Popular independent philosopher Alain de Botton has been providing mini-introductions to academic subjects for several years now through his School of Life. These take the form of animated précis of the life and work of a handful of prominent authors who might be considered representative, if not essential, to the discipline. In philosophy, we have such indispensable figures as Plato, Rene Descartes, and Immanuel Kant. In political theory, we have Adam Smith, John Rawls, Karl Marx. Wherever we land—conservative, liberal, or radical—we end up interacting with such thinkers. When it comes to the general category of “Literature,” however, it seems to me it should be a bit more difficult to choose only a few figureheads.
For a good part of European history, most people couldn’t read the languages they spoke, but even those who could were hardly considered literate. This distinction was reserved for elites with classical educations who read Latin and usually Greek. Literature meant Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Homer…. Even after the Reformation and the spread of literacy in “vulgar” tongues, the disdain for common tongues remained. The radicalism of Dante and later Cervantes was to write great literature in their national languages. During the 18th century, the novel was often considered primarily middle class women’s entertainment, and in much of the 19th, a popular diversion rarely worthy of the highest critical appraisal.
The 20th century brought not only modernist revolutions but social revolutions that opened doors for women voices and writers previously relegated to the margins. In our current age, a diversity of writers now firmly occupy the center of culture. The oughts were dominated by Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, for example. This year’s Pulitzer winners include Colson Whitehead and poet Tyehimba Jess. Nobel and Pulitzer winner Toni Morrison just swept up another award from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. This is not to mention multiple-award-winning international writers like Derek Walcott, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie…. Venerable western literary traditions have become global in composition.
But in every period of literary history, international writers interacted, corresponded, influenced, and plagiarized each other. There is no single line of descent through the history of literature, no singular imperial story that dominates its production and reception. Its location varies from age to age, its families are massive and sprawling, loosely connected at the edges, but sometimes only very loosely. Perhaps it is a testament to the patrician conservatism of philosophy that it remains a field dominated by responses to dead great men. Literature has proven much more dynamic. De Botton’s choices in his introductory video series on literature do not quite reflect this dynamism. Why Voltaire and not, well, Cervantes, generally considered for centuries the father of the modern novel form? Why no Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Haruki Murakami, or Toni Morrison? No Allen Ginsberg, Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin?
These authors and many others may surely be to come. And we should bear in mind the source: not only is de Botton a pop philosopher first and critic secondarily, but he is also promoting a scholarly approach to self-help. The authors he chooses, therefore, all have life lessons to impart of the kind de Botton believes can help us be happier, nicer people who have better relationships. Charles Dickens, at the top, for example, teaches us to sympathize with others and to care about “serious things.” Jane Austen wanted us to be “better and wiser,” and her novels offer readers a course in personal development. From the existential bleakness of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, we can draw life lessons about hope and redemption in the midst of human failure. Even the claustrophobic nightmares of Franz Kafka have their utility as “redemptive, consoling art.” De Botton largely relies on biographical criticism and strays quite a ways from received interpretations.
His casual approach to literature as a didactic tool of personal betterment has the hallmarks of a very Victorian outlook, with both the drawbacks and the benefits such a view entails. While the School of Life series may have a narrow view of who produces art, culture, and philosophy, it also has a compelling argument to make that such things matter and matter greatly. The humanities need all the help they can get, and de Botton seems to argue that we need them more than ever as well. Most readers of Open Culture, I imagine, would surely agree. See de Botton’s full series, including such practical writers as James Joyce, Marcel Proust, George Orwell, and Leo Tolstoy, at the School of Life YouTube playlist.