Alain de Botton’s School of Life Presents Animated Introductions to Heidegger, The Stoics & Epicurus

Why is West­ern phi­los­o­phy so dif­fi­cult, so abstruse, and so damned wordy? Per­haps it’s sim­ply a mat­ter of job secu­ri­ty. It’s gen­er­al­ly well-known, after all, that some of the most tac­i­turn philoso­phers were also some of the poor­est—Lud­wig Wittgen­stein, who was inde­pen­dent­ly wealthy, notwith­stand­ing. But if you fol­low the for­mat Alain de Bot­ton lays out in the phi­los­o­phy depart­ment of his video series, “The Big Ideas,” you can pick up some Hei­deg­ger, a lit­tle Sto­ic thought, and the ideas of Epi­cu­rus each in under ten min­utes of light­heart­ed com­men­tary, accom­pa­nied by quirky ani­ma­tion from a stu­dio called Mad Adam (who favor a very Ter­ry Gilliam-like approach to their art). There are those crit­ics who think de Bot­ton glib and shal­low, a “self-help guru to the British middle-class—a life coach.” In a cer­tain sense, I sup­pose he’d have to agree with that assess­ment, giv­en that his “cul­tur­al enter­prise,” The School of Life, has as its tagline “good ideas for every­day life.” Do the dead Euro­pean philoso­phers of ages past have help­ful tips for our mun­dane 21st cen­tu­ry exis­tence, and do de Botton’s videos do any jus­tice to the qual­i­ty of their thought?

As to the first ques­tion, I sup­pose we’d have to answer, yes. As for the second—I leave it to the philoso­phers to weigh in. At the top of the post, we have Mar­tin Heidegger—“the most incom­pre­hen­si­ble Ger­man philoso­pher that ever lived”—in just over five min­utes. It turns out that “beneath the jar­gon, Hei­deg­ger tells us sim­ple, even at times home­spun truths” about things like mean­ing and free­dom. Once a rank­ing mem­ber of the Nazi par­ty, Hei­deg­ger, de Bot­ton says, “saw the error of his ways,” a claim peo­ple often repeat with­out a great deal of evi­dence. But Heidegger’s Nazi past aside, his thought, de Bot­ton says, helps us get back in touch with the mys­tery of exis­tence, what the philoso­pher called das sein, or “Being.” This term more or less sums up the core of Heidegger’s entire project, and I con­fess I nev­er real­ly grasped what he means by it. Maybe you will after tak­ing de Botton’s very short course.

Next up, we have the Sto­ics, not a spe­cif­ic move­ment or group as such, but an entire school of thought that “flour­ished for 480 years in ancient Greece and Rome.” Sto­icism offered a nar­row range of respons­es to the ancient prob­lem de Bot­ton defines as “Life is very dif­fi­cult,” and it appealed to com­mon­ers and aris­to­crats alike because of its uni­ver­sal con­cern with suf­fer­ing. De Bot­ton gives us the gist by refer­ring to the way we typ­i­cal­ly use the word “sto­ic” these days, as a syn­onym for “brave.” He says a bit more, of course, about Stoicism’s answers to life’s chal­lenges, lis­ten above.

Final­ly, we have Greek philoso­pher Epi­cu­rus, who “helps us think about mon­ey, cap­i­tal­ism, and our run­away con­sumer soci­ety.” This despite the fact that Epi­cu­rus pre­dates cap­i­tal­ism and con­sumer soci­ety by well over two-thou­sand years. Nonethe­less, his thought is eter­nal­ly rel­e­vant, giv­en that its pri­ma­ry con­cern, “What makes peo­ple hap­py?” is a prob­lem unlike­ly to be solved in anyone’s life­time. But Epi­cu­rus had some answers, and he pur­veyed them—like de Botton—by found­ing his own school. He and his dis­ci­ples, Epi­cure­ans, were rumored to be debauched and wicked lib­ertines steeped in exces­sive food, drink, and sex. In fact, the oppo­site was true: Epi­cu­rus was an aus­tere and sober man, who urged restraint in mat­ters sex­u­al and fis­cal, mak­ing him, in a way, a gen­uine con­ser­v­a­tive.

De Botton’s “Big Ideas” cur­ricu­lum cur­rent­ly includes two oth­er videos that func­tion as gen­er­al defens­es of the human­i­ties: “What is Art for?” and “What is Lit­er­a­ture for?” Both ques­tions might sound mean­ing­less to some refined aes­thetes, but for a great many peo­ple get­ting on with the painful, some­times drea­ry, and often har­ried busi­ness of dai­ly life, ques­tions about util­i­ty are sen­si­ble enough. New big ideas videos are on the way—in the mean­while, vis­it de Botton’s School of Life Youtube chan­nel for video shorts on “Mood,” “Rela­tion­ships,” and more.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

Alain de Bot­ton Shows How Art Can Answer Life’s Big Ques­tions in Art as Ther­a­py

A Guide to Hap­pi­ness: Alain de Bot­ton Shows How Six Great Philoso­phers Can Change Your Life

Alain de Bot­ton Pro­pos­es a Kinder, Gen­tler Phi­los­o­phy of Suc­cess

Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger Talks Phi­los­o­phy with a Bud­dhist Monk on Ger­man Tele­vi­sion (1963)

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

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