Alain de Botton turns his utilitarian eye on the everyday experience. He carefully analyzes a wide spectrum of topics, including envy, friendship, sex, systems, structures, desire, self-help, and inadequacy. But no matter the subject, he always seeks to answer the same question: what makes life meaningful?
De Botton published his first book, Essays in Love, at 23. A “novel,” the book is a singular blending of fiction and nonfiction that intricately inspects human emotion. Global success came with his next book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, which showcased his considerable gifts as a philosopher. For his book A Week at the Airport he lived in at Heathrow airport, as their first Writer-in-Residence.
In 2013 he released, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, which investigates peoples’ relationship to religion. The book looks at faith from a secular point of view, and suggests an alternative for atheists: steal the best of religion’s ideas and customize your own blueprint for belief without labeling it “religion.” The book covers a lot of terrain, including de Botton’s idea of building a temple to atheism in London and new proposals for community building by rethinking restaurants, hotels, and schools, among other institutions.
In addition to his writing, de Botton has founded the nonprofit organization Living Architecture, where renowned architects design unique homes for holiday rentals; Philosophersmail.com, a porthole for news written exclusively by philosophers, and The School of Life, a center for people actively exploring and engaged in ideas. He is an advocate for dismantling the current university system, and believes students should be rewarded for learning how to live. His most recent book is The Course of Love, a sequel to Essays in Love and an exciting return to the novel. The book examines life after marriage and questions the modern notion of love.
For the following interview, de Botton and I discussed big ideas, including his relationship to love and religion. We met for lunch at a restaurant in midtown Manhattan, and later followed up by email. There was a lot to discuss. —Amanda Stern
THE BELIEVER: What kind of student were you?
ALAIN DE BOTTON: Well, at one level I was a very good student. I was dutiful. I had to please my parents—psychologically, for me—so I couldn’t be a bad student. But I knew that it was completely fake. I got really good grades because I became an expert at faking what the school, and then the university system, did.
BLVR: Did you learn anything?
ADB: Yes, I learned a lot, but it was dead learning. It was not connected to my own excitement and curiosity. When I finished university, I thought, I can’t do this all my life. I only did it to please my parents, and that can’t go on forever, so now I’m on my own and now I’ve got to take risks. I always thought that spontaneous learning was a kind of wayward choice—but I thought, I’m going to try and go for it anyway. So I started reading and writing for myself outside the academic system, and that’s how I’ve become a writer. And it’s made me a real pariah [among] the sort of people whom I used to be very good at pleasing. But I know how to please, and I don’t want to please anymore, because, well, if life was a million years long, sure, I could spend fifty years pleasing them. But because it’s so short, there’s no time to please.
BLVR: That’s a fairly young age to realize you need to stop pleasing other people.
ADB: Don’t get me wrong, not in all areas—but in writing. Insofar as I was going to write, it had to be honest. So, for example, with this religion book [Religion for Atheists], when I talk to more-academic people they go, “So, you read William James and you read this person and this one?” And, yes, actually, I did read all these people, but not in that order, and I read them from back to front and I first went off to a Buddhist temple… In other words, I followed my own course. I have an idea of live points and live writing. I think of it as almost an electrical thing. There are books, and passages in books, that are dead. They haven’t got current running through them, and as a writer you have to follow the current. So when I read, I’ll just be taking notes, and some things feel alive and other things feel dead, and I just try to assemble the alive bits because I can’t follow a set reading list because a lot of it is just dead.
BLVR: You often turn things around, recasting ideas to create a new type of framework, so that systems or methodologies make more practical sense to you.
ADB: I suppose I was intrigued by a certain kind of art from the ’60s. Under the name of art, you’re allowed to do a lot of things. For instance, if you call something entrepreneurialism, that suggests that the primary motive is to make money, but if you call it art, you’re doing something new involving other people, or creating new structures in a world in which lots of structures are not working properly and could be rejigged. I would like to redesign the hotel. The hotel doesn’t really function as a concept; it needs to be redone. Or the travel agency, or the restaurant, or the school, or the hospital. There are all these sort of areas, and part of the reason I got interested in religion is that religions do a lot of tinkering and inventing. When I look at something like the Buddhist tea ceremony I think, Oh, that’s fun; it’s like a lesson in friendship but they merge it with a tea party… I’m instinctively very drawn to these sort of activities more and more.
BLVR: It’s almost like social entrepreneurialism, like remixing customs and lifestyles in order to improve the systems that function but don’t meet the right needs.
ADB: Yes, there are psychological needs that are not being catered to now. One of the things we offer at The School of Life is something called bibliotherapy, and it’s a merging of elements of psychotherapy and book recommendation. It’s profound book recommendation, and the idea is that most of us come to a book in really haphazard ways, by Amazon recommendations or what’s on the table in the bookshop. And this is really unsatisfactory, and our lives partly go wrong because we’re reading the wrong books at the wrong moments, and if we’re to properly understand ourselves and our needs, we would schedule the reading of books much more intelligently, based on our proper needs. So in a way it’s a business, an intervention to make. You can go and sit with somebody who’s really great, who has training in both psychotherapy and literature and who’s wonderful at talking to you about where you are in your life and what kind of books might help you at this point in your life. I like the idea of starting new businesses to solve existential problems.
II. Oprah and Seneca
BLVR: I’m a native New Yorker: I was assigned a therapist at birth, so to me the shame surrounding therapy is really bizarre. I mean, it’s basically an icebreaker here.
ADB: One of the most difficult aspects of living in England is how unpsychological it is as a society. People at the age of sixty will say, “I’ve just learned the most amazing insight,” and they’ll go, “Well, I went to see a therapist for the very first time, and I’ve discovered that I didn’t have a happy childhood.” It’s very basic and it makes social life quite dull. There’s always a danger of social life being dull with men, because being a man is so dependent on being strong and not revealing weakness, so there’s always a higher danger of having a boring conversation. I’m associating interest with vulnerability. I tend to associate a certain kind of richness of conversation with a shared vulnerability. I think that can be hard as a man to have with a man, particularly with an Englishman, slightly easier with an Englishwoman, but it makes social life quite painful.
BLVR: Why do you think self-help is associated with dumb people?
ADB: I think it must have happened somewhere in the nineteenth century or perhaps later. Now, underlying that is really the idea that intelligent people don’t need assistance; they know how to get through life. Perhaps it’s a modernist thing. I think modernism in the arts is all about the ambiguity. It’s all about venerating complexity so all the high points of modernist art—whether it’s “Four Quartets” or Ulysses or Picasso’s Guernica or whatever it is—these are complex works that don’t easily appeal to the uninitiated, and I think it’s a branch of that that resists the overt simplicity and directness of help.
BLVR: Maybe I’m alone in this, but I feel that in America, self-improvement isn’t seen as entirely for dumb people, but for failed people, which is really sad, because if you think about it, we’re all failures in some capacity. We all want to achieve something, meet some arbitrary standard, and self-help books, by their very nature, are accusing us of having failed at something, yet the people writing these books are telling us that they’re the gold standard for living, and it’s not a particular theory we need to live by, or up to, so much as it is the author or the disseminator we are being asked to live up to. Dr. Phil and Oprah—they may espouse helpful ideas, but they don’t ever ask the audience to question their authority, because they are perpetuating the dangerous assumption that they—Oprah and Dr. Phil—are right and we are wrong, and to me, it’s the blind acceptance of such a narrative that creates problems.
ADB: I hate self-help books if they’re defined as “Dr. This said do this.” But if we can define self-help as, you know, the essays of Seneca and the dialogues of Plato and the essays of Montaigne and the essays of Emerson—if these can be self-help, which in a sense they are—then yeah, sure, I want a bit of that. So it’s not the category that’s wrong; it’s what’s filling it.
III. “A New Interest in Frivolity”
BLVR: Did you ever have a rebellious phase?
ADB: Yes, I mean, um, at quite an early age I thought, The model of rebellion that I’m being presented with is not very interesting. The model of rebellion is: you dye your hair or smoke pot or whatever and I thought, No, I don’t really like that. I’m very interested in rebellion. My life is a rebellion, a giant rebellion against all sorts of things, though it lacks any of the outer markers, but essentially I’m in rebellion against so many things. I lead quite an odd life, really—which I’m sort of making up as I go along. So it’s a rebellion against duty; it’s a rebellion against the normal structure of an intellectual life; it’s a constant rebellion against certain disciplines, literature, religion. Every book I write is a kind of rebellion against that topic, so, yes, I am interested in rebellion, but not necessarily the outward markers of it.
BLVR: Were you in analysis?
BLVR: I find that through therapy you discover how you need to be guided. Some people respond much better to imperatives and declaratives, or tough love. And some people need to be guided gingerly, slowly, over years, allowed to discover the patterns of their lives on their own. Do you find there’s a specific way you need to be guided?
ADB: I think I quite respond to a playfulness. I tend to be overly serious sometimes about the consequences of actions, and so the kind of advice along the lines of “No one knows; try it!” Or “There are no guarantees; maybe it will go wrong, but maybe it won’t.” That kind of open-ended playfulness is often something that I need to hear because I can get very—I can long for certainty too much. I need to be reminded of the ambiguity.
BLVR: To live the questions.
ADB: Yes, of living the questions. That there’s no one answer, and of course the therapist is not the guide; he’s just a fellow questioning human. For a long time in therapy I imagined that the therapist might have the answer, and so a large part of the therapy was trying to realize that no one has the answer, so that was a big realization.
BLVR: Has certainty been a pattern your whole life? Needing to be certain of an outcome, or even needing to be reminded that it’s OK to try and fail?
ADB: I think I’ve tended to idealize certain things as the answer to a particular problem: that if only x happened, all would be well. That was, you know… I used to think, If only I fell in love with that very special person, all would be well—a classic one—and then I met the very special person and fell in love with her and married her and realized things weren’t right, not because of her, but because life is more complicated than that, so that’s been a big realization. There’s no resting point; there’s no resting place where all questions stop and satisfaction is always there. [I realized] that life is a series of dissatisfactions, but that’s OK so long as you can more or less keep them under control and have a project on the go where you feel you’re in some way advancing in some area, increasing in self-knowledge and fulfillment.
BLVR: If everything were how I wanted it to be, there’d be no such thing as a reward, and I gotta say, I love a reward.
ADB: I have a new interest in frivolity. Like, I used to think that drinking was a really horrible thing, a really terrible thing, because drinking basically means I don’t know how to solve my problems so I’m just going to get drunk and then forget about my problems for the next few days, and that always seemed to me close to nihilism. Now the way I see drinking is that it’s a kind of acceptance of our limitations; it’s like I can’t figure the whole of my life out, so at this point, I’m going to get drunk because it’s too much and I’m going to go for an easy way out at this point. So I’m understanding drinking, conceptually.
IV. “Treat everybody you meet as though they are laboring under some really big problem.”
BLVR: Did you grow up atheist?
ADB: I grew up totally atheist, but my parents were weird because they were very proud to be Jewish and very racist, really, against anyone who wasn’t Jewish, while at the same time paying very little attention to what it meant to be Jewish. I think they thought that being Jewish meant being clever and being better than Christians in some way: Christians were a naive lot who had sort of fallen for Jesus. They were sentimental, they were too emotional, and Jews were just clever people. It was all very tribal and just ridiculous in a way. But that was the ideology I grew up with. And now I’m very interested in Christian vulnerability, the taboo. So I spend quite a lot of time discussing that, you know; the cult of the Virgin Mary interests me a lot. I love the concept of original sin, the idea that we’re all broken and fundamentally incomplete.
BLVR: Why do you love that idea?
ADB: Because it seems to be such a useful starting point. You know, if you imagine a relationship in which two people think they’re great—you know, perfect—that’s going to lead to intolerance and terrible disappointment when they realize that they’re not great, they’re not perfect. Whereas imagine a relationship that begins under the idea that two people are quite broken and therefore they need forgiveness from the other and they need to apply charity to the other and they need to forgive the other, and so that seems a much better starting point. I like these descriptions of human beings as being really quite flawed and crazy and out of control and you find that in Buddhism and Judaism and Christianity. The human being is presented as a very fragile, sort of broken creature. And I like that. It’s a good starting point and also it feels true to my experience.
BLVR: How are you defining broken?
ADB: By broken I mean “not quite right.” And that could mean so many different things but it could mean “with a great tendency to anxiety,” say, or “with a great tendency toward despair,” say, or “with a tendency to panic.” Any of these fundamental dispositions toward low self-esteem or whatever it is; many of us have a background of ways in which we’re not quite right.
BLVR: That’s all of us.
ADB: Yes, all of us. So that’s why the concept of original sin seems so plausible and applicable and also kind, because it basically says, Look, when you meet someone new, don’t just look for the positives; just assume that something major has gone wrong here. Treat everybody you meet as though they are laboring under some really big problem, basically. That’s the starting point. That should be the starting point of any encounter. Rather than how great are they, it’s more like, OK, where’s the broken bit of them? That’s a much kinder and more interesting way of getting to know someone. And also to say, That’s the bit of you I’m actually kind of interested in. Like, I don’t really want to hear—that’s fantastic that you’ve been promoted, and, you know that’s great, but, like, I don’t think that’s where your real self is, you know, and that’s where people don’t— When I first got together with my wife, I observed that she, she’s a very lovely person, a very shy person, a very private person, and whenever people would ask her—she doesn’t have very many friends at all—and whenever people would say to her, “How are you?” she would go, “I’m great,” even though she’d been crying all afternoon, and I would say to her, “How come you just said that you’re great?” And she went, “Well, I don’t want to bother people with my problems.” I go, “No, no, no.” I said to her, “No, look, I think you’ve misunderstood the concept of friendship. Fundamentally, friendship is the union of two people around vulnerability and weakness. Therefore, if you think that all they want to hear is good news, they’re going to find you really boring.
BLVR: Are you instantly open?
ADB: I am instantly open. Then again, you know, I do understand the need for boundaries, and the need not to—I don’t know—it can be, it can be a lack of respect for another person to burden them too quickly with aspects of oneself. It could be a lack of respect for what’s going on in their lives, et cetera. So I’ve slowly learned the opposite as well. That actually sometimes people should just say, “Things are fine with me, they’re great,” and move on. There are moments where actually that’s kind of a serious—it’s not just a superficial response; it’s actually a deep response to the situation.
BLVR: So are you really going to build a series of temples for atheists in the UK? You’ve argued that one can build a temple for anything that’s positive and good, that you don’t need a God.
ADB: No, that got out of hand.
BLVR: What do you mean it got out of hand?
ADB: Well, first of all, I kept on describing it as the temple to atheism, which was really the wrong description, because it had nothing really to do with atheism. It’s really a contemplative space. I mean, my starting point was [that] religious architecture does all sorts of really good things with our minds because, you know, whether it’s the huge cathedral or the little chapel or the Zen Buddhist temple, it’s the use of architecture to produce feelings of calm, feelings of perspective, feelings of gratitude and wonder, wonderful feelings, and I like the way in which religion would use an architect to produce that feeling. So one way to look at it would be like an art installation. It’s like the Rothko Chapel or something. So it’s not—I think it ended up seeming like I was trying to advocate for the building of temples to atheism, as though atheism was a religion that needed a temple, and that’s completely wrong, so that’s my fault. It’s like James Turrell’s Skyspaces. These are essentially temples to perspective. It’s the use of architecture to promote psychological states, not just to hold books or hold a swimming pool or to transit passengers to airplanes. The traditional functions of architecture—it’s architecture for moods, if you like, and tradition doesn’t exist outside of religious architecture. All contemporary architecture is functional architecture—the museum, the airport, the hotel, or whatever—but what we don’t have is the building that’s for the feeling.
BLVR: I feel like one difference generally between men and women is that women tend to begin inside of themselves for exploration—at least the women I’m around, but I’m very insulated—and men don’t. Men go more outside. They’re more externally focused.
ADB: The way I look at it, it’s not a male/female division. I think one way of looking at it is through a Catholic/Protestant division. Traditionally, Catholicism has said that, in order to get people to feel a certain way, you have to put them inside certain kinds of environments. You have to take care of the external environment. That’s why you need to spend a huge amount of money on cathedrals and music and painting. Meanwhile the Protestants think, No, no, no, no, it’s all what’s happening inside you. All you need is the Bible. You and your book… you can be in a field; you can be in a tin shed. You don’t need St. Peter’s Church. You can just do it on your own with words, so Protestants have been about words and private experience, and in this sense I’m a Catholic. I do believe that we are terrifically influenced by space, by what’s outside of us. I think that there are environments that call certain emotions to the fore. Maybe an emotion of calm, maybe an emotion of sensuality or thoughtfulness or whatever it is. Works of art do it. Music does it. And I think it helps if you can manage to live in an environment, be that a city, a home, a kind of media landscape where stuff that’s outside is drawing out the best of what’s inside you. And at its worst, you get a situation where the outside is in real conflict, where you’ve got to kind of shut your eyes to stuff, where the media you’re consuming is pulling you in a suboptimal direction, and that’s sad.
BLVR: Where do you go?
ADB: Well, I started off as a writer thinking that, you know, it’s just a book, it’s just the words that count, and gradually I’ve become more interested in pictures and works of architecture and music and I think actually it’s the whole package of what’s around that counts, that also shapes who we are. As for where I go, look, I have trouble. I live in London, which I think is a really ugly city. It’s not a working city for me, you know? It doesn’t do what a city should do, which I think is to bring people together in a tight space and give you a feeling of community and the excitement that you could run into people at any time. I think London separates people; it’s like LA without the palm trees, and under a gray sky.
V. “Intimacy transcends the disgusting.”
BLVR: You wrote a little book about sex.
ADB: What can I tell you? It’s very pessimistic. It basically tells you that good sex is very rare. We have this assumption that difficulty with sex is something that our grandparents had and that now great sex is everybody’s birthright. But of course it’s much more complicated. So I’m imagining a reader who is weeping softly in bed; perhaps their partner is asleep next to them.
BLVR: So what is good sex?
ADB: I think good sex is about an end to loneliness. I think it’s about feeling accepted and I think that feeling of acceptance is in and of itself erotic. I’ve got a riff in there about oral sex and I say that oral sex is exciting and erotic basically for the psychological reason that somebody accepts all of us; even the so-called “dirty parts” of us are accepted and purified in this act that sort of reconciles us to ourselves and makes us feel deeply acceptable to somebody else.
BLVR: I once asked a boyfriend if he liked giving oral sex and he said, “Well—no. It’s eating flesh, basically. It’s a type of cannibalism and that’s disgusting.”
ADB: Well, things are rescued from disgustingness by the fact that you have a relationship with the person, however brief and tenuous, and that’s what rescues one from the disgust. For want of a better word, we can call it intimacy, but it has to pass through this thing called the disgusting. Intimacy transcends the disgusting. It purifies.
BLVR: Right, because you’re not intellectualizing. When you’re kissing someone and you feel nothing for them, it becomes an intellectual experience. You’re almost dissociating, and you can break down all the elements of what’s happening.
ADB: Yes, I think literary types, even at their most spontaneous moments, always maintain the inner camera, so we shouldn’t be too tough on ourselves for that.
BLVR: When I’m not connecting to someone’s chemistry, and I’m kissing them, my inner dialogue and camera are all I feel and see, but when I’m connected, it disappears. I think this is how a lot of people—women, usually—realize they’re not gay, as much as they hoped they might be. They make out with a woman they’re attracted to and are sort of startled at how intellectual an experience it is. You’re divorced of erotic charge, and the act becomes very concrete.
ADB: I think the best thing to do is to kind of be humble before our conflicting physical and mental desires, just like we might be humbled before a physical disease. That’s why sex makes us ridiculous, because it forces us to do stuff with people whom we don’t even like, maybe, or we only like in a certain way. We have to lie in the name of sex. There’s this whole thing about protecting people’s feelings, getting hurt, et cetera. So I think the emergence of the sex drive in an adolescent is a moment of fall. It’s so much harder to be nice when you’ve got a sex drive. It’s so much harder to be normal. I’m on the side of sympathy for this strange thing we have called a sex drive.
BLVR: Do you think you’ve had really good sex in your life?
ADB: I think that sex is a little bit like happiness. You kind of think when you’re starting out in adolescence that it’s like a mountain you climb up, and you’ll get more and more of this stuff called happiness and you’ll eventually come to live at the top of the mountain called happiness. Same thing I think with sex; you kind of imagine that at first it’s hard to get but then eventually you’ll have lots of great sex, but no. I look back at my life, and the episodes of great sex have been few and far between, and as I get older, I recognize how amazing it was that at certain points in my life certain amazingly generous people took it upon themselves to want to have sex with me. Every one of those occasions is to be remembered and grows more miraculous with the years.