Socrates on TV, Courtesy of Alain de Botton (2000)

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.

Com­plete set of links to Phi­los­o­phy: A Guide to Hap­pi­ness episodes: Socrates on Self-Con­fi­dence, Epi­cu­rus on Hap­pi­ness, Seneca on Anger, Mon­taigne on Self-Esteem, Niet­zsche on Hap­pi­ness

Relat­ed con­tent:

Phi­los­o­phy: A Guide to Hap­pi­ness

Alain de Bot­ton: The Glass of Life is Half-Emp­ty

Alain de Bot­ton Wants a Reli­gion for Athe­ists

55 Free Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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  • there’s also an addi­tion­al episode called: Schopen­hauer on Love

  • steroids says:

    one of the best shows i’ve ever watched on youtube learned plen­ty from it.

  • Walter Haas says:

    The None Exam­ine Life is not Worth Liv­ing:

    Social Engi­neer­ing is the nor­mal con­di­tion­ing in societies.We learn from our par­ents and edu­ca­tion what is permitted.Conformity is praised.

    None con­formist have a hard road to travel,but no soci­ety can exist with­out them if they are to progress.They make the excep­tions to the rule.

    DNA,IQ,environment are what shapes the individual.These qual­i­ties are hid­den as to how they will influ­ence the per­son in many aspects.

    Gen­er­al­ly one is a prod­uct of their upbringing,but not always.

    Much sor­row results from this fact.

    Most peo­ple do not have a phi­los­o­phy of life,and for most who do it is dif­fi­cult to fol­low.

    Bud­dhism and the Eight Fold Path is a road that can be followed,and mod­i­fi­ca­tions can be applied.

    Right Thinking,Right Living,Right Employment,etc are log­i­cal dictates,yet desire,emotions,lust,greed,power,etc stand in the way of Right Think­ing.

    What is Right Thinking,and Think­ing Pos­i­tive and Right Direc­tion.

    Not being destruc­tive to yourself,or others.Doing what is ben­e­fi­cial to your­self and oth­ers that is Just mean­ing not destruc­tive and hurt­ful.

    Epi­cu­rus has a pro­gram to fol­low as Epicte­tus and oth­ers do among the Greeks and Romans.

    The flaw is human nature.The char­ac­ter of man is the beast as a prod­uct of nature.This results in mans fail­ure to fol­low the Gold­en Rules.

    Of course we all know this,but as with love we hope we will achieve it where most have failed,and a small per­cent do.

    Right Think­ing is the razors edge,but if we are dili­gent maybe one can stay on the right track.

    Real­ly it is the luck of the draw for most,but the hope is in know­ing you may be a win­ner.

    The New World Order and advance tech­nol­o­gy if suc­cess­ful will be the down­fall of man.We see the result of it today 9 Dec 2015.

    Wal­ter Haas—God Bless Amer­i­ca

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