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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