We could call Alain de Botton, in the classical sense, a philosophical amateur: that is, one who loves philosophy. But not everybody loves the way he approaches the field. His 2000 book The Consolations of Philosophy drew a particularly sharp line through the critics: some found great refreshment in the accessibility he granted philosophers like Seneca and Schopenhauer by framing them in an unexpectedly sincere parody of a self-help book; others judged this method inadequate to deal with the thinkers’ true seriousness and complexity. This clicks right in with what seems like de Botton’s grand mission: taking Western civilization’s most respected words, written and spoken, and using them to adjust the nuts and bolts of our modern, everyday pursuit of happiness. He wrote another book called How Proust Can Change Your Life; he established a school which offers courses like “How to Balance Work with Life” and “How to Be Cool;” and his latest project involves adapting religion for use by atheists (watch related video here).
No surprise, then, that de Botton’s work would extend to that most common medium, television, with a series called Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness. You can watch a number of episodes on YouTube, including but not limited to “Socrates on Self-Confidence.” Zipping through the streets of Athens on a canary-yellow Vespa, de Botton tells us of the life and methods of the fifth-century-BC philosopher who seems to remain the discipline’s most famous practitioner. Illustrating Socrates’ famous habit of public interrogation, de Botton strolls up to other visitors in the marketplace, asking them to define the idea of justice or their conception of their personal life. The answers don’t come easily: a Frenchwoman struggles to respond even when our intrepid host shifts into her language, and a religiously outfitted local blows him off without even slowing down. A few hearty Australian travelers — a breed found at every point on the map, cradles of philosophy and otherwise — do lay out their self-styled philosophies without hesitation, but de Botton has plenty more places to go and people to see, like a focus group whose volley of opinions would have summoned Socrates’ gravest reservations about democracy, and a potter who crafts a tangible metaphor for Socrates’ notion of the well-tested, watertight belief.
Those who’ve questioned whether de Botton knows how to handle philosophy may well come away from these programs convinced that he doesn’t. I, however, find something almost radical in the way his demeanor, unyieldingly straightforward and never forgetful of concerns others might dismiss as mundane, interacts with the great works of the philosophical canon. I sense an almost strategic naïveté at work, and it takes him places, intellectually and geographically, to which his closest peers in letters may never get around. The starkly divided reaction de Botton draws shows, to my mind, that he’s being just the right kind of provocative — in his gentle manner.