Amy Collins: How would you describe your work to someone who had never read or heard about it?
Alain de Botton: I like to think through some of the big questions that bother us all, in a style that's personal, sometimes witty and reflexive. I've written about love, sex, marriage, money, status, travel and architecture – always on the look out for ideas that can make us feel less alone, confused and desperate.
AC: Tell me what The School of Life is to you. What do you want people to get out of it?
AdB: The School of Life is a place where you might drop in for some lessons or conversation around some of the great questions of everyday life. We look at such dilemmas as: why is it so hard to make relationships work? What makes for a satisfying job? We deliver courses that get people talking to one another and learning insights from the greatest minds in cultural history.
It is art, philosophy, religion and history that should guide us as the biblical books once did. Culture is the next best thing we have to a religion – yet the universities insist on hiding its riches from us. On the menu at The School of Life, you won’t find subjects like ‘philosophy’ or ‘French’. You’ll find courses in ‘Death’, ‘Marriage’, ‘Ambition’, ‘Child Rearing’ or ‘Changing Your World’. Along the way, you’ll learn about a lot of the books and ideas that traditional universities serve up, but you’ll come away with a different take on the world.
The School of Life is our modest attempt to alter the way that learning gets done in this country – and to remind us that culture, if handled rightly, should actually feel entirely relevant and exciting and always make life more manageable and interesting.
AC: You’ve spoken of wisdom, direction and culture as being important in The School of Life’s offering. How do the courses aim to do this?
AdB: We spread before people some of the most penetrating ideas on a particular problem. The idea is to be non-prescriptive but helpful, and to guide the audience to a slightly more fruitful way of approaching their dilemmas.
AC: What made you want to open The School of Life in Melbourne?
AdB: Australians are extremely curious about everything psychological – and have a keen eye for things that will improve their lives. In London, The School of Life always has a crowd of Australians, so it seemed a natural place to expand. Also, we found a terrific partner in the social enterprise, Small Giants, who have built and are running the school for us.
AC: Which course are you most excited about at The School of Life?
AdB: The courses tend to revolve around the two greatest themes: love and work. We all have problems in these areas on a fairly reliable basis – or at least I do!
AC: Your first book was about love; can you tell me what love means to you?
AdB: Love is a sense of deep sympathy for and interest in the life of another person. It's recognition of a lot of similarities and compatibilities. It’s based around admiration and respect. It’s very rare – and very precious.
AC: Do you believe in love at first sight?
AdB: I believe in intense hope and desire at first sight – but it can take another year or two to know if it really was love.
AC: As a non-believer, I find your work on religion fascinating. I know you like elements of religious teachings like community building and forgiveness. What drew you to making these connections to the religious world for non-believers?
AdB: In my new book, Religion for Atheists, I argue that believing in God is, for me as for many others, not possible. At the same time, I want to suggest that if you remove this belief, there are dangers that open up. For a start, there is the danger of individualism: placing the human being at the centre of everything. And, without God, there can be a danger that the need for empathy and ethical behaviour can be overlooked.
It is important to stress that it’s possible to believe in nothing and remember these vital lessons (just as one can be a deep believer and a monster). I’m simply wanting to draw attention to some of the gaps when we dismiss God too brusquely. By all means, we can dismiss him, but with great sympathy, nostalgia, care and thought.
AC: Your work often pushes the boundaries of what people expect, or what they are currently open to. Have you experienced much negativity towards your approach?
AdB: Sure, I have been called all sorts of names. In the age of Twitter and social media, once you put your head above the parapet, anything can happen.
AC: What’s your number one trick for making today better?
AdB: Always think the worst and then you will be surprised by anything that goes right. My favourite philosophical maxim is by the French writer Chamfort: “A man must swallow a toad every morning to be sure of not meeting with anything more disgusting in the day ahead.” So toad cereal all around…
The School of Life will open on Saturday January 26 and the Summer Term Program will run until Sunday March 24. For more information and to book classes, head to the website.