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5 Nov, 2021 07:00

Human beings are made to suffer – philosopher

From an early age, we strive to understand the world around us. But maybe we should do more to understand ourselves. Well, today I'm putting life's big questions about love and happiness to the philosopher and founder of The School of Life – Alain de Botton.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Alain de Botton, welcome to the show. It's great to have you with us. So we got all the life’s big questions to you. 

Alain de Botton: Thank you so much.

SS: You've dedicated a lot of effort to studying and telling people about emotional intelligence. Now, here's the thing, these two words together still sound a bit like ‘chicken soup for the soul’ kind of a phrase, you know what I mean? Or something from a book of a notorious life coach, Tony Robbins? What makes you take emotional intelligence seriously? Why should we take it seriously? For the most part, we don't really understand what it means.

AB: Yeah, so my approach is very different from the American approach. And I'll tell you how. Americans generally believe that life can be made perfect. And that happiness is the birthright of every citizen. This is not my starting point or the starting point of the organisation I lead – The School of Life. We have, if you like, a more tragic starting point. And the tragic point of view is that human beings are made to suffer, that there is going to be a huge amount that goes wrong in everybody's life. This is not to say that we should despair. In fact, we can be very joyful, we can connect with others around the difficulties of life. But we're very keen to suggest that if we accept that life is imperfect, we will have a much better time than to expect that life is perfect and keeps going wrong for us. So knowing that every human is a broken creature, full of error, full of madness – this is a good starting point.

SS: I mean, it's kind of like a mind trick. It's almost like if you have no expectations, then good things are more prone to happen because usually, expectations don't come true. And then that's when you're really upset. So you're saying, if you think everything's really bad in the beginning, you may be surprised because some good things may come along. Is this what you're getting at?

AB: Look, I think that one of the things that Russia understands very well is melancholy. Melancholy is a beautiful word. It's not used enough anymore. But it used to be used, particularly the 19th century. And melancholy is different from anger, or bitterness. It is sadness that is handled with grace and dignity. And many situations in life demand a degree of melancholy. Melancholy isn't despair. It doesn't mean to say that we know that everything's going to be absolutely terrible. But it's an awareness that there is likely always to be a gap between what we hoped for, and what actually exists. I should also say that this is the beginning of friendship–

SS: But what about that life sometimes gives you things that you don't even expect that exceed your expectations? That happens too.

AB: You don't need any help with those moments, grab them with both hands and enjoy them. You don't need me or anyone else for those moments. But I’m here for the other times.

SS: And regarding melancholy, I agree that it's an absolutely wonderful world. And I wouldn't even say that it's a sadness. But it's graceful. It's a sadness that's joyful. We enjoy this feeling of melancholy here in Russia, we feed of it.

AB: Yes, it's bittersweet. And I should also say that it is at the root of friendship. Because, you know, the way in which human beings connect with one another is not around perfection, and triumph and success. Any genuine friendship is built around an acceptance of pain, and an ability to share stories of pain. I mean, if you meet somebody and you say, “How are you?” And they say, “Everything is terrific in my life, I'm just going from one success to another.” In a way you're closed off from that person's life. If somebody says, “You know, things are a little difficult at the moment in a few areas.” That is an invitation to the beginning of a friendship. So far from this being a problem, it is a gateway to connection with others.

SS: Oh, that makes sense. But I just want to bring you back to the concept of emotional intelligence because that's where we started off, but we didn't really go into it, because you're studying emotional intelligence and a lot of people don't understand why it is so important to study emotional intelligence. Emotions and intelligence are two separate things. Well, in the perception of the majority, at least. There's a reason and hard truths, two plus two equals four, scientific proof and all that. And then there's emotion, the irrational and we see it as an impulse left over to us from this, like, sort of prehistoric days, I mean, something animalish, uncontrollable. Why is there such a relevant distinction between the two aspects of our existence? And should there be?

AB: Look, I think our education system is overwhelmingly geared towards a technological and scientific approach. You know, at school, you're never really taught to understand the really great mystery at the center of life which is you. We are not given much guidance to try to understand ourselves. And because we lack a ready understanding of ourselves, we tend to make mistakes in two big areas: firstly, in relationships, because we don't understand enough of what motivates us and how our emotions work; and then in the world of work, and professional achievement, because we don't understand ourselves sufficiently well, we don't really know how we want to serve others and serve the community. And so, in both areas, a lack of emotional intelligence creates a lot of unnecessary unhappiness. And it's my goal in life to give people tools so that they can better understand themselves and their emotions, while there is still a bit of time.

SS: How do we cultivate emotional intelligence? I mean, is it something that's inherent? Is it tied to intuition? Or is it something that we can learn to detect?

AB: Look, I think it begins, first of all, by understanding your own story, all of us have a very distinctive story. We were born in a certain family, in a certain context or certain emotions. And a lot of the time we forget it, we cannot remember very much before our fifth or eighth or tenth birthday. And where we've come from is not very clear to us. And this has a really difficult impact on us, particularly around relationships, because you know, the way in which we love as adults, is always built on a structure that was created first in childhood. So without understanding your childhood relationships, it becomes very hard to understand your adult relationships. And that's why it's incredibly important to be able to have a basic understanding of what motivates you as an emotional being before you cause too much damage in the relationships that you're having as an adult.

SS: So you talk also a lot about love. And you say that love is a skill, not an enthusiasm, that our current idea of love is a leftover from the 19th century. Do you mean to say that the feeling of love I mean, the deep sensation that you feel on a spiritual or physical levels when you fall head over heels for someone is an illusion? What is it, a cultural concept?

AB: Look, there's definitely such a thing as a feeling of love. But the great question is, how do you build a relationship? Not how do you have a crush, anyone can have a crush. You know, you can be standing in the supermarket and you see a beautiful person and you develop a crush. But how do you build a relationship. And for that, there are lots and lots of skills. Take the problem of sulking. Very often, we expect that our lovers will understand us without needing to explain what we want and how we feel because we behave like small children who always imagined that their parents are going to guess what they want. So we need to be able to learn the art of not just getting in a sulk if somebody doesn't understand what we want, but of taking the trouble to explain who we are, and what we want and what we need in a way that is clear and not angry, and not bitter, and not cynical. And that's a real skill. You know, people don't explain that to us at school. So learning to kind of speak up for yourself, honestly, and clearly in a relationship is one very important skill. And there are at least 10 others that I could tell you about.

SS: But I'm still a girl so I want to ponder a bit about love and the whole concept of love the way I understand it, and most of the people around me, right? So if love is just an invention of poets how come poets of all ages not just romantics talked about it, from Greek myths to star crossed lovers to Byron, to Jane Austen? I mean, it's a physical sensation after all. How can we just ignore that part of us?

AB: Don't get me wrong,

SS: Or everything that I say – you coin it ‘crush’? Maybe that would just call it differently?

AB: No-no. So we have very powerful attractions to other people. There's no doubt. I mean, it's a wonderful and very, very exciting thing. The question is how do you convert that initial energy into something that is sustainable? Because most of us, what we're really interested in is not just a moment of love, but years of love with somebody, a shared life. And that's going to require a lot of things that could sound a little bit unromantic. You know, a good rule of thumb is, if something sounds unromantic, it's often a very good idea. So for example, it's often thought unromantic to talk about money with a partner, because all that's very unromantic. But actually, understanding your finances, and where each of you is coming from financially is actually a very important thing. If you're trying to build, you know, a life together.

SS: What else? Give us more tips.

AB: Yeah, I'll give you more tips. So sometimes in a relationship, someone will say, “There's something I need to tell you about you or your character or something I don't like.” And then sometimes the lover feels very angry, and says, “Hang on a minute, you should love me for who I am. Don't try and change me.” And sometimes two lovers can be in a relationship stuck like this, both of them saying, “Don't try and change me.” Now, this is a disaster because if you really think about what love is, love should be a process whereby we educate each other, to become the best version of ourselves, not where two people say, “Love me just for who I am,” because all of us are difficult in some areas, immature in some areas, ignorant of who we are and sometimes it takes a lover to hold a mirror to our character. And at that point, we should be grateful if it's done kindly, that somebody else is taking the trouble to try and teach us about ourselves. So in a good relationship, there's a lot of teaching, and there should be a lot of learning. And that could sound a bit boring, if you like, unromantic but love is a classroom, the ancient Greek philosophers very much believed that love is a classroom, where each person takes it in turns to educate the other person about who they are. And that's a beautiful idea, sounds quite strange to modern life, but I think is deeply important.

SS: So, if love is largely a construct, right? Should people not marry for love? I mean, what I call love is what you call strong attraction. Then should we maybe go back to the older days, the days when we used to marry for money, alliances and such because those marriages usually last longer?

AB: Hmm. Look, I think that old fashioned marriages were unhappy in lots of ways. But modern marriages are unhappy in lots of ways too. Can we learn something from the failure of both of these systems? And I think we can. I look forward to the time when we’ll have what we might call a psychological marriage. Now, what is a psychological marriage? A marriage that is psychological is one where the troubles and difficulties of being a couple are constantly examined through the lens of psychology, where it is accepted by both people that living together is very hard, that there will inevitably be complexities that emerge from the difficulties of our own nature because we're all such a mixture of drives and tendencies and histories. But we're two people are devoted to being kind about the difficulties and to examining the difficulties in the issues rationally. That is what I look forward to, like, a psychological marriage.

SS: Does that mean that a couple that is to last in a marriage has to be constantly going to a couple therapist?

AB: I think it would be extremely helpful if everybody who was in a relationship went to couples therapy. I know that sounds strange.

SS: That's a lot of money. That’s for sure.

AB: That's a lot of money. It's a lot of money only but because there are only a few marriage therapists now. So they charge too much. So there needs to be a bit of market competition and an expansion of the field. But you know, if nowadays people have personal trainers and dietitians and other things, why not a marriage therapist? It's after all very, very important. What is a marriage therapist? A marriage therapist is just somebody who gets a couple talking in a way that is reasonable, that is very honest and where both people have to stay in the room, they can't run away because very often, you know, what kills a relationship is a lack of conversation. If you think about sex, and why sex often dies in a couple, the normal view is to say, this happens because, well, it just normally happens. Nope. I believe that when sex dies, it's almost always anger, that one person is angry with another and they haven't been able to find the words.

SS: What about boredom?

AB: No, I think no, I don't think it's boredom. I think it's anger. And I think that when you're – The sexiest thing is closeness, is intimacy, a sense of discovery of another person. If somebody has hurt you, and you haven't been able to complain, or even to realise necessarily, you will not want to be touched by them, why would you? And you don't want to touch them. So I think that the physical side of a relationship is always a reflection of the psychological closeness that's going on in a couple. And all this advice you sometimes hear about, you know, go to a hotel and light a candle and play soft music that has nothing to do with it. It's all about psychological closeness that is what sexual desire ultimately is born out of.

SS: But then you're also proving my point. I do get yours about anger, and you don't really want to sleep with someone when you're angry at him. Although makeup sex is always a very good idea and it's usually more passionate than the everyday sex you have. 

AB: But the clue to that the clue to that is in the concept ‘makeup’. It’s ‘makeup sex’, not ‘angry’, it’s ‘makeup.’

SS: Right, but I don't agree about boredom. Because most of the people, they don't want to have sex with their spouses because they've been with them too long and they just don't want to discover them anymore. They're bored of them, they're not angry, they still love them as human beings but they don’t want to discover them anymore.

AB: Let me talk to you about art. What makes a great artist is that he or she is able to discover often in an everyday situation, a beauty and an interest which ordinary people do not see. So you go to a museum, and you see a vase of flowers. You've seen flowers a million times before. But suddenly, through the eyes of an artist, you think, “Oh, my God, actually, flowers are pretty interesting.” Now, what artists do with flowers, a good lover does with their partner. In other words, they are able to see in them something very fundamental, which is that no one can ever properly know another person fully and therefore properly get bored of somebody. If you are feeling bored of somebody. And if you think, “I know everything about this person,” you haven't scratched the surface. The human animal is such a complicated creature, there's no such thing as knowing somebody fully. It's probably that you are stuck in a situation where the deeper levels of connection are blocked. As I say, it could be anger, it could be routine, it could be a lack of imagination on both parties. But let's not fall into the trap of thinking that you can ever properly be bored legitimately of another person because if somebody is honest about themselves, there is always more to discover.

SS: Alright, well, I would argue more with you on that. But I still want to cover some other topics. So we're going to have to do another interview and why people stop having sex of boredom or anger. 

AB: Absolutely. It’s a whole topic.

SS: I want to talk about philosophy a bit more. You have studied philosophy in school, and you have written books that aim to make the thoughts of great philosophers accessible to the public. And I think it's great. And obviously, a lot of your academic peers think that you're dumbing those ideas down and reducing them to some kind of an easy-to-digest form, and shedding a lot of context in the process. What's your goal? Are you making philosophy a pop commodity?

AB: So my goal is really guided by Tolstoy, who, towards the end of his life wrote this brilliant book called What Is Art. And in this book, he really asked the fundamental question, what is the point of writing and thinking? He was a novelist, working in a particular genre, but actually what he says applies to everything. Now he was also a Christian, and he points us to the notion that the point of art is to reveal the truth of Jesus Christ. Now, I don't believe this. However, I think that he's suitably ambitious about the point of art, basically, all of us are going to die, we don't quite know when we're going to die. Life is fragile. Life is beautiful but also painful. And part of the task of being an artist or a philosopher or a writer is to digest some of the business of living so that the audience finds it easier to exist. And this is an extremely serious mission. The best philosophers have always done it. And in my mind, the best philosophers have also spoken clearly. They've not only been good thinkers, but they've also been good writers. So there are some sentences of Kierkegaard or Nietzsche or, indeed, Plato, that are full of wisdom, but they can also be understood by a clever 12-year-old boy or girl. And I very much believe in clarity and easy communication.

SS: I just want to talk a bit to you about the current state of philosophy, our contemporaries, because you talk about Seneca and Montaigne and you’ve mentioned Nietzsche, but what do you think we're experiencing now? What about the state of academic philosophy today? Do you feel that it is capable of giving birth to another Schopenhauer, another Nietzsche?

AB: So look, you know, universities should be amazing places. Most of us have to go out and earn a living every day, and we're under heavy pressure from bosses and deadlines. We don't have much time to think. So who has time to think? The guys in the universities. Well, what are they thinking about? So the scientists are doing their science thing. But what about the other guys who are studying philosophy and were writing about the big ideas? Are they doing great work? And the truth is, in Russia, and around the world, generally not. When have we heard from a university philosopher an idea that has stopped us in our tracks, or helped us in the middle of the night, or helped us to stop crying or brought sunshine to our lives? Not very often. And the reason is that these guys in universities are paid for the wrong thing. They are paid simply to teach the history of thought, but not to push thought into new areas. So what we desperately need is what the Italians had in the 14th and 15th centuries – an intellectual Renaissance, where people will once again open their minds to thinking very clearly in the same way one does when one wakes up early on a summer morning and the world seems like something you can understand and that you can give shape to in your mind. And we need clear thinkers, and we need helpful thinkers. It's not happening in the university. But there are some wonderful people who are doing philosophy, you know, on YouTube, in the marketplace, who are out in the world. And for me, they are some of the more exciting thinkers.

SS: So where does this idea come from that life should always strive for happiness, which you call ‘continued chirpiness and joy’? Is the modern world not interested in contemplating and balancing and only interested in gratification?

AB: Look, it all starts in the 18th century in Western Europe, and then spreads throughout the world. It's an idea based on science. And because science is so impressive and has solved so many problems, we have made the unfortunate move of extending the power of science into too many areas, where we basically think we can solve everything through the scientific method. We cannot. There are areas which religion used to deal with which art deals with, which are to do with the complexity of human life. And for this, we are still trying to find the right words and trying to find the right way. But I think all of us know that the great musicians and the great artists and the great thinkers are able to put forward some wonderful ideas about how to live. And I see my role as helping more and more people to discover those ideas, come up with some ideas of my own, but broadly speaking, make the difficulties of life easier to bear. Because what is the point of an intellectual, a writer, if their books and their ideas don't help? We need, all of us, help with the pain of living and that is my own mission as a thinker and a writer.

SS: Well, it's been a joy talking to you. That is for sure. And I wish you all the best of luck in your further thinking and pondering because I'm sure it really does help people understand more about the purpose of life. Thank you so much for this chat. We were talking to Alain de Botton, philosopher and founder of The School of Life, discussing our life's most interesting conundrums and how philosophy can come to help in solving them.