Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Alain de Botton’

24 OCTOBER, 2014

What Is Philosophy For? A Beautiful Animated Manifesto for Undoing Our Unwisdom, Cultivating Our Character, and Gaining Perspective

By:

“The points at which our unwisdom bites and messes up our lives are multiple and urgently need attention, right now.”

“Philosophy’s main task is to respond to the soul’s cry,” Sharon Lebell wrote in her classical manual for the art of living. But what types of consolation does philosophy offer the soul, in more practical terms? Like science, it offers an essential tool of critical thinking, or what Carl Sagan memorably termed “baloney detection”; like art, it challenges us to challenge the status quo and it says to us, in the elegant words of Jeanette Winterson, “don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.” It gives us a potent antidote to our spectacular shortcomings in predicting and ensuring our own happiness and invites the self-knowledge essential for creativity. Above all, as one of the greatest thinkers who ever lived perceptively put it, philosophy allows us to “ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”

This, and so much more, is what writer and philosopher Alain de Botton, author of The Consolations of Philosophy (public library), explores in this wonderful animated essay — a beautiful and urgent case for what we lose, as a culture and as individuals, when we banish philosophy to the academy rather than seeing it as a powerful and necessary tool of government, leadership, and personal growth in everyday life:

From a distance, philosophy seems weird, irrelevant, boring — and yet, also, a just a little intriguing. But what are philosophers really for?

The answer is, handily, already contained in the word philosophy itself.

In Ancient Greek, philo means “love” and sophia means “wisdom” — philosophers are people devoted to wisdom. Being wise means attempting to live and die well.

In their pursuit of wisdom, philosophers have developed a very specific skill set — they have, over the centuries, become experts at many of the things that made people not very wise. Five stand out.

  1. WE DON’T ASK BIG QUESTIONS
  2. There are lots of big questions: What’s the meaning of life? What’s a job for? How should society be arranged? Most of us entertain them every now and then, but we despair at trying to answer them. They are the status of almost a joke — we call them “pretentious” — but they matter deeply, because only with sound answers to them can we direct our energies meaningfully.

    They have, over the centuries, asked the very largest. They realize that these questions can always be broken down into more manageable chunks, and that the only really “pretentious” thing is to think one’s above raising naive-sounding inquiries.

  3. WE ARE VULNERABLE TO ERRORS OF COMMON SENSE
  4. Public opinion, or what gets called “common sense,” is sensible and reasonable in countless areas. It’s what you hear about from friends and neighbors — the stuff you take in without even thinking about it. But common sense is often also full of daftness and error. Philosophy gets us to admit all aspects of common sense to reason. It wants us to think for ourselves. Is it really true what people say about love, money, children, travel, work?

    Philosophers are interested in asking whether an idea is logical, rather than assuming it must be right because it’s popular and long established.

  5. WE ARE MENTALLY CONFUSED
  6. We are not very good at knowing what goes on in our own minds. Someone we meet is very annoying but we can’t pin down what the issue is; we lose our temper but we can’t readily tell what we’re so cross about — we lack insights into our own satisfactions and dislikes. That’s why we need to examine our own minds.

    Philosophy is committed to self-knowledge and its central precept, articulated by the earliest, greatest philosopher Socrates, is just two words long: “Know yourself.”

  7. WE HAVE MUDDLED IDEAS ABOUT WHAT MAKES US HAPPY
  8. We’re not very good at making ourselves happy. We overrate the power of some things to improve our lives and underrate others — we make the wrong choices because, guided by advertising and false glamor, we keep on imagining that a particular kind of holiday or car or computer will make a bigger difference than it can. At the same time, we underestimate the contribution of other things, like going for a walk, which may have little prestige but which can contribute deeply to the character of existence.

    Philosophers seek to be wise by getting more precise about the activities and attitudes that really can help our lives to go better.

  9. WE PANIC AND LOSE PERSPECTIVE
  10. Philosophers are good at keeping a sense of what really matters and what doesn’t. On hearing the news that he’d lost all his possessions to a shipwreck, the Stoic philosopher Zeno simple said, “fortune commands me to be a less encumbered philosopher.” It’s responses like these that have made the very term “philosophical” a byword for calm, long-term thinking and strength of mind. In short, for perspective.

The wisdom of philosophy is in modern times mostly delivered in the form of books. But, in the past, philosophers sat in market squares and discussed their ideas with shopkeepers or went into government offices and palaces to give advice. It wasn’t abnormal to have a philosopher on your payroll. Philosophy was thought of as a normal, basic activity, rather than as an esoteric, optional extra. Nowadays, it’s not so much that we overtly deny this thought, but we just don’t have the right institutions set up to promulgate wisdom coherently in the world.

In the future, though, when the value of philosophy is a little clearer, we can expect to meet more philosophers in daily life. They won’t be locked up, living mainly in university departments — because the points at which our unwisdom bites and messes up our lives are multiple and urgently need attention, right now.

This short film comes from The School of Life — makers of intelligent how-to guides to modern living, spanning everything from the art of being alone to the psychology of staying sane to cultivating a healthier relationship with sex to finding fulfilling work — and comes on the heels of another wonderful animated essay about what literature does for the soul.

Also see De Botton on the seven psychological functions of art and what Nietzsche teaches us about the value of suffering.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

15 OCTOBER, 2014

Friedrich Nietzsche on Why a Fulfilling Life Requires Embracing Rather than Running from Difficulty

By:

A century and a half before our modern fetishism of failure, a seminal philosophical case for its value.

German philosopher, poet, composer, and writer Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900) is among humanity’s most enduring, influential, and oft-cited minds — and he seemed remarkably confident that he would end up that way. Nietzsche famously called the populace of philosophers “cabbage-heads,” lamenting: “It is my fate to have to be the first decent human being. I have a terrible fear that I shall one day be pronounced holy.” In one letter, he considered the prospect of posterity enjoying his work: “It seems to me that to take a book of mine into his hands is one of the rarest distinctions that anyone can confer upon himself. I even assume that he removes his shoes when he does so — not to speak of boots.”

A century and a half later, Nietzsche’s healthy ego has proven largely right — for a surprising and surprisingly modern reason: the assurance he offers that life’s greatest rewards spring from our brush with adversity. More than a century before our present celebration of “the gift of failure” and our fetishism of failure as a conduit to fearlessness, Nietzsche extolled these values with equal parts pomp and perspicuity.

In one particularly emblematic specimen from his many aphorisms, penned in 1887 and published in the posthumous selection from his notebooks, The Will to Power (public library), Nietzsche writes under the heading “Types of my disciples”:

To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities — I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not — that one endures.

(Half a century later, Willa Cather echoed this sentiment poignantly in a troubled letter to her brother: “The test of one’s decency is how much of a fight one can put up after one has stopped caring.”)

With his signature blend of wit and wisdom, Alain de Botton — who contemplates such subjects as the psychological functions of art and what literature does for the soul — writes in the altogether wonderful The Consolations of Philosophy (public library):

Alone among the cabbage-heads, Nietzsche had realized that difficulties of every sort were to be welcomed by those seeking fulfillment.

Not only that, but Nietzsche also believed that hardship and joy operated in a kind of osmotic relationship — diminishing one would diminish the other — or, as Anaïs Nin memorably put it, “great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.” In The Gay Science (public library), his treatise on poetry where his famous “God is dead” proclamation was coined, he wrote:

What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wanted to learn to “jubilate up to the heavens” would also have to be prepared for “depression unto death”?

[...]

You have the choice: either as little displeasure as possible, painlessness in brief … or as much displeasure as possible as the price for the growth of an abundance of subtle pleasures and joys that have rarely been relished yet? If you decide for the former and desire to diminish and lower the level of human pain, you also have to diminish and lower the level of their capacity for joy.

He was convinced that the most notable human lives reflected this osmosis:

Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and peoples and ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favorable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible.

De Botton distills Nietzsche’s convictions and their enduring legacy:

The most fulfilling human projects appeared inseparable from a degree of torment, the sources of our greatest joys lying awkwardly close to those of our greatest pains…

Why? Because no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfillment.

Nietzsche was striving to correct the belief that fulfillment must come easily or not at all, a belief ruinous in its effects, for it leads us to withdraw prematurely from challenges that might have been overcome if only we had been prepared for the savagery legitimately demanded by almost everything valuable.

(Or, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it in his atrociously, delightfully ungrammatical proclamation, “Nothing any good isn’t hard.”)

Nietzsche arrived at this ideas the roundabout way. As a young man, he was heavily influenced by Schopenhauer. At the age of twenty-one, he chanced upon Schopenhauer’s masterwork The World as Will and Representation and later recounted this seminal life turn:

I took it in my hand as something totally unfamiliar and turned the pages. I do not know which demon was whispering to me: ‘Take this book home.’ In any case, it happened, which was contrary to my custom of otherwise never rushing into buying a book. Back at the house I threw myself into the corner of a sofa with my new treasure, and began to let that dynamic, dismal genius work on me. Each line cried out with renunciation, negation, resignation. I was looking into a mirror that reflected the world, life and my own mind with hideous magnificence.

And isn’t that what the greatest books do for us, why we read and write at all? But Nietzsche eventually came to disagree with Schopenhauer’s defeatism and slowly blossomed into his own ideas on the value of difficulty. In an 1876 letter to Cosima Wagner — the second wife of the famed composer Richard Wagner, whom Nietzsche had befriended — he professed, more than a decade after encountering Schopenhauer:

Would you be amazed if I confess something that has gradually come about, but which has more or less suddenly entered my consciousness: a disagreement with Schopenhauer’s teaching? On virtually all general propositions I am not on his side.

This turning point is how Nietzsche arrived at the conviction that hardship is the springboard for happiness and fulfillment. De Botton captures this beautifully:

Because fulfillment is an illusion, the wise must devote themselves to avoiding pain rather than seeking pleasure, living quietly, as Schopenhauer counseled, ‘in a small fireproof room’ — advice that now struck Nietzsche as both timid and untrue, a perverse attempt to dwell, as he was to put it pejoratively several years later, ‘hidden in forests like shy deer.’ Fulfillment was to be reached not by avoiding pain, but by recognizing its role as a natural, inevitable step on the way to reaching anything good.

And this, perhaps, is the reason why nihilism in general, and Nietzsche in particular, has had a recent resurgence in pop culture — the subject of a fantastic recent Radiolab episode. The wise and wonderful Jad Abumrad elegantly captures the allure of such teachings:

All this pop-nihilism around us is not about tearing down power structures or embracing nothingness — it’s just, “Look at me! Look how brave I am!”

Quoting Nietzsche, in other words, is a way for us to signal others that we’re unafraid, that difficulty won’t break us, that adversity will only assure us.

And perhaps there is nothing wrong with that. After all, Viktor Frankl was the opposite of a nihilist, and yet we flock to him for the same reason — to be assured, to be consoled, to feel like we can endure.

The Will to Power remains indispensable and The Consolations of Philosophy is excellent in its totality. Complement them with a lighter serving of Nietzsche — his ten rules for writers, penned in a love letter.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

09 OCTOBER, 2014

What Books Do for the Human Soul: The Four Psychological Functions of Great Literature

By:

“Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves.”

The question of what reading does for the human soul is an eternal one and its answer largely ineffable, but this hasn’t stopped minds big and small from tussling with it — we have Kafka’s exquisite letter to his childhood friend, Maurice Sendak’s visual manifestos for the joy of reading, and even my own answer to a nine-year-old girl’s question about why we have books today.

Now comes a four-point perspective on the rewards of reading by writer and philosopher Alain de Botton and his team at The School of Life — creators of those intelligent how-to guides to modern living, spanning everything from the art of being alone to the psychology of staying sane to cultivating a healthier relationship with sex to finding fulfilling work. In this wonderful animated essay, they extol the value of books in expanding our circle of empathy, validating and ennobling our inner life, and fortifying us against the paralyzing fear of failure.

  1. IT SAVES YOU TIME
  2. It looks like it’s wasting time, but literature is actually the ultimate time-saver — because it gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator — a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness.

  3. IT MAKES YOU NICER
  4. Literature performs the basic magic of what things look like though someone else’s point of view; it allows us to consider the consequences of our actions on others in a way we otherwise wouldn’t; and it shows us examples of kindly, generous, sympathetic people.

    Literature deeply stands opposed to the dominant value system — the one that rewards money and power. Writers are on the other side — they make us sympathetic to ideas and feelings that are of deep importance but can’t afford airtime in a commercialized, status-conscious, and cynical world.

  5. IT’S A CURE FOR LONELINESS
  6. We’re weirder than we like to admit. We often can’t say what’s really on our minds. But in books we find descriptions of who we genuinely are and what events, described with an honesty quite different from what ordinary conversation allows for. In the best books, it’s as if the writer knows us better than we know ourselves — they find the words to describe the fragile, weird, special experiences of our inner lives… Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves, so that we can travel in them more reliably and with less of a feeling of paranoia or persecution…

  7. IT PREPARES YOU FOR FAILURE
  8. All of our lives, one of our greatest fears is of failure, of messing up, of becoming, as the tabloids put it, “a loser.” Every day, the media takes us into stories of failure. Interestingly, a lot of literature is also about failure — in one way or another, a great many novels, plays, poems are about people who messed up… Great books don’t judge as harshly or as one-dimensionally as the media…

Literature deserves its prestige for one reason above all others — because it’s a tool to help us live and die with a little bit more wisdom, goodness, and sanity.

Complement with the greatest books of all time, according to 125 celebrated contemporary authors, then revisit The School of Life’s imaginative exploration of Heidegger’s philosophy via a shrimp and Alain de Botton on how art can save your soul.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.