Alain de Botton on Existential Maturity and What Emotional Intelligence Really Means
“The emotionally intelligent person knows that they will only ever be mentally healthy in a few areas and at certain moments, but is committed to fathoming their inadequacies and warning others of them in good time, with apology and charm.”
By Maria Popova
“Maturity is the ability to live fully and equally in multiple contexts,” poet and philosopher David Whyte wrote in one of his most beautiful meditations. A generation before him, Anaïs Nin took up the subject in her diary, which is itself a work of philosophy: “If you intensify and complete your subjective emotions, visions, you see their relation to others’ emotions. It is not a question of choosing between them, one at the cost of another, but a matter of completion, of inclusion, an encompassing, unifying, and integrating which makes maturity.” And yet emotional maturity is not something that happens unto us as a passive function of time. It is, as Toni Morrison well knew, “a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory” — the product of intentional character-sculpting, the slow and systematic chiseling away of our childish impulses for tantrums, for sulking, for instant self-gratification without regard for others, for weaponizing our feelings of shame, frustration, and loneliness. Like happiness — another life-skill we have miscategorized as a passive abstraction — it requires early education, consistent relearning, and unrelenting practice.
That is what Alain de Botton, one of our era’s most uncommonly perceptive, lyrical, and lucid existential contemplatives, offers in The School of Life: An Emotional Education (public library) — the book companion to his wonderful global academy for self-refinement, a decade in the making.
De Botton considers the type of learning with which the road to emotional maturity is paved:
The knack of our species lies in our capacity to transmit our accumulated knowledge down the generations. The slowest among us can, in a few hours, pick up ideas that it took a few rare geniuses a lifetime to acquire.
Yet what is distinctive is just how selective we are about the topics we deem it possible to educate ourselves in. Our energies are overwhelmingly directed toward material, scientific, and technical subjects and away from psychological and emotional ones. Much anxiety surrounds the question of how good the next generation will be at math; very little around their abilities at marriage or kindness. We devote inordinate hours to learning about tectonic plates and cloud formations, and relatively few fathoming shame and rage.
The assumption is that emotional insight might be either unnecessary or in essence unteachable, lying beyond reason or method, an unreproducible phenomenon best abandoned to individual instinct and intuition. We are left to find our own path around our unfeasibly complicated minds — a move as striking (and as wise) as suggesting that each generation should rediscover the laws of physics by themselves.
This irrational orientation to our emotional lives, De Botton argues, is our inheritance from the Romantics, who crowned the untrained intuition the supreme governing body of human conduct. (And yet the Romantics contained multitudes — for all their belief in the unalterable givenness of emotional reality and the fidelity of feeling, they had a glimmering recognition that reason must be consciously applied to reining in the wildness of the emotions. Mary Shelley, offspring of the greatest power couple of political philosophy, placed at the heart of Frankenstein — one of the most prescient and psychologically insightful works of literature ever composed, triply so for being the work of an eighteen-year-old girl — an admonition against the unbridled reign of the ego’s emotional cravings unchecked by reason and forethought of consequence.) Exception aside, De Botton’s broader point is excellent:
The results of a Romantic philosophy are everywhere to see: exponential progress in the material and technological fields combined with perplexing stasis in the psychological one. We are as clever with our machines and technologies as we are simple-minded in the management of our emotions. We are, in terms of wisdom, little more advanced than the ancient Sumerians or the Picts. We have the technology of an advanced civilization balancing precariously on an emotional base that has not developed much since we dwelt in caves. We have the appetites and destructive furies of primitive primates who have come into possession of thermonuclear warheads.
In 1983, the psychologist Howard Gardner devised his seminal theory of multiple intelligences, expanding our narrow cultural definition of intelligence as verbal and mathematical skill to include seven other modes of intellectual ability. A decade later, Daniel Goleman added a tenth form of intelligence — emotional intelligence — which quickly permeated the fabric of popular culture as hoards of humans felt suddenly recognized in an endowment long neglected as a valuable or even extant faculty of consciousness. Building on that legacy, De Botton brings his own sensitive perspicacity to a richer, more dimensional definition:
The emotionally intelligent person knows that love is a skill, not a feeling, and will require trust, vulnerability, generosity, humor, sexual understanding, and selective resignation. The emotionally intelligent person awards themselves the time to determine what gives their working life meaning and has the confidence and tenacity to try to find an accommodation between their inner priorities and the demands of the world. The emotionally intelligent person knows how to hope and be grateful, while remaining steadfast before the essentially tragic structure of existence. The emotionally intelligent person knows that they will only ever be mentally healthy in a few areas and at certain moments, but is committed to fathoming their inadequacies and warning others of them in good time, with apology and charm… There are few catastrophes, in our own lives or in those of nations, that do not ultimately have their origins in emotional ignorance.
De Botton is careful to acknowledge that this line of inquiry might trigger the modern intellectual allergy to the genre of learning dismissively labeled self-help. And yet he reminds us that the quest for self-refinement has always accompanied the human experience and animated each civilization’s most respected intellects — it is there at the heart of the Stoics, and in the essays of Montaigne, and at the center of Zen Buddhism, and in the literary artistry of Proust (whom De Botton has especially embraced as a fount of existential consolation). He aims a spear of simple logic to the irrational and rather hubristic disdain for self-help:
To dismiss the idea that underpins self-help — that one might at points stand in urgent need of solace and emotional education — seems an austerely perverse prejudice.
Our cultural failure at making emotional intelligence an educable thing, De Botton argues, stems from two flawed baseline assumptions of our education system itself — its focus on what people are taught over how they are taught, and its tendency to mistake information for wisdom. (Adrienne Rich shone a sidewise gleam on these flaws and their remedy in her superb 1977 convocation address about why an education is something you claim, not something you get.) De Botton envisions the emotionally enlightened alternative:
An emotional education may require us to adopt two different starting points. For a start, how we are taught may matter inordinately, because we have ingrained tendencies to shut our ears to all the major truths about our deeper selves. Our settled impulse is to blame anyone who lays our blind spots and insufficiencies bare, unless our defenses have first been adroitly and seductively appeased. In the face of critically important insights, we get distracted, proud, or fidgety. We may prefer to do almost anything other than take in information that could save us.
Moreover, we forget almost everything. Our memories are sieves, not robust buckets. What seemed a convincing call to action at 8 a.m. will be nothing more than a dim recollection by midday and an indecipherable contrail in our cloudy minds by evening. Our enthusiasms and resolutions can be counted upon to fade like the stars at dawn. Nothing much sticks.
It was the philosophers of ancient Greece who first identified these problems and described the structural deficiencies of our minds with a special term. They proposed that we suffer from akrasia, commonly translated as “weakness of will,” a habit of not listening to what we accept should be heard and a failure to act upon what we know is right. It is because of akrasia that crucial information is frequently lodged in our minds without being active in them, and it is because of akrasia that we often both understand what we should do and resolutely omit to do it.
How to overcome akrasia and live with life-enlarging emotional intelligence — by absorbing the beauty and wisdom encoded in literature and art, by harnessing the power of ritual, by undertaking the difficult, immensely rewarding and redemptive work of self-knowledge — is what De Botton offers in the remainder of the thoroughly helpful The School of Life: An Emotional Education. Complement this small prefatory excerpt with philosopher Martha Nussbaum on the intelligence of emotions, then revisit De Botton on what makes a good communicator, the psychological paradox of sulking, and his lovely letter to children about why we read.
Published November 25, 2019