Alain de Botton: philosopher for the people

Recently, I discovered Alain de Botton, a philosopher for the people. He is both lauded for popularizing philosophy and criticized for not saying anything new or sharing insights born of personal experience.

Personally, I feel this criticism is unwarranted. There is great interest in philosophy, but academic philosophers by and large have done a lackluster job of explaining it to the general public. There is definitely a place for philosophy popularizers, just as there is a place for science popularizers, and Alain de Botton serves this role very well. He is articulate and engaging. What does it matter if the insights he shares are neither new nor “hard won” from personal experience? Philosophy is too important–too useful–to remain inaccessible to the vast majority of people.

If you ever had an interest in philosophy but were daunted by the complexity of it, I urge to you watch Alain de Botton’s “Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness” video series, which I have linked below for your convenience. It is a clear, easy to understand introduction to how philosophy is both relevant and vital today.

Alain de Botton’s “Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness”

Part 1: Socrates on Self Confidence

Socrates believed that everyone had the capacity to construct well thought out opinions. In fact, if we want to be happy, we must think for ourselves. Otherwise, we’ll just end up following the beat of someone else’s drum, which may lead to unhappiness. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said.

Part 2: Epicurus on Happiness

Epicurus would be horrified to be associated with “epicureanism” today. He didn’t say, “eat, drink, and be merry.” Rather, he said that there were three keys to happiness: friends, self-sufficiency, and an analyzed life.

Part 3: Seneca on Anger

The key to happiness is hope, not expectation. Frustration and anger are the result of people expecting too much of the world. In the words of Mark Twain, “Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.”

Part 4: Montaigne on Self-Esteem

Love yourself, flaws and all. Appreciate diversity. You don’t have agree with or even like someone or something in order to be respectful. This simple insight seems lost in our increasingly polarized world.

Part 5: Schopenhauer on Love

This segment falls short of the others because Schopenhauer’s insights on love are somewhat dated. Love may be a function of the will to life, but it is not merely biological. Schopenhauer did not account for the power of media/culture in shaping our ideas of love. Still, this segment offers a glimpse of this influential philosopher.

Part 6: Nietzsche on Hardship

de Botton concludes this series with one of the most controversial, influential, and misunderstood philosophers of all time. Nietzsche wrote a great many things, and they often sprung from his belief that nothing of worth is easily gained. Happiness comes from cultivating hardships and turning them to your advantage, NOT from avoiding them. “What does not kill me, makes me stronger,” he wrote. Nietzsche attacked institutions like religion in part because he viewed them as crutches which caused dependency and kept people from achieving their potential.

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