Saturday, June 12, 2004

The consolations of philosophy

I've been watching Alain de Bottan's Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness on Saturday mornings for the past month, and lamenting the fact that it doesn't have a better time slot. It's excellent TV - educational, witty, and encourages you to think - but condemned to obscurity becase of its timing (after Willie Jackson, for Christ's sake!)

Now I see that TV One is showing his other series, Status Anxiety, during primetime on Thursday nights, and I'm eagerly anticipating it. I should also read the book some time, but my reading list just gets longer and longer...

As for Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness, it's been interesting viewing. De Bottan focuses on philosophers that aren't normally a part of the traditional academic curriculum, mainly because he's interested in people that give actual, useful advice about the practicalities of how to lead a relatively happy and fulfilling life. Anyone who's stdied philosophy at university will know that this isn't what you look at - instead, it's all about epistemology, the study of language, general theories of ethics or how the mind works. Academic philosophers simply aren't interested in something so mundane as practical advice on being happy - that's the domain of (sneer) self-help manuals, not a respectable subject for academic inquiry.

Which is interesting, because Socrates was the original self-help writer (though he never wrote anything down, and his advice can be boiled down to "start thinking"). His core question was about "how we ought to live" - and not just in the sense of how to lead an ethical life, but also how to lead a happy one. But somewhere along the way, philosophers have decided that that question just isn't very interesting (or nowdays, that you can't publish any papers on it), and so have wandered off to ask about other things instead.

Not that I'm really complaining, because I think that questions of political theory, logic and ethics really are more interesting anyway. Or at least, certainly require a little more thought. One thing that you really notice about the people Bottan talks about is that most of the time they're reminding us of what we already know. Montaigne said that happiness is about being comfortable with yourself. Seneca said that unhappiness (and anger in particular) was a matter of frustrated expectations. And Epicurus said that friends are more important than money. This is pretty much folk wisdom, stuff your mother tells you when you're four, and the fact that we need books or TV shows to remind us of it simply shows how fucked up most of us are.