A Guide to Happiness: Alain de Botton’s Documentary Shows How Nietzsche, Socrates & 4 Other Philosophers Can Change Your Life

Alain de Botton is a not a philosopher’s philosopher. This means that his work is given little consideration inside academia. It also means that he speaks to many, many more people---ordinary people hungry for humanist ideas about living---than his peers. In his six-part video series, Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness, de Botton tells us that he’d always looked to philosophy as a discipline that “has wise things to say about everyday worries…. Philosophy promised something that might sound a little naïve, but was in fact rather profound: A way to learn to be happy.” I’m still not sure if this sounds more naïve or profound, but de Botton’s videos, each nearly 25 minutes long, concern thinkers who surely knew the difference. Each video also functions as a travelogue of sorts, as de Botton visits the cities that produced the thinkers, and tries to square their histories with the modern world around the relics.

Above, de Botton discusses Roman stoic philosopher and tragedian Seneca. An advisor to Nero, Seneca’s life may have been happy, at times, but it was hardly restrained. In any case, he had something to teach us about the futility of anger, and he was also, like de Botton, a great popularizer of other people's ideas. Seneca characterized anger as a rational response that nonetheless relies on false premises, namely that we have more control over our circumstances than we actually do, and that our optimism about outcomes is unfounded and sets us up with unrealistic expectations. De Botton has before professed an affinity for the tragic view, and Seneca’s horribly bloody works, which inspired the Elizabethan genre known as “Revenge Tragedy,” are particularly grotesque explorations of anger. But perhaps it is those who most clearly see the pernicious effects of an emotion, or lack of it, who understand it best.

Take Arthur Schopenhauer, whom de Botton consults as his authority on love. Like Seneca, Schopenhauer seems very much at odds with much of his philosophical writing on love and compassion. His essay “On Women” earned him a permanent reputation as a misogynist, deserved or not. He's rumored to have had a violent temper and wrote approvingly of keeping one's distance from the mass of people, most of whom annoyed him disproportionately. Schopenhauer also famously wrote that it would have been preferable not to have been born at all, a position of extreme misanthropy known as antinatalism.

But there are other aspects of Schopenhauer's romantic life to discuss, both its early successes and later failures. "Nothing in life," says de Botton, "is more important than love for Schopenhauer." Even with all of its pains of rejection, romantic love, Schopenhauer wrote in The World as Will and Representation, "is more important than all other aims in man's life; and therefore it is quite worthy of the profound seriousness with which everyone pursues it."

Another popular British philosophical thinker, John Gray, has a very different take on the great German pessimist, calling his philosophy “more subversive of humanist hopes than any other.” But de Botton’s technique seems in many ways calculated as a mild subversion of expectation, choosing as he does such contradictory, and often very solitary figures.

One solitary thinker who occupies a treasured place in the library of every humanist is Michel de Montaigne, the genial French essayist who invented the literary term essai, and who some might say also perfected the form. Montaigne has always struck me as the happiest of men, even in, or especially in his long stretches of solitude, punctuated by conscientious public service (despite his lifelong painful kidney stones). While both Schopenhauer and Montaigne engaged in lengthy self-examination, Montaigne seems to have genuinely liked himself and others. He treats himself in his writings as an old and honest friend with whom one can be perfectly candid without any fear of reprisal. This is perhaps why de Botton chose him to illustrate self-esteem.

Montaigne comes from a tradition much friendlier to philosophy as memoir (he invented the tradition). And so, in this age of the memoir, he has seen a great resurgence. In 2011, at least three popular books on Montaigne came out, one titled How to Live and another subtitled Montaigne and Being in Touch With Life. Of all the six philosophers de Botton surveys in his series, which also includes Nietzsche, Epicurus, and Socrates, Montaigne would seem the most complimentary to de Botton’s casual, personal approach to philosophy, which seeks not to dig new ground nor discover distant countries but to confront the vexing human questions that meet us always at home.

You can view all six episodes in the embedded playlist below:

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Discover the “Brazen Bull,” the Ancient Greek Torture Machine That Doubled as a Musical Instrument

History is replete with brutally imaginative torture and execution techniques. The list of cruelties includes crucifixion, where victims were left to die on the cross; the rack, where torturers would place the victim on a wooden frame to be slowly pulled apart; and hanging, drawing, and quartering—the official English punishment for high treason from 1351 to 1870—where men would be drawn by horse to their place of execution, hung until near-death, and then emasculated and disemboweled before being decapitated and cut into quarters. The most intricately sadistic form of torture, however, originated with the Greek tyrant Phalaris.

Phalaris, the despot of Acragas (now Agrigento, in Sicily), was infamous for his callousness and reputedly “devoured” suckling infants. The video above describes how Phalaris, keeping to his character, asked the craftsman Perilaus to construct a bronze bull for the execution of criminals. The bull housed a hollow chamber where victims were deposited through a trapdoor. A fire was kindled beneath the bull, turning the statue into an oven.

As Phalaris supposedly admitted himself, the most savage aspect of this brazen monstrosity was its musical nature:

A countryman of my own, one Perilaus, an admirable artist, but a man of evil disposition, had so far mistaken my character as to think that he could win my regard by the invention of a new form of torture; the love of torture, he thought, was my ruling passion… He opened the back of the animal, and continued: "When you are minded to punish any one, shut him up in this receptacle, apply these pipes to the nostrils of the bull, and order a fire to be kindled beneath. The occupant will shriek and roar in unremitting agony; and his cries will come to you through the pipes as the tenderest, most pathetic, most melodious of bellowings. Your victim will be punished, and you will enjoy the music."

It is doubtful that the tyrant so known for his barbarism would cringe at this novelty; nevertheless, Phalaris claims to have been sickened by Perilaus’ cleverness:

'His words revolted me. I loathed the thought of such ingenious cruelty, and resolved to punish the artificer in kind. "If this is anything more than an empty boast, Perilaus," I said to him, "if your art can really produce this effect, get inside yourself, and pretend to roar; and we will see whether the pipes will make such music as you describe." He consented; and when he was inside I closed the aperture, and ordered a fire to be kindled. "Receive," I cried, "the due reward of your wondrous art: let the music-master be the first to play."

Upon hearing Perilaus' shrieks, the content tyrant removed the craftsman from bull, and then threw him off of a cliff. “Mistaken my character,” indeed.

Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science writer. Follow him at @iliablinderman.

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Marilyn Monroe’s Handwritten Turkey-and-Stuffing Recipe


Entire industries seem to have sprung up around the mission of demonstrating that Marilyn Monroe did more in her short life than become an icon — the icon — of midcentury American starlethood. We here at Open Culture have previously featured not just her famously photographed reading of James Joyce's Ulysses, but the contents of her personal library as well. The new book Fragments provides a great deal of rich ephemera to those scholars of Monroe's pursuits off the screen, including, as Matt Lee and Ted Lee in the New York Times describe it, "assorted letters, poems and back-of-the-envelope scribblings that span the time from Monroe’s first marriage in 1943 to her death in 1962." The article appears in the paper's Dining & Wine section thanks to one Monrovian fragment of particular interest this time of year: her personal recipe for turkey and stuffing.


"Scrawled on stationery with a letterhead from a title insurance company," write Lee and Lee, "the recipe describes in some detail how to prepare a stuffing for chicken or turkey. The formula is extensive in the number of ingredients (11, not including the 5 herbs and spices, or salt and pepper), and in their diversity (3 kinds of nuts and 3 animal proteins). It is unorthodox for an American stuffing in its use of a bread loaf soaked in water, wrung dry and shredded, and in its lack of added fat, broth, raw egg or any other binder." You can find a transcript of the steps right below. And if you give a whirl on Thanksgiving, let us know how it turns out.

For the Stuffing

  • No garlic
  • Sourdough
  • French bread - soak in cold water, wring out, then shred
  • For chicken giblets - boil in water 5-10 mins
  • Liver - heart then chop
  • 1 whole or ½ onion,  chop & parsley / four stalk celery,  chop together following spices - put in rosemary
  • Thyme, bay leaf, oregano, poultry seasoning, salt, pepper,
  • Grated Parmesan cheese, 1 handful
  • 1/2lb – 1/4lb ground round - put in frying pan - brown (no oil) then mix raisin 1 ½ cuops or more
  • 1 cup chop nuts (walnuts, chestnuts, peanuts)
  • 1 or 2 hard boiled eggs - chopped mix together

To Prep the Bird

  • Salt & pepper inside chicken or turkey - outside same and butter
  • Sew up clamp birds put chicken or turkey in 350 oven
  • Roasting chicken - 3or 4lbs or larger
  • Cooks 30 min to 1lbs
  • Brown chicken or pheasant (vinegar, oil, onion, spices) - let cook in own juice
  • Add little water as you go
  • ½ glass vinegar - put in when half done
  • Cooks 2 hours
  • Put potatoes
  • Mushroom - button canned
  • Peas - fresh

via NYTimes,  Brain Pickings and The Daily Mail

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, literature, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los AngelesA Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Facebook page.

“Soda/Pop/Coke,” A Creative Visual Remix of Harvard’s Famous 2003 Survey of American Dialects

Tomorrow, friends and relatives from far-flung corners of the country will gather as they do this time each year—stuff themselves silly, trim Christmas trees, watch football, online shop, etc. And depending on how far-flung those assembled are, there may be in certain homes some clandestine chuckling over a certain guest’s request for “pop” instead of soda, or the other way around, or some other funny way of saying things. Because in this gargantuan expanse we call the United States, we’ve got a wealth of regional variants—some differences subtle, some quite noticeable (though without necessarily the degree of socioeconomic baggage as the UK, I’m convinced).

I recall, for instance, moving to New York City over a decade ago and grappling for the next several years with New Yorkers’ insistence on saying “standing on line” instead of “in line.” As “online” acquired an entirely new meaning, this linguistic oddity took on an even more confusing dimension for outsiders. And having grown up hearing the second person plural as roughly half “you guy”s and half “y’all,”s I’ve been amused by the New York “youse.” As we learn from The Atlantic's "Soda/Pop/Coke" above, these differences in wording correspond to regional differences in pronunciation of words like “bag,” “pecan,” and “coupon.”

Informing us that “at least 10 distinct dialects of English are spoken in the United States,” “Soda/Pop/Coke” draws on the 2003 Harvard Dialect Survey, conducted by linguist Bert Vaux. As the film’s interviewers ask callers Vaux’s survey questions, their regional affiliations appear graphically on a map of the continental United States, based on graduate student Joshua Katz’s heat mapping of Vaux’s work.  You can see the more than one hundred variants Vaux’s survey measures here, and The Atlantic points us to U Penn’s dense (and specialized) National Map of the Regional Dialects of American English. It’s a complicated and rarefied science, linguistics, but we’re all at least amateur sociologists of language (sometimes bad ones) as we sort and size each other up—or completely mishear each other—based on completely unconscious choices in wording and pronunciation.

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Newly-Released Thelonious Monk Live Recording, ‘Paris 1969,’ Now Streaming Free for a Limited Time

Thelonious_Monk_and_Howard_McGhee,_Minton's_Playhouse_,_Sept_1947_(Gottlieb_10248)A quick heads up: Last week we told you all about how Thelonious Monk flubbed his first concert in Paris in 1954 and then made a triumphant return in 1969. The '69 concert has just been released as a new CD, but, for a limited time, you can hear it streaming online,  from start to finish, for free. It's all thanks to NPR's First Listen site. Enjoy.

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92nd Street Y Launches a New Online Archive with 1,000 Recordings of Literary Readings, Musical Performances & More

Kurt Vonnegut once commented, in an interview with Joseph Heller, that the best audience he had ever encountered was at the 92nd Street Y in New York. “Those people know everything. They are wide awake and responsive.”

Located at the corner of 92nd Street and Lexington Avenue, the 92Y has a venerable history of public performance, conversation, poetry and beyond. Vonnegut himself appeared at the 92Y seven times to read aloud from his own work. (Including this reading from Breakfast of Champions three years before the book was published.)

Cultural programming has been a focus at the 92Y since it opened in 1874. Originally, it served mostly German-Jewish men (note, it isn’t a YMCA, but a YM-YWHA—Young Men’s and Women’s Hebrew Association). But the Kaufmann Concert Hall opened in 1930, and that’s where a veritable Who’s Who of noted entertainment, politics, sports, and science figures have appeared over the years, speaking to that “wide awake and responsive” audience.

Lucky for the rest of us, the 92Y recorded the vast majority of those performances. And now 1,000 recordings appear on a new site, 92Y On Demand. It's a fantastic archive of audio and video files, searchable by topic, year or performer name.

It’s all there: Yogi Berra looking back on his life and career. A 1961 reading by a young Nadine Gordimer. Harold Pinter reading his own short stories and weighing in on the Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones. Andrés Segovia playing a classical guitar recital. Lou Reed speaking on the eve of his live performance of Berlin (top). Billy Crystal (below) on roasting Muhammad Ali.

92Y is home to the Unterberg Poetry Center, so the new archive abounds with poetry readings. Dylan Thomas read there in 1953. Two years earlier playwright Thornton Wilder appeared and read from Emily Dickinson’s work. And closer to our own time, Paul McCartney recently read from his own poetry.

See many more celebrated figures such as Maria BamfordMaurice SendakDan SavageJunot Díaz and Jamaica Kincaid read and discuss their work at 92Y On Demand.

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Kate Rix writes about digital media and education. Follow her on Twitter.

Slavoj Žižek Examines the Perverse Ideology of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy

Beethoven’s iconic Ninth Symphony premiered in Vienna in 1824, at “a time of great repression, of ultra-conservative nationalism” as the old orders fought back against the revolutions of the previous century. But it’s difficult to imagine the composer having any nationalist intent, what with his well-known hatred of authority, particularly imperialist authority (and particularly of Napoleon). Even less obvious is the imputation of nationalist tendencies to Friedrich Schiller, whose poem, “Ode to Joy” Beethoven adapts to a glorious chorus in the fourth movement. Schiller’s poem, writes Scott Horton in Harper’s, “envisions a world without monarchs” in which universal friendship “is essential if humankind is to overcome its darker moments.” And in his take on the ubiquitous piece of music, contrarian theorist Slavoj Žižek acknowledges in the clip above from his latest film, A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, that the Ninth is generally taken for granted “as a kind of an ode to humanity as such, to the brotherhood and freedom of all people.”

And yet Žižek , being Žižek, draws our attention to the Ninth Symphony as a perfect ideological container, by reference to its unforgettable use in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, as unsparing a look at humanity’s “darker moments” as one might find on film (excerpt above). Kubrick (and composer Wendy Carlos) drew on a long, dark history of associations with the Ninth. As evidence of its “universal adaptability,” Žižek points to its well-known use by the Nazis as a nationalist anthem, as well as by the Soviet Union as a communist song; in China during the Cultural Revolution, when almost all other Western music was prohibited; and at the extreme Apartheid right in South Rhodesia. “At the opposite end,” Žižek says, the Ninth Symphony was the favorite of ultra-leftist Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman, and in 1972, it became the unofficial “Anthem of Europe” (now of the European Union). The towering piece of music, Žižek claims, enables us to imagine a “perverse scene of universal fraternity” in which the world’s dictators, arch-terrorists, and war criminals all embrace each other. It’s a deeply disturbing image, to say the least. Watch the full excerpt for more of Žižek's examination of the ideological weight Beethoven carries.

via Bibliokept

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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