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:

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load 90 Free Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es and Start Liv­ing the Exam­ined Life

Alain de Bot­ton Pro­pos­es a Kinder, Gen­tler Phi­los­o­phy of Suc­cess

The Dai­ly Habits of High­ly Pro­duc­tive Philoso­phers: Niet­zsche, Marx & Immanuel Kant

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

The Art of Liv­ing: A Free Stan­ford Online Course Explores Time­less Ques­tions

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

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Comments (3)
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  • Claudio Ortega Gutierrez says:

    “It also means that he speaks to many, many more peopleu2014ordinary peo­ple hun­gry for human­ist ideas about livingu2014than his peers. “nnnnOnce, the were called sophists.

  • Oxumare says:

    I love this — would love to see 1 — 3! :-)

  • Glenda Smith says:

    Fan­tas­tic, inter­est­ing, enter­tain­ing, thought pro­vok­ing, sole stroking, illu­mi­nat­ing, won­der­ful and good. I have been look­ing for these ideas all my life. I have only an AA degree and much more prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence than intel­lec­tu­al. Why don’t we have this kind of input on com­mer­cial TV. I have been a sin­gle moth­er, busi­ness own­er and haven’t tak­en to time from work­ing, cook­ing and clean­ing toi­lets to explore these ideas. Now, that I’m retired there is time. Thanks, thanks and elat­ed thanks.

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