Alain de Botton is a beloved and much respected author and philosopher in Korea. And like everything else that Korea likes, my first response to it is not to like it. I’m weird and twisted that way. I just think Korea’s obsession often has no limits, and Koreans will give their heart and soul out to anyone who publicly declares they like kimchi, or something in that line, so cliche it makes you roll your eyes.
I used to love Bernard Werber, reading ‘Les Fourmis’, and other books, I thought he was a genius. Then Korea went into a Werber frenzy and I didn’t even bother finish his latest trilogy. The same goes for Guillaume Musso, so many girls were crazy about his books, and I just read one or two, but wasn’t impressed. And now de Botton. I didn’t want to find myself caught in this unfair prejudice, so I decided to give him a chance, and read “Religion for Atheists”. Interesting, but not oh-my-god-mind-blowing. Now this. To be fair, though, this was not a good choice for my purpose of ‘evaluating’ him, since it’s more of a collection of the most renowned philosophers and their ideas, than his own ideas and words.
De Botton has managed to gather a few of the most renowned philosophers in history and expose their philosophies centering around some crucial issues, I’ll grant him that. The book brushes upon the ideas professed by Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche regarding happiness, fame, difficulty, friendship, in other words, life.
Socrates’ unabated belief that he was doing the right thing, helping young Athenians to question the obvious teaches us that popularity should not stop us from thinking on our own, that because everybody else believes so, we shouldn’t necessarily follow the same path.
De Botton’s explanation of Epicurus’ philosophy made me realize that we often mistake the philosopher’s idea of happiness and pleasure with tendency to laziness and abundance, when, in fact, Epicurus was preaching that material abundance doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness. On the contrary, having more than our essential needs may often lead to discontent. All we need is enough food to survive, and most of all, friends.
According to Senenca, “We will cease to be so angry once we cease to be so hopeful” and “Not everything which happens to us occurs with reference to something about us”, telling us that we need not be frustrated about so many things.
Montaigne warns us not to be too trustworthy of what everyone considers ‘normal’ and ‘adequate’, while Nietzsche justified pain and torment as inevitable steps to reach greater joy. Nietzsche was also dead against alcohol and religion, insisting that “both Christianity and alcohol have the power to convince us that what we previously thought deficient in ourselves and the world does not require attention; both weaken our resolve to garden our problems; both deny us the chance of fulfillment”.
Although I do not necessarily agree with Nietzsche’s take on religion and alcohol (I do think that both have their advantages, when taken in moderation, like everything else), and although this was not technically the best work to form my idea on Alain de Botton, this book has been helpful in changing the idea I had of philosophy.
Philosophy has always appeared, ever since it became a mandatory course in high school, as an excuse to evade from reality. Philosophers, satisfied and bored, were smarty pants busy creating their own little world, and then, impose their silly quotes to be incorporated in my philosophy exams to make me sound smart. I wouldn’t give one more thought to them once my exam ended.
But reading this book made me realize, if we all took just a little time in our days to think of the simple questions these philosophers asked themselves and us, we might have a better chance at a shot at happiness and content, which, I guess, is what we are all looking for, one way or the other. We choose not to dwell on these existential questions because we are supposedly busy earning money and doing ‘useful’ things, with the objective of none other than… to be happy in life. So we focus on making enough money to buy the next big thing that everyone else has, or we spend precious minutes of our days thinking how to formulate our whining and complaints the best way we can on Facebook.
Yet if we just took a moment to press on the ‘pause’ button in our frenzy life and tried answering some of these questions, we might increase our chances at finding happiness and satisfaction in our lives, or at least, more meaning. I know, not everyone of us has the leisure to start wondering whether the job they have but hate is the appropriate one. But I’m not talking about giving up on your lifeline or whatever helps you get out of bed in the morning and have decent meals. I do think if we shifted our focus from, for instance, what others seem to be happy about, to what would really make me happy, we would have a whole different outlook in our life.
Of course, that’s what we strive for, everyday, that is why we’re trying to make a living, of course we all want to be ‘happy’, whatever that means; this has all been discussed before, there’s nothing new there. This might be the response of many. But that’s the thing. Do we really take even a minute in our days to think about why we live? Do we have our priorities straightened out?
Can we define what really makes our happiness?