech, or let’s conceive of a less unequal society, or whatever it happens to be. You need someone to make a clear case for that, and then other people can know where to head.
Yes, and I think skills are slightly unevenly distributed among the population. Generally, people who know how to act don’t really know how to think deeply, and people who know how to think deeply don’t know how to act. This has been the great problem of our culture, that some people have had fantastic ideas but have no idea how to bring them about. Other people are deeply practical, wonderful at making things happen, but their ideas are not so great. When change comes about, it’s often because you’ve got the marriage of the two. You’ve got the theory and the practice.
Yes, that’s right. Passionate convictions without that flexibility of mind. When people talk about entrepreneurs they sometimes say that they’re on the verge of being pathological, but they’re on the right verge. You need a sense that your vision is correct and you want to drive it through, but obviously you need enough flexibility… that you’re still sane.
I care about a mass audience because I somehow believe that the mass is right. I believe in a democratic sense that if you’re not reaching a broad number of people with your ideas, that there’s probably something wrong with your ideas. It might not be everything that’s wrong with them, but something presentational or structural. We live in very open societies, where if your message is a good one it should be able to get out there.
So when the typical academic says ‘Well, you know, I don’t want to be open to popular scrutiny’ or ‘I’m not interesting in discussing my material with just anyone’, my response is ‘well, why?’ What is it about your field of study that makes it inevitably beyond a broader public acceptance or recognition or discussion?
Particularly when you come to the humanities, my area broadly, there’s very often no good reason. Why should there be this division between popular writers and academic writers? Everyone should be aiming to communicate with everyone else. Most genuine dilemmas should be able to be expressed in clear language, and that by definition opens up the topic to a broad audience.
I went to a so-called good university, Cambridge, and studied history and ticked all the boxes. Already, then, I was feeling uncomfortable. I thought that, at one level, this is very privileged and very nice, but on the other hand why are we studying this? Why is the knowledge being delivered like this? I was very unhappy with the academic system. I was excited by learning and knowledge and culture, but I couldn’t get on with the academic way in which that kind of learning took place. And so right from the beginning of my adult life, I was faced with this problem: what do I do with myself—given what I’m interested in and given my problems—with what I’m supposed to do when you’re interested in this stuff, which is to become a Professor.
I didn’t know what to do, and my career is just an attempt to try to work that out and find some solutions. I started off with books. In the last ten years or so I’ve become more interested in institutions, and how the things I’m interested in could be collaborative, and how I could get together with other people.
I reached a point of thinking that the lone author is quite a vulnerable creature, and their voice is quite a small one in a busy world.
Since then I have continued to meet people who were interested in the kind of stuff I was interested in, and so naturally moved my interest towards a more collaborative way of doing what I do.
It’s probably the first thing you know about, more than about economics or astrophysics. It’s a topic that strikes you young and probably quite hard. When you’re fourteen or fifteen, people have the first pangs of love and desire.
I didn’t really ask myself that question otherwise I would have stopped doing it. I think, like many things that one does, it’s just best not to say, “why me?” Why not? As I look back on my first book, I think that it’s very much about a certain kind of love. It’s about romantic love. It’s not about married love; it’s not about long-term love. It’s about sexual, romantic love, which has a real place in human experience. It’s not the only kind of love, but it’s one kind of love. And I stand by many things I said there, even though it’s not my last word on love.
… no, no, I didn’t, exactly, I didn’t. Although I’m now going to write a new book on love I think.
Exactly, and I think that those feelings of the twenty-three year old, you might feel them again as a fifty-five-year-old in a particular kind of context. The area that I’m interested in looking at now is married, or long-term, love, which is a whole other kettle of fish. Also, love of children is very interesting to me, in a way that I had no clue of at twenty-three.
With many people nowadays who are my age and below, we’re all deeply aware that what happens in childhood really determines your life. If you’re doing well or doing badly, thoughts about your childhood, and what happens in your childhood, are incredibly important.
So when you come to be a parent, you’re really aware that you’re taking on something very big. Not just something practically big but emotionally big. Like all previous generations you’ve got some practical tasks—feed the child, look after it, et cetera—but you’ve also got to do this other thing, which is try not to screw them up.
I’ve taken the job of parenting really seriously. I think about it a lot, I’m fascinated by it, I’m intellectually stimulated by it and, luckily, I really love my children. Which I thought I might not. I thought, ‘what happens if I don’t like them?’
I always imagined myself as the father of girls, and then I ended up having two boys. Generally I have a problem with many men; I prefer women. That’s always the case, but I often prefer the company of women, and I’m not so keen on certain kinds of male culture, so I thought, ‘Ooh, this is going to be really tricky’, but, so far, so good. It’s brought out plenty of new sides of me, and it’s generally a delightful experience. Although parenthood is also, on a bad day, like having your best friends come over to stay with you but refusing to leave. You really like them—no sooner have you gone to bed, you think ‘oh they’re so sweet, I wish we could wake them up again’—but it’s the full-on-ness that most parents talk about, that relentlessness.
As a thinker, I need an awful lot of time just to think, without interruption. That’s really under threat with children.
I should perhaps correct your sense of my childhood. I grew up in Switzerland, which is a strictly egalitarian and austere kind of society, although very wealthy. Like many Swiss families, we were privileged but never led to think that we were. I think that’s the Swiss, very Protestant way of doing things. It’s also a hard-working society, where the feeling is that everyone has to work terrifically hard. This was added to by my family, as my father was an immigrant, as part of the Jewish community from Egypt. He’d come over to Switzerland as a penniless immigrant, and had to struggle very, very hard in his early years. In my childhood there was a weird sense that, on one level, we were living in this tremendously prosperous country and we lacked for nothing in our house, but at the same time there was a sense of the traumas that were buzzing around the psyche of the family. That’s something I’ve dealt with as an adult, and struggled to put things into place. Often as a child you don’t know why you’re experiencing what you’re experiencing.
Anyway, I grew up in this mixture of financial security but emotional insecurity. My parents had many qualities but they were not particularly good parents, not particularly skilled parents, not that interested in parenting, which fuelled my own desire to once again do better than them and be ambitious in that regard. I think a really privileged upbringing for a child is to feel deeply loved, respected, to feel that they have a voice, and to feel that they have capacity to act upon the world. I think whatever your material level, that is a privileged childhood. Anything that isn’t that is not a privileged childhood.
That left me a legacy of trying to interpret the position of economic success within a good life. Both my own personal background and my own country, Switzerland, led me to be perhaps more skeptical than some people about where wealth comes in the hierarchy of things we need to be content.
Switzerland is a country where most of the problems that bedevil the UK, say, or most other countries, don’t exist or have been resolved. There are no housing problems. There are no health problems. And yet it’s a society that has a whole range of troubles, so that interests me.
Australia is an interesting example, Australia has, again, solved many of the problems of most other countries and yet it still continues to have lots of issues. I am a writer who is focused on the problems of the prosperous world. That’s just what interests me, that’s the lens through which I look at things.
Some people say to me, ‘you’ve never written anything about drought’ or ‘you’ve never written anything about third-world politics.’ On these topics I’m a spectator. And maybe one day I will be a writer, but I’m a spectator now because you write about what you know. So my books are the problems of a prosperous world, which doesn’t mean that it’s a world without problems, but it’s a world without the more extreme material problems.
Yes and no. I think unemployment is a fascinating, deeply troubling, and troubled topic. The basic fact is that, at the moment, most major economies have too many people in them chasing too few jobs, and part of the reason for that is productivity. Economists are always hailing advances in productivity, but really what productivity means is less people are doing more work. We only know how to call the result of that unemployment, and to see that as a real problem.
A Marxist would say, well, this is pointing the way to the fact that we ought to live in a leisure society. We don’t need that many people to be actively engaged in the workforce. So what we need is a redistribution of wealth through more than just unemployment cheques.
These ideas are stimulating. The standard model of capitalism has come to me to seem more urgently in need of questioning. Perhaps some vast questions about how we should arrange society are very live, for me and for a lot of other people. As I say, unemployment is a key thing. The environmental crisis has placed a real question mark around consumerism and consumption and its connection with status. Obviously there are real problems there for modern society and how we continuously evaluate ourselves through objects, yet the manufacture of these objects is constrained by the world’s resources.
I’m sympathetic to people’s desire not to talk about stuff. The human animal is a fragile creature, and we’ve got a lot on our plate, all of us. The capacity to talk honestly and with perspective and calm about very personal stuff is not going to be in everyone’s remit. There are some amazing people I know who you just couldn’t go near with these kinds of topics. They’re not going to talk to you about their love life, and they’re not going to speculate on the meaning of life, and maybe that doesn’t matter. There are lots of ways to live that don’t involve introspection or even high degrees of self-knowledge. However there’s no doubt that, generally, there’s an improvement in people’s level of satisfaction and fulfilment if they are able to introspect and to do that very difficult work of taking stock of their lives, their family upbringing, the forces that shape them, the drives that make them do what they do. The more people are able to get a handle on some of these things, the better able they are to control their lives.
But it’s not for nothing that we’ve got this very strong impulse to repress, to deny, to block thought, to head for the television, to head for alcohol, to take drugs, to immerse ourselves in distraction. A lot of this stuff is too difficult to think about, so I’m sympathetic to that. Personally, my life is about trying to raise the level of knowledge and self-introspection. That’s what I like to do in my life, and like to do with people in my social circle.
I now know not to drive them crazy, I know that I used to, because I would try it on with too many people when they weren’t necessarily ready. At university I was known as someone who would immediately start to interview everyone.
[Laughs.] So I now know that some people, sure they want to talk about the weather. Sure, we can talk about many things via the weather. This is a country where we talk a lot about the weather.
So, what was your question? I repressed your question…
It’s really just a historical accident that people who operate the bastions of high culture have, for a variety of reasons, taken against guidance and didacticism. If you’re a serious person, you’re not looking for relevance in works of art. You’re not looking for teaching in literature. You are looking for paradox, you’re looking to ask questions and you’re deeply suspicious of anyone who has got an answer, even if that answer is tentative. It’s always struck me that you can go a long way by trying to put forward tentative suggestions.
In my books I don’t have set answers to problems, but I like to open up perspectives. I like to say ‘this is one approach, this is another, let’s play around with these things.’
I like to get ideas in circulation. I think that self-help has frightened people with its certainties and with its dogma, but I am still attracted to the therapeutic ambitions of culture. I still think that culture could and should guide us, and do that in a way that isn’t dogmatic. It could be playful and it could be helpful, without being prescriptive.
Well for years I thought that my ultimate ambition was to create the University of Life. I imagined it as a little bit like the School of Life is now, an organisation which would teach and be a global corporation dedicated to the soul, the inner self, and would able to deliver that kind of thing. As time went by, I kept delivering this as late-night aspiration, and then one late night, I was talking to somebody who said ‘you’re joking about this, but that’s just because you’re embarrassed about it. Why don’t you just try and get serious, because I know you are serious.’ This really hit me like a bolt from the blue. I thought ‘it’s true, I am serious but I’m pretending I’m joking about it because it’s kind of weird and embarrassing.’ But death is on the horizon, we’re not going to live forever, so let’s go for it.
So I swung into gear and thought I would try to make this happen. I got a group of people together, backers and associates and friends, and once you start to ask people, you see that there are networks latent. So I solidified a network around this idea.
The basic thought was, let’s try to start an association that uses culture to address the problems of everyday life. That’s the mission of the School of Life.
We wanted to be democratic, we wanted to be in the middle of life, so we thought we needed a shop in the middle of a high street. We needed to be right in the middle of the action, and we needed to deliver our offerings in a way that was appealing and alive to fashion, and not academic whilst still being academically ambitious.
We’ve been open two and a half years. It still looks the same but behind the scenes, in the engine room, we’ve been tweaking and thinking and adjusting. It’s been a huge learning curve for me helping to run an organisation.
Totally. Totally different. It’s only really exciting to me as a business because it’s in line with things that I like to think about. Many of my friends are in business, and for them it’s just the profit, and the process of business. Whether they’re selling lumber, making screws or pellets or whatever it is, they don’t really care. It’s just the financial operation that interests them. For me the financial operation is only interesting because the idea is interesting behind it. Nevertheless I really respect it. Someone said to me the other day “money is a great organising principle”. Money sets goals, it sets disciplines, and it’s very easy as an outsider and a writer to say that money is just evil and it always compromises. It does sometimes compromise, but it does organise and focus things. I’m more aware than I was of the good sides of trying to put something on a commercial footing. The difficulty has been how to properly expand and where to focus our energies.
We have eight million ideas a day. We try to do everything, but we’ve since had to scrap a lot of things and come back and do them properly.
Yep. I’ve forcibly been put in a cage and got people to lock me up. I’ll just go for long periods where I’m going to throw any new ideas out, because we’re just trying to get the ones we’ve got to work absolutely properly before we move on to the next thing. That’s just because of my background, where I can think up an idea in a paragraph and off I go. What that means from a legal point of view and financial point of view is just incredibly complicated. It’s been a learning curve [laughs].
That’s the second practical project I’ve been involved in. Really, aside from books, the last years have been taken up with just these two projects. To put it very pretentiously, these two projects are guided by my two main interests, which are beauty and wisdom. I’m a very aesthetic person. I’m interested in driving forward change to improve the look of the world. And then I’m very interested in wisdom, which is to increase the level of ideas about how to live a good life in society. So you could say that’s what I’ve been doing in my books one way of another, but in terms of projects, School of Life is about wisdom, and Living Architecture is about beauty.
It’s building what you could call show homes which test all sorts of new things—new arrangements of space, new construction techniques, new funding models. What we’re trying to do with each house is show the industry that you can do things differently, and show the general public that there could be demand for this, and this could be exciting. On one level it’s a theoretical organisation, and on another level it’s a holiday rental company.
No, I mean these two things have worked. It’s more the pace of them. They’re successful, but they’ve been incredibly slow and full of reversal. On the surface, everything looks fine and it is fine, but it’s been a long hard road. I’ve learnt a lot of skills as a human being. I used to be very shy about asking anyone for anything, I would just never want to ask. I’ve been doing nothing but asking strangers for a huge array of things in the last five years. And it’s changed my personality, probably for the better. I’m more outgoing and better able to win people round to some things that they might not have thought they’d be interested in.
Every project I do, I’m only interested in it if it’s going to be risking disaster. If it’s kind of familiar and I know how to do it, I won’t do it. So that book on work was tremendously risky and uncomfortable. It was an uncomfortable project because it basically meant that I kept having to go into new organisations and talk to strangers and watch them, often for quite considerable lengths of time, doing what they did, and often slightly lie to them about who I was and what I was doing, because some of these organisations wouldn’t have let me in otherwise.
I am now very used to being the only person in a room who is a complete outsider while thirty people are talking in advanced ways about accountancy regulations.
No, I have unbelievable doubt all the time. Lately, I haven’t had catastrophic doubt for a few weeks. Generally I do. Most days I am questioning my entire life, because I’m interested in impact and changing stuff. I’m constantly thinking – am I leading the right sort of life, have I done the right sort of thing? Is the School of Life actually the right thing, or is it not? Is Living Architecture OK, or maybe not? Are the books I’m writing alright, or should I do something else? I’m often thinking I should retrain and do something else, or focus my energies in a new way. So I’m very, very restless and impatient with existing categories.
I’m impatient with the literary world in many ways. I find the assumption of what a writer is… I feel the writer box is deeply constraining, frustrating, offensive in many ways.
At the same time, I’m aware of my limitations as a financial business operator. I know now, better than five years ago, that I’m very bad at doing some things. I’m bad at financial forecasting, I’ve often got the wrong impulses. I’m modest but restless and full of doubt. But that’s just my personality.
I think architecture is the thing. If I could have my life over again, I would love to train as an architect, because I’m really aware of skills I’m lacking there that I would love to have now. I would really want a financial background, if I go back to being eighteen. I would have loved to have studied economics, precisely because I’m not at all suited to it and I wish I understood it better. Sometimes I think I should have trained to become a management consultant for a few years, done something utterly counter to my natural inclinations and strengths. I should have really played to my weaknesses, rather than my strengths. When you’re younger you do always play to your strengths because it’s most natural, it’s the easiest thing. Then you explore your strengths and that gets boring, then you realise that the only way forward is to look at some of those weak areas and try to strengthen them.
What I tend to do is I’m working on one book, and I have a few other books circling around. I’ll have a file open on my computer, that I’ll add stuff to them to so they’re incubating but not active. But there’ll be one that’s active.
I’ve recently been devoting myself to this book on religion that’s coming out in February, and that’s been the project that I’ve been focused on in the last few years.
It’s a book called Religion For Atheists. It’s a look at religion from the view of a committed atheist, which I am, really asking ‘what can we learn from these guys?’ What can we steal from them? Chiefly at the level of organisation, not at the level of doctrine. I’m uninterested in what religions have to tell us about how to live, but I’m really interested in structure, experiences, education, time, rituals. Religions are the most accomplished disseminators of ideas in the world… these are educational machines, and they’re really successful. There’s a lot to learn about how ideas can be made effective in the world, because religious ideas are supremely effective. I don’t think they’re the right ideas, but they’re really effective. So the underlying question in the book is how can we get good secular ideas as effective as bad religious ideas.
The Western Wall, or the Wailing Wall as it’s known, is a fascinating thing. What is it? It’s a public space in which people’s lamentations and sorrows are given an airing. Very weird idea. In my book I try to imagine; what would a secular equivalent of that be? What would it be like if our sorrows were written on the walls of our cities? One could say that without God the whole thing doesn’t work. My answer to that is that is we don’t have a solution to the wailing, but we still have a public expression of the wailing, and that seems really important. It’s a place where grief can be made communal.
I look at many religious rituals and traditions and think there is something we can use here. If you look at pilgrimages, that’s a way of using a journey with a set ambition to reform your life. People could go; ‘yeah, but there are not saints that could change your life anymore’. Still that ambition to use a journey in a certain way is a legitimate one, an ongoing one. We could rehabilitate that, give it a form. In Orthodox Judaism, you’re supposed to have a bath every week to cleanse yourself of your sins and stuff you’ve done wrong, and come out of it purified. I’m fascinated by the way religions will use physical events like a bath, or a certain kind of food, or a journey—something involving the body—and will anchor to it a psychological or spiritual lesson. We don’t tend to do that in the modern secular world. We very much split apart the mind and the body. We don’t involve the body in the mind’s attempts to change itself, but I think we should.
I suppose it’s led me to see the gaps in the secular world. It’s led me to see that the secular world is really good at doing some things, but really quite bad at delivering solutions in other areas. I’m definitely not one of these people who is spiritual or who is looking for something else, and doesn’t believe in organised religion but is mesmerised by stars, it’s really not that. For me it’s much more practical, and it is about looking for lessons we can apply to secular life that can take some of the best and most nourishing bits out of religion, without importing what for me are the more dubious doctrinal thoughts.
I think I would want to be someone who’s remembered as having made a few stabs at trying to bring elite culture into circulation, into the wider society so that it can be made effective. So it’s both an attempt to spread culture and ideas, and also it’s about trying to make those ideas effective. Have an impact. We’re not short of good ideas in the world, the problem is that most good ideas are slumbering somewhere.