British philosopher Alain de Botton adds one more reason to the list of why we should write and draw. In his infinitely insightful The Art of Travel, Botton argues making art can aid us in better appreciating our travels. In one of my favorite chapters, Botton suggests artist and art critic John Ruskin can teach us to preserve beauty. In normal life, if we encounter a thing of particular beauty— a pristine blue sky, a field of golden poppies, a quiet suburban street dappled in spring sunlight— we might note that the scene is rather lovely but never become fully conscious of its many aesthetically-pleasing qualities. The result? We only ever experience beauty fleetingly.
If we want a more enduring experience of beauty, we should take out a pen and paper and get drawing. Ruskin, who wrote several instructive books on the craft and taught drawing between 1856-1860, argues art is just as essential as languages and arithmetic. “The art of drawing,” he writes, is of “more real importance to the human race than that of writing and should be taught to every child just as writing is.”
Why is Ruskin so passionate about art? What is the point of learning to sketch? Do you really need to understand the principles of color, line and composition? Certainly painting isn’t as important as knowing the alphabet or basic math.
For Ruskin, art is invaluable because it rouses us from our usual stupor of inattention. By requiring us to stop and study our subject, art sharpens our powers of observation. If we look closely at a cherry blossom tree, for instance, we start to see it more clearly: its petals— which were once just a blur of pink— become more defined. They’re not just a plain pink, we realize, they’re a delicate pink and their edges fade to white.
When we travel somewhere, we should therefore make an attempt to draw our surroundings. Even if our “art” is as unsophisticated as a kindergartner’s crayon sketch of stick figures and trees, the exercise will be enlightening. In trying to capture the gothic grandeur of St Mark’s Basilica, we will be able to see— truly see— its gold mosaics and breathtaking architecture. On the other hand, if we rush past to feed pigeons on the plaza, we won’t appreciate its beauty as profoundly.
Not only did Ruskin recommend we draw pictures of our travels, he suggested we record them in a diary. As dedicated diarist and fashion icon Anais Nin once said, “We write to taste life twice: in the moment and in retrospect.” By attempting to capture what we see and hear and smell in writing, we a) feel these sensations more strongly and b) cement our impressions in our memory.
When we document our observations, we should be as precise as possible. As Botton writes, “We can see beauty well enough just by opening our eyes, but how long this beauty survives in memory depends on how intentionally we have apprehended it.” Rather than simply describe the weather in Rome as “pleasant” and the sightseeing as “wonderful,” we want to paint a picture. Inexact, catch-all adjectives like “pleasant” and “wonderful” offer a value judgement without providing any real, concrete sensory details. What— exactly— was so “pleasant” about the weather in Rome? Was the autumn air warm without being sweltering like it is in summer? Did a balmy breeze blow every morning through our window? Or were our romantic evenings strolling through Piazza Navona inviting and invigorating, slightly chilly without being uncomfortably cold? Ultimately, our experience of beauty is directly proportional to the precision of our description: the deeper our descriptions, the deeper our experience. To fossilize our impressions of a place in the sediment of memory, Botton— and Ruskin— advise we ask ourselves questions and strive for specificity:
“We were all, Ruskin argued, able to turn out adequate word-paintings. A failure was only the result of not asking ourselves enough questions, of not being more precise in analyzing what we had seen and felt. Rather than rest with the idea that a lake was pretty, we were to ask ourselves more vigorously, ‘What in particular is attractive about this stretch of water? What are its associations? What is a better word for it than big?’ The finished product might not then be marked by genius, but at least it would have been motivated by a search for authentic representation of an experience.”
Why do we feel attracted to some places and not others? Why— for example— do we find Las Vegas repulsive but adore San Francisco? British philosopher Alain de Botton would assert San Francisco has more allure because it has been romanticized in everything from Beat poetry to hard-boiled detective novels. The scorching desert sun and whir of slot machines on the strip don’t possess the same charm because Las Vegas hasn’t been glamorized in as many art forms. A place is only appealing— de Botton would say— if it has been rendered in paintings and celebrated in novels.
In many ways, artists help us see more clearly. Different artists are guides to different things. Chardin, for example, teaches us to see the extraordinary beauty in the ordinary— a leg of lamb, a man reading, a glass of Cabernet and loaf of bread, a blue and white vase— while Cezanne instructs us in the loveliness of baskets of apples and Monet in the exquisite color and light of water lilies. Before Chardin, we never thought so much aesthetic pleasure could be derived from something as simple as a commonplace kitchen. But after seeing “The Kitchen Maid,” we realize that even a maid can possess dignity.
In his endlessly interesting The Art of Travel, which illuminated how new places can inspire new thoughts and how to overcome the boredom of sightseeing, Botton demonstrates how art can make us appreciate our travels more deeply. At the beginning of Chapter VII “On Eye-Opening Art,” Botton visits a few friends in Provence, a destination which conjures romantic images of lavender fields and olive trees. Despite its reputation as a place of unbelievable beauty, Botton finds Provence less than picturesque: the olive trees look “stunted, more like bushes than trees,” while the wheat fields evoke the “flat, dull expanses of south-eastern England where [he] had attended a school and been unhappy.”
It is only after reading a book on Van Gogh that he begins to become more attentive to his surroundings. Van Gogh, who moved to the south of France in 1888, told his brother he left Paris for Arles for two reasons: “because he had wanted to paint the south” and because he had wanted, through his work, to help other people to “see” it.
Through his careful attention, Van Gogh does— indeed— succeed in helping Botton see Provence. One clear morning as he sits on the terrace with a pain au chocolat, Botton sees two towering cypresses. Why had he never noticed them? And why had these unremarkable, rather strange trees, which were once relegated to the background, entered the foreground of his consciousness and become the central object of contemplation?
Botton credits Van Gogh’s “Wheat Field With Cypresses” with his newfound appreciation. Though Botton has obviously seen cypresses before, it is only after studying Van Gogh that he recognizes their unique movement, their surreal shape, their dark green color against the golden wheat landscape. In 1888 and 1889, the artist had been obsessed with the trees: “They are constantly occupying my thoughts,” he wrote his brother, “it astonishes me that they have not yet been done as I see them. The cypress is as beautiful of line and proportion as an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has such a quality of distinction. It is a splash of black in a sunny landscape, but is one of the most interesting black notes, and the most difficult to hit off exactly.”
Because Van Gogh cherished these trees, he devoted himself to expressing his vision and produced what are perhaps the most innovative paintings of the 19th century. His affection for his subject inspires Botton to look more closely. With Van Gogh as his guide, the cypress is no longer a straggly mass of green— it’s a wonder of color and harmony. Oscar Wilde once said there had been no fog in London before Whistler painted it. With equal wit, Botton remarks, “There had surely been fewer cypresses in Provence before Van Gogh painted them.“
Van Gogh also awakens Botton’s unappreciative eyes to the glorious colors of Provence’s Mediterranean landscape. In a passage of rich description, the philosopher paints an idyllic picture of the French countryside:
“The mistral, blowing along the Rhine valley from the Alps, regularly clears the skies of clouds and moisture, leaving it a pure rich blue without a trace of white. At the same time, a high water table and good irrigation promote a plant life of singular lushness for a Mediterranean climate. With no water shortages to restrict its growth, the vegetation draws full benefit from the great advantages of the south: light and heat…The combination of cloudless sky, dry air, water and rich vegetation leaves the region dominated by vivid primary, contrasting colors.”
In the 19th century, most artists depicted Provence in soft complementary colors like blues and earthy browns. Van Gogh, to borrow the words of Botton, was “incensed by this neglect of the landscape’s natural color scheme.” “The majority of [painters] because they are not colorists…do not see yellow, orange or sulfur in the South,” the artist once complained, “and they call a painter mad if he sees with eyes other than theirs.” Van Gogh revolted against popular conceptions of Provence and soaked his canvases in bright primary colors, juxtaposing them in striking ways: red poppies next to a yellow farmhouse, hunter’s green olive trees against clear blue skies and fluffy white clouds.
Van Gogh’s consideration for color teaches Botton to see with more sensitivity. Before being exposed to the post-impressionist painter, Botton’s capacity to see was barely better than a blind man’s. He couldn’t understand why people called Provence’s hills “picturesque”— to him, they were an ugly, dry, dirty brown, no different from the hills in California or England. But after seeing Van Gogh’s “Orange Roof” and “Meadow with Poppies,” his bland surroundings become more brilliant. “Everywhere I looked, I could see primary colors in contrast,” he writes, “Besides the house was a violet-colored field of lavender next to a yellow field of wheat. The roofs of the buildings were orange against a pure blue sky. Green meadows were dotted with red poppies.”
All in all, Botton’s The Art of Travel reminds us of the irreplaceable role of art and the artist. More than just momentarily entertain or ravish our senses, a poem or painting encourages us to cherish what usually escapes our notice. In our normal, hurried lives, we move at such a velocity that the magnificence of the world barely registers. But when we gaze upon “Starry Night,” we can sit and savor the surreal Saint Remy sky and therefore become more conscious of its awe-inspiring crescent moon.
Travel is always to some degree disappointing because we romanticize our destination without having experienced it in reality. Before we depart for Venice, for example, our conception of the floating city comes from picture-perfect postcards and things we’ve seen in movies. We imagine our trip will consist of quaint cobblestone streets and hand-crafted cappuccinos at Cafe Florian, the world’s oldest cafe. As we indulge in the Caffè Anniversario 300, a decadent, distinctly Italian blend of espresso, amaretto, hazelnut, and chocolate, we imagine we’ll gaze upon the gothic beauty of St. Mark’s Basilica and nibble on salmon and spinach quiche. With a bubbly glass of Prosecco in hand later that evening, we’ll feel like Venetian royalty.
Sadly, our image of Venice differs drastically from its reality. Though the floating city does shimmer on the magical blue green waters of the Adriatic Sea, our glamorized conception of Venice neglected the tacky tourist traps, the suffocating sun and the notoriously crowded streets of Italy. In postcards, cobblestone streets were a charming artifact of the old world— in reality, they make it maddeningly difficult to maneuver our luggage and walk in heels. And though Cafe Florian does, indeed, take our breath away with its splendid baroque art and adorable pastries, it also costs 80 euros for a single coffee and a few tea cakes.
Sight-seeing especially underscores the difference between reality and fantasy. In real life, the Colosseum and the Louvre aren’t nearly as impressive or interesting. Indeed, the world’s great landmarks are often dreadfully boring. Though the Colosseum once hosted epic gladiatorial battles for thousands of spectators, today it’s a mecca for overweight tourists in Hawaiian shirts and flip flop slippers. And though the Mona Lisa is perhaps the world’s most famous painting, in real life, it’s a rather unremarkable woman sitting simply— nothing more.
No one examines the disappointments of travel with more charming British cynicism than philosopher Alain de Botton. In his indispensable volumeThe Art of Travel, which explained why we traveland how traveling to new places can inspire new thoughts, de Botton shares his own disenchanting experiences abroad. After being invited to Madrid for a conference, he decides to extend his trip a few days to go sightseeing. But on Saturday morning, he wakes up in his hotel and doesn’t want to get out of bed despite Madrid’s grand cathedrals and breathtaking monuments. His guidebooks glare at him from his bedside table as if to chastise him for his laziness. How— they seem to gasp— can he pass up Plaza Mayor for a king size mattress?
Eventually, de Botton wills himself of bed to explore the city. As he sits under the Spanish sun in Plaza Provincia, his guidebook instructs him in the bland facts of his surroundings: “The Neo-classical facade of the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande is by Sabatini but the building itself, a circular edifice with six radial chapels and a large dome 33m/108 ft wide, is by Francisco Cabezas.” Much like a history teacher who recites the important figures and monumental dates of WWII without weaving those facts into a compelling story, most guidebooks fail to fan the flames of our curiosity. De Botton’s travel guide offers an abundance of information but is as intriguing as a dictionary. After all, who cares about Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande’s precise mathematical measurements? As de Botton confesses candidly, “Unfortunately for the traveler, most objects don’t come affixed with the question that will generate the excitement they deserve. There is usually nothing affixed to them at all, or if there is it tends to be the wrong thing. There was a lot fixed to the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande, which stood at the end of the long traffic-choked Carrera de San Francisco— but it hardly helped me be curious about it.”
Ironically, travel is often one thing: boring. Despite the novelty of medieval architecture and cobblestone streets, a foreign land can be just as uninteresting as our own city. Travel guides and museum placards are partially to blame. Rather than capture the horror and chaos of Picasso’s “Guernica,” a placard at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art will merely mention its history (painted in response to the bombing of Guernica by Nazi Germany), its date of creation (1937), and its technique (oil on canvas). Such dry facts are about as relevant to our real lives as the slope-intercept formula y= mx +b.
De Botton soon realizes that if he wants his trip to be more than a yawns-worthy visit to a museum, he has to find a way to make sight-seeing— to borrow Friedrich Nietzsche’s term— “life enhancing.” No matter how passionately a travel guide might argue for the significance of a Picasso painting, it will mean little to us unless we give it meaning. Instead of simply accept expert opinion and agree that “Guernica” is one of the most moving anti-war paintings, we should ask ourselves how it can be meaningful to us personally. What can it teach us about how to live? How can it illuminate some aspect of the human experience? We must ask thoughtful questions and be active rather than passive. As de Botton writes, “For the person standing before the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande, a question might be, ‘Why have people felt the need to build churches?’ or even, ‘Why do we worship God?'” From there, a tourist might wonder why there are different churches in different places or why humans invented religion at all.
Lesson? For the small seed of curiosity to sprout, we must nurture it. Or as de Botton would say, the Neo-classical facade of a Spanish church or a mid-century Cubist painting can only be interesting if we’re interested.
No matter how exciting our destination, we usually look forward to the airport with dread. To make our impossibly early boarding time, we have to wake up at 5 in the morning; once we arrive, we have to find parking and navigate impossibly long security lines. If we’re departing from the airport of a major city— Beijing or Charles de Gaulle or Heathrow— finding our gate can feel like a journey in itself. Like a Homeric hero, we have to overcome many obstacles on the route to our goal: rude TSA agents, labyrinthine corridors, incomprehensible airport directories, confusing shuttle schedules. As we rush to find our terminal, we hear the sounds of shrieking children and luggage rolling along linoleum floors. Over the intercom, a kindly voice reminds a Mr. Anderson to please come to gate 4B as his 8:45 plane is about to depart. Though we’re trying to hurry (after all, we don’t want to be Mr. Anderson and keep our flight waiting), a gray-haired couple in their late 70s is walking unimaginably slow directly in front of us. When we finally maneuver around them and get to our terminal, we realize we’re in the wrong one: we should be on the other side of the airport. “God damn it,” we mutter to ourselves. Frantic, we race past tourists in fanny packs and towering carts of luggage as if we were Olympians trying to make it through an obstacle course.
We eventually arrive. Despite our worries that we’d miss our flight, we still have over an hour to kill before our departure time. If stress is the dominant emotion while finding your gate, boredom is the dominant emotion while waiting to board. With nothing else to occupy us, the hands of time grind to a halt: seconds feel like minutes, minutes feel like hours. To pass the time, we people watch and mindlessly scroll through our phones. When that no longer entertains us, we flip through magazines at Hudson News and grab a Starbucks. Most of us imagine the airport is a hell of torturous boredom and anxiety; however, according to British philosopher Alain de Botton, the same sharp intellect who has written so compellingly on love, status anxiety, and emotional health, it is also a stirring symbol of possibility and hope. In his elegant travel guide The Art of Travel, the same volume that suggested we should travel to new places to have new thoughts and carefully observe to better appreciate our travels abroad, de Botton asserts the airport is as life-affirming as Molly Bloom’s ecstatic cries of “yes” at the end of Ulysses.
Ultimately, the airport reminds us that if our life feels stagnant— if we’re dissatisfied with our jobs, if we’re bored of our husbands— things don’t have to remain as they are. Too often, we imagine we’re “stuck” in our lives, that today will be exactly like tomorrow. But for a few hundred dollars, we can buy a plane ticket and move to an entirely different country and become entirely different people. The airport’s endless list of departures to romantic, far-flung places— London, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Budapest, Rome— isn’t just a catalog of cities: it’s a portal into other possible lives, other possible worlds. In the same way that we can board a flight to Santorini and completely change our surroundings, we can alter what seems unalterable. If we’re unhappy as a San Francisco computer engineer, the list of departures seems to suggest, we can be an Oxford PhD or a Viennese pastry chef. Nothing is beyond our capacity to change: we can get a divorce if we’re tired of being belittled by our abusive husband, we can quit our jobs and start our own business. Our lives are a novel that can always be rewritten. Or as de Botton writes with equal parts wisdom and wit:
“Nowhere is the appeal of the airport more concentrated than in the television screens which hang in rows from terminal ceilings announcing the departure and arrival of flights and whose absence of aesthetic self-consciousness, whose workmanlike casing and pedestrian typefaces, do nothing to disguise their emotional charge or imaginative allure. Tokyo, Amsterdam, Istanbul. Warsaw, Seattle, Rio. The screens bear all the poetic resonance of the last line of James Joyce’s Ulysses: at once a record of where the novel was written and, no less importantly, a symbol of the cosmopolitan spirit behind its composition: ‘Trieste, Zurich, Paris.’ The constant calls of the screens, some accompanied by the impatient pulsing of a cursor, suggest with what ease our seemingly entrenched lives might be altered, were we to walk down a corridor and on to a craft that in a few hours would land us in a place of which we had no memories and where no one knew our names. How pleasant to hold in mind, through the crevasses of our moods, at three in the afternoon when lassitude and despair threaten, that there is always a plane taking off somewhere.”
Why travel? The actual act of traveling— hailing a cab, boarding a bus, riding a train— is exhausting. The airport is my personal conception of hell, even more so than the DMV. The harsh, florescent lights, the disgusting food, the interminable lines, the endless waiting. Why endure the hell of Heathrow to visit the beautiful white sand beaches of Rio de Janeiro or the sun-soaked hills of Tuscany? What is it, exactly, that compels us to voyage to far-flung places? Do we travel merely for rest and relaxation or can travel have a deeper philosophical meaning? Can sipping a cappuccino in Rome or wind-surfing in Fiji teach us something?
In his charming, incomparably insightful The Art of Travel, British philosopher Alain de Bottonsuggests traveling to new places enlarges our perspective and inspires us to think differently. Though it might seem indulgent to reserve two weeks of every year for a holiday, nothing is more vital to our mental and emotional well-being. At home, we often feel stuck: in our monotonous jobs, in our passionless marriages. Travel makes us realize we can change our lives. Just as our plane can begin on the ground but soar through the skies only a few seconds later, we can always start over. On a plane, we’re reminded anything is possible: one morning, we can wake up in gloomy grey London only to arrive eight hours later in clear, cloudless Barbados. As de Botton writes, the plane can “inspire us to imagine analogous, decisive shifts in our own lives.”
Most of the time we’re occupied with the trivial: did our neighbor across the street see when we tripped and fell? how were we going to pay this month’s credit card bill? what should we make for tonight’s dinner? why hasn’t our package arrived yet? did it get lost in the mail?
We rarely, if ever, draw things to scale. A fight about dirty dishes isn’t just another ordinary lover’s quarrel— it’s a Shakespearean tragedy filled with tragic flaws and tragic heroes. “How can my husband not wash his dish right away? He never appreciates me!” we declare melodramatically, “Maybe I should leave him. He’s a selfish pig!” If we get a flat tire on the way to work, it isn’t merely inconvenient, an unfortunate way to start the day— it’s indisputable proof that the whole universe is against us and life isn’t worth living.
But when we takeoff from San Francisco International Airport, we gain invaluable perspective. In a few minutes, the spectacular lights of the city shimmer and recede into the sea, the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge disappears behind a mysterious mist. As we climb into the sky— 5,000 feet, 10,000 feet— our lower Haight apartment gets smaller and smaller until it’s as insignificant as a period.
Among the clouds, we recover our sense of proportion. In a few days, it won’t matter that our husband was inconsiderate and forgot to wash his dish or that a flat tire made us late to an important meeting. We are one of Earth’s 7 billion inhabitants, our planet is but an inconsequential speck. Who cares if we tripped in front of our neighbor? If we ordered take out one Wednesday night instead of cooked a proper dinner? A Shakespearean tragedy is a girl gone missing or a baby dying or a genocide or a world war or a gruesome murder— not a delayed package or an overdue credit card bill. At 42,000 feet, our problems seem more surmountable.
In ancient Greece, philosophers believed there was a direct relationship between the macrocosm, the cosmos or world as a whole, and the microcosm, the individual. Similarly, de Botton asserts the outer world corresponds to our inner one. “There is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts, new places,” he writes with his trademark wit. Just as we have more “a ha” moments when we leave the customary setting of our desks, we have more novel, interesting thoughts in novel, interesting places. Wandering through an open air market in Egypt among the exotic smell of spices and incense, we can come up with more imaginative ideas than if we were simply strolling through heads of lettuce at our local supermarket.
“What ails us?” is the first question we should ask whenever we book a plane ticket. The destination we select should remedy our affliction. If we’re feeling overwhelmed by the commotion of the city, for example, we might seek out quiet places: a charming cabin nestled among California redwoods, a quaint fairy tale cottage in an English hamlet. On the other hand, if we’re feeling cramped in our tiny New York City apartment, we might journey to large landscapes: Yosemite, Muir Woods, the Grand Canyon. Under a broad blue sky, we can have broader thoughts. How can we not feel expansive in the presence of the breathtaking beauty of El Capitan, 200 foot tall sequoias, and majestic million year old red rock?
In our normal lives, we are confined to our normal identity but on a plane to Dubai or a train through the French countryside, we can get reacquainted with our authentic selves. In many ways, home limits us; as de Botton observes, “The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, but who may not be who we essentially are.”
Unlike in real life, where we’re often hurrying from one thing to the next, travel offers plenty of idle time to reflect, be it at a grand chandelier-adorned subway station in Moscow or a bus stop twenty minutes outside of Stockholm. With nothing to do but gaze outside our window, we can daydream and wonder, ponder and puzzle. Where would we most want to live if we could live anywhere in the world? What do we imagine is our purpose in life? What have we always wanted to do? Learn Italian or do the tango? Usually the din of daily life is too deafening to hear the answers but on a serene train ride through the Swiss Alps, we can finally make out the soft whispers of the true self.
With his rare ability to find meaning in the mundane, de Botton claims an unfamiliar hotel room can also free us from familiar ways of thinking. Have you ever wondered why sex in a hotel is always more satisfying? Unlike in our everyday bedroom where we’re constantly distracted by the nagging demands of domesticity— whining children, dirty dishes, dirty laundry— in a hotel room among out-of-the-ordinary objects like mini shampoo bottles, individually wrapped soaps, room service menus and paper view TV, we can rediscover our forgotten sexuality. In a new setting, we can see our husband in new ways: no longer is he a partner in the joint business of running a household or, worse, a roommate, he is our lover, our other half, our soul mate. Though we’re usually too tired to give each other a peck on the cheek, in a hotel far from home, we have the irrepressible urge to rip off each other’s clothes and kiss amorously beneath the sheets. A hotel room is an aphrodisiac that rekindles our desire, our longing. So if you want to reignite the spark in your relationship, de Botton would say, exchange handcuffs and kink for a mini bar and fresh towels in a foreign city.
Most travel guides are compendiums of top ten lists that instruct us where to go. Such books are undoubtedly helpful (after all, how else would we find the most idyllic view in Santorini or the best dim sum in San Francisco?) but they don’t teach us how to make the most of our travels. The Art of Travel is a must-have in every tourist’s backpack for the very reason that it doesn’t include definitive lists of “must see” monuments in Rome: while practical guides like Lonely Planet offer invaluable advice on what hotel to book and when to visit, de Botton’s one-of-a-kind volume illuminates why we travel, how to overcome the boredom of sightseeing, and how to preserve the fleeting beauty we encounter once we return home.
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.
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.
“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.
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:
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.”
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.”
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 interested— not 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?
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.
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.”
No 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 race— not 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 occasionally contemplate suicide. 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.”
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 for. A 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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.”