philosophy of success

Alain de Botton writes and speaks with a perfect blend of erudition and accessibility.  He’s on the vanguard of a new movement to popularize philosophy.  But we hate ideas, we’re a ‘just do it’ culture, how can there be a movement with any traction to popularize philosophy?

Consider that in this society and the world, we are going through a great deal of tumult and change: a lot of unemployment, corruption, and general upheaval.  And consider too that perhaps we need to question some of the ideas that have formed the basis of everything that went wrong and got us into this mess.  In theory, new ideas gain traction when enough people start to think that the ‘just do it’ culture should pit stop and begin to listen to people who broker in ideas, like philosophers, like de Botton.

A philosopher, and someone who knows philosophy, can tell you why a perpetually positive society has lots of envy and depression.  And why a meritocratic society can become very cruel.  And he can tell you that one very real way out of our hyper competitive work and social culture is an understanding of Greek tragedy which sets at its theatrical center, failure.  He can tell you how our analytic ways of thinking preclude the truth that our relative successes and failures in life are often very haphazard.

I think fundamentalism is very like the meritocratic society:  it makes a class of people who are (self) chosen and sanctified who very easily then begin to judge — as lazy, unsanctified, wrongheaded — the less fortunate people around them.  And like Greek tragedy, there are ways out of religious judgementalism:  confession, sacrifice and ultimately for both the religious and secular, substitution.  Substitution, as de Botton describes in his talk, requires that society place and acknowledge someone or something transcendental at its core, a thing that can remove us from our scandal.

Is Oprah the self proclaimed high priestess of the meritocratic society?  Her message, always on, is that you can do it, if you only try hard enough.  And if you don’t do it?  Well, either try again or,  well, we just won’t talk about it.  And, implicit in her message is that the world she is making is egalitarian – we’re in it together – when the reality is fantastic inequity.

It’s not only Americans who believe; this is America’s greatest export:  the myth of will.

de Botton wrote a book called The Consolations of Philosophy in which he shows how five famous philosophers drew from personal trials and limitations to offer their readers and the world consoling ideas.  That is what de Botton does here.  Are you anxious for your work, your relations, do you struggle with envy, have you become cruel toward people less fortunate than you?  Then here are some very important words to live by.

From the TED talk:

on materialism:

I don’t think we are particularly materialistic.  I think we live in a society which has simply pegged emotional rewards to the acquisition of material goods.  It’s not the material goods we want, it’s the rewards we want.  And that’s a new way of looking at luxury goods.  The next time you see someone driving a Ferrari, don’t think this is someone who is greedy, think this is someone who is incredibly vulnerable and in need of love.

on equality and envy:

If there is one dominant emotion in modern society, that is envy.  And it is linked to the spirit of equality /…/ The problem generally with modern society is that it turns the whole world into a school.  Everyone’s wearing jeans, everyone’s the same, and yet they’re not.  So there’s a spirit of equality, combined with deep inequality, which can make for a very stressful situation.  It is probably as unlikely nowadays that you would become as rich and famous as Bill Gates, as it was unlikely in the 17th Century that you would accede to the ranks of the French aristocracy.  But the point is it doesn’t feel that way.  It’s made to feel, by magazines and other media outlets, that if you’ve got energy, a few bright ideas and technology, a garage, you too could start a major thing.

on the self help culture:

If you go to a large book shop and look at the self help section, as I sometime do, analyze self help books that are produced in the world today.  There are basically two kinds.  The first kind tells you ‘You can do it! You can make it.  Anything’s possible!’  The other kind tell you how to cope with what we politely call low self esteem, or very impolitely call feeling very bad about yourself.  There is a real correlation between a society that tells people that they can do anything, and the existence of low self esteem.

on the meritocracy:

A meritocratic society is one in which if you’ve got talent and energy and skill you will get to the top.  Nothing should hold you back.  It’s a beautiful idea.  The problem is if you really believe in a society where those who merit to get to the top, get to the top, you’ll also, by implication and in a far more nasty way, believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom, also get to the bottom and stay there.  In other words, your position in life comes to seem not accidental but merited and deserved and that makes failure seem much more crushing.

on the difference between an unfortunate and a loser:

In the middle ages in England when you met a very poor person, that person would be described as an unfortunate.  Literally someone who had not been blessed by fortune.  Nowadays, particularly in the United States, if you meet someone at the bottom of society they may unkindly be described as a loser … That shows four hundred years of evolution in society and our belief in who is responsible for our lives.  It’s no longer the gods, it’s us.  We’re in the driving seat.  That’s exhilarating if you’re doing well and crushing if you’re not.

how tragedy helps:

Tragic art as it developed in the theatres of ancient Greece of the 5th C BC was essentially an art form devoted to tracing how people fail and also according them a level of sympathy which ordinary life would not necessarily accord them … At one end of the spectrum of sympathy you’ve got the tabloid newspaper, at the other end of the spectrum you’ve got tragedy and tragic art.

on the harshness of Sunday Sport newspaper [asked to make headlines for famous books]:




on what we worship:

The other thing about modern society and why it causes this anxiety is that we have nothing at its center that is non human.  We are the first society to be living in a world where we don’t worship anything other than ourselves … That’s a very new situation.  Most societies have had right at their center something that is transcendent: a god, a spirit, a natural force, the universe.  Whatever it is, something else is being worshipped.  We’ve lost the habit of doing that which is why I think we are particularly drawn to nature … because it’s an escape from the human anthill.  It’s an escape from our own competition and our own dramas.

on winners and losers and the haphazard:

I think it’s the randomness of the winning and losing process, that I want to stress.  Because the emphasis nowadays so much is on the justice of everything … Now I’m a firm believer in justice.  I just think that it’s impossible.  We should do everything we can to pursue it, but at the end of the day we should always remember that whoever is facing us, whatever has happened in their lives, there will be a strong element of the haphazard.  And it’s that that I’m trying to leave room for, because otherwise it can get quite claustrophobic.

on the nightmare scenario:

The nightmare thought is that frightening people is the best way to get work out of them.  And that somehow the crueler the environment the more people will rise to the challenge.

Alain de Botton, A kinder gentler philosophy of success, TED


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