Review of Alain de Botton, The School of Life: An Emotional Education
Sydney Morning Herald, 23 November 2019
In 1901, 98 percent of Australians told Census-takers that they adhered to a religion. For the vast majority, religion was where we got our notions of what it was to live a ‘good life’. Today, nearly one-third of Australians reports having no religion: seeking wisdom not from the pulpit, but from secular sages.
If there was a high priest of the unbelievers, it would be Swiss-born philosopher Alain de Botton.
Since writing Essays in Love at the age of 23, he has published a dozen books including How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Art of Travel, The Architecture of Happiness, Religion for Atheists, How to Think More About Sex and The News: A User's Manual.
The works might be described as ‘sophisticated self-help’. De Botton cites Seneca and Schopenhauer, and skewers the ‘you can be a billionaire by Friday’ approach of many motivational speakers. But his willingness to distil Boethius and Heidegger into a few pithy paragraphs has drawn enemies, with one critic arguing that stripping the rigour from academic philosophy amounts to a ‘manipulation of complex philosophical concepts into bitesize commodities, peppered with sappy language’.
Having sold several million books, Alain de Botton founded the ‘School of Life’ in 2008. The school runs classes and produces YouTube videos with titles such as ‘How to Get Attention without Attention Seeking’, ‘The Importance of Kissing’ and ‘Why You Don’t Need to Be Exceptional’. It has branches in 11 cities, including Sydney and Melbourne. It also produces books, of which The School of Life is the latest.
If you want a summary of de Botton’s approach to living well, this is the place to start. While de Botton thanks 18 authors for their contributions, it’s clear that he’s has shaped their ideas, and curated the book so that it flows smoothly, without the usual jerkiness of an edited volume.
At the heart of de Botton’s approach is the somewhat Freudian notion that all adults are working their way through the ‘emotional wounds of childhood’. We don’t often mark emotional milestones, he argues, but perhaps we should recognise those moments in our lives when we become kinder, calmer or less worried about what others think. Trading the ‘monkey mind’ for a focused approach isn’t something you list on your resume, but it’s probably more vital than prizes and promotions.
The book is most persuasive when it disputes accepted wisdom. Romanticism endangers love because it prioritises the thrill of the chase over the messy compromises necessary to forge a lifelong partnership. Failure can be charming, since it shows our vulnerability, and our need for others.
Daydreaming can end up being extremely productive, as it helps tap into deeper insights.
Like any good de Botton book, The School of Life contains oodles of practical tidbits. To build a strong relationship, start from the perspective that you are an extremely difficult person to live around. Specialisation is crucial to workplace success, which means accepting that there are many alluring careers we might have pursued, but that building expertise means letting them go.
Understand William James’s simple formula: that self-esteem equals success divided by expectations. Build bushwalks, gallery visits and music into your busy life. Don’t try to be a perfect parent – settle for one who is ‘good enough’.
Ironically, that’s how I ended up feeling about The School of Life. This isn’t de Botton’s best book, but it’s an engaging encapsulation of his philosophy. The volume is an easy read, with life lessons aplenty. It is, most definitely, ‘good enough’.
Andrew Leigh hosts the podcast The Good Life: Andrew Leigh in Conversation. He is a member of the Australian Parliament.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.