A Man Worth Reading
Serendipity, to me, is discovering consolation in someone or something that is so close yet so far away.
Over the past few days, I’ve been fortunate enough to stumble upon a little haven of serendipity in which I have met Alain de Botton, an individual both charismatic and intelligent to a cosmic extent. He is someone who creates the means through which humanity can learn about itself, in ways that are both straightforward and nothing short of art. His philosophical arguments are not ‘nebulous’, nor do they seem ‘detached’; rather, he allows us to see in our immediate surroundings – our architecture, our news, our jobs – philosophical considerations such as what it means to be happy, what we know as ‘truth’ and the division between ‘success’ and ‘failure’. Such a lens, without failure, is always described in the most breathtakingly eloquent way possible.
You influence people through their senses. That’s why you need art, not just philosophy.
Reading his writing and watching his TED talks always leave me feeling a considerable sense of purpose, something which is increasingly hard to achieve in this very distracting day and age. Sitting down to drown myself in his words or watch him animate an entire audience always encapsulates me in a moment of flow, in which I am completely absorbed in whatever message de Botton is projecting to the world.
Why is this? Simply, put, there are two main reasons as to why de Botton absolutely fascinates me:
1. His genuine love for the (larger) world. In both their written and spoken forms, his ideas drip with a fascination for what we live in and live for. It is this love that leads him to question things that we normally wouldn’t. It is this love for humanity that leads him to question how we could live better lives, whether this is through nicer architecture or ‘gentler’ philosophies of success and work. What I find most spectacular, however, is de Botton’s worldly nature: in the two books of his I have read so far (The Art of Travel and The News), he takes a scope not limited to the Western world but inclusive of other sectors of our planet – places such as Uganda, for example. Granted, his philosophical lens is largely geared towards the Western world, but he writes with an awareness that there is a bigger, more unique world beyond this paradigm. Instead of seeing these other ‘realities’ as ‘irrelevant’, we see them as integral parts of his world view that deserve consideration and respect. In The News, for example, there are many references to news headlines or situations across the globe. I obviously expected to see The Daily Mail, The Guardian and CNN pop up multiple times, but – to my pleasant surprise – other international news agencies (such as Korea’s Yonhap News Agency) were also liberally mentioned. It is this respect for the international sphere that I admire so much.
…the experiences of mankind are infinitely more complex and interesting than we could ever imagine… and it is hence a basic courtesy we should pay to the planet and its many lands to remain at all times open, curious and modest before their manifold mysteries. – The News
2. His ability to connect. Someone once described him as being one of the only philosophers who step beyond their ivory tower to bring their ideas to the masses. Alain de Botton, in this regard, is one of the most generous people in this sphere. The themes he discusses are all relevant to us and he makes an effort to show us why it matters for us to be engaged. At the end of each of his chapters, I end up thinking about how his stories are reminiscent of my own, and how I could apply his philosophies to my daily life as a 17 year old student… living in Hong Kong, no less. He engages us with a world that often doesn’t want to be engaged with, or we don’t think about engaging with. The news, for example. How many times have we flipped past a piece of photojournalism when it contains a message more searing than the text itself? How many times have we thought about how the stats and figures of the economy actually detach us from matters we should care about? Not many, really, and this is where de Botton steps in to help us bridge that gap.
On top of this, Alain de Botton has an incredibly alluring way of speaking. I’ve watched two of his TED talks so far (one on Atheism 2.0 and the other on success) and both have enthralled me from beginning to end. When Alain de Botton talks, it is less of a presentation than it is a conversation with the audience. His subtle use of humor and, of course, his wonderful accent, only serve to pepper his ideas with even more vivacity. As someone who is in love with the art of public speaking, I have a lot to learn from Mr. de Botton.
But there’s something about him which, surprisingly enough, is even more admirable than what I have mentioned above: Alain de Botton does things. When he talks about an idea and teaches us why it is relevant to us, he goes ahead and brings it to life. After writing The Architecture of Happiness, he began a project called Living Architecture which, thus far, has manifested its aims of building inspiring and viscerally rewarding architecture in various places across the UK. After writing on the philosophies of life, he founded The School of Life, a pop-up school in which people can take classes on psychologically ‘cleansing’ your mind, finding a satisfactory job amongst many other things that are so relevant to us. Most spectacular, for me, is his creation of The Philosophers’ Mail in response to his ideas presented in The News. As a news outlet geared towards portraying the otherwise banal as something potentially life-changing (case in point: how the release of a new iPhone signals a better future for us all), it is absolutely worth the time spent reading it.
Alain de Botton deserves nothing less than the attention of the entire world. His books need to be translated in all languages and distributed to all corners and crevices of our globe. He is truly a hero – in so many regards – and I feel, as a reader and a listener, an obligation to pass on his legacy through whatever connections I have within this web of lives. In the way he has changed my life, I hold on to the hope that his works can change the lives of those I know.
Writing this on a Saturday morning nestled in bed, it’s fine time to dream. Right now, I’m thinking of how wonderful it would be for me to one day embark upon the path that Alain de Botton has set upon. What an admirable and amazing contribution I would make to the world then.
A good half of the art of life is resilience.