Alain de Botton the Practical philosopher offers a guide to life
Hampstead’s popular philospher on Neighbours and why he’s just normal
Alain de Botton is ready for this interview. As soon as I arrive I am led into a room where the central feature is a glass table, complete with a bottle of fizzy water, two glasses and two chairs both placed at the slightly-off-angle often seen in waiting rooms. The walls are white, the bookshelf, which runs along the entirety of one wall, is a turquoise green and the carpet is expensive and thick, with a busy striped pattern of blues and browns – the kind you see in coffee shops.
As I am installed into a waiting room chair, the apartment is silent and the 42-year-old writer is all smiles. Earlier this year, he added a new volume to the prolific collection of popular philosophy volumes which have made his life’s work. His books are a pick and mix: literature, love, work, travel and more. This time the selection has been religion – spurred on (as he acknowledges in the book) by the death of his father, co-founder of Global Asset Management Gilbert de Botton.
De Botton is wealthy, intelligent and well renowned for his work. His is undoubtably in an interesting and enviable position. What I really want to ask him, though, is: does he know that, in some circles, he has a reputation for, well, over-philosophising the bleeding obvious? He predictably has a well thought out answer for this. “I think what I try to do is to crystallise truths that are to the left and to the right of the bleeding obvious. I try to phrase them in simple, clear language and give them a kind of aphoristic quality. It’s very easy, if you don’t like me, to go, ‘I knew that already, it was obvious’ because it is designed to be phrased in an obvious way. It should be both obvious and unfamiliar, that’s the idea. If I wanted to make myself sound mysterious, I could. Most critics and sociologists do. It’s very easy to sound very clever and a little bit odd and I think that project doesn’t really interest me. I would rather fail and be called someone who states the bleeding obvious, than fail and be called the genius that no-one understands.
“My heart is in talking obviously. Half of my family were very educated, half of my family were very uneducated and a very wise friend of mine said to me the other day, ‘What you are trying to do is reconcile the two groups.’ And I think in a sense I am; I want to build a bridge between people who might be clever but totally unschooled, and people who might be schooled but are getting a bit lost in esoteric complexities.”
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The echoes of bad reviews do come back to him when he sits down to write. “It puts a break on activity because you are thinking, ‘Ooh, am I an idiot?’ I’m way ahead of any other critic in terms of self-criticism. I’ll call myself an idiot before anyone else does. They are not really saying anything I don’t know in the depths of my self-hatred.” His speech occasionally dips into religious metaphor – I’m not sure whether that’s on purpose or just a side effect of working on the book, which discusses how abstract concepts from religious practice could be ideally adopted into secular life, in the slightly whimsical way he has come to be known for.
De Botton has been writing since the age of 23, when he published bestseller Essays In Love. “It was quite a big hit so it gave me the encouragement to carry on. I think it was too early.” Writing has been his life but it is not the life he wants for his two school-age sons, who feature in a picture on a shelf that hovers behind his head.
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“I think that, at some level, a very strong attraction to literature is often a sign of inner disturbance. It’s a sign that in a way something has gone wrong. There’s enough wrong in everyone’s life that everyone is going to be attracted to some kind of art form, whether that’s a song or a painting. But I think to think: I’m going to dedicate my life to this. I’m going to sit down alone in a room and write this down on a piece of paper because it is the only way that I can feel satisfied….” He trails off before returning. “Writers and artists have a need to step back and create something which is full of meaning, intelligence, focus. Most people are more happy-go-lucky, they don’t need at the end of the year to go, ‘What is my life for?’ They are just happy with the process. Others need to dedicate themselves to a weird temple of art. It makes for a very difficult life. You’ll be much poorer, you will be constantly stricken by anxiety. It is not what capitalism needs. As a parent, I’d like to do a lot of thinking for them and,” he pauses and goes quieter, “I don’t know, I think a lot of what I’m trying to do in my books is untangle some of the knots that I was presented with as a child by the people around me. If you can do that a bit for your child, I think you are doing them a favour. I would be really distraught if my children turned round and said, ‘I want to be a writer.’”
His top job choices for his sons would be architect and engineer. He’s attracted to jobs that are practical and useful, he says. In fact, he’s attracted to a practical and useful life – something that people don’t necessarily assume. “The idea of being Buddha on a tree, or under a tree, does not appeal to me. I’m painfully ordinary in all my concerns,” he assures me. What does he mean? I ask. What is an example of this ordinariness? “I’m not wise all the time, in fact, I’m very rarely wise. I’m attracted to wisdom, I’m attracted to logic and order and thoughtfulness, precisely because I know their opposites very well. Books are always kind of a distillation of the best of writers, or should be, and no-one can be… In other words, I’ve hung out with writers and most of what comes out of their mouths is totally banal and ordinary. They are 98 per cent like everyone else. The two per cent is what goes into the books. What am I like? Hmmm, look, I’m energetic and ambitious for life. I’ll want to see stuff, do stuff, talk to people. I don’t sort of mooch around much. I’m quite active. When I talk to people, I like to get to the heart of them. I’m very unsuperficial. I don’t like conversation that’s about nothing, I like very psychological conversation. It is very unusual that you are asking me questions because most of the time I interview other people. I can’t bear when people are just superficial.’’ Does he talk to strangers? “If I can. I mean, there’s always the weirdo factor.” He laughs before telling me that he has asked numerous people what the meaning of their life is. “With a bit of context,” he says.
Does he watch EastEnders? I enquire, as a sort of normality litmus test. “I used to watch EastEnders a lot. I haven’t watched it in 10 years. It’s on at a time when, if you have children, you are too busy to watch it. As a student, I used to watch Neighbours. When people approach me, they think either, ‘He’s abnormal, or he’s painfully ordinary.’ I get both. I get both and it is confusing. People say, ‘He’s an idiot’ or ‘He’s a genius.’ No. The truth’s in the middle – it always is.”
n Religion For Atheists by Alain de Botton is published by Penguin at �18.99. How To Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton, published by Macmillan, is �7.99 in paperback. De Botton will be speaking at The Words In The Park Festival in Holland Park, which runs from May 18 to 20. Details at www.wayswithwords.co.uk.