The Consolations of Philosophy

James Delingpole in The Spectator, 8 April 2000

If Alain de Botton weren’t a friend of mine, I think I would probably hate him. In fact, I know I would hate him because even when he wasn’t as disgustingly famous and successful as he is now, I found myself loathing his guts on principle. I hated the fact that he was always on Tatler’s 100 most eligible bachelors list; that he’d had two awesomely well-received, nauseatingly precocious novels published by the time he was 25; that he was younger, more intelligent, better looking and a zillion times richer than me . . .

Then, one day, I got to meet him and discovered that he was even worse than I’d feared: not only was he brilliant, handsome, youthful and rich, but the bastard was charming, modest and impossibly likeable too. I realised then that the only way of dealing with such a monster was to tame it and make it my friend. So we arranged to have tea at Fortnum & Mason’s where we bonded so well that for days after I silently congratulated myself on my sublime genius: ‘That Alain de Botton’s no fool. If he likes me, it must mean I’m pretty damned wonderful.’

One of the good things about being Alain de Botton’s friend is that in literary circles you can refer to him casually in conversation as ‘Alain’ and people tend to be quietly impressed, rather as they would in Hollywood circles if you started dropping Christian names like Bobby, Marty or Quentin. Another is that when you hear him performing brilliantly on Start The Week, or discover he’s written another masterpiece or that he’s a total natural on TV, you don’t think ‘tosser!’ Rather, you root for him all the way.

I suppose now that I’ve said all that, you’re not going to take seriously my remarks about his wonderful new TV series Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness (Channel 4, Sunday). But, let me assure you, there are few things that make me more uncomfortable than heaping undue praise on the work of friends. If I hadn’t liked the series, I would have found an excuse not to review it. (And, for the record, I found the recent TV adaptation of his How Proust Can Change Your Life ineffably tedious, so there.) Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness, though, is great. In theory, it sounds like yet another example of TV’s relentless dumbing down. Each week, de Botton takes the work of a great philosopher, strips it down to a few handy soundbites and suggests how it might still be considered – ugh! – relevant to the modern world: how Seneca can cure road rage, for example. In practice, though, it’s astonishingly clever and illuminating. Just as How Proust Can Change Your Life managed to make you feel not only that you really understood Proust but that you were now ready to tackle his oeuvre for real, so it is with de Botton’s introduction to the great philosophers. You no longer see them as daunting figures whose work you’re far too old and stupid to try comprehending now, but as wise old friends whom you’d very much like to get to know better.

Yes, I’m sure I must once have learned – and then swiftly forgotten – that Seneca was Nero’s tutor and that he met his end with admirable dignity. But never before have I heard his life and work described so succinctly and sympathetically. On location in Rome, de Botton explained how Seneca’s philosophy was born of its context: a world so riddled with treachery, cruelty and random violence that you woke up fully prepared for the possibility that this day would be your last.

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