Tag: Alain de Botton

Four Reasons Why Plato Matters

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Plato devoted his life to one goal: helping people reach a state of fulfillment. To this day, his ideas remain deeply relevant, provocative, and fascinating. Philosophy, to Plato, was a tool to help us change the world.

In this short video Alain de Botton reminds us of the four big ideas that Plato had for making life more fulfilled.

Transcribed highlights below.

1. Think More

We rarely give ourselves time to think carefully and logically about our lives and how to lead them. Sometimes we just go along with what the Greeks called Doxa, or common sense. In the thirty-six books he wrote, Plato showed this common sense to be riddled with errors, prejudice, and superstition. … The problem is that popular opinions edge us toward the wrong values. … Plato's answer is know yourself. (This) means doing a special kind of therapy: Philosophy. This means subjecting your ideas to examination rather than acting on impulse. … This kind of examination is called a Socratic discussion.

2. Let Your Lover Change You

That sounds weird if you think that love means finding someone who wants you just the way you are. In his play, the symposium, … Plato says true love is admiration. In other words, the person you need to get together with should have very good qualities, which you yourself lack. … By getting close to this person you can become a little like they are. The right person for us helps us grow to our full potential. … For Plato ‘a couple shouldn't love each other exactly as they are right now,' rather they should be committed to educating each other and enduring the stormy passages that inevitably involves. Each person should want to seduce the other into becoming a better version of themselves.

3. Decode the Message of Beauty
Everyone pretty much likes beautiful things but Plato was the first to ask why do we like them? He found a fascinating reason: beautiful objects are whispering important truths to us about the good life. We find things beautiful when we sense qualities in them that we need but are constantly missing in our lives: gentleness; harmony; balance; peace; (and) strength. Beautiful objects therefore have a really important function: they help to educate our souls.

4. Reform Society

Plato spent a lot of time thinking about how the government and society should ideally be. He was the world’s first utopian thinker.

In this, he was inspired by Athens’s great rival: Sparta. This was a city-sized machine for turning out great soldiers. Everything the Spartans did – how they raised their children, how their economy was organised, whom they admired, how they had sex, what they ate – was tailored to that one goal. And Sparta was hugely successful, from a military point of view.

But that wasn’t Plato’s concern. He wanted to know: how could a society get better at producing not military power but eudaimonia? How could it reliably help people towards fulfillment?

In his book, The Republic, Plato identifies a number of changes that should be made:

We need new heroes

Athenian society was very focused on the rich, like the louche aristocrat Alcibiades, and sports celebrities, like the boxer Milo of Croton. Plato wasn’t impressed: it really matters who we admire, for celebrities influence our outlook, ideas and conduct. And bad heroes give glamour to flaws of character.

Plato therefore wanted to give Athens new celebrities, replacing the current crop with ideally wise and good people he called Guardians: models for everyone’s good development. These people would be distinguished by their record of public service, their modesty and simple habits, their dislike of the limelight and their wide and deep experience. They would be the most honoured and admired people in society.

End Democracy

He also wanted to end democracy in Athens. He wasn't crazy he just observed how few people think properly before they vote. Therefore we get very substandard rulers. He didn't want to replace democracy with a dictatorship, but he wanted to prevent people from voting until they'd started to think rationally. That is, until they became philosophers. … To help the process Plato started a school: The Academy.

Still curious? So where do you go from here? The Great Books program at St. John’s College in Annapolis recommends this edition of Plato's Complete Works. Another place to start, is this, slightly more detailed introduction to Plato.

Marcel Proust: Imminent Death Reminds us that Life is Beautiful

In his book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton brings to light a fascinating answer by Marcel Proust to a Parisian newspaper on what we should do in the face of a near-certain death.

Someone looking for a paper to read in Paris in the 1920s might have picked up a title called L'Intransigeant. It had a reputation for investigative news, metropolitan gossip, comprehensive classifieds and incisive editorials. It also had the habit of dreaming up big questions and asking French celebrities to send in their replies. “What do you think would be the ideal education to give your daughter?” was one. “Do you have any recommendations for improving traffic congestion in Paris?” was another.

In the heat of the 1922 summer, the paper offered a particularly elaborate question.

An American scientist announces that the world will end, or at least that such a huge part of the continent will be destroyed, and in such a sudden way, that death will be the certain fate of hundreds of millions of people. If this prediction were confirmed, what do you think would be its effects on people between the time when they acquired the aforementioned certainty and the moment of cataclysm? Finally, as far as you're concerned, what would you do in the last hours.

The last person the paper consulted on the question was the reclusive novelist Marcel Proust. Since its 1913 publication, In Search of Lost Time, was considered a masterpiece. A good sport, Proust sent the following reply of timeless advice and piercing wisdom to the paper.

I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it—our life—hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future delays them occasionally.

But let all this threaten to become impossible forever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! If only the cataclysm doesn't happen this time, we won't miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X, making a trip to India.

The cataclysm doesn't happen, we don't do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn't have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.

de Botton furthers Proust's response and touches on re-evaluating our priorities in the face of certain mortality, asking the important question of what, exactly, does a whole life consist of? How, should a reminder of our mortality change our lives?

Feeling suddenly attached to life when we realize the imminence of death suggests that it was perhaps not life itself which we had lost the taste for – so long as there was no end in sight, but our quotidian version of it, that our dissatisfactions were more the result of a certain way of living than anything irrevocably morose about human experience. Having surrendered the customary belief in our own immortality, we would then be reminded of a host of untried possibilities lurking beneath the surface of an apparently undesirable, apparently eternal existence.

However, if due acknowledgment of our mortality encourages us to reevaluate our priorities, we may well ask what these priorities should be. We might only have been living a half-life before we faced up to the implications of death, but what exactly does a whole life consist of? Simple recognition of our inevitable demise does not guarantee that we will latch on to any sensible answers when it comes to filling in what remains of the diary. Panicked by the ticking of the clock, we may even resort to some spectacular follies. The suggestions sent by the Parisian celebrities to L'lntransigeant were contradictory enough: admiration of alpine scenery, contemplation of the extraterrestrial future, tennis, golf. But were any of these fruitful ways to pass the time before the continent disintegrated.

Luckily for us, Proust worked on a book that “set out to answer, albeit in a rather extended and narratively complex form,” a similar question to the one asked by the Parisian newspaper. The title of the book, In Search of Lost time, hints at as much.

The question of what makes a good life is one for the ages, it's also a personal one. What makes a difference to me might not make a difference to you. Proust, however, has much to contribute to the tapestry we're weaving daily. He understood a lesson we all too often forget in the the pursuit of goals and ambitions: the value of life is the sum of its everyday moments. Life is fragile.

How Proust Can Change Your Life goes on to explore the Proustian guidebook and gives us hope that we can learn to adjust our priorities before it's too late, touching on, among other things, Proust's thoughts on enjoying your vacation, reviving a relationship, achieving original and unclichéd articulation, being a good host, recognizing love, and understanding why you should never sleep with someone on a first date.

A Guide to Happiness: Montaigne on Self-Esteem

Alain de Botton created a six-part video series, Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness, based on The Consolations of Philosophy, that discusses thinkers who had wise things to say about everyday worries.

In this part, he introduces Michel de Montaigne.

Montaigne certainly didn't think that all learning was useless. He was simply observing that many people who go to university aren't any happier or wiser than those who don't. And from my own experience, I think he may have a point. What Montaigne was essentially telling us is that when you come to a place like this, you will get very good at remembering lots of facts, you will pick up a lot of information, but you won't necessarily be able to apply it to your life. And I certainly missed out on many lessons of life here. If I was designing my ideal curriculum, I think I would take a leaf from Montaigne's book and say that actually, many of the most important topics aren't covered here and should be. I'm thinking of topics like how to live well and happily with other people, how to confront one's anxieties, how to deal with death, even banal questions or potentially banal questions like how to end a relationship. These are not the kinds of questions that we're encouraged to ask here, and in a way, perhaps we should be.

If you're still curious, check out Montaigne's The Complete Essays.