Based in London, Alain de Botton has established a centre for learning, The School of Life, in eight nations worldwide in just over six years. Now he's launched The Philosophers' Mail, a website with a satirical take on mainstream news.
You're Swiss, yet, because you made your name in the UK, many people assume you are English – where do your roots lie?
I was born in Zurich in 1969, to a Swiss German speaking mother from St.Gallen and a naturalised Swiss father who was a Jew from Alexandria, Egypt. At home we spoke French, and I went to the École Français in Zurich until the age of 12, when I transferred to a UK boarding school. I retain very close emotional and practical ties to Switzerland.
What is your most significant memory of growing up in Zurich?
It was the sense of safety and solidity – that came primarily via the architecture – even of the simplest buildings like the tram stop. One had a feeling of a civilisation that was inherently calm and stable. This is extremely reassuring for a child – especially one like me – with a tendency to anxiety. I especially remember the smell of drying concrete in the wall of our garden after a rain shower, and, in spring, the fat snails that appeared on the lawn.
How does being Swiss influence your life and work?
I deeply respect Swiss egalitarianism – the sense that whatever you do and however much money you make, you are part of the community first. This beautiful idea doesn't belong in the English tradition. I also love the ways Swiss life challenges Anglo-American capitalism. The way that people generally prefer quality over the long term to short-term cash! Lastly, I greatly admire the Swiss approach to architecture and the unbelievable care that's taken with many public spaces. This is deeply unusual and inspires patriotism. And, one tiny aside, in the last football World Cup, my younger son and I became very enthusiastic supporters of the Swiss team, which we've maintained ever since.
Is your goal to help people use philosophy to understand everyday life better?
Really I'm interested in emotional health first and foremost. I looked at philosophy, but also psychology, art, literature – culture as a whole if you like – as a response to the needs of the soul. In Switzerland, many economic and social problems have been solved, but many psychological problems are still very active. Therefore I'm convinced that, because the outer questions were so well resolved, my Swiss childhood helped to orient me to the inner questions that interest and excite me, like: Why can't we feel less anxious? Why are our relationships so hard? Why is it so difficult to raise children well? What can console us in the absence of God? I've been drawn to looking both into my own mind and the minds of ‘great thinkers' to answer these dilemmas.
After years of writing and presenting, in 2008 you helped found The School of Life in London. What do people get out of the attending the school that your books don't – or can't – give them?
My insight was that I, as an individual, could only get so far. I wanted to team together with likeminded souls. Thus The School of Life is the world's first attempt to create a multinational ‘brand' in the area of emotional health. We write books, offer therapy and run classes. It's very powerful to attend a course, in person, on a subject and to discuss it with others in the room rather than merely with yourself in your head. You need others to hold up a mirror to you and to help you to understand things your own defences make it hard to see. There are now study centres in eight countries including the UK, Australia, Turkey, Belgium, France and Serbia. We hope to open a branch in Switzerland soon!
This issue of Hello Switzerland extends over the New Year period. Why do you think there's such a need to improve ourselves at the start of the year?
I think that, since the decline in religion, there has perhaps been more of a sense that we each of us have to find our own way. January is actually our biggest month for enquiries at The School of Life – people want to make a change. The areas are often similar: 'My relationship is bad', 'My job is not fulfilling, I want more mental stimulation', or 'I am sad'. We take these issues so seriously and our whole school is geared towards intelligent, wise responses to them.
Do you think we put too much pressure on ourselves?
Well, we, as human beings, should be ambitious, but ambitious for our souls rather than just our status levels. And we shouldn't think we're sick for trying to make life less painful and more interesting and kind – it's a natural aspiration.
In an age when we seem more and more stressed about time, money and our personal resources, what can philosophy realistically do for our everyday lives?
Philosophy simply means a devotion to wisdom. This is one of the grandest and oddest words out there, so lofty, it doesn't sound like something one could ever consciously strive to be – unlike say, being cultured, or kind. Although it's impossible ever to reach a stable state of wisdom, as an aspiration, wisdom deserves to take its place among a host of other, more typical goals one might harbour.
What prompted you to set up the incisive news website The Philosophers' Mail?
Our news outlet www.philosophersmail.com interprets daily news in a philosophical way. In a tiny way, it is a fight back against inane media. Because today, the most attractive, sexy and compelling news outlets enjoy unparalleled influence over tens of millions of people, while the serious, earnest and good ideas are read in tiny niches. Therefore, the world doesn't change. The epochal challenge is to reach the people who don't engage with complex news and so The Philosophers' Mail makes use of our natural inclinations to read celebrity gossip, look at erotic images and read shock stories. It is also sympathetic (as a starting point) to popular biases. For example, perhaps we would find it thrilling to have sex with Jennifer Lawrence? We do want to switch off when hearing about trouble in Africa? Or we do become unnerved by a Romanian family begging on a French train? We don't start by asking what the good or serious outlook might be. For that one could turn to the Economist, or the New York Times. Instead the site views the rolling day's news as a way to develop insight, generosity and emotional intelligence.
Can philosophy survive into the future? If so, how can it stay relevant?
We're trying to keep it relevant! We're making sure the philosophers are asking the right questions. Not so much 'what is the metaphysical status of being?', but more 'what do I do about shyness?'