Who is Alain de Botton? – at Ropetackle

Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton

Who is Alain de Botton? Anyone? – A philosopher? Some kind of author…… isn’t he? …. That guy who did all the stairs going up and down?….Or was that Escher?……he wrote that book, didn’t he?…what was it called….

I know the name Alain de Botton but I have no idea why. Probably he’s been mentioned in the media so many times in relation to something or other that I’m interested in that his name is now embedded in my consciousness but I can’t recall anything he said or did. So, when City Books announced that he’d be speaking at the Ropetackle Arts Centre in Shoreham, I decided to go along.

The venue was packed and as Mr. Botton took the stage his head was strangely illuminated in electric blue and bright red like a poorly received television signal an effect not helped by his throat mic rendering his voice from speakers located elsewhere. For the first few minutes I had the imrpession of some kind of ventriloquist telepresence…..or was that just me?

For some reason I had expected a sort of puzzle solving psychological/philosophical slant to the evening. Tricks, techniques and lots of rhetroical questions. But Mr. Botton was having none of that. Like a comedian on a panel show, he was whimsical and insightful. I’m tempted to say that his style was that of a machine gun but it was not so aggressive or fast. Perhaps a child’s pop gun made from soft wood with plastic bullets chugging out digestible dollops of wisdom, thunk, thunk,. thunk.

Mr. Botton has just published a novel entitled “The Course Of Love” but I knew nothing of this. He told us that he would not discuss the novel but various ideas surrounding the novel.

His topic was love and how we go about it all wrong. How it takes us well into our forties to learn and accept failures in ourselves which can be spotted by complete strangers after talking to us for just five minutes. Our friends know of course but never tell us……. until it’s too late.

He blames Romanticism which, against thousands of years of tradition and all rational thought, presupposes that, for everyone alive, there is another perfect match if only we can find them. That, when we find this special someone, we shall know immediately that we have met the love of our life and that person will fulfil our every need.

In the 21st century we accept that education and training are required for every aspect of our lives from getting a job, to learning to drive to public speaking. We are obsessed with this idea and now even embrace the concept of “lifelong learning“. Only one area of life is excempt from learning and that is love. Romanticism rejects the idea that marriages should be founded on family ties and practicalities and dictates that we should choose our partners based on instinct. We should “just know”.

In truth we all have types that we are attracted to and these types are imprinted on us in our childhood. When we seek a romantic partner we are instinctively seeking someone who will love us in the same weird way that we were loved as children. And since, most of us are, in many ways, psychologically damaged by our childhood, we are really seeking someone who will torture us in the same was as our parents did. A remote father or an alcoholic mother translate into similar spousal choices.

Once we find this person we expect perfection. Again, this is the only area of life where this is applicable. We fool ourselves that our partner is perfect. We expect them to know what we’re thinking. There is no need to finish sentences, words are for the little people. We are in love.

We ignore their flaws…but we can only ignore them for so long and then one day we burst out: “Stop chewing so bloody loudly, you always do that and you sound like a cow!” – our partner us mortified. Or we sulk because they have done something that they SHOULD HAVE KNOWN annoyed us. But we wont tell them. We expect telepathy.

Mr. Botton’s style is conversational and chatty but he drops bombshells of well formed prose: “Catastrophic outbreaks of sulking”, “I may have married an idiot”.

We are expected to love EVERYTHING about our partners even the odd and grotesque imperfections. Mr. Botton, rarely pauses, he presses on with more and more examples of the idiocy of modern romance. The aversion we have to being changed. Again, contrary to every other aspect of our lives where we constantly seek improvement, if our beloved tries to change us, that’s it! Break up is imminent.

One of the most interesting ideas emerged during the question and answer session when Mr. Botton was asked if smartphone dating apps would assist in the pursuance of love. He pointed out that modern computer dating is a mere continuation of the romantic ideal as it places all the emphasis on search and selection. It assumes that there is a perfect partner out there just waiting for us to find them and then supplies the miracle of computing to attempt to identify the correct partner. It has no more hope of success than meeting random strangers at a party.

Mr. Botton seems to accept that our partners may change us and that we should allow relationships to grow. In previous centuries, when our 2 year old daughter threw her breakfast on the floor we may have punished her but in these enlightened days we know that we must try to understand her and teach her how to behave. Yet we would never dream of extending the same love and care to our romantic partners. He sugests that we need to nurture our partners. I guess his thesis can be summed up in his statement: “We need to learn how to love”.

Book Review – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, 2011

A couple of years ago I became excited about an episode of BBC Radio 4’s Book of the WeekSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari. I have just read it and it’s fantastic! An insightful take on the complete history and pre-history of humanity. In short, Homo sapiens existed for around 70,000 years as hunter gatherers and then, around ten thousand years ago, transitioned to agriculture. Only in the last thousand years or so have we become industrialised. The book contrasts the different stages of humanity, how our physiology is still basically hunter gather and how, in many ways, humanity was better off before we settled down.

Mr. Harari is an Israeli tenured professor at the Department of History of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a very clever man. He explains that while hunter gatherers may have had no access to the benefits of modern medicine, television or draft excluders their lives were spent fulfilling their instincts. They were not driven to work all the hours God sends. When we settled down as farmers the effect was not to give us leisure time but to make us work harder, support more people and have any excess value creamed off by an elite. Harari’s focus is not merely that of a dry history professor. He gives great examples such archaeological records showing that ancient farmers had severe back problems due to constant stooping.

He notices how our expectations change with society. Many young people start off in life thinking that they will work hard, make money and retire at forty only to become accustomed to good wine, luxury cars and prestige.

SapiensHe explains how our readiness to believe in myths underpins much of our civilisation and by myths he is not only talking only of King Arthur and Jesus. He’s talking about stuff that we believe in that does not physically exist. Money, Nation and the Public Limited Company. These myths depend on what he terms the intersubjective. That is something that does not objectively exist nor is it purely subjective. In a way, it is an illusion which is agreed upon by society because it is useful. The concept of the nation allows us to work together in large group and the concept of money allows us to trade with complete strangers.

In the early 21st century we all proclaim the mantras of equality and individualism but can it be coincidence that we all believe the same thing? Obviously our beliefs are, to a large extent, programmed by society. The belief in individualism and equality proliferates because it is useful for capitalism to have a population with few ties who can be easily moved from one task to another.

We all consider that a wide range of experiences are beneficial and it is common for young lovers to whisk themselves off to Paris for a romantic weekend. Yet, the elite of ancient Egypt would have never dreamed of wasting their wealth on taking their new love to some foreign land. They would much prefer to impress their intended by building a gigantic tomb.

To my mind Mr. Harari’s book begins to fade somewhat as he approaches the present and extrapolates the future as the themes he chooses seem fairly arbitrary. Yet as a whole the book is jam packed with ideas which must be well known in their respective disciplines yet unfamiliar to the layman. When placed together they represent a profound understanding of the state of mankind today.

2017-02-13-10-47-44Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindHe explains how, prior to fully developed capitalism, the rich would hoard or spend their money. Capitalism introduced the idea of investing capital to generate more capital which in turn produces economic activity and this has powered the industrial and technological revolutions. But the dependence of Capitalism on future profits raises the worrying concern that it is not possible for capitalism to reach an equilibrium. It must continually develop new products, services and markets in order to grow. Without growth, the system collapses. He suggests that capitalism has evolved a society which can only be run by capitalists. Perhaps this explains why opposition to capitalism seems so difficult: Other forms of society do not generate the material wealth to which we have become accustomed.

Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindHe also considers that we have achieved, to a large extent, a global society. Most forms of currency are freely exchangeable and it is possible to trade across the whole of the globe. Our religions are stabilising around fairly similar concepts of a single god and similar moral standards. Written prior to BREXIT and Trump, Harari suggests that notions such as the extended family, nation and race are now withering and being replaced with brand loyalty and lifestyle communities. In many ways, society has been shattered into atomised individuals which more readily useful to a global capitalist system.

His predictions of the future are fairly conventional including genetically modification and silicon based life but it his easily accessible narative of the history of humanity and the context in which we live that Harari marks this book apart. The evolution of the human species is not merely biological but cognitive. Our society and our sociology is evolving and with this in mind we should probably not become overly obsessed or self-riotous about our current dogmas. These, like everything else, will pass.