Is the Idea of an Intelligent Self-Help Book a Paradox?
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This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Is the very idea of an intelligent self-help book a paradox? It is certainly trying to serve two demanding masters: philosophical speculation and practical action. After all, readers don’t pick up self-help books just to ruminate on life’s dilemmas, but to be guided to solutions. The new series of self-help books published by the London-based School of Life, co-founded by the Swiss-born popular philosopher Alain de Botton, echoes the school’s lofty approach to problems, claiming to be “intelligent, rigorous, well-written new guides to everyday living.” Yet to peruse the School of Life’s calendar of classes is to fall into a vortex of jargon pitched somewhere between the banal banter of daytime talk shows and the schedule for a nightmarish New Age retreat: “How to Have Better Conversations,” “How to Realise Your Potential,” “Developing a Compassionate Mind: One Day Intensive,” “Philosophy Slam,” “Learning How to Say No,” “Getting Better at Online Dating,” “ Resilience: One Day Workshop.” Before long, I was ready to sign up for “How to Stay Calm.”
De Botton himself is a divisive, if not easily dismissed, public intellectual. The author of bestselling books about many of the broad topics the School of Life curriculum covers — love, work, religion, happiness, and philosophy itself — de Botton is often accused of being a purveyor of Philosophy Lite (see, for example, Victoria Beale’s January 3, 2013, attack on him in The New Republic, “ How to Be a Pseudo-Intellectual”). His works are securely aimed at the insecure middlebrow reader, the kind of person who knows that Proust can change her life but maybe would rather read about how Proust can change her life than slog through seven life-changing volumes. Indeed, there is something ersatz, if not quite fraudulent, about de Botton’s entire intellectual enterprise: he often seems like a grad student who shows up to seminar having done just enough of the reading to participate by jumping on other people’s comments, but who never makes an original observation of his own. He is constantly quoting and alluding to great figures — Jane Austen, John Stuart Mill, Stendhal, and Freud, among others, all get name-dropped in his self-help book, How To Think More About Sex (about which more below) — but he tends to meander and summarize after a quotation rather than using it to drive his own argument forward.
De Botton has, however, up until recently, been a great champion of philosophy as a way to work through life’s conundrums. His The Consolations of Philosophy (2000) is a charming and, in its own way, useful book that dissects the lives and ideas of major philosophers like Socrates and Nietzsche and applies them to everyday problems like “unpopularity” and “difficulties.” De Botton claims in Consolations that it is possible to “take on a task at once both profound and laughable: to become wise through philosophy.” In this he has positioned himself in a long line of thinkers about the care and maintenance of the self, such that the editing and writing of “intelligent self-help books” would not seem like such a stretch.
Yet the real issue with de Botton’s new book, and the others in the How To series, is not simply a lack of depth but one of purpose: they are certainly shallow in their philosophy, but they are not particularly useful either. The books are combination platters of soft science, anecdotal case studies (some real, some fictional), and exercises or suggestions about steps the reader could take to further his or her goal. Along with de Botton’s volume purporting to inspire more (but not deeper, note) thought about sex, the School of Life series includes How to Stay Sane, by Philippa Perry; How to Change the World, by John-Paul Flintoff; and How to Find Fulfilling Work, by Roman Krznaric. Krznaric’s volume is by far the most successful, perhaps because he is the only one of the authors who does not seem embarrassed by either his topic or the means of treating it. Perry, a psychotherapist, and Flintoff, a journalist, retain a tone like they should be doing their work by more highfalutin means. And de Botton’s book makes an enraging little study (all the books clock in at around 200 pages) of contemporary assumptions about sex, marriage, and relationships, regarded strictly from the point of view of a bored, married, middle-aged man who maybe dabbles in philosophy and fancies himself an intellectual. It’s like being hit on by a paunchy, balding European guy at an office party who tries to seduce you with, well, quotes from Jane Austen and Stendhal, and empty proclamations about the place of sex, marriage, and relationships in contemporary society.