In Conversation with the very eloquent and quick-thinking Alain de Botton. The people’s philosopher. First published in the June 2012 edition of ELLE Decoration UK
When asked Proustian questions (see below), most people pause laboriously over each answer, struggling to find the right words to convey their thoughts and feelings. Alain de Botton does not. His responses come swiftly, eloquently and with scarcely a pause for breath between each one. When I remark on this, he counters that these are the kind of things he thinks about all the time. Certainly, as the author of books entitled The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work; Essays in Love and Religion for Atheists, it’s true he’s grappled with many of life’s complexities – and, conveniently for us, translated them into snappy prose we can all understand.
He has a formidable precision of language, a way of saying complicated things simply, which prompts further pondering. For example, ‘We mustn’t just inspire dreams but put a ladder in place to achieve them.’ Or: ‘Defensiveness is a version of you-don’t-understand-what-it’s-like-to-be-me.’ Our conversation thus roamed cheerfully from why he doesn’t believe in horoscopes (‘I favour the rational’) to the benefits of being Swiss (‘It’s a very practical nation. Everyone knows how to take apart their car’). And it’s evident that this ability, and desire, to communicate, is what inspired The School of Life, an enterprise conceived as a new vision of education, with daily talks and weekend courses intended to inspire ways to ‘live wisely and well’ and to ‘tickle, expand and exercise your mind’.
He’s also the driving force behind Living Architecture, an initiative that ‘provides access to the work of some of the greatest living architects’, realised as a series of houses – five so far with more on the way – for people to rent as holiday lets. ‘I’d written a book arguing for higher standards in architecture which went down really well, but nothing was changing, just lots of polite clapping. I wanted people to experience what it’s like to live in a space designed by an outstanding architect.’ Certainly there are not many provocateurs with the professional panache of de Botton. I suggest we all start paying a bit more attention.
Tell me five words to describe yourself. Creative. Anxious. Stupid. Empathetic. Trying hard.
What was the last film you saw? Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia.
Who’s your favourite writer? I’m very keen on a philosopher called John Armstrong.
What is your greatest regret? I would have liked to have trained as an architect and exploited my visual side more.
What is your principal defect? Losing hope in things. I fight it, but I have a tendency to lose hope. I’d like more perseverance.
Who is your favourite fictional character? Madame Bovary. She’s flawed in interesting ways. She reads too much and believes too much; she couldn’t accept the everyday.
You’re having a dinner party and you can invite six famous people from the past or present. Who would you choose? Thomas Jefferson, as he seemed interesting. Keira Knightley because she’s very attractive. Marcel Proust. Scarlett Johansson, for obvious reasons. Bill Clinton, as he’d have lots to say. And Hillary Clinton, as she’d have lots to say too. And Virginia Woolf, as she’s a fantastic writer, oh and then Jane Austen. It’d be a mix of experience, beauty and intelligence. But do I have too many?
Which historical figure do you most identify with? I don’t really identify with him, but I admire Benjamin Franklin. He wrote, was invested in politics and was a scientist. He wanted to reform how people lived.
Have you ever failed at anything? Oh, lots of things. There are various books in the bottom drawer. I’ve twice failed to complete a PhD. And there are lots of failed relationships.
What do you think you’d taste like? A lime? Kind of weird, complex and slightly unfamiliar.
If space travel were affordable, would you go? Not in a hurry. I’m more into checking out the local neighbourhood.
When did you last laugh? My children make me laugh because they come out with such odd stuff. I like how they’re so emotionally raw.
What did you want to be as a child? I loved being creative in various ways: drawing, Lego… but I didn’t really have a career mapped out.
What was your worst subject at school? Maths, for sure. I loved literature because you could have a discussion about it.
Do you believe in luck? Yes I do. Well, I believe in chance really. You get lucky breaks, but you have to work at being lucky to maximise your opportunities.
Do you have a motto? I like a quote from Seneca: ‘What need is there to weep over parts of life; the whole of it is worth tears.’ I like a bit of pessimism – it frees you from expectations.