Achieving Happiness

January 12, 2011

The Consolations of philosophy and the art in everyday existence (Eight books by British writer Alain de Botton)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Ina Alleco @ 11:02 am

This is my first article for Bulatlat.com. Sana mabasa ni Alain de Botton, hahahaha!

There are no step-by-step guidebooks to life, and most people simply try to get by from day-to-day. Writer Alain de Botton, however, offers his body of work as Post-its and reminders that there is so much more to living than being awake. His series of clever, compassionate and intellectually stimulating books on philosophy and art tries to provide insight on the lighter side of the human condition and the difficulties of coping with the world’s challenges.

On Love (1993)

Here, de Botton writes a treatise on love, using a hammersmash of theories from various schools and periods. The narrator tells a story of one specific experience in falling in love – his own – and he describes moment-by-moment how he came to fall in love with a woman named Chloe.Anyone who has ever gone through the experience of romantic relationships can relate to the author as he goes through the ups and down of being with another person. But before you can scoff and dismiss the book as an expanded excerpt from , say, Cosmo or any other glossy magazine devoting pages and pages to female confusion about the opposite sex, On Love makes clever and intelligent use of theories in art and literary criticism, political discourse, and religious worship, and applies them to romantic situations.

For instance, when confessing the difficulties of understanding his girlfriend, he says it’s a battle between the two schools of Marx– the one founded by the German proletariat Karl, and the other being led by Groucho. The self-sacrificing, humanity-embracing philosophy of the former is what he truly wants to live by when dealing with problems with his beloved, but often when he loses patience (and when the beloved throws a fit as well), everything deteriorates into a situation reminiscent of the skits by the latter and his brothers.

Love, as the cliche goes, is a battlefield; and it is fraught with conflict ranging from small to enormous. Inevitably, however, there will either be a comfortable peace or the damage wrought too extensive for repair. In the book, the story ends with hope after a broken heart, but solace is found in poetry and the syrupy torch songs.

This is the first book de Botton wrote, and it sets the tone for the other books he has written through the years. He writes with intelligence and humor, compassion and an unstated but evident wish to help readers make sense of the chaos that is the romantic world as we know it.

Kiss and Tell (1995)

Here, de Botton creates an ersatz biography of another girlfriend, and as he does this, he posits a few questions: does one really need to be known to be written about? Or is any life so long as it has been lived well worth desribing? In the progression of his biography of Isabel, an ordinary woman with an ordinary background and a less than successful career in publishing, it becomes evident that there really are no ordinary lives: the minute details of our day-to-day existence become weighted by meaning when we glean lessons from them. From these lessons we learn, and the mistakes or weaknesses of our past also become valuable for the same reason.

The uniqueness of every human life depends on how we experience every moment, every challenge, and how we respond to them, either to betray grace under pressure or to show the yellow feather and run. Truth were told, all lives are interesting if told right; but what is crucial in biographies is not the tribute being paid to the subject, but how the life as it is written impacts on the reader.

De Botton’s subject Isabel captivates his biographer with the little quirks of her character, and inspires in him affection. While primary the book reads like an offbeat romantic comedy, there’s more than it in the end because of what the more analytical reader can realize about the difference between the lives of ordinary folk (who are seldom written about) and the members of the ruling classes (who erect statues, build museums, publish books after their own deeds and themselves). Isabel is an ordinary girl, but because she inspired the narrator, she became the subject of his scrutiny and writing.

There are biographies of men and women who enjoyed immense wealth and power, but what do these books say to readers: “Get rich like me or you’re a loser”? Then there are the biographies of people who quietly devoted their lives to causes that seek to redeem humanity and give hope to the following generations. De Botton does not make specific distinctions nor does he lay down judgments, but leaves it to the reader to discern for himself what matters most when reading biographies (or choosing subjects for biographies, for that matter).

A life well lived means a life that was also lived for others: it is here where the uniqueness of a specific life is more defined.

How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997)

The genius Marcel Proust, according to Botton’s book, is a hypochondriac who alternately spent his days sick in bed and writing long sentences and meandering observations.

Here was a man who enjoyed the good life but at the same time, always feared being ill that he seldom went out. He lived with his mother all his life and seldom left her side, but he was able to describe places and imagine events in his work that betrayed a well travelled, wordly and experienced individual. Here was a man who was said to have talked in monosylables with James Joyce, but wrote ‘In Search of Lost Time’ wherein he devoted a total of 17 pages to describing a man toss and turn in bed because of insomnia.

Proust can change your life if you choose not to live like him and instead, live the way Proust wrote: actively, consistently and with grace. Proust may not have been able to live an active life, but as a writer he was prolific, observant, embracing the world. De Botton uses examples from Proust’s life and dealings with others as guidepost on how to live: be resolute and active in pursuing what you believe what will make you a productive human being even if Proust mainly didn’t. The products of Proust’s life — his books, his letters — were, suffice it to say, better than his actual life and how he spent it.

What this humorous yet analytical work seems to say is that the learning about the lives of celebrated writers have the effect of making more discerning and more critical when reading their work. While there are those who much prefer critiquing works of fiction without making much mention of the life of the writers who created them, it is still instructive to not lose ourselves in the work without knowing who was behind it lest we find ourselves misled.

The Consolations of Philosophy (2000)

This is the ultimate self-help book. De Botton picks six ordinary problems: Unpopularity; Not having enough money; Frustration; Inadequacy; A broken heart; and Difficulties, and presents the lives and philosophies of six thinkers as means to achieve solutions.

Rarely does it occur to us that the philosophers of the early ages have anything to say about the conflicts small and large we suffer as we try to maneuver through various aspects of our lives and our careers. Here, de Botton distills the philosophies of Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and presents readers with a virtual guidebook on how to handle stress and difficulties using the lessons from said teachers and intellectuals.

What does Schopenhauer say about being alone? Or Socrates about remaining steadfast in your belief even in the face of hostility? Can Epicurus give consolation to someone who doesn’t have enough money? How will Montaigne’s philosophy address and remove feelings of inadequacy?

Ordinarily when we need advice or a patient ear, we turn to friends or relatives we respect; de Botton gives another alternative: consult the philosophers and see what they have to say about your problem. More often than not, the solutions that the philosophers — and de Botton – recommend have to do with making adjustments in our our personal behavior and views of others and the world.

For instance, on dealing with frustrations of not having enough money, de Botton offers the Athenian Epicurus.

It’s a common misconception that Epicurean philosophy was all about hedonism — the single minded pursuit of pleasure for the sake of it. What comes to mind are all night partying, ostentatious living and scandalous affairs.

The real Epicurus extolled none of that. What he prescribed as a solution to unhappiness and the problems caused by envy of others was simplicity. According to him, life became pleasurable when you succeeded in ridding yourself of unnecessary wants and needs and secured the support and affection of true friends.

Epicurus also went as far as to separate desires into three categories — the natural and necessary (Friends, Freedom, Thought, Food, shelter and clothes); the natural but unnecessary (Grand house, private baths, banquets, servants, fish and meat); and the neither natural nor necessary (Fame, Power).

Happiness, the philosopher said, was not reliant on the amount of money you earn or the accumulation of various possessions. Having freedom to read and think, to confide in people you trust, and to enjoy food you prepared yourself are enough for any one to be happy.

De Botton synthesizes Epicurean philosophy for the modern society: “Most businesses stimulate unnecessary desires in people who fail to understand their true needs, levels of consumption would be destroyed by greater self-awareness and appreciation of simplicity.” It is in the interests of commercial enterprises to skew the hierachy of our needs, to promote a material vision of the good and the downplay an unsaleable one.

The many causes of life’s anxities, Epicurus says, comes as a result of objects and goals that are unnecessary.

The Art of Travel (2002)

Not everyone has the luxury of time or money to go places, but where we are and the things immediately around us can already teach us and bring us further than our ordinary experience.

In this book, De Botton presents a means to see and perhaps understand the world and humanity through the eyes of artists –poets, novelists, painters –and their work. It’s not only travel in the physical sense that he describes, but how to be a true traveller who sees more than what the eyes can perceive and experiences all that he can absorb with an open mind and heart. As he visits a myriad of places from Madrid to Barbados to London, he uses as tour guides the work and lives of the likes of poet Charles Baudelaire, painter Edward Hopper, the author of Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert, the tortured genius Vincent Van Gogh, and the biblical character Job.

It doesn’t matter if you travel to Egypt or Amsterdam; or if you ride a steamship to get there or a plane; what counts is cultivating the habit of noticing. Our appreciation of what we see around us is heightened by the depth of our awaress and knowledge about the object or phenomenon. The same then can be said of our understanding of society itself and its economic and political workings: the more we learn about it, the more that we can understand about our own circumstances especially if it’s evident that what trials and tribulations we suffer cannot be accrued to our own faults, irresponsibility, laziness, etc. Learning first comes from observation, and from there, understanding can begin. It may be far off in the process, but new knowledge can lead and has often led to positive action.

This is what happened in the cases of the tour guide artists who’s respective work sought to comment on the societies they were born to, its norms and traditions, and the rules of what merits something beautiful or correct. The more we observe and learn, the greater will our drive be to create and to create something daring or insightful.It can be our reaction to what already exists – say, a society where injustice is prevalent – or our aspiration for something to happen,for example, the attainment of true democracy. Artists use their work to express more than themselves, but to denounce or to praise the status quo and its elements.

Finally in the book, De Botton posits that to be a true traveller is to be more than a visitor or a tourist: it means learning. Travelling to places far removed from the places of our origins grants us a set of fresh eyes. We can compare the differences between our current abode and the one we left behind, and acknowledge that there are more than ecological or environmental variances but the descrepancies between societies are more of a man-made, willful and systemic nature. What we do with our realizations is our choice. As we travel the world, we also conduct journeys within.

Status Anxiety (2004)

Daily we grow weary trying to cope with the demands and expectations of the world. For some of us, work has become more than a means to earn and hence to survive; it has become a definition, meaning the kind of work you perform speaks much about you. It doesn’t matter if it’s manual labor or mental work: when you compare yourself to your fellows and colleagues and how they have been faring, you can get a guage of your own relative status. The question that arises then is this: are you satisfied with it or not? If you’re not, what do you do about it?

De Botton offers oblique criticism against the concept of status as an guage for what is admirable or ideal: society puts too much stress on the accumulation of wealth when the ugly truth is that this very same pursuit of material gain is precisely what makes the world vicious and ugly. He tactfuly but pointedly instructs the reader to assess his standards of what makes success; what defines meaning purpose; and inevitably, what constitutes happiness.

Status, he says, is granted or imposed by society, and we all know that society is controlled by a ruling class. He then goes on to quote Marx who laid down that the ruling class is largely responsible for disseminating beliefs, many of them illogical and unjust. If the often foolish and irrational standards used to determine what is high status as opposed to low status are done away with, it is the ruling classes who deserve to be labelled ‘low.’ Why? Because its members feed off the labor and sacrifice of those below them in economic stature. An ideal conferment of status as a measurement of what is admirable would be to accord the highest title to the working people because it is actually through their toil that the world revolves.

In the end, the values that one embraces are reflected in he conducts himself in all arenas of life, be it work or friendship, romantic relationships and advocacies. The worries and anxieties are also colored by what one holds important: if you think that being fashionable is important, it will cause you anxiety to be seen wearing last season’s shoes. If you believe that public health and nutrition are important, you will be angry to find out that your government has slashed allocations for services for public hospitals while increasing provisions for military expenditures. Status anxiety is only as great or important as how you see your own worth to be granting that you are aware of what are truly important in life.

The Architecture of Happiness (2006)

In this book, de Botton guides us through the history of various cultures and the art they created when it came to physical structures and monuments. He presents the varying and sometimes conflicting schools of thought when it came to architecture and what makes a building beautiful, impressive, or quite simply, appealing.

As he has been wont to do in all of his books, de Botton gives his insight on the human condition, this time by using architecture. As an expression of the self and the prevalent beliefs of the times, what could be more telling than a building erected to the specifications set not only by the laws of engineering or physics, but the personal ideals of the architect and/or his client?

People have altered the environment to suit their whims and needs, and the birth and popularization of of various architectural philosophies throughout the centuries are a reflection of the same. Citing various famous landmarks and non-so-known buildings all over the world, de Botton explains that it is our natural inclination to surround ourselves with what will either reflect what we want of ourselves (our ambitions, hopes and dreams), or what will make us comfortable and feel ‘at home.’ For instance, a museum cannot be anyone’s house, but one can still feel at home surrounded by objects and works of art that inspire or agitate. The skylight, the empty spaces, the way the floor meets the walls and proceeds to guide you towards the stairs or a hidden recess, they can all contribute to how we feel at any given moment.

The value of this book is how, after reading it, one is compelled to look to one’s surroundings and see everything in a different way. The architectural construction of office buildings, banks, military bases, churches, hotels, schools — all of it makes a comment about their occupants and visitors, and on the whole contributes to a general image of the society it all belongs to. Again, the values we hold dear are determinant in how we construct our abodes and other physical structures. For instance, a society that considers education important will take pains to construct a physical environment of buildings and elements that are conducive to learning: large classrooms with good ventilation and lighting; comfortable bathrooms, flood-proof stairwells, etc. Beauty is not only in appearance, but more important, in form and utility.

Architecture can also be a telling sign of hypocrisy or twisted priorities in a society: imagine fast-tracking the beautification of public parks ahead of building public housing facilities for thousands of homeless people.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009)

This, by far, is the most impressive of de Botton’s books. Here he leaves behind books and historical learning and goes out into the world to speak to and learn from actual living people and their experiences in their respective workplaces.

In this book, de Botton observes and describes people and their work, ranging from biscuit manufacturing, rocket launching, career counselling, painting, accountancy, aviation, and the logistics of procuring tuna tuna for the dining table.

In the last, he traces the origins of a vacuum-sealed pack of tuna to the seas in the Maldives. Through a series of captioned pictures, de Botton tells how he joined a team of fishermen, rode their boat and suffered through bouts of intestinal inflammation.

After witnessing the fishermen make a successful haul, he proceeded to the fish processing plant with ties to British importers and supermarkets. He watched the workers fillet the tuna, then the machines as they packed, sealed and labelled the fillets. After this, he went on to follow the shipment of fish as it boarded a plane towards England (the fish was in the cargo hold, while de Botton secured a seat in Economy). The shipment is unloaded in Heathrow, where de Botton finds supermarket merchandisers waiting. Eventually, the fillets are sold , and a pack ends up in the kitchen of a middle-class family. The fish, de Botton discovers, is for a young boy’s dinner. He sits with the boy and speaks to him over the meal which the boy Sam eats, even as he, Sam, proclaims that he hates tuna.

All throughout the book, de Botton expresses a wistful hope that we might gain a healthier respect for the working people if we understood better the nature of their work and the difficulties they experience in the conduct of their tasks.

In the process of learning and understanding, we also open ourselves to the possibility of being amazed at how far humanity has gone as a species when it comes to technological advancement even as we rue the backwardness of many of our traditions, values and beliefs, and how we relate to one another. The value we attach to certain pursuits can be seen as mislaid, and our own goals sometimes shallow when seen in the larger context of how the world works, or rather, how it is run.

Given this, work is more than a means of attaining a living when you think of the long hours we commit to it: it can become a means by which we can define ourselves. Far from considering manual labor as inferior to mental work, de Botton calls on the righteousness of being proud in one’s honest labor and its contribution to the social machinery. If we do our work well, no matter how menial it is, we should hold our head high.

Positive Reviews

For the most part, Alain de Botton’s books receive positive reviews. Some criticize his tendency to be pedantic, or the sometimes too-obvious effort to be clever ; but on the whole, it’s never a waste of time to read him. One could certainly do much worse than spend an afternoon in the company of de Botton and the philosophers.

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