Alain de Botton Proposes a Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success

For bet­ter or worse, Alain de Bot­ton is the face of pop phi­los­o­phy. He has advo­cat­ed “reli­gion for athe­ists” in a book of the same name (to the deep con­ster­na­tion of some athe­ists and the elo­quent inter­est of oth­ers); he has dis­tilled select­ed philo­soph­i­cal nuggets into self-help in his The Con­so­la­tions of Phi­los­o­phy; and most recent­ly, he’s tack­led a sub­ject close to everybody’s heart (to put it char­i­ta­bly) in How to Think More About Sex. As a corol­lary to his intel­lec­tu­al inter­ests in human bet­ter­ment, de Bot­ton also over­sees The School of Life, a “cul­tur­al enter­prise offer­ing good ideas for every­day life” with a base in Cen­tral Lon­don and a col­or­ful online pres­ence. Many crit­ics dis­dain de Botton’s shot­gun approach to phi­los­o­phy, but it gets peo­ple read­ing (not just his own books), and gets them talk­ing, rather than just shout­ing at each oth­er.

In addi­tion to his pub­lish­ing, de Bot­ton is an accom­plished and engag­ing speak­er. Although him­self a com­mit­ted sec­u­lar­ist, in his TED talks, he has posed some for­mi­da­ble chal­lenges to the smug cer­tain­ties of lib­er­al sec­u­lar­ism and the often bru­tal cer­tain­ties of lib­er­tar­i­an mer­i­toc­ra­cy. Apro­pos of the lat­ter, in the talk above, de Bot­ton takes on what he calls “job snob­bery,” the dom­i­nant form of snob­bery today, he says, and a glob­al phe­nom­e­non. Cer­tain­ly, we can all remem­ber any num­ber of times when the ques­tion “What do you do?” has either made us exhale with pride or feel like we might shriv­el up and blow away. De Bot­ton takes this com­mon expe­ri­ence and draws from it some inter­est­ing infer­ences: for exam­ple, against the idea that we (one assumes he means West­ern­ers) live in a mate­ri­al­is­tic soci­ety, de Bot­ton posits that we pri­mar­i­ly use mate­r­i­al goods and career sta­tus not as ends in them­selves but as the means to receive emo­tion­al rewards from those who choose how much love or respect to “spend” on us based on where we land in any social hier­ar­chy.

Accord­ing­ly, de Bot­ton asks us to see some­one in a Fer­rari not as greedy but as “incred­i­bly vul­ner­a­ble and in need of love” (he does not address oth­er pos­si­ble com­pen­sa­tions of mid­dle-aged men in over­ly-expen­sive cars). For de Bot­ton, mod­ern soci­ety turns the whole world into a school, where equals com­pete with each oth­er relent­less­ly.  But the prob­lem with the anal­o­gy is that in the wider world, the admirable spir­it of equal­i­ty runs up against the real­i­ties of increas­ing­ly entrenched inequities. Our inabil­i­ty to see this is nur­turned, de Bot­ton points out, by an indus­try that sells us all the fic­tion that, with just enough know-how and gump­tion, any­one can become the next Mark Zucker­berg or Steve Jobs. But if this were true, of course, there would be hun­dreds of thou­sands of Zucker­bergs and Jobs.

For de Bot­ton, when we believe that those who make it to the top do so only on mer­it, we also, in a cal­lous way, believe those at the bot­tom deserve their place and should stay there—a belief that takes no account of the acci­dents of birth and the enor­mi­ty of fac­tors out­side anyone’s con­trol. This shift in think­ing, he says—especially in the Unit­ed States—gets reflect­ed in a shift in lan­guage. Where in for­mer times some­one in tough cir­cum­stances might be called “unfor­tu­nate” or “down on their luck,” they are now more like­ly to be called “a los­er,” a social con­di­tion that exac­er­bates feel­ings of per­son­al fail­ure and increas­es the num­bers of sui­cides. The rest of de Botton’s rich­ly observed talk lays out his philo­soph­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal alter­na­tives to the irra­tional rea­son­ing that makes every­one respon­si­ble for every­thing that hap­pens to them. As a con­se­quence of soft­en­ing the harsh bina­ry log­ic of success/failure, de Bot­ton con­cludes, we can find greater mean­ing and hap­pi­ness in the work we choose to do—because we love it, not because it buys us love.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Alain De Bot­ton Turns His Philo­soph­i­cal Mind To Devel­op­ing “Bet­ter Porn”

Alain de Botton’s Quest for The Per­fect Home and Archi­tec­tur­al Hap­pi­ness

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

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.