Alain de Botton’s Case for Politeness

polite society

For most of human history, politeness was an admirable trait.  Belonging to polite society not only meant you were upper class— it meant you conducted yourself with refinement and taste.  The polite woman had exquisite manners: she knew how to maneuver her fork and knife, how to taste the caviar, how to elegantly sip her champagne.  And because she was worldly and well-traveled, she could effortlessly entertain.

However, our attitude toward politeness changed with the Romantic movement.  Because the romantics valued individual expression above all else, they viewed strict 19th century social customs as unhealthy constraints.  In the prim, prudish Victorian age, formal etiquette dictated every aspect of life from how you greeted your guests to how long you could acceptably chat with an acquaintance at a busy intersection.  A “lady” should only wear white gloves to dinner and never, never use both hands to raise her dress while crossing the street.  Perhaps most ironically, repressed Victorians believed “no topic of absorbing interest may be admitted to polite conversation” because “it might lead to discussion and debate.”

Rather than regard politeness as an indication of a kind and civilized person, the romantics saw it as a sign of superficiality.  Those courteous dignitaries and chic debutantes who knew the proper etiquette at parties were not well-bred— they were phony.  What society termed “politeness” was really just the Machiavellian ability to manipulate others for your own gain: those at society’s highest rungs only wrote darling thank you cards and threw extravagant soirees to increase their social standing.

In romantic thought, candor was a much more admirable trait.  According to the romantics, the individual was an instrument of God while society fettered the soul in chains.  Rather than restrain ourselves, they believed we should cast off the shackles of so-called social niceties: after all, why should we have to hold our tongue when our great uncle says something insensitive/borderline racist at Thanksgiving?  why should we refrain from discussing politics or religion for fear of offending?  and why, exactly, should we allow other people’s hypersensitivity limit our God-given right to self-expression and our democratically-protected right to free speech?

Today we continue to prefer candor to restraint.  In their revolt against political correctness, conservatives have pitted freedom of expression against civility and basic good taste.  While those on the right distrust politicians who equivocate in Washington’s too tactful doublespeak, they rally behind straight-shooters like Donald Trump because— not it spite of— his willingness to break the “countless unspoken rules regarding what public figures can or cannot say.”  The president’s disgusting comments about women and discriminatory proposal to ban Muslims don’t prove he’s a racist or misogynist or overall horrible human being— they prove he’s trustworthy.  “Look what he openly says about women and minorities!” Trump supporters must think, “he’ll tell it to us straight!”  Today “politically correct” has become a pejorative term associated with overly sensitive liberals and cowardly politicians who are too terrified to say what they mean.

victorian era manners

Though good old-fashioned politeness might be a relic of another age, British philosopher Alain de Botton argues respect is a tradition worth resurrecting.  In his latest volume The School of Life: An Emotional Education, the same seminar that taught us how to master the four criteria of emotional health, how books can be a balm for loneliness, how the sublime can give us greater perspective, how to be kind, and how to be charming, de Botton maintains it’s better to be too polite than too frank.  Unlike the frank person, who believes no occasion should call for self-censorship, the polite person recognizes many situations require they edit themselves.  The fact that they conceal parts of their character doesn’t make them deceptive or dishonest: it simply makes them considerate.  The polite person is all too aware there are many things about them that could disgust or otherwise offend:

“The polite person proceeds under grave suspicion of themselves and their impulses.  They sense that a great deal of what they feel and want really isn’t very nice.  They are indelibly in touch with their darker desires and can sense their fleeting wishes to hurt or humiliate certain people.  They know they are sometimes a bit revolting and cannot forget the extent to which they may come across as offensive and frightening to others.  They therefore set out on a deliberate strategy to protect others from what they know is within them.  It isn’t lying as such; they merely understand that being ‘themselves’ is a treat that they must take enormous pains to spare everyone else from experiencing— especially anyone they claim to care about.”

What separates the polite from the rest of us?  Rather than presume everyone is just like them, polite people realize others have their own opinions and preferences.  Though the polite host might prefer a refreshing pinot grigio to a buttery chardonnay, they are perfectly aware their guests might have different taste.  So what do they do?  They ask what their guests like better and accommodate:

“For their part, the polite person starts from the assumption that others are highly likely to be in quite different places internally, whatever the outward signs.  Their behavior is therefore tentative, wary and filled with enquiries.  They will explicitly check with others to take a measure of their experiences and outlook: if they feel cold, they are very alive to the possibility that you may be feeling perfectly warm and so will take the trouble to ask if you’d mind if they went over and closed the window.  They are aware that you might be annoyed by a joke that they find funny or that you might very sincerely hold political opinions quite at odds with their own.  They don’t take what is going on for them as a guide to what is probably going on for you.  Their manners are grounded in an acute sense of the gulf that can separate humans from one another.”

More than anything, polite people are sensitive people.  Though we live in a callous age where “sensitive” has become a derogatory word hurled at the easily offended, no quality is more important to human relationships.  The polite person exercises tact— not because they’re a phony people pleaser or cunning social climber— but because they know even the most self-possessed among us are insecure: an unreturned phone call, a dismissive grunt or mean-spirited joke, a cutting remark or harsh word has the profound capacity to hurt.  Lesson?  We should be sensitive because others are always teetering on the edge of a cliff— one small wind and they can descend into despair. 

Alain de Botton on How to Be Charming

What is charm?  Oscar Wilde— one of the most charismatic men in all of English letters— believed charm was the opposite of dullness; it’s “absurd to divide people between good and bad,” he wrote, “people are either charming or tedious.”  In his 1883 journal, philosopher and poet Henri-Frederic Amiel described it as the “quality in others that makes us more satisfied with ourselves” while statesmen Adlai Stevenson proposed “a beauty is a woman you notice; a charmer is one who notices you.”

Most of us imagine a charmer possesses an almost magical magnetism: they captivate crowds and their ravishing good looks attract many admirers.  The word itself evokes a certain picture: a dapperly-dressed man who regales whole cocktail parties with stories of his exciting adventures; a fashionable woman in a chic black dress and leather gloves whose dazzling wit and irresistible smile instantly make men fall in love with her.

As affable Americans, there’s nothing we admire more than charisma.  The movie stars we watch most devotedly, the politicians we most passionately campaign all share this seductive trait.  One reason we think so highly of charm is because we think it’s a gift granted to a select few; like those blessed with the ability to sing, the charming have a talent denied the rest of us.  Charisma is something you’re born with as innate as the color of your hair or the straightness of your teeth.

But despite what we may believe, charm is not encoded in our DNA— it’s a skill that can be refined and improved like a kindergartner’s ability to recite his ABCs.  In his crash course on emotional intelligence The School of Life: An Emotional Education, British philosopher Alain de Botton argues charm is a core competency essential to our functioning as human beings, whether we want to climb the corporate ladder or simply seduce our crush on the first date.  Below are his three steps to developing this delightful— if somewhat mysterious— trait:

how to be charming

1. be unafraid to be yourself

Courtship always involves some level of convivial but trifling chatter.  Rather than have a thoughtful philosophical discussion or meaningful heart-to-heart, first dates most often consist of a superficial getting-to-know each other.  As we sip chardonnay in the romantic haze of a candlelit dinner, conversation is limited to a few uncontroversial topics like what we do for work and where we’ve traveled.

Sadly, dating in the digital world is even more surface-level.  No longer do charming Romeos woo us in beauteous iambic pentameter; in our shallow swipe-right culture, dull-witted men bombard us with either tasteless sexual invitations or unimaginative “hey gorgeous, how are you?’s”.  As a newfound bachelorette trying to maintain my sanity amid such mind-boggling boredom, I got to thinking: what makes one suitor interesting and another a bore?

Though we think some people are just plain tiresome, de Botton would argue a truly boring person has never walked the earth; those we call “boring” are simply too afraid to be themselves.  Most of the men who open with a timid “hi, what’s up?” aren’t yawn-worthy bores— they’re just deeply terrified of making idiots of themselves.  But the most charming among us are willing to be weird.  After all, who do we find more interesting: the guy who resorts to the same lame questions and cliched compliments or the one who is honest about his quirks and his less-than-flattering characteristics?  Charm is strangeness, or as de Botton so elegantly phrases:

“At the heart of the shy person’s self-doubt is a certainty that they must be boring.  But, in reality, no one is ever truly boring.  We are only in danger of coming across as such when we don’t dare or know how to communicate our deeper selves to others.  The human animal witnessed in its essence, with honesty and without artifice, with all its longings, crazed desires and despair, is always gripping.  When we dismiss a person as boring, we are merely pointing to someone who has not had the courage or concentration to tell us what it is like to be them.  But we invariably prove compelling when we succeed in detailing some of what we crave, envy, regret, mourn and dream.  The interesting person isn’t someone to whom obviously and outwardly interesting things have happened, someone who has traveled the world, met important dignitaries or been present at critical geo-political events.  Nor is it someone who speaks in learned terms about the great themes of culture, history, or science.  They are someone who has grown into an attentive, self-aware listener and a reliable correspondent of their own mind and heart, who can thereby give us faithful accounts of the pathos, drama and strangeness of being them.”

vintage couple flirting

2. be vulnerable 

In many ways, to be human is to believe we’ll never be good enough.  How, we wonder, could anyone ever like, let alone love us?  Our nose is too large, our face isn’t entirely symmetrical, our abs aren’t perfectly chiseled.  And though we can at times be engaging and thoughtful, we have an equal capacity to be rude and inconsiderate, dull and insufferable.

Because we’re convinced we have to be perfect in order for other people to like us, we conceal these frailties and foibles.  No where is this more true than the romantic arena.  A first date is a masquerade ball where we conceal our real self: rather than display our melancholy and self-doubt, we try our best to appear confident and cheerful, emphasizing our accomplishments and avoiding anything too objectionable.  If we stick to safe conversation topics, if we refuse to divulge anything too loathsome about ourselves (that we sometimes suffer from depression, that we’re thirty and still not entirely sure what we want to do with ourselves), maybe, just maybe, our potential paramour will like us.

But what actually makes someone likable?  For Mr. de Botton, what distinguishes a disarming person from a disagreeable one is their ability to be imperfect, to be vulnerable.  After all, who do we adore more: the date who is wonderfully self-assured, who completely and utterly loves his life and his job or the one who openly shares the more tender, potentially shameful parts of his heart, his regrets and his fears, his insecurities and his self-doubts?  As de Botton writes:

“We get close by revealing things that would, in the wrong hands, be capable of inflicting humiliation on us.  Friendship is the dividend of gratitude that flows from an acknowledgement that one has offered something very valuable by talking: the key to one’s self-esteem and dignity.  It’s deeply poignant that we should expend so much effort on trying to look strong before the world when, all the while, it’s really only ever the revelation of the somewhat embarrassing, sad, melancholy and anxious bits of us that renders us endearing to others and transforms strangers into friends.”

vintage couple flirting #2

3. be a good listener

What do all disastrous dating experiences have in common?  A shortage of physical attraction?  An absence of chemistry?  Too many awkward silences and fumbling attempts at conversation?  At the bottom of every disappointing date is a lack of connection.  But how, exactly, do we establish a bond with someone, especially someone we don’t know very well?

De Botton maintains listening is essential to success not only in dating but in life in general.  We tend to think charmers are natural-born entertainers, those rare men and women who can spin a riveting tale or deliver an impeccably-timed joke, but the most charming people are actually better listeners than speakers.  Despite what many motormouth men may think, it’s deeply unattractive to dominate a conversation.  I know I find nothing more obnoxious than a man who talks exclusively about himself.  What woman wants to endure a dinner where her date barely pauses to sip a glass of wine or ask anything— and I mean anything— about her?

Sadly, many men miss out on the fundamental lesson of charm school: to be interesting, you have to be interestednot completely self-absorbed.  If you want to charm your crush, don’t boast about your salary or what kind of car you drive or blather on about your dreams or goals: ask about hers.  People love nothing more than talking about themselves.

Not only do charming people ask questions, they actually listen and care about our answers.  When they inquire why our last relationship ended, they don’t simply hear what we have to say and move on to the next unrelated question; they ask questions that build off each other.  If we reveal we broke up with our last boyfriend because he didn’t share our values, they’ll encourage us to elaborate: what values are important to us?  The result?  The conversation feels more natural and doesn’t take on the nerve-wracking, palm sweat-inducing quality of a job interview. 

In the end, the good listener understands the goal of a first date conversation, indeed, any conversation, is clarification: we exchange words not to impress or entertain but hopefully to shed some light on a potential partner.  Do they share our morals?  Do they have similar passions and interests?  Are they looking for the same things we are? 

Alain de Botton on How the Sublime Can Remind Us of Our Infinitesimal Place in the Grand Scheme of Things

storm-tossed sea

Since the Enlightenment era, we’ve sought to unlock the mysteries of the cosmos: how to harness nuclear power to obliterate entire nations of people, how to eradicate disease, how to defeat death itself.  In the last few hundred years, we’ve in many ways succeeded in this ambitious goal: we’ve discovered penicillin, we’ve built airplanes and railroads.

But though science gives us the illusion that we have command over the cosmos, we’re not sovereigns of the world.  Men are but one species of millions on Earth; our miraculous, mysteriously oxygenated marble of a planet is but one speck in an ever-expanding universe.  Each star in our sky is potentially another sun to another solar system.  No matter how invincible we imagine ourselves, a single catastrophe— a terrible earthquake, a devastating forest fire, a worldwide pandemic, a bloody war— reminds us what fragile creatures we are.  Humans are small sailboats in a storm-tossed sea: one strong gust of wind and we drown.

So how do we go on when faced with something so much mightier than we are, so beyond our control and so rife with uncertainty, be it the chance-governed universe or an international health emergency?  In his crash course on emotional intelligence The School of Life: An Emotional Education, British philosopher Alain de Botton argues the mighty— what sages and saints throughout time termed the “sublime”— can offer calm in a chaotic world.  The magnificence of a giant sequoia grove, the epic scale of the Grand Canyon, the scorched beauty of a burnt red-orange sunset in a southwest desert, the striking cliffs along the central California coast: each rid us of the arrogant belief that we’re the most all-powerful things in the cosmos.

We imagine the trivial dramas of our lives— the offhand comment our mother made about our disarray of dirty clothes, the quarrel we had with our lover over ravioli and red wine, the nerve-wracking choice between classic cream and deep beige for the dining room— are of serious consequence when in the grand scheme of things, they don’t much matter.  Our names will most likely not be found in textbooks (unless— that is— we manage to do something truly history-making like discover a cure for cancer or formulate an elegant mathematical theorem).  Schoolchildren will not study the stories of our lives or be captivated by the drama of our dating misadventures.  Chances are in a few centuries we’ll be forgotten— our entire existence reduced to a tombstone.

the sublime

While the idea that all will be buried beneath the sands of time is enough to bring on an existential crisis (after all, if nothing we do is of any consequence, isn’t life meaningless?  why live at all?), it can also be a profound relief.  If our mother makes snide comments about the cleanliness of our house, if we make the “wrong” choice and paint the dining room classic cream instead of deep beige— even if we make a more serious error and choose the wrong city or the wrong husband or the wrong career— the world will go on: the sun will set in the west and rise in the east, seeds will sprout and blossom, Earth will continue to spin on its axis at a thousand miles per hour through our wondrous, improbable universe.  When we gaze at the glorious spectacle of stars in the night sky (or any other marvel of nature), we can transcend our petty problems.  As de Botton writes:

“But there’s another way an encounter with the large-scale can affect us— and calm us down—that philosophers have called the “sublime.”  Heading back to the airport after a series of frustrating meetings, we notice the sun setting behind the mountains.  Tiers of clouds are bathed in gold and purple, while huge slanting beams of light cut across the urban landscape.  To record the feeling without implying anything mystical, it seems as if one’s attention is being drawn up into the radiant gap between the clouds and the summits, and that one is for a moment merging with the cosmos.  Normally the sky isn’t a major focus of attention, but now it’s mesmerizing.  For a while it doesn’t seem to matter much what happened in the office or that the contract will— maddeningly— have to be renegotiated by the legal team.

At this moment, nature seems to be sending us a humbling message: the incidents of our lives are not terribly important.”  

For more symposiums from the school of life, study culture as a cure for loneliness, the importance of kindness and the four criteria of emotional health.  If you want to chart the mysterious topography of the human heart, revisit de Botton on love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment, dating as a sort of performative play-actinglove as the origin of beauty, and the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning.

Alain de Botton on Culture as a Cure for Loneliness

young alain de bottonNo matter how much we repress or deny it, a large portion of the human experience is disagreeable.  Heartbreak and sorrow, despair and melancholy are as much part of life as  love and joy, happiness and hope.  For some part of our lives, the sky will be a somber shade of gray— not just a cloudless cheerful blue.  Though difficult emotions are universal, we’re often ashamed to admit when we’re suffering a dark season of the soul and finding it impossible to do something as simple as get out of bed and put on regular clothes.  Our society requires we keep chit chat superficial.  “How are you?” our next door neighbor asks when we pass each other in the hall.  “I’m fine,” we mutter forcing a smile, “How are you?”  It would be a breach of proper decorum (not to mention make our neighbor profoundly uncomfortable) to tell the truth.  “Oh me?  I’m horrible!  The love of my life just left me so most nights I’ve been taking Xanax and drinking an entire bottle of champagne to myself.  Fingers crossed I overdose!”

No, we must “prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet” as T.S. Eliot so sharply observed in his masterpiece of modernism “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”  Instead of indulge our depression— retreat under the covers or collapse into sobs— we (for the most part) go about our lives business as usual.  We brush our hair and put on mascara; we take care of the mundane errands of living; we engage in surface-level small talk at happy hour and make obligatory appearances at friends’ birthday parties.  We don’t let others see the depths of our suffering.

But because everyone else is also hiding their suffering, we end up feeling alone.  “We therefore end up not only sad, but sad that we are sad— without much public confirmation of the essential normality of our melancholy,” British philosopher Alain de Botton writes in The School of Life: An Emotional Education, his instruction manual for emotional fulfillment that is both deeply philosophical and practically useful.  For him, this loneliness isn’t a common cold— it’s a chronic condition as potentially life-threatening as cancer.  Lucky for us, consolation can be found in one thing: culture.  If our world is suffering an epidemic of loneliness, art is the antidote.  Why?  Because art reminds us that—despite how things may seem— we are never alone with our sorrows:

Culture is a “record of the tears of humanity, lending legitimacy to despair and replaying our miseries back to us with dignity…art is a tool that can help release us from our numbness and can provide for catharsis in areas where we have for too long been wrong-headedly brave.”

In the same way “The Star Spangled Banner” unites us in our shared national values and gives us a sense of identity, art affirms we share a common humanity: we’re are all citizens in a country of suffering.  Terror and anxiety, depression and despondency: they belong to the whole of the human racenot us alone.  The beauty of art is it momentarily relieves us of the dreadful sense that we’re somehow abnormal.  No, it’s normal to occasionally misjudge others as the otherwise intelligent Elizabeth Bennet misjudges Mr. Darcy.  It’s even normal— like Hamlet— to contemplate suicide from time to time.  When we encounter ourselves in a work of art, we realize everyone— even those with six-figure salaries and important-sounding job titles and gorgeous Instagram photos— is neurotic, maladjusted, and fucked up.  As de Botton writes: 

“It is like the way a national anthem works: by singing it the individual feels part of a greater community and is strengthened, given confidence, even feeling strangely heroic, irrespective of their circumstances.  [Art] is like an…anthem for sorrow, one that invites us to see ourselves as part of a nation of sufferers which includes, in fact, everyone who has ever lived.

[…]

Other people have had the same sorrows and troubles that we have; it isn’t that these don’t matter or that we shouldn’t have them or that they aren’t worth bothering about.  What counts is how we perceive them.  We encounter the spirit or the voice of someone who profoundly sympathizes with suffering but who allows us to sense that through it we’re connecting with something universal and unashamed.  We are not robbed of our dignity; we are discovering the deepest truths about being human— and therefore we are not only not degraded by sorrow but also, strangely, elevated.”  

cezanne apples

Sadly, rather than seek solace in art, we try (and fail) to find solace in other people, particularly a significant other.  Beginning in the late 18th century, romanticism popularized the notion that one human being, our Platonic soul mate, would be able to completely understand us.  According to romantic thought, “true lovers could see deep into each other’s souls”; in other words, once we found our ideal lover, we’d no longer have to say how we felt– our partner would just know; once we found our “other half,” we’d never again feel alone.  

However lovely the romantic conception of love, it’s ultimately the stuff of fairytales.  No matter how wonderful our partner is, no matter how compatible we are, they’ll never know every region of our heart— nor can we know theirs.  Those we love will always— to some extent— be as strange as strangers in a subway car:

“What replaced religion in our imaginations, as we have seen, is the cult of human-to-human love we now know as Romanticism, which bequeathed to us the beautiful but reckless idea that loneliness might be capable of being vanquished, if we are fortunate and determined enough to meet the one exalted being known as our soulmate, someone who will understand everything deep and strange about us, who will see us completely and be enchanted by our totality.  But the legacy of Romanticism has been an epidemic of loneliness, as we are repeatedly brought up against the truth: the radical inability of any one other person to wholly grasp who we truly are.”

Human interaction almost always disappoints us.  Though there’s nothing we crave more than connection, most day-to-day conversation revolves around a series of uninteresting topics (the unusually nice weather, the most recent drama at the office) and obligatory questions (“so, how are you?”/”do anything fun this weekend?”).  Even our closest relationships lack real intimacy.  After all, what do we discuss during a night out with the girls?  our innermost thoughts?  our deepest convictions?  No, chatter over brie and chardonnay usually centers around last Saturday’s sexcapades or the latest TikTok. 

Fortunately, books can supply us with the connection we so long forA novel is a window into another’s consciousness, another’s interior world.  When we read Mrs. Dalloway, for example, we are allowed to see beyond Clarissa the socialite and see her most intimate secrets, her most haunting regrets and most private hopes.  A fictional character won’t shrug off “how are you?” with a polite but insincere “I’m fine” like most of us do— they’ll tell the truth.

“What a great treasure can be hidden in a small, selected library!  A company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world, for thousands of years can make the results of their studies and their wisdom available to us,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote.  What’s wonderful about books— and films and paintings and poems— is they connect us with the finest minds from centuries and civilizations ago.  With the turn of a page, a lonesome 21st century reader can find a friend in Tolstoy or Kafka, Hemingway or Fitzgerald:

“The arts provide a miraculous mechanism whereby a total stranger can offer us many of the things that lie at the core of friendship.  And when we find these art friends, we are unpicking the experience of loneliness.  We’re finding intimacy at a distance.

[…]

Confronted by the many failings of our real-life communities, culture gives us the option of assembling a tribe for ourselves, drawing their members across the widest ranges of time and space, blending some living friends with some dead authors, architects, musicians and composers, painters and poets.”

tobias & the angel

Though humankind has always suffered from loneliness, through the ages, we’ve found different ways to cope.  When religion played a more prominent role in day to day life, the belief in God was our coping mechanism.  No longer were we doomed to wander the planet alone— we had an all-forgiving, all-loving presence with us.  Even if we were by ourselves— lost at sea, stranded on a deserted island, quarantined in our homes— we had God to guide us.

Today religion has fallen from its central place in culture: the majority of us don’t say grace before meals or attend church except for special occasions like Christmas and Easter.  So if God is dead, where can we turn for counsel?  how can we not feel completely and utterly on our own?  De Botton believes we can assemble our own tribe of guardian angels, only our angels aren’t winged creatures with harps and golden halos— they’re novelists and artists, poets and painters.  For us in the modern era, a museum is a cathedral and a book is secular scripture:

“You might feel physically isolated in the car, hanging around at the airport, going into a difficult meeting, having supper alone yet again or going through a tricky phase of a relationship, but you are not psychologically alone.  Key figures from your imaginary tribe (the modern version of angels and saints) are with you: their perspective, their habits, their way of looking at things in your mind, just as if they were really by your side whispering in your ear.  And so we can confront the difficult stretches of existence not simply on the basis of our own small resources but accompanied by the accumulated wisdom of the kindest, most intelligent voices of all ages.”

All in all, de Botton argues culture offers the companionship that is so difficult to find in the real world.  For more symposiums from the school of life, study the importance of kindness and the four criteria of emotional health.  If you’re more interested in his philosophical musings on love, revisit him on love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment, dating as a sort of performative play-actinglove as the origin of beauty, and the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning.

Alain de Botton on the Importance of Kindness

 

young alain de botton“Nothing makes our lives, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness,” Leo Tolstoy once wrote.  Many hundreds of years before, Plato advised us to be kind because “everyone you know is fighting a hard battle.”  Rumi perhaps put it most poetically: “Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder.  Help someone’s soul.”  Though random acts of kindness— letting someone merge into your lane at the height of rush hour, holding open a door, buying the next person in line a cappuccino— can lighten an overburdened heart and cheer a dispirited soul, we don’t often consider whether we’re kind enough to people.  We are, however, acutely aware when people are less than pleasant to us.  When someone is inconsiderate, we don’t consider the motives that underlie their bad behavior— we either rage at their stupidity or nostalgically mourn the loss of good manners.  Humanity, we insist, is made of fools and monsters.

Yet the world would be a much lovelier place if we were more generous in our assessments of other people.  In his endlessly erudite The School of Life: An Emotional Education, disarmingly witty British philosopher Alain de Botton uses the folktale of Androcles and the lion to illustrate how kindness can build bridges instead of walls.  First told by the Roman philosopher Aulus Gellius, the tale has been told time and time again both orally and in Aesop’s Fables.  In the story, a lion lives alone in the forests of the Atlas mountains.  One day he starts terrorizing a nearby village.  The more the lion roars, the more the women weep and the men toss and turn.  Afraid for their lives, the villagers assign guards to stand watch and send out heavily armed hunting parties to find— and kill— the monster.

It’s at this time that a shepherd boy named Androcles follows his sheep high into the mountains.  One evening as the sun falls below the horizon, he finds a cave and decides to seek shelter.  Inside, the darkness is impenetrable.  It’s only when he lights a candle that he sees he isn’t alone: there, not a few feet in front of him, is the bloodthirsty monster!

At first, Androcles is horrified.  Certainly the savage beast would tear him to shreds.  But then he notices something: the lion has a thorn in his paw.  The animal doesn’t want to hurt him— he’s in pain, that’s all.  Suddenly, Androcles only feels pity for the poor creature.  Rather than slay him, he strokes his mane and tenderly removes the thorn.  Grateful for the boy’s help, the lion licks his hand.  With one small gesture of kindness, the ferocious lion becomes as docile as a house cat.  Not only that, but two mortal enemies become lifelong friends.

androcles

What can the modern reader take away from this age-old folktale?  For de Botton, the story of Androcles and the lion is a poignant reminder that “hurt people hurt people.”  Too often in life we’re unforgiving when people grieve us.  If a friend says something insensitive, if our boyfriend, who is usually so attentive and affectionate, becomes cold and distant, if a cashier exhales exasperated when we take too long rummaging through our purse at the grocery store, we chalk up their behavior to their irredeemable character.  And then what do we do?  We squander the rest of our afternoon ranting and raving about what assholes they are.  How dare our “friend” be such an inconsiderate jerk!  How dare that cashier treat us as if we were the rude ones!

But rather than condemn our friend or the young girl at the cash register, we should act as psychologists and ponder the origins of their behavior.  Why did our friend make that nasty off-hand remark about our latest fling “not lasting” very long?  Was she simply a bitch?  Was she maliciously trying to hurt us?  Most likely not.  Perhaps she has her own insecurities because she once slept with the “fling” in question and— on some level— is jealous of us.  Perhaps she never liked that we were seeing each other and—instead of express her feelings or even admit them to herself— she acts out her bitterness and discomfort by subtly taking stabs at us.  Or perhaps she’s just oblivious to how passive aggressive she sounds.  And what of the ill-mannered girl at the grocery store checkout?  Perhaps she exhaled so loudly— not because we were taking too long to find change— but because she was tired from a double shift or she had just dealt with a disgruntled costumer before us.

Lesson?  When our fellow humans are petty or ungracious or just plain mean, they usually don’t mean to be.  Their back-handed compliments, their judgmental comments about our living rooms being in disarray: all spring from their own self-loathing and insecurity.  Like the lion, they are just in terrible pain.  As de Botton so astutely observes:

“The lion…has no capacity to understand what is hurting him and what he might need from others.  The lion is all of us when we lack insight into our own distress.  The thorn is a troubling, maddening element of our inner lives— a fear, a biting worry, a regret, a sense of guilt, a feeling of humiliation, a strained hope or an agonized disappointment that rumbles away powerfully but just out of range of our standard view of ourselves.  The art of living is to a large measure dependent on an ability to understand our thorns and explain them with a modicum of grace to others— and, when we are on the other side of the equation, to imagine the thorns of others, even those whose precise locations or dimensions we will never know for certain.”

No other thinker has educated us in the subject of emotional acuity more than Alain de Botton.  For more seminars from the school of life, study his four criteria of emotional health.  If you’re more interested in his philosophical musings on love in all its madness and mystery, revisit him on love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment, dating as a sort of performative play-actinglove as the origin of beauty, and the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning.

Alain de Botton on the Four Criteria of Emotional Health

young alain de bottonWe as a society are deeply committed to education.  In the U.S. alone, students spend 1,000 hours in school every year.  There they are taught lessons in the laws of thermodynamics and Mendel’s Punnett squares.  From eight in the morning to three in the afternoon, they study the disciplines that form the foundation of human culture: history, literature, mathematics, the sciences, art.  Contrary to popular belief, we’re actually getting smarter.  Over the last century, in every nation in the developing world where intelligence test results are on record, IQ test scores have climbed upward.  As Malcolm Gladwell explained in a 2007 New Yorker article, “The typical teenager of today, with an IQ of 100, would have grandparents with average IQs of 82—seemingly below the threshold necessary to graduate from high school…if we go back even farther…the average IQs of the schoolchildren of 1900 was around 70, which is to suggest, bizarrely, that a century ago the United States was populated largely by people who today would be considered mentally retarded.”

Despite the enormous gains we’re made in terms of traditional intelligence, the kinds of linguistic and mathematical reasoning measured on IQ tests, we have failed to instruct our children in an even more important form of intelligence— emotional intelligence, or the ability to navigate the at times rocky terrain of our inner worlds and interpersonal relationships.  Common core standards revolve around discipline-specific skills and foundational knowledge: how to factor a quadratic, say, or how to determine the meaning of words based on context.  But little time is devoted to teaching our children how to set boundaries or how to treat ourselves or others with love and kindness.

Beloved British philosopher Alain de Botton founded the School of Life in hopes of instructing us in the too often neglected art of living itself.  His underlying philosophy?  Love and empathy, trust and vulnerability are skills just like anything else.  If we can teach a 5th grader how to perform long division, we can certainly teach ourselves how to communicate our needs openly and honestly and how to be gentle with ourselves.  In de Botton’s ideal world, education would mean exploring the uncharted territory of our own psyches— not dutifully absorbing useless facts from textbooks.

In his latest book The School of Life: An Emotional Education, de Botton aims to help the emotionally ill-equipped among us live more meaningful lives.  Written with at times breathtaking poetry and charming, if cynical, British wit, An Emotional Education maps the journey to emotional maturity, covering such vital skills as how to be kind, how to be polite, and how to use art and books as a balm for loneliness.  Because of his classical education and profound insight into the human condition, de Botton is able to redeem the much disdained genre of self-help— a genre we’ve come to associate with shameless platitudes and blockbuster bestsellers.  But despite the modern distaste for the genre, de Botton wonders: what is the aim of all literature, of all philosophy, of all culture if not to teach us how to live and how to live well?  Why read novels or marvel at paintings if not to better ourselves?  Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.  The works of Socrates and Aristotle.  For de Botton, the aim of the most monumental human achievements has been to help us improve ourselves.

How can we be happy and genuinely love who we are?  How can we find meaningful work?  the right partner?  How can we stop engaging in petty squabbles about dirty dishes and what we’re going to have for dinner?  If you’re on a never-ending quest to seek answers to such questions, if you want to be a happier, more fulfilled, more functional person, you absolutely must read An Emotional Education.

De Botton begins our emotional education by outlining what he considers to be the four markers of emotional health:

1. self-love 

self-love

Sadly, romanticism has perpetuated the myth that love has to come from outside ourselves.  In our era of gushy love songs and the prepackaged cliches of hackneyed Hallmark cards, we’re programmed to believe we need another person to complete our fragmentary selves.  Women are especially taught that we require romantic love to redeem our souls.  The result?  We seek love and adoration from men— selfish, self-absorbed, immature, emotionally incapable, occasionally abusive men— instead of validate ourselves.  As Rumi reminds us, “There is a basket of fresh bread on your head, yet you go door to door asking for crusts.”

But de Botton believes there’s a better way.  Rather than equate our worth to our relationship status or allow our self-respect to be shattered when a boyfriend leaves us or a potential paramour doesn’t call, we can give ourselves the tender affection we so long for.

What, exactly, does it mean to love yourself?  De Botton defines self-love as the “quality that determines how much we can be friends with ourselves.”  Instead of treat ourselves with the stern severity of a school master, loving ourselves means forgiving our frailties and foibles.  If your friend’s long-term boyfriend suddenly left her, would you demand she stop crying and simply “suck it up”?  Of course not.  You’d hand her a box of tissues and be there for her.  Or what if her presentation at work didn’t go quite as smoothly as she had hoped?  Would you ruthlessly reprimand her because she didn’t make enough copies and her voice shook?  Or would you reassure her that she is in fact a capable, compelling speaker and she did the best she could?

The key to a contented life is treating ourselves like a friend: with thoughtfulness, generosity and warmth.  If we ever want to have success in the romantic arena, if we ever want to love someone else, we first have to love ourselves.  The truth of this observation is reflected in the sentence structure of the phrase “I love you” itself.  “I” must always precede “you”: you can’t truly extend compassion and understanding to another human being until you extend such kindheartedness to yourself.

2. candor

candor

The second hallmark of emotional health is candor.  Yet we often lie to ourselves.  Why?  Because if we were honest, truly honest, we’d have to change our lives— a task that is too daunting for the majority of us.  If we admitted we no longer loved our husbands, we’d have to leave and essentially start over.  If we admitted the man we were “madly” in love with was just a rebound, we’d have to come to face-to-face with a not-so-flattering fact about ourselves: we seek solace in the flesh instead of deal with the grief and sorrow of terrible break ups.

Man is a master of self-deception.  To maintain the illusion that we are, indeed, still satisfied with our loveless marriage or are deeply invested in our sexually explosive but ultimately dull rebound relationship, we devise all kinds of distractions: booze, cigarettes, obsessive news/social media checking, pornography, sex.  “But if we could stop, for a time, looking at naked people, or drinking or checking the news, and face up to what we need to do, we might– gradually– end up in so much better a place,” de Botton reassures us.

Lesson?  If you want to be happy, be forthright about who you are and what you want not only with friends and lovers but with yourself.

3. communication

communication

Communication is the cornerstone of a good relationship.  In the early stages of courtship, communication is absolutely essential: are we looking for something serious or more casual?  do we want marriage?  the idyllic white picket fence and 2.5 baths?  a gaggle of youngsters and a kitchen overrun by pacifiers and baby bottles?  

Once we agree on the terms of our union, we have to explicitly express ourselves if we want to sustain love over the long-haul.  Yet many of us have a deep aversion to translating our feelings into words.  Rather than tell our husband he hurt our feelings when he called our choice of presidential candidate “dumb” in front of our dinner party guests, we spend the rest of the evening angrily sipping champagne and exasperatingly rolling our eyes at everything he says.  Or what if the man we’re casually dating reaches out reliably everyday and suddenly– for three unbearable, excruciating days– doesn’t text or call?  Do we behave like rational, mature adults and ask for an explanation?  Do we confess that his mysterious silence– though insignificant– upset us?  No, most often we retreat into bitter silence and sulk: we only give curt one-word replies to his texts, we reject his attempts at affection, we look away when he tries to kiss us.

Why is it so hard to utter what is in our hearts?  Why do we refuse to just say what’s bothering us?  De Botton suggests we’re uncommunicative in love because we believe the prevailing Platonic myth that our lover is our “other half” and, therefore, should naturally understand us.  According to romantic thought, “true lovers can see deep into each other’s souls”; in other words, if two people are truly destined for each other, they shouldn’t have to say how they feel– their partner should just know.  Our husband should know such an off-hand remark about our political preferences would hurt our feelings; the man we’re dating should know we’d descend into a torture chamber of abandonment and insecurity if he didn’t call.  If we have to communicate directly, our relationship must be doomed.  After all, it’s tragically unromantic to have to spell things out.

But de Botton argues we’d be better off if we took a more realistic, perhaps even more cynical, view of love.  Rather than buy into the lovely but fanciful notion that our significant other should understand us without our saying a word, we should realize relationships require us to speak up.  Love isn’t beyond language: we need to state our needs if we want them met.  If we expect our partner to read our minds, our relationship will be defined by mutual incomprehension and disappointment.

The reality is sometimes our husbands won’t be able to decipher the strange hieroglyphics of our gestures and facial expressions: he’ll misread our yawn to mean we’re simply tired from a long day when we’re actually bored of his dull conversation; when he asks if we want Thai food for dinner, he’ll understand our reluctant “um hm” as tacit compliance.  And why wouldn’t he?  How is he supposed to know we were really hankering for Chinese?  The result?  a) We don’t get what we want (wor wanton and chicken chow mein) and b) we likely spoil our evening.

So how do we spare ourselves all this heartache and frustration?  Simple: have a conversation.

4. trust

after the storm

The final pillar of de Botton’s philosophy of emotional health is trust.  “How risky is the world?  How readily might we survive a challenge in the form of a speech we must give, a romantic rejection, a bout of financial trouble, a journey to another country or a common cold?” he asks us.  Those who are emotionally healthy have faith not only in life, but in themselves: they believe in their capacity to overcome any obstacle– no matter how seemingly insurmountable.  Lose your job?  The emotionally intelligent person will of course worry (“Will I find something as fulfilling?”  “How will I pay my bills?”) but unlike the emotionally-maladjusted person, they won’t indulge their anxiety.  Rather than buy into their fear-based stories that there “aren’t any [insert industry] jobs in this economy,” they’ll remind themselves a) they are captains of their fate and b) much of their life is within their own control.  While the melancholic will pity themselves and lament the cruelty and unfairness of the world, the emotionally mature person will be practical: this is the time– not to draw the blinds and retreat under the covers– but to diligently search job postings and polish cover letters.

Should We Relinquish Love? An Impassioned “No” From Alain de Botton

“But what does wisdom say about love?” the analytically-minded narrator of Alain dealain de botton Botton’s debut novel On Love asks after his girlfriend Chloe dumps him, “Is it something that should be given up completely, like coffee or cigarettes, or is it allowed on occasions, like a glass of wine or a bar of chocolate?  Is love directly opposed to everything that wisdom stands for?  Do sages lose their heads or only overgrown children?”

In many ways, love diametrically opposes reason.  After all, how many times have we fallen victim to the manic madness of first love?  of infatuation?  How many times has the desire to love rendered us as deranged and deluded as a mental patient?  How many times have we let the fervid frenzy of passion rob us of our basic common sense?  “Love is blind,” poets and philosophers have always said.  Why?  Because love laughs in the face of logic.  Even when we know on an intellectual level that our marriage is toxic and our partner is abusive, we stay.  “We love him,” we rationalize as if this single emotion undermines the validity of any cogent argument.  Or think of dating.  Even when we know a potential partner isn’t right for us, we can’t suddenly stop being attracted to them.  Even when we tally their pros and cons, even when we calculate the probability of building a lasting relationship with the exactness of an accountant and conclude we’re just too different, our love persists.  Now matter how doggedly we attempt to logically assess a love interest, love cares little for compatibility quotients and left-brained lists. 

In the depths of suicidal despair after the demise of his relationship, Botton’s narrator wonders if love can ever be a soul-sustaining rather than soul-shattering experience.  According to the romantic positivists, the answer is yes.

Who are the romantic positivists?  Romantic positivists are the self-help gurus, therapists and psychoanalysts who believe that with enough rigorous self-examination, we can arrive at the necessary self-knowledge to break the dysfunctional patterns that keep us from forming healthy relationships.  Unlike angsty emo kids and melancholy poets, who are more fascinated with love’s distressing aspects— the torture of unrequited love, say, or the irrecoverable loss of betrayal— the positivists are pragmatists: they concern themselves not with problems but with solutions.  Always find yourself attracted to men who call you names and otherwise belittle you?  The romantic positivist would explain your dating history in terms of your upbringing.  Perhaps you seek partners who are withholding and hyper-critical because your perfectionistic father was impossible to please and spent most of your childhood finding fault with you.  You recreate this childhood dynamic in adulthood because— though dysfunctional— it’s familiar to you.  However, romantic positivism assures us we’re not doomed to repeat these same patterns if we don’t want to.  Through therapy, we can stop reenacting the same scripts with different actors.

While browsing through a London bookstore, our heartbroken narrator finds hope in Dr. Peggy Nearly’s The Bleeding Heart, a bible of romantic positivism:

“It told the unfortunate yet optimistic story of men and women who fell in love with unsuitable partners, those who would treat them cruelly or leave them emotionally unfulfilled, or take to drink and become violent.  These people made an unconscious connection between love and suffering and could not stop hoping that the unsuitable types they had chosen to adore would change and love them properly.  Their lives would be ruined by the delusion that they could reform people who were by nature incapable of answering their emotional needs.  By the third chapter, Dr. Nearly had identified the roots of the problem as lying in deficient parents, who had given these unfortunate romantics a warped understanding of the affective process.  If they never loved people who were nice to them, it was because their earliest emotional attachments had taught them that love should be unreciprocated and cruel.  But by entering therapy and being able to work through their childhood, they might understand the roots of their masochism and learn that their desire to change unsuitable partners was only the relic of a more infantile fantasy to convert their parents into proper care givers.”

“I don’t think there’s a single dumbass thing I’ve done in my adult life that I didn’t know was a dumbass thing to do,” Cheryl Strayed wrote with equal parts humor and wisdom in her heart-expanding advice column Dear Sugar, “Even when I justified it to myself—as I did every damn time—the truest part of me knew I was doing the wrong thing.  Always.”  This illustrates the problem of knowledge vs. action— what Alain de Botton would call the at times unbridgeable gap between wisdom and the wise life.  Though we can know something intellectually, acting on that knowledge is another matter.  Think of a smoker.  He knows cigarettes blacken his lungs and poison his body; he knows a single cigarette can shorten his life by eleven minutes; he knows smoking indisputably causes cancer yet he continues to light his Lucky Strike.  Why?  Because knowledge doesn’t necessarily equate to action, especially when it involves deeply ingrained behaviors like subconscious childhood programming and addiction. 

This is a major limitation of romantic positivist philosophy.  Even if, as Peggy Nearly would argue, we can gain insight into our psyches through therapy, even if we can recognize our tendency to pursue alcoholic/abusive/otherwise emotionally unavailable partners, even if we know someone is unhealthy for us, we don’t always act on that knowledge.  As our narrator so articulately states:

“…there is a great difference between identifying a problem and solving it, between wisdom and the wise life.  We are all more intelligent than we are capable, and awareness of the insanity of love has never saved anyone from the disease.  Perhaps the concept of wise or wholly painless love is as much a contradiction as a bloodless battle— Geneva convention aside, it simply cannot exist.  The confrontation between Madame Bovary and Peggy Nearly is the confrontation between romantic tragedy and romantic positivism.  It is the confrontation between wisdom and wisdom’s opposite, which is not the ignorance of wisdom [that is easy to put right], but the inability to act on the knowledge of what one knows is right.  Knowing the unreality of our affair had proved to be no help to Chloe and me; knowing we might be fools had not turned us into sages.”

vintage romance #1

So if years in a therapist’s office still can’t spare us the sorrow of heartbreak, what are the rejected and lovelorn among us supposed to do?  The only thing left, the narrator decides, is to renounce love altogether, what he terms a kind of stoicism.  Rather than leave himself defenseless and risk getting hurt, he erects an impregnable fortress around his heart, retreating to a cloistered life of study, silence, and solitude.  After Chloe leaves him, he imagines himself a devout monk who relinquishes the agony and disappointment of mortal relationships to dedicate himself to more enlightened pursuits:

“Rendered pessimistic by the intractable pains of love, I decided to turn away from it altogether.  If romantic positivism could be of no help, then the only valid wisdom was the stoic advice never to fall in love again.  I would henceforth retreat into a symbolic monastery, see no one, live frugally, and throw myself into austere study.  I read with admiration stories of men and women who had escaped earthly distractions, made vows of chastity, and spent their lives in monasteries and nunneries.  There were stories of hermits who had endured life in caves in the desert for forty or fifty years, living off only roots and berries, never talking or seeing other human beings.”

But our narrator soon realizes there are limitations to the stoic approach as well.  In some ways, the stoics were correct to be cynical— when we fall in love with someone new, the odds have it ending badly.  Indeed, the chance that our next fling will be the “one” is— statistically speaking— less likely than winning the lottery.  More probable is our next relationship will end much like the one preceding it: in spiteful words, in broken promises, in disappointment.  Chances are the next person we date will not be the one we prance off in the sunset with.  Instead of culminate in undying devotions of love and a white wedding dress, our next affair might reach its climax in a heart-shattering confession of infidelity before exploding into an acrimonious split.  Or it might come to a less dramatic conclusion and simply peter out after years of domestic dissatisfaction and stifled resentment.  But is the solution really to reject romance altogether?  After all, our next lover might break our hearts, but they might not.  If we follow the stoic path and sequester ourselves in the woods of romantic skepticism and spinsterhood, we’ll never get hurt but we’ll never find love either:

“Though love might never be painless and was certainly not wise, neither could it be forgotten.  It was inevitable as it was unreasonable— and its unreason was unfortunately no argument against it.  Was it not absurd to retreat into the Judean hills in order to eat roots and shoots?  If I wanted to be courageous, were there not greater opportunities for heroism in love?  Moreover, for all the sacrifices demanded by the stoic life, was there not something cowardly within it?  At the heart of stoicism lay the desire to disappoint oneself before someone else had the chance to do so.  Stoicism was a crude defense against the dangers of the affections of others, a danger that it would take more endurance than a life in the desert to be able to face.  In calling for a monastic existence free of emotional turmoil, stoicism was simply trying to deny the legitimacy of certain potentially painful yet fundamental human needs.  However brave, the stoic was in the end a coward at the point of perhaps the highest reality, at the moment of love. 

We can always blind ourselves to the complexities of a problem by suggesting solutions that reduce the issue to a lower common denominator.  Both romantic positivism and stoicism were inadequate answers to the problems raised by the agonies of love, because both of them collapsed the pain and irrationality of love into a conclusive argument against it— thereby failing to balance the undoubted trauma of our desires with the intractability of emotional needs.”

In the end, On Love proposes a third, more nuanced approach to love.  Hours of sane self-reflection on a therapist’s couch will never cure us of the insanity of love just as refraining from relationships will never rid us of our fundamental yearning to love and be loved.  So rather than forget the crucial difference between possessing wisdom and behaving wisely (romantic positivism) or sink into a pit of pessimism and despairing despondency (stoicism), de Botton asserts we should learn to “juggle the idiocy of infatuation with its inevitability.” 

Alain de Botton on How Heartbreak Dispels Our Hubris & Hurls Us into the Depths of Despair

The word “break up” evokes several stereotypical images: a hysterical, mascara-smudged on lovewoman gorging on pints of Ben & Jerry’s and hurling a heart-shaped box of chocolates at her TV set, a scorned lover playing out fantasies of revenge and tossing sentimental momentos like once cherished photos in the trash.  Though breakups are a universal human experience, so universal— in fact—  that we can readily recall any one of these cliched depictions, how we cope with the dissolution of a relationship varies from person to person.  For some, break ups are synonymous with an oblivion of gin and tonics and booze-fueled one night stands.  Speech slurred, sentences barely coherent, we— dazed and drunk— tell the tragic tale of our love’s demise to anyone who will listen.  If a perfect stranger finds themselves at a neighboring bar stool, they’ll hear every chapter in the saga of our doomed romance, from the magical days of first love to the later years of spiteful words and simmering resentment.  Others of us seek out distraction in steamy but ultimately unsatisfying sex.  Still others indulge in our depression, whimpering in bed to Dashboard Confessional and crying in inappropriate social contexts such as our local bar or at work beneath our desks.  For us, Friday nights are an agony of loneliness and sweatpants.  Weeping at sappy chick flicks like Sixteen Candles, we succumb to self-pity’s hackneyed dramatics: no, we tell ourselves, our love lives will never have the hazy, dreamy lighting of a John Hughes movie ever again.  We’ll never find a guy as hunky as Jake Ryan while wearing a gauzy pink dress.

When the person we trust dissolves a decade-long commitment with eight life-altering words (I don’t want to be with you anymore), we have to grapple with a greater philosophical conundrum: do we have any sort of command of our fate or are we— as the immortal Shakespeare once said— as flies to wanton boys are to the gods?  do they kill us for sport?

In his incomparable part-novel, part-dissertation On Love, the story of a nameless narrator’s ill-fated romance, British philosopher Alain de Botton argues breakups break our hearts because they dispel the long-standing belief that we’re in control.  Human beings have accomplished incredible feats of the imagination since time immemorial: we’ve built the Empire State Building and the Great Pyramid of Giza; we’ve sailed across seas and soared through skies to new worlds; we’ve constructed complex webs of interstate highways and the First Transcontinental Railroad; we’ve eliminated measles and small pox, discovered DNA and electricity, invented the internet and the wheel.  Yet we’re not omnipotent, we’re not the almighty rulers of the world.  We mere mortals are frail and fallible— but infinitesimal specks in the cosmos.

Though we imagine God gave us dominion over heaven and earth, much of life is outside our control: tomorrow we might lose our jobs or our homes, our husband might refuse the terms of our ultimatum or our wife might get kidnapped by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.  Catastrophe reminds us just how small we are.  No matter how large our brains are relative to our size, we’re powerless in the face of an earthquake or super volcano.  In the grammar of day-to-day life, we’re objects and subjects; we act but are also acted on. 

Nowhere is this more true than in love.  How often do we forget our beloved is an independent agent with their own free will, a subject of their own sentence rather than a mere object in our own?  Because they loved us at one time, we imagine their feelings will endure.  But the person we love can always leave, life can always change with the slam of a door.  “Love has a nasty habit of disappearing over night,” the Beatles sang on Rubber Soul.  What’s worse than knowing all things— even love— are subject to metamorphose?  Knowing no matter how desperate we are to stall the forward movement of time, all is inconstancy, all is unsteadiness, all is flux.  When his girlfriend Chloe leaves him for another man, our narrator realizes he is nothing but Cupid’s pawn:

“I was forced to abandon the techno-optimism of modernity, I slipped through the net designed to counteract primitive fears. I gave up reading daily papers or trusting the television, I gave up faith in weather forecasts and economic indicators.  My thoughts made way for millennial disasters— earthquakes, floods, devastation, plague.  I came closer to the world of the gods, the world of primitive forces guiding our lives.  I felt the transience of everything, the illusions upon which skyscrapers, bridges, theories, rocket launchers, elections, and fast-food restaurants were built.  I saw in happiness and repose a violent denial of reality.  I looked commuters in the face and wondered why they had not seen.  I imagined cosmic explosions, seas of lava flowing, pillage and destruction.  I understood the pain of history, a record of carnage enveloped in nauseous nostalgia.  I felt the arrogance of scientists and politicians, newscasters and petrol station attendants, the smugness of accountants and gardeners.  I linked myself to the great outcasts, I became a follower of Caliban and Dionysus and all who had been reviled for looking the pus-filled warts of truth in the face.

[…]

Chloe’s departure had rocked the belief that I was a master of my own house, it was a reminder of neuronal weakness, the conscious mind’s impotence and inadequacy.  I lost the pull of gravity, there was disintegration, and the curious lucidity that comes from total despair.  I felt I had not been able to tell my own story, but had witnessed a demon do it for me, a childish, petulant demon who enjoyed raising his characters, then letting them crash down onto the rocks below.  I felt like a puppet hooked on strings reaching up to the sky or deep into the psyche.  I was a character in a master narrative whose grander design I was helpless to alter.  I was the actor, not the playwright, blindly swallowing a script written in another’s hand, ascribed an ending that hurtled me toward an unknown but painful end.”

When a couple splits, both betrayer and betrayed become lawyers in the case of their relationship: who, they wonder, should be held responsible for their love’s bitter end?  Hoping to mount a strong defense, each party collects evidence and interviews witnesses.  In the courthouse of our heads, we weave these clues into a cohesive, cogent case for our own innocence (“Ladies and gentleman of the jury, as you can see, the defendant’s wandering eyes at that New Year’s Eve party eight years ago make him deserving of this punishment…”).

Yet no matter how much we fight for a guilty verdict for our ex, after hours of testimony and evidence, we usually realize we’re equally to blame for the demise of our relationship.  In fact, we come to think it is we who deserve a harsh sentence.  Maybe we had been neglectful, maybe we had been hurtful and abusive.  Obsessively, we play and replay the movie of our relationship: had we spent one too many nights late at the office?  had we hurt our beloved’s feelings when we flirted too eagerly with that attractive Parisian man?  or was there something irreparably wrong with us?  were we just fundamentally unlovable, simple as that?

After Chloe leaves him, our narrator finds himself the guilty culprit.  Heartsick and depressed, he tortures himself with memories of every romantic evening spoiled by stupid bickering, every childish sulk, every screaming match.  The end of a relationship is consumed by one defining emotion: regret.  We regret the grenades of nasty names and cruel, irrevocable words exchanged in the heat of an argument; we regret the way we exploited our lover’s insecurities for the sake of winning the war (even if the war was over something as petty as who should wash the dishes); we regret our offenses both large and small, the felonies of unfaithfulness and the mundane misdemeanors of ingratitude and inattention.  How many times had we asked “how’s your day?” out of obligation instead of genuine interest?  How many times had we only pretended to listen?  In a heartbreaking succession of short, impactful “I” statements, Botton captures the infernal torment of post-breakup self-condemnation: 

“I had meant love to live; I had killed it nevertheless.  I had suffered a crime without knowing I had committed it, now I looked for the offense and, unsure of what I had done, confessed to everything.  I tore myself apart looking for the weapon, every insolence returned to haunt me, acts of ordinary cruelty and thoughtlessness— none of these had been missed by the gods, who had now chosen to eke their terrible revenge on me.  I could not bear to look at my own face in the mirror, I tore my eyes out, waited for birds to peck out my liver, and carried the weight of sins up mountains.”

In the end, the narrator recognizes the downfall of his relationship wasn’t ordained by sadistic gods or inscribed in the firmament— it was driven by powerful forces below the threshold of his consciousness.  “I was laboring under the curse of fate, not an external one, but a psycho-fate: a fate from within,” he confesses.  Unlike in Homeric epics or Greek myths, we’re controlled not by divine deities but by our subconscious.  In childhood, our unconscious minds absorbed subliminal messages from our parents.  If they were neglectful or abusive, we calculated an equation: love = unreciprocated.  We associated love with hurt, with heartache, with abandonment.  Those of us who grew up in dysfunctional homes continue to seek that same dysfunction: if we had an abusive father, we’re drawn to men with volatile tempers; if we had an emotionally unavailable mother, we fall for distant women incapable of real intimacy or support.  Unless we heal our childhood wounds, we’re doomed to repeat the same patterns.

As natural storytellers and meaning makers, we long for our lives to follow a comprehensible narrative arc; we want each episode to fit tidily into a larger unified story, not devolve into a disjointed clutter of chaos.  “What does this mean?” we continually ask ourselves.  What does it mean when the person we love cheats/otherwise betrays us?  What does it mean when we time and time again choose men/women who break our hearts?

Hoping to better situate his chapter with Chloe into a broader history of his romantic relationships, our narrator psychoanalyzes himself:  why did Chloe leave?  for that matter, why did he fall in love with her at all?  is attraction really an enigma, a riddle that can never be resolved, or can its “mysteries” be explained by our childhoods?  Chloe, he realizes, was merely an actor hired to play a part, their relationship an excuse to restage the same dysfunctional mother/son plots:

“I did not simply love Chloe and then she left me.  I loved Chloe in order that she leave me.  The painful tale of loving her appeared as a palimpsest, beneath which another story had been written.  Buried deep in the unconscious, a pattern had been forged, in the early months or years.  The baby had driven away the mother, or the mother had left the baby, and now baby/man recreated the same scenario, different actors but the same plot, Chloe fitting into the clothes of another.  Why had I even chosen her?  It was not the shape of her smile or the liveness of her mind.  It was because the unconscious, the casting director of the inner drama, recognized in her a suitable character to fill the role in the mother/infant script, someone who would oblige the playwright by leaving the stage at just the right time with the requisite wreckage and pain.”

More than any book in recent memory, On Love descends into the devastating depths of post-breakup despair.  For more witty insights into this at times maddening aspect of the human experience, delight in de Botton on dating as a sort of performative play-actinglove as the origin of beauty, the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning and love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment.  If you’re more interested in his philosophical musings on success and status, revisit De Botton on status as the construction of culturehow gazing upon once great ruins can cure us of our status anxiety and how expectation causes anxiety, malaise and discontentment. 

Alain de Botton on Love as the Origin of Beauty

Why do we find one person irresistible and not another?  Why does one man prefer brunettes and another blondes?  Why does one woman daydream about the boyish good looks of a scrawny 1990s Leonardo DiCaprio while another only possesses libidinous lust for macho man body builders?  Why do traditionally handsome men with striking jaw lines and chiseled abs attract some but repel others?

Attraction is ultimately an enigma.  “Does beauty give birth to love, or does love give birth to beauty?” Alain de Botton’s nameless narrator asks in his incomparable part-novel, part-philosophical treatise On Love, “Surrounded by an infinite number of people, we may ask [staring at our lover while they talk on the phone or lie opposite us in the bath] why our desire has chosen to settle on this particular face, this particular mouth or nose or ear.”  What constitutes beauty has always puzzled poets and philosophers.  Is beauty universal, a principle shared across all time periods and cultures?  Is it a checklist of a few consistent characteristics, readily identifiable?  Or is beauty more mysterious?  Does it slip through semantic boxes of easily understood definition and depend— as the old saying goes— on the eye of the beholder?

With his philosophical acumen and trademark wit, de Botton outlines two opposing theories of beauty: the Platonic and the Kantian.  Fashion magazines promote a Platonic conception of beauty, the idea that in the realm of aesthetics, there’s only one universal standard.  To both the world’s magazine editors and the ancient Greek philosopher, beauty is a mathematical equation with a single indisputable answer: a glowing complexion; glossy coiffed hair; pouty, perfectly pink lips; a thin, perfectly-proportioned figure.  The fashion model is the consummate Platonic ideal, the embodiment of elegance, as architecturally awe-inspiring and symmetrical as a statue.

If, as Plato argues, there is an objective benchmark of beauty, the non-supermodels among us fall tragically short of the standard.  Our eyes are too far apart.  Our lips are too big.  Our noses are off-center.  In magazines, fur-coated models look effortlessly chic, their gazes subtly seductive as they hold themselves in eternal poses of aloof nonchalance.  In On Love, Chloe, the narrator’s beloved, uses these images as instruments of torture, finding herself repugnant next to the flawless models on the stylish pages of Vogue and Glamour.  When we compare ourselves, real life women, to these manipulated airbrushed Barbie dolls, we have no choice but to view ourselves as monstrously disfigured:

“According to Plato and the editor of Vogue, there exists such a thing as an ideal Form of beauty, made up of a balanced relation between parts, which earthly bodies will resemble to a greater or lesser degree.  Everything we consider beautiful, said Plato, partakes in the essential Form of beauty and must hence exhibit universal characteristics.  Take a beautiful woman and you will see there is a mathematical basis for this beauty, an inherent balance that is no less precise than that found in the construction of a classical temple…Plato had said that only when elements match is there a proper balance that gives an object a dynamic stillness and self-completeness… If Plato had said that only ‘the qualities of measure (metron) and proportion (symmetron) invariably constitute beauty and excellence,’ then Chloe’s face must have been lacking in both beauty and excellence.”

Though Chloe deviates from conventional notions of beauty, our narrator still finds her hopelessly attractive.  How, he wonders, can he be enticed by a lover who possesses so many perceived imperfections, so many unforgivable cracks when he could have a classical statue?  After all, she has a gap between her two front teeth and freckles.  The mainstream conception of winsomeness is as simple as arithmetic in elementary school: straight white teeth + freckle-less face = beautiful.  So how can he remain so mesmerized with Chloe when so many others would dismiss her as ugly, or worse, forgettable?

The answer, de Botton asserts, is that beauty is subjective rather than objective, irrational rather logical.  Just as it’s impossible for art historians to unanimously agree on what constitutes a “good” painting (is it originality of composition?  sharpness of lines?  playfulness of color?), it’s impossible to decide on a singular basis for beauty.  While one man might be drawn to the classic Audrey Hepburn aesthetics of a slim frame and pale skin, another might lust after a Marilyn Monroe bombshell with big hair and a voluptuous figure.  Though we all have physical “types,” one kind of woman or man isn’t objectively better than another: no matter how we try to justify our preferences or defend our tastes with reason, something about beauty always defies description:

“But clearly Plato…must have neglected to include something in his aesthetic theory, for I found Chloe devastatingly beautiful.  I hesitate to describe what exactly it was that I found so attractive.  Did I like her green eyes, her dark hair, her full mouth?  I stumble in answering because of the difficulty of ever explaining in words why one person is attractive and another is not.  I could talk of the freckles on her nose or the curve of her neck, but what would it do to convince someone who did not find her attractive?  Beauty is, after all, not something that one can ever convince someone else about.  It is not like a mathematical formula, through which one may lead someone and arrive at an incontestable conclusion.  Debates over the attractiveness of men and women are like the debates between art historians attempting to justify why one painting is superior to another.  A Van Gogh or Gauguin?  The only way to make a case for one or the other would be by an attempted re-description of the work in language [“The lyrical intelligence of Gauguin’s South skies…” next to the “Wagnerian depth of Van Gogh’s blues…”] or else by an elucidation of technique or materials [“The Expressionist feel of Van Gogh’s later years…”  “Gauguin’s Cezanne-like linearity…”].  But what distance would this go toward actually explaining why one painting works, affects us, grips us by the collar with its beauty?  And if painters have traditionally disdained art historians who come in their wake, it is perhaps not so much out of inverted snobbery as out of a sense that the language of paint [the language of beauty] could not be collapsed into the language of words.” 

Unlike the Platonic understanding of aesthetics, which insists beauty can be tallied and totaled using an established rubric, the Kantian school of thought maintains beauty is particular rather than universal:

“It was not beauty that I had hence hoped to describe, only my own subjective response to Chloe’s appearance.  I could not claim to be laying down an aesthetic theory of universal validity, I could simply point out where my desire had happened to settle while allowing the possibility that others would not locate the same perfections in the same body.  In so doing, I was forced to reject the Platonic idea of an objective criterion of beauty, siding instead with Kant’s view that aesthetic judgements were ones ‘whose determining grounds can be no other than subjective.'” 

When we fall in love, what draws us to our beloved?  Is it his brawny arms?  her long legs and ample chest?  No, we’re charmed by their idiosyncrasies, those endearing quirks that precariously flirt with weirdness.  Those attributes that are normally considered “desirable”— for men, a tall, muscular body, for women, a tiny waist and big breast— don’t mesmerize us as much as those features that are deemed unattractive: the mole on their right shoulder, the perfume of their particular scent.  For our narrator, Chloe’s crooked smile is adorable for the exact reason that it isn’t perfect:

“Yet what was distinctive about my attraction to Chloe was that it was based not on the obvious targets of desire as much on precisely those features that might have been imperfect by someone considering her from a Platonic perspective.  There was a certain pride in locating desire in the awkward features of her face, in precisely those areas where others would not look.  I did not for instance see the gap in between her two front teeth as an offensive deviation from an ideal arrangement, but as an original and most love-worthy redefinition of dental perfection.  I was not simply indifferent to the gap in between the teeth, I positively adored it.”

platonic vs. kantian

Though we understand beauty as the antithesis of ugliness, beauty most often contains a degree of the grotesque.  Beauty and ugliness are an interdependent marriage, not an estranged couple with irreconcilable differences:

“True beauty cannot be measured because it is fluctuating, it only has a few angles from which it may be seen, and then not in all lights and at all times.  It flirts dangerously with ugliness, it takes risks with itself, it does not side comfortably with mathematical rules of proportion, it draws its appeal from precisely those areas that will also lend themselves to ugliness.  Nothing can be beautiful that does not take a calculated risk with ugliness.”

To be conventional is to be based on or in accordance with what is generally done.  If in the Platonic worldview there is a conventional notion of attractiveness, then it must follow that Platonic beauty is formulaic and, thus, tediously unoriginal.  After all, it doesn’t take much artistic sensitivity to find beauty in the obvious; any one can appreciate the grandeur of exquisite surroundings, an exhibition of Cezanne paintings, a cobblestone street, a French cathedral.  In the realm of romance, most can recognize the enticing allure of a debonair man in an impeccably tailored suit or a full-figured vixen in a too-tight sweater.  It requires more imagination to locate beauty in what most disregard as ugly or unremarkable.  As Proust would say, the true artist knows beauty exists not just in Italian Renaissance paintings but underdone, unsavory cutlets on half-removed tablecloths.

Because our beloved has the capacity, like Wittgenstein’s duck rabbit, to be both hideous and beautiful, we the viewer become essential.  In a purely platonic relationship, a person’s crooked teeth or freckles remain limitations; in a romantic relationship, love transforms these supposed inadequacies into something lovable.  “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?” the old philosophical conundrum goes.  If we were to reframe this question in terms of love, we might ask: “If a person has the potential to be beautiful but no one is around to witness it, is he/she still beautiful?”  For Alain de Botton, the answer is no: an object (the loved) depends on the subject (the lover) to exist.  Perhaps this is why we become so enthralled with the beloved— not because they are paragons of some unattainable Platonic ideal, but because their physical flaws, their too small eyes, their disproportionately large arms, render us, the observer, refreshingly indispensable:

“Because her face had evidence within it for both beauty and ugliness, my imagination was given a role in holding on to the precarious thread of beauty.  In its ambiguity, Chloe’s face could be compared to Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit, where both a duck and a rabbit seem contained in the same image, much as there seemed to be two faces contained within Chloe’s features.

In Wittgenstein’s example, much depends on the attitude of the viewer: If the imagination is looking for a duck, it will find one; if it is looking for a rabbit, then it too will appear.  There is evidence for both, so what counts is the predisposition, the mental set, of the viewer.  What was of course providing me with a beautiful image of Chloe [rather than a duck] was love.  I felt that this love must have been more genuine because it had not settled on a face that was obviously, unambiguously proportioned.  The editor of Vogue might have had difficulty including photos of Chloe in an issue, but ironically, this only reinforced my desire, for it seemed confirmation of the uniqueness that I had managed to find in her.  How original is it to find a classically proportioned person “beautiful”?  It surely takes greater effort, greater Proustian imagination, to locate beauty in a gap between the teeth.  In finding Chloe beautiful, I had not settled on the obvious.  I could perhaps see in her features things that others could not see.  I had animated her face with her soul.” 

rabbit or duckIn the end, On Love suggests beauty is not something that can be computed and calculated according to an unambiguous scale— it’s manufactured by love.  For more penetrating insights into this at times maddening, mysterious human emotion, read de Botton on the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning, dating as a form of performative playacting, and love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment.  If you’re more interested in his philosophical musings on success and status, revisit him on status as the construction of culture, how gazing upon once great ruins can cure us of our status anxiety, and how expectation causes anxiety, malaise and discontentment.

Alain de Botton on Dating as a Sort of Performative Playacting

When I was young, I was deeply committed to a life of love: my twenties were a string of on loveintense affairs and serious long-term relationships interrupted only by brief periods of singledom.  I loved to love, to be loved: the tender kisses, the holding hands, the constant person to lean on.  I loathe to admit it but I’ve always devoured sappy romantic comedies and weepy chick flicks: my earliest memories are singing along with Roy Orbison during the ending credits of Pretty Woman (a movie, I now realize, for a four year old was wildly inappropriate).  These movies all seemed to say one thing: love is an integration of two inadequate, incomplete halves to make a perfect whole; to be happy, you had to have someone.  I blame these enduring myths of modern knights in shining armor for my deep-seated terror of being alone.

Because I thought love was a need rather than a want, I leaped from relationship to relationship, becoming a sort of serial monogamist.  The result?  I lost who I was (after all, isn’t that, to some extent, what a relationship is: a steady dissolution of self?).  Perhaps love is always a kind of osmosis, a process by which our personality passes through a semipermeable membrane and intermingles with that of someone else.  In a relationship, two independent, autonomous “I’s” merge into an indivisible “we”: we adopt their preferences, we trade tastes in books and movies.  In an ideal relationship, this would be an equal exchange between partners.  But in a lopsided union, only one partner is assimilated into the culture of the other, absorbing their viewpoints, their philosophies, their beliefs, their ideas.

This subsumption of self begins with the very first date.  During the initial stages of infatuation, we long for one thing: our beloved.  In order to allure our lover, we’ll do almost anything from pretend to be obsessed with their favorite band to overstate our admiration for Jack Kerouac.  Dating is a masquerade ball where we conceal our real self behind many masks.  Existing at the intersection of psychology and philosophy, the idea-orientation of an essay and the narrative-orientation of a novel, Alain de Botton’s On Love explores this phenomenon with great wit.  Though a portrait of a single couple, a nameless narrator and Chloe, his beloved, the story gives us broader insight into the riddles of attraction and seduction, desire and love.  In one of my favorite chapters “Authenticity,” our narrator takes Chloe to Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a chic new French restaurant on Fulham Road.  In an exquisite sentence that superbly captures the timidity and tension of a first date, de Botton writes:

“I had lost all capacity either to think or speak, only able to draw silently invisible patterns on the starched white table cloth and take unnecessary sips of bubbled water from a glass goblet.” 

But why is it so nerve-wracking to get to know someone?  Why do we get the first date jitters, even the most seemingly self-assured among us?

When we go on a date, especially with someone we’re fond of, dinner is no longer casual, convivial conversation over the clink of champagne glasses and beef bourguignon— it’s a performance carried out with the intent to seduce someone.  The label of “date” transforms a simple evening out into a blinding extravaganza of sparkling costumes and Oscar-worthy drama.  If, as Fitzgerald wrote in his quintessential American masterpiece, personality is an “unbroken series of successful gestures,” so is seduction.  In many ways, seduction is a form of acting, a theater where our behavior is not spontaneous but carefully calculated and rehearsed.  Dating requires we play a part.  After all, if on a first date we were completely, unreservedly ourselves, would anyone ever love us?  Probably not.  No potential paramour would be enthralled by our annoying habit of always arriving at least thirty minutes late or won over by our troubled history of abusive relationships and alcoholism.  Just as we adopt the role of perfectly punctual, reliable candidate when interviewing for a job, on the stage of seduction, we craft ourselves into the character we imagine our beloved most wants:

“Out of this perceived inferiority emerged the need to take on a personality that was not directly my own, a seducing self that would locate and respond to the demands of this superior being.  Did love condemn me not to be myself?  Perhaps not forever, but, if it was to be taken seriously, it did at this stage of seduction, for the seducing position was one that led me to ask What would appeal to her? rather than What appeals to me?  I asked How would she perceive my tie? rather than How do I judge it?  Love forced me to look at myself as through the imagined eyes of the beloved.  Not Who am I? but Who am I for her?  And in the reflexive movement of that question, my self could not help but grow tinged with a certain bad faith and inauthenticity.”

On some level, dating always requires we exchange our authentic self for a fictitious one.  Though he desires one of Les Liaisons Dangereuses’s delectable wines, the narrator resists for fear of looking like a drunkard when Chloe only orders a glass of water.  Abstaining from a glass of pinot noir may sound trivial but it represents one of a million ways seduction demands we reject who we really are and assume a persona:

“If staying true to oneself is deemed an essential criterion of moral selfhood, then seduction had led me to resolutely fail the ethical test.  Why had I lied about my feelings toward a delicious-looking selection of wines, prominently advertised on a blackboard above Chloe’s head?  Because my choice had suddenly seemed inadequate and crude next to her mineral thirst.  Seduction had split me in two, into a true [alcoholic] self and a false [aquatic] one.”

In a witty if not altogether serious moment, the narrator encounters a serious roadblock on his route to seduce his beloved: he knows little about her.  How, he wonders, can he mold himself into the role of her ideal lover if he doesn’t have the script for the part?

“Given my wish to seduce Chloe, it was essential that I find out more about her.  How could I abandon my true self unless I knew what false self to adopt?  But this was no easy task, a reminder that understanding another requires hours of careful attention and interpretation, teasing a coherent character from a thousand words and actions.  Unfortunately, the patience and intelligence required went far beyond the capacities of my anxious, infatuated mind.  I behaved like a reductive social psychologist, eager to press a person into simple definitions, unwilling to apply the care of a novelist to capturing the polyvalence of human nature.”

When we first meet someone, they are black-and-white, as bare as the stark outlines of a spaceship in a coloring book.  It is only with time that we can color in the lines and a clearer, more three-dimensional picture of who they are can emerge.  Because they’ve only just met, the narrator sets out to get to know Chloe better.  In a painfully relatable scene, he fumbles clumsily through first date conversation, asking canned questions with the stiff formality of a job interviewer: 

“Over the first course, I blundered with heavy-handed, interview-like questions: What do you like to read?[“Joyce, Henry James, Cosmo if there’s time”], Do you like your job? [“All jobs are pretty crappy, don’t you think?”], What country would you live in if you could live anywhere? [“I’m fine here, anywhere where I don’t have to change the plug for my hairdryer”], What do you like to do on weekends? [“Go to the movies on Saturday, on Sunday stock up on chocolate for getting depressed with in the evening.”].”

What I love about de Botton is his ability to extract weighty philosophical significance from the seemingly mundane.  For him, a first date isn’t just friendly chit chat at a cafe: it’s an occasion for in-depth examination of human mating.  Much like the peacock displays his magnificent iridescent feathers to attract a mate, we homo sapiens put on countless poses to impress a potential partner.  A man on a first date, for example, might boast about his six figure salary or make it a point to pick up his paramour in his brand new Tesla.  A woman, on the other hand, might entice a lover with a tantalizingly low neckline or a spritz of her most mesmerizing perfume from Dolce & Gabbana.  Ultimately, dating is a spectacle where we wear innumerable costumes.  And what is a costume but a kind of impersonation?  a means of convincing our audience that we are someone infinitely more interesting than ourselves?

Though an elaborate ensemble might dazzle with its embellishment, it will always be uncomfortable compared to our workaday clothes.  The contraptions of a costume, the zippers and clasps and buttons, are far more confining than our usual uniform of jeans and a tee shirt.  Dating is exhausting because we can’t fuss with a too tight blouse or a sexy but too revealing short skirt— we have to keep up a charade.  But just as an actor must eventually take off his stage attire and return to real life, we can’t maintain a facade forever: in time, if we are to truly love and be loved, we have to unveil who we are.  In an analogy that aptly captures the laborious difficulty and overall uneasiness of pretending to be someone we’re not, Botton parallels his authentic self to a corpulent man and what he imagines Chloe wants to a too small suit:

“The evening was a process resembling a fat man’s trying to fit into a suit that is too small for him.  There was a desperate attempt to repress the bulges that did not fit the cut of the fabric, to shrink my waist and hold my breath so that the material would not tear.  It was not surprising if my posture was not as spontaneous as I might have liked.  How can a fat man in a suit too small for him feel spontaneous?  He is so frightened the suit will split, he is forced to sit in complete stillness, holding his breath and praying he can get through the evening without disaster.”

On Love penetrates the complexities of the human heart and is brilliant from start to finish (as is always the case with Alain de Botton).  For more penetrating insights into this at times maddening aspect of the human experience, read de Botton on the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning, love as the origin of beauty, and love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment.  If you’re more interested in his philosophical musings on success and status, revisit him on status as the construction of culture, how gazing upon once great ruins can cure us of our status anxiety, and how expectation causes anxiety, malaise and discontentment.