Alain de Botton on Marriage, Happiness, and Compatibility

Alain de Botton is one of my favorite modern-day writers/philosophers. This week, he has an op-ed in The New York Times titled “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.” Alain de Botton is incredibly perceptive in his interpretations and unravelings of love and happiness:

But though we believe ourselves to be seeking happiness in marriage, it isn’t that simple. What we really seek is familiarity — which may well complicate any plans we might have had for happiness. We are looking to recreate, within our adult relationships, the feelings we knew so well in childhood. The love most of us will have tasted early on was often confused with other, more destructive dynamics: feelings of wanting to help an adult who was out of control, of being deprived of a parent’s warmth or scared of his anger, of not feeling secure enough to communicate our wishes. How logical, then, that we should as grown-ups find ourselves rejecting certain candidates for marriage not because they are wrong but because they are too right — too balanced, mature, understanding and reliable — given that in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign. We marry the wrong people because we don’t associate being loved with feeling happy.

This paragraph resonates with me especially:

The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently — the person who is good at disagreement. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the “not overly wrong” person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.

For those of you unfamiliar with Alain de Botton’s other writings, I highly suggest checking out The Consolations of Philosophy and his novel, On Love. I’m looking forward to reading his latest novel, The Course of Love, when it comes out in June 2016.

Alain de Botton on Religion and Society

In the Saturday essay for The Wall Street Journal, Alain de Botton considers how religion influences society. After contemplating specific examples (such as Catholic Mass), he comes to the following conclusions:

Religion serves two central needs that secular society has not been able to meet with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in harmonious communities, despite our deeply-rooted selfish and violent impulses; second, the need to cope with the pain that arises from professional failure, troubled relationships, the death of loved ones and our own decay and demise.

Religions are a repository of occasionally ingenious concepts for trying to assuage some of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life. They merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition and for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have. They have managed to combine theories about ethics and metaphysics with practical involvement in education, fashion, politics, travel, hostelry, initiation ceremonies, publishing, art and architecture—a range of interests whose scope puts to shame the achievements of even the greatest secular movements and innovators.

It feels especially relevant to talk of meals, because our modern lack of a proper sense of community is importantly reflected in the way we eat. The contemporary world is not, of course, lacking in places where we can dine well in company—cities typically pride themselves on the sheer number and quality of their restaurants—but what’s significant is that there are almost no venues that can help us to transform strangers into friends.

He brings up an excellent point: if I go to a restaurant alone and order a sit-down meal, is it my intention to be left alone? Perhaps I want to be entertained. Perhaps I want to hear others’ stories.

The large number of people who patronize restaurants suggests that they are refuges from anonymity and coldness, but in fact they have no systematic mechanism for introducing patrons to one another, to dispel their mutual suspicions, to break up the clans into which they segregate themselves or to get them to open up their hearts and share their vulnerabilities with others. At a modern restaurant, the focus is on the food and the décor, never on opportunities for extending and deepening affections.

Patrons tend to leave restaurants much as they entered them, the experience having merely reaffirmed existing tribal divisions. Like so many institutions in the modern city (libraries, nightclubs, coffee shops), restaurants know full well how to bring people into the same space, but they lack any means of encouraging them to make meaningful contact with one another once they are there.

Which leads to de Botton to propose the following:

With the benefits of the Mass and the drawbacks of contemporary dining in mind, we can imagine an ideal restaurant of the future, an Agape Restaurant. Such a restaurant would have an open door, a modest entrance fee and an attractively designed interior. In its seating arrangement, the groups and ethnicities into which we commonly segregate ourselves would be broken up; family members and couples would be spaced apart. Everyone would be safe to approach and address, without fear of rebuff or reproach. By simple virtue of being in the space, guests would be signaling—as in a church—their allegiance to a spirit of community and friendship.

Therein, guests would be able to ask each other introspective questions–What do you regret? Whom can you not forgive? What do you fear?”–and over time, our fears of strangers would subside. This sounds like a marvelous idea.


Note: this essay is part of Alain de Botton’s newest book, Religion for Atheists, to be published in March 2012.

The University of Twitter: Alain de Botton’s Course in Political Philosophy

Today on Twitter, Alain de Botton sent eight tweets, in reverse chronological order. The topic? A short course in political philosophy. Here are the tweets:

The University of Twitter: a short course in Political Philosophy in 7 parts:

1: Plato: We should be ruled not by leaders chosen by a majority, but by those who are most intelligent.

2. St Augustine: We should not try to build paradise on earth. Aim for tolerable government, true government only possible in the next life.

3. Machiavelli: Politician must choose between serving the interests of country and the interests of Christian morality. Can’t have both.

4. Hobbes: Rulers not appointed by God, but by people and if they can’t guarantee their security, they can be legitimately kicked out.

5. Smith: The market cannot alone create a moral community. Civil society must nudge capitalists to be good through emulation and honours.

6. Karl Marx: The ‘profit’ of a capitalist is in essence theft, the stolen life and labour of the proletariat.

7. J.S. Mill: Governments should not tell people how to live, they should give them the preconditions to make their own choices.

So if you wanted to brush up on your political philosophy but didn’t want to read a textbook (or lengthy Wikipedia entries, for that matter), enjoy the above.

You may also like the quotable Alain de Botton, from his The Art of Travel.

Quotable: Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel

I finished reading Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel earlier this year, but I couldn’t come up with a good way to review the book. Instead, what I did was highlight interesting passages from the book and related them to my own travels. Below, I reproduce a post which appeared on my photoblog, Erudite Expressions, in August of 2010. The Art of Travel resonated with me strongly, and it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. I hope you find these quotes interesting as well.

We are inundated with advice on where to travel to, but we hear little of why and how we should go, even though the art of travel seems naturally to sustain a number of questions neither so simple nor so trivial, and whose study might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed eudaimonia, or ‘human flourishing’.

The above quote appears near the beginning of Alain de Botton’s excellent book, The Art of Travel. I finished reading the book earlier this year, and I’ve been meaning to share some words of wisdom for quite a while here on Erudite Expressions.

After I read that paragraph, I scribbled a note in the margin of the book (I purchase all of my books exactly for this reason: to be able to make notes): is this the thesis of the book? Because this notion is quite compelling, and requires a bit of introspection.

When people ask me to recommend where they should travel, I may be quick to blurt out a response, but the explanatory factor may take a bit more time to ponder. For me, I think walking around with my SLR and photographing the scenes around me is the single most effective method of remembering. I organize my photos by dates in my Lightroom catalog because I remembers dates easily. The photo above I captured on July 15, 2009 in Zürich, Switzerland. The actual date isn’t important; it’s just my method of organizing my travels in my head…

I am posting an image of Zürich for two reasons. First, it is the birthplace of the author Alain de Botton. But it was also my destination and departure point last year: I flew into Zürich from Atlanta, and flew from Zürich to New York City twenty-one days later. What I remember flying into the airport is picking up my luggage, taking an escalator down to the train ticket booth, and redeeming my Eurail pass. The cashier spoke flawless English, but I forgot to ask him which way I should head to catch my train to Vienna, Austria. So I came back around, stood in line the second time, to ask him another question…

I remember taking a short train ride to get to the central train station in Zürich. I actually arrived early and had the chance to catch the earlier train (departing around 11AM) to Vienna. But I had already made plans (not reservations) to catch the 2PM train, so I ended up walking around the train station, buying a super expensive bottle of Coca-Cola (it cost more than $3 after I converted Swiss Francs to dollars), going into a downstairs mall (to purchase a SIM card for my phone, which I couldn’t get to work), and finally finding some alone time on a bench where I paid to get some internet coverage so I could send out an email to friends/relatives that I was safe and sound in Europe.

I mention these seeming trivialities because of this passage in The Art of Travel:

A travel book may tell us, for example, that the narrator journey through the afternoon to reach the hill town of X and after a night in its medieval monastery awoke to a misty dawn. But we never simply ‘journey through an afternoon’. We sit in a train. Lunch digests awkwardly within us. The seat cloth is grey. We look out the window at a field. We look back inside. A drum of anxieties revolves in our consciousness. We notice a luggage label affixed to a suitcase in a rack above the seats opposite. We tap a finger on the window ledge. A broken nail on an index finger catches a thread. It starts to rain…We wonder where our ticket might be. We look back out at the field. It continues to rain. At last the train starts to move. It passes an iron bridge, after which it inexplicably stops. A fly lands on the window. And still we may have reached the end only of the first minute of a comprehensive account of the events lurking within the deceptive sentence ‘He journey through the afternoon’.

Quite lovely, no? I didn’t expect all of that to have happened in one minute, but this was a noteworthy inclusion in the text.

Are you the kind of person that tends to be gloomier or sulkier at home compared to when you’re on vacation? I wonder if this is the universal truth:

We are sad at home and blame the weather and the ugliness of the buildings, but on the tropical island we learn (after an argument in a raffia bungalow under an azure sky) that the state of the skies and the appearance of our dwellings can never on their own either underwrite our joy or condemn us to misery.

If you’ve ever traveled, did you notice how you can (or were) drawn to the mundane, the ordinary? Alain de Botton writes:

If we find poetry in the service station and the motel, if we are drawn to the airport or the train carriage, it is perhaps because, despite their architectural compromises and discomforts, despite their garish colours and harsh lighting, we implicity feel that these isolated places offer us a material setting for an alternative to the selfish ease, the habits and confinement of the ordinary, rooted world.

I wouldn’t disagree.

If you’ve been following Erudite Expressions, you will know that I love to post detail shots. Perhaps I am walking on a street and a sign catches my fancy. Or I see a peculiar street sign. Or a brick on a cobblestone road which has loosened. While these things may be inconsequential on their own, I believe that collectively they can enamor us. Alain de Botton begins one of my favorite paragraphs in the book:

Why be seduced by something as small as a front door in another country?

It is here that I pause for a moment and mention that I read The Art of Travel in 2010, long after I photographed the Doors of Prague. If you haven’t seen that photo essay, please do so: I think it represents some of my best work.


A massive door in Prague. Click on the photo to see my photo essay.

Moving on, de Botton continues:

Why fall in love with a place because it has trams and its people seldom have curtains in their homes? However absurd the intense reactions provoked by such small (and mute) foreign elements may seem, the pattern is at least familiar from our personal lives. There, too, we may find ourselves anchoring emotions of love on the way a person butters his or her bread, or recoiling at his or her taste in shoes. To condemn ourselves for these minute concerns is to ignore how rich in meaning details may be.

Wonderful perspective, with which I agree whole-heartedly.

What do you think? Have you ever thought of why you travel (or why you would recommend a certain place to someone)? How about your attention to the mundane? And the details? All of these things, as I read the book, resonated with me and what I photograph…