What Are Literature, Philosophy & History For? Alain de Botton Explains with Monty Python-Style Videos

Once upon a time, ques­tions about the use-val­ue of art were the height of philis­tin­ism. “All art is quite use­less,” wrote the aes­thete Oscar Wilde, pre­sag­ing the atti­tudes of mod­ernists to come. Explain­ing this state­ment in a let­ter to a per­plexed fan, Wilde opined that art “is not meant to instruct, or to influ­ence action in any way.” But if you ask Alain de Bot­ton, founder of “cul­tur­al enter­prise” The School of Life, art—or lit­er­a­ture specifically—does indeed have a prac­ti­cal pur­pose. Four to be pre­cise.

In a pitch that might appeal to Dale Carnegie, de Bot­ton argues that lit­er­a­ture: 1) Saves you time, 2) Makes you nicer, 3) Cures lone­li­ness, and 4) Pre­pares you for fail­ure. The for­mat of his video above—“What is Lit­er­a­ture For?”—may be for­mu­la­ic, but the argu­ment may not be so con­trary to mod­ernist dic­ta after all. Indeed, as William Car­los Williams famous­ly wrote, “men die mis­er­ably every day / for lack / of what is found” in poet­ry. How many peo­ple per­ish slow­ly over wast­ed time, mean­ness, lone­li­ness, and bro­ken dreams?

Like de Botton’s short video intro­duc­tions to philoso­phers, which we fea­tured in a pre­vi­ous post, “What is Lit­er­a­ture For?” comes to us with Mon­ty Python-like ani­ma­tion and pithy nar­ra­tion that makes quick work of a lot of com­plex ideas. Whether you find this inspir­ing or insipid will depend large­ly on how you view de Botton’s broad-brush, pop­ulist approach to the human­i­ties in gen­er­al. In any case, it’s true that peo­ple crave, and deserve, more acces­si­ble intro­duc­tions to weighty sub­jects like lit­er­a­ture and phi­los­o­phy, sub­jects that—as de Bot­ton says above in “What is Phi­los­o­phy For?”—can seem “weird, irrel­e­vant, bor­ing.…”

Here, con­tra Lud­wig Wittgenstein’s claims that all phi­los­o­phy is noth­ing more than con­fu­sion about lan­guage, de Bot­ton expounds a very clas­si­cal idea of the dis­ci­pline: “Philoso­phers are peo­ple devot­ed to wis­dom,” he says. And what is wis­dom for? Its appli­ca­tion, unsur­pris­ing­ly, is also emi­nent­ly prac­ti­cal. “Being wise,” we’re told, “means attempt­ing to live and die well.” As some­one once indoc­tri­nat­ed into the Byzan­tine cult of aca­d­e­m­ic human­i­ties, I have to say this def­i­n­i­tion seems to me espe­cial­ly reduc­tive, but it does accord per­fect­ly with The School of Life’s promise of “a vari­ety of pro­grammes and ser­vices con­cerned with how to live wise­ly and well.”

Last­ly, we have de Botton’s expla­na­tion above, “What Is His­to­ry For?” Most peo­ple, he claims, find the sub­ject “bor­ing.” Giv­en the enor­mous pop­u­lar­i­ty of his­tor­i­cal dra­ma, doc­u­men­tary film, nov­els, and pop­u­lar non-fic­tion, I’m not sure I fol­low him here. The prob­lem, it seems, is not so much that we don’t like his­to­ry, but that we can nev­er reach con­sen­sus on what exact­ly hap­pened and what those hap­pen­ings mean. This kind of uncer­tain­ty tends to make peo­ple very uncom­fort­able.

Unboth­ered by this prob­lem, de Bot­ton press­es on, argu­ing that his­to­ry, at its best, pro­vides us with “solu­tions to the prob­lems of the present.” It does so, he claims, by cor­rect­ing our “bias toward the present.” He cites the obses­sive jack­ham­mer­ing of 24-hour news, which shouts at us from mul­ti­ple screens at all times. I have to admit, he’s got a point. With­out a sense of his­to­ry, it’s easy to become com­plete­ly over­whelmed by the inces­sant chat­ter of the now. Per­haps more con­tro­ver­sial­ly, de Bot­ton goes on to say that his­to­ry is full of “good ideas.” Watch the video above and see if you find his exam­ples per­sua­sive.

All three of de Botton’s videos are brisk, upbeat, and very opti­mistic about our capac­i­ty to make good use of the human­i­ties to bet­ter our­selves. Per­haps some of the more skep­ti­cal among us won’t be eas­i­ly won over by his argu­ments, but they’re cer­tain­ly wor­thy of debate and offer some very pos­i­tive ways to approach the lib­er­al arts. If you are per­suad­ed, then dive into our col­lec­tions of free lit­er­a­ture, his­to­ry and phi­los­o­phy cours­es high­light­ed in the sec­tion below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

78 Free Online His­to­ry Cours­es: From Ancient Greece to The Mod­ern World

55 Free Online Lit­er­a­ture Cours­es: From Dante and Mil­ton to Ker­ouac and Tolkien

Down­load 100 Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es & Start Liv­ing the Exam­ined Life

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

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