I started studying philosophy at sixteen, as it was part of the syllabus at the point in time when we were deemed a little more mature and able to take it in. I didn't find it easy at all. It was the only humanities subject that confounded me. A few months in, I asked our teacher why we study 'the work of all of these people who evidently had no jobs and who said everything and its opposite'. The class sniggered at the remark (some laughed, understandably), while the teacher seemed somewhat offended by my morosity (also, understandably). She said that we study philosophy in order better to understand the evolution of humans as thinking beings. Simple, dear reader, and to this day my favourite, straight-to-the-point definition of the purpose of a discipline that is neither straight-forward, nor plain, nor simple. And yet, I find it vital to gain a profound understanding of who we are as a species.
Many years later, as I was sitting in a café, talking about books with an acquaintance of mine, she burst out with, 'I just don't see the point of Alain de Botton'. Now it was my turn to feel a little hurt and offended because Alain de Botton is one of my favourite authors, up there with children's genius Jacqueline Wilson, and because, had I known he was around when I started wading through philosophy, my student life wouldn't have been half as hard. Herein lies Alain's greatness: he is able to utilise complex concepts, apply them to whatever field he is studying, and showcase philosophy's brilliant relevance to the everyday.
This is not easily done, for this is a discipline much maligned by many: where there appear to be no immediate practical applications of it, a field of study is often erroneously dismissed as irrelevant. This is a contemporary malaise: the need to quantify with hard data the advantages of embracing a given discipline is belittling our ability to find profound links among different areas of enquiry. If you too are saddled with acquaintances who do not see the point of anything other than business studies, go back home and sink on the sofa with Alain's wonderful books. They will restore your faith in human greatness, they will reconnect you with concepts that have been dear to humankind since the beginning of times and they will highlight the immensely entertaining and enlightening value of deep philosophical enquiry. I am gushing, yes, but I've got good reasons to! My favourite is The Architecture of Happiness, which I read in one day in 2008, closely followed by Status Anxiety and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (I urge anyone in or out of a job to read this one).
It seems fitting that a philosopher should be answering questions about his own life. Today Alain answers classic Proustian questions which, I am sure you have all noticed, have inspired my usual set about the writing life. And by the way, after you've read below, watch this. Thanks Alain, I love you!
What's your main character trait? A desire to understand the world, a curiosity about other people and the world around me.
What are the qualities you want to see in a man? Kindness and openness – an absence of machismo. I like men who cry and can admit tofeeling sad, isolated and lonely.
What's your favourite quality in a woman? Kindness and sensitivity.
What do you most most appreciate in friends? Being open about their worries.
What's your greatest fault? I worry too much about everything,
What's your favourite occupation? Reading and writing.
And your dream of happiness? Doing my job – writing – really well.
What would your greatest unhappiness be? The death of my child.
The country you would like to live in? My own is fine: I think all countries have good and bad sides.
What's your favourite colour? Jade green. And flower? The daffodil.
Your favourite bird? The Lovebird.
How about your favourite fictional hero? Hamlet. And heroine? Madame Bovary.