I have been listening to a few podcast episodes and talks from the well-recognized and well-liked philosopher of modernity Alain de Botton. The writer of philosophical consolations, de Botton clearly has a gift for speaking to the public ear in a modern parlance that is witty, accessible and educational. An innovator, teacher and coach he is, on the whole, someone to be admired. It is in this vein of admiration that I puncture my thoughts on his philosophy, particularly on love and education.
The writer of one of the most popular New York Times opinion pieces suggests to us that love is a complex psychological and relational development. He finds anathema the modern suggestion that love can and should dovetail with happiness, pleasure and fulfillment. With philosophical rigor, de Botton strips away the historical gloss on each of these concepts, surrendering their garish truth. Our modern romantic notion of love is a rather recent social and historical phenomenon. Romanticism may have its origins in the Western European renaissance, although it found renewed fervor as a reaction to the philosophy of science and the burgeoning industrial age. As de Botton simply and compellingly tells it, romanticism has since fornicated into our beloved institutions of science and industry and we have been bedeviled by its heathen progeny since. There are curious features of romantic love, de Botton observes, that guarantee one’s unhappiness in relationships. Firstly, the idea that there exists a soul mate for each of us sets us to unreasonably high expectations for another person, for which they will surely fall short (and rather quickly). Second, one is supposed to finesse winning entry into this literally one-in-several-billion lottery purely by intuition and instinct. Tellingly, de Botton argues, romantic or instinctual love does lead us to a perfect partner—one in which we seek psychic completion—but as it becomes more and more difficult to project our ideas/wishes/needs onto this other person they become correspondingly less perfect, more disappointing and perhaps more irredeemably human. Counterintuitive up close, but perhaps unsurprising from a distance, a relationship built on the stormy seas of high passions is quick to rise and easy to topple. Disagreements, incompatibilities, pedestrianism, nagging immaturities and even the longstanding ailments of adultery and illness are often pronounced to be terminal conditions on this relational body. As a philosophical pessimist, de Botton also suggests that our social values are fundamentally and tragically misplaced. The intertwinement of fulfillment, authenticity, industriousness and goodness leads to chronic social comparisons and epidemics of depression. The exhortation to happiness is a form of social control (de Botton is fond of quoting Nietzsche as saying the two great narcotics of Europe are Christianity and alcohol) and results in a dulling of our consciousness and a deep repression of our most genuine and genius thoughts. As a sceptic, de Botton is fond of reminding us that it is ok to be an idiot, to be ordinary, to be average, to be crazy; such standards are realistic for most of us—the 99%; we can truly grow and thrive when we let go of the Icarian wings that will fail us. We are better off not taking the sky-fall but rather the pedestrian way down, on sandals that are “good enough.”
The romantic era rode in on a wave of industrialization, urbanization, the emancipation of women and the dissemination of literature and secular ideas through the popular press. These historical movements synchronized and crested with the development of new institutions—including love marriages amongst perfect strangers. Prior to these innovations, marriage was mainly a function of negotiating family resources, largely arranged by one’s caste and a religious ordering of the world. The supplanting of treasured and ancient institutions such as caste and religion by the reed of something so ethereal, fickle and profane as human instinctwas blasphemy—if not a wholesale Copernican inversion of the social cosmos. It is ludicrously comic. Small wonder then that instinct never stood a chance. And the evidence abounds. Divorce rates are rampant although curiously not on the rise. The self-help industry peddles advice on relationship success along with self-esteem as if these were in pandemic shortages.
The two modern moods most characteristic of Romanticism that de Botton is deeply critical of are that of sulking and snobbery. The sulk is reputed to be a thoroughly romantic notion, a deeply irrational sense that are partner has failed us by not anticipating and interpreting our deepest needs in the absence of effortful communication. Implicit in this notion is a sense that love should be non-effortful, ‘natural’ and instinctive. Snobbery is the evolution of ancient aristocracy: modern meritocracy. Instead of our worth being measured by the nobility of our birth, we are now assessed by our career and material possessions. Despite the currents of rationalism and humanism drawing into the Western imagination, there exists the irrepressible surge of expectation for more and better. This modern and morbid optimism can be said to have lineage in Romanticism, liberalism, and capitalism.
Against this weltanschauung, de Botton recommends recourse to older Western philosophy such as Socratic questioning, Epicurean aims (i.e., in thinking, friendship, satiation and freedom) and Stoic acceptance of Fate and commitment to what is unchangeable (i.e., virtues). However, as the psychiatrist Donald Winnicott counseled, failure is not only an inevitable part of development but its very possibility. What can the culture of Romanticism gift us—prepare us for—despite its shortcomings? Was Romanticism a “good enough” culture that failed us in the pursuit of happiness, depressed confidence in our instincts also laid us bare—in our irredeemable humanness—to ourselves and our others? Has this pain spurred a need to investigate our ontogenetic sources of misery? Has the culture that has given us the sulk and the snob also marked culture itself with suspicion, thereby liberating the individual to shape new futures? What new collectivities can begin when we are more introspective and simultaneously aware of our social situatedness?