Tag Archives: Alain de Botton

Good News, Bad News

21 Mar

What we are given is not ‘the’ news, just ‘some‘ news.
– Alain de Botton

Sometimes the news can be plain tiring. It can feel like a constant roller coaster of fear mongering, being nasty to famous people, and vested interests pushing their views. Worse still, is the power the press wields over most politicians and their choices, essentially subverting our democracy. And the way some stories are prioritised over others is beyond me.

Innocent Or Guilty?

Pretty near the top of my list of problems is the way the media wields its power over people’s lives. While I am a staunch advocate of free speech, the British media is irresponsible in the way it vilifies people, particularly those accused of certain crimes. Publicising allegations of sexual or violent crimes forever tarnishes someone’s reputation. There are many examples of people whose lives have been ruined by such allegations, Christopher Jefferies being a sad example. There are too many other heartbreaking stories like this.

Alas mob rule is alive and well. Trial by media does occur and people’s lives are ruined by this. We have a fundamental rule in decent societies, that being “innocent until proven guilty“. We erode this at our collective cost.

The libel laws in this country may not be perfect but they are there for a good reason. Once a person’s reputation is ruined, so is their life; it can affect their job, their family and can exact a heavy psychological toll. In other more civilised countries, the press is not allowed to publicise allegations until a guilty verdict has been passed. Yes, people who transgress society’s rules may be held up to public view, but only if those accusations have been proved. I think people accused of serious crimes, particularly sexual crimes, should remain anonymous, as otherwise they are already punished, regardless of the final verdict.

The Leveson enquiry demonstrates very well the parlous state of the British press. Hugh Grant summed it up best in his statement. He easily demolishes the arguments many papers have for treating famous people like shit, doing things like breaking into people’s homes, or publishing false accusations about people and ruining their lives. Arguments such as “it’s in the public interest“: I have no interest what a politician does in his private life, much less a golfer. It’s none of my business and is certainly not in the interest of this member of the public. Such prurient attitudes belong in backward religious circles, not in real life. He ably dismisses the poor argument that all celebrities need the publicity good and bad, pointing out “for most people I know who are branded ‘celebrities’, the celebrity was not the end [in] itself. Those people do exist, but I would argue that they are in the minority. Most so-called ‘celebrities’ are just people who happened to become singers, or actors, or footballers, or whatever, and then also happened – through luck sometimes, but also sometimes hard work or talent – to become successful.

Sometimes I have the feeling the press sees a successful person, and are just waiting, like vultures, to pounce once they make the slightest mistake.

News vs Opinion

In the news, there is ostensibly a split between reports that inform us and opinion pieces. However when you start to look at news stories, the bias is usually fairly blatant. This can be seen in two ways.

First you see how different newspapers report the same story: a news story about Europe, for example, would be reported in a right-wing newspaper as another example of why the UK should leave the EU, and a left-leaning paper would hail it as another reason why staying in Europe is good for the UK.

Given how the same story can be reported so differently, I try to read papers and websites from different parts of the political spectrum, so I can get a clearer view of what is happening, and hopefully better understand the biases of all sides.

The second, more insidious way we see this is in the subtle use of language. When talking about a government supported by the West, say Israel or Saudi Arabia, reporters will talk about the president of the country, the secretary of state for defense and so on. But if it’s not currently in favour, then reports will talk of the ruler of the regime and his lieutenants.

I just saw one today: usually an American claim to be fighting terrorism is taken at face value, whereas when China made the same statement today, the word terrorism was used in quotes, implying they were using the word as a fig leaf to cover more nefarious behaviour. This was on the Al Jazeera English website which is usually a little better with that kind of thing.

Will Hutton says that the press “are not disinterested guardians of the public good. They, too, have political and social agendas. Nor are they guaranteed to behave ethically and professionally. Moreover, private power has become steadily more potent, more unaccountable and more willing than ever to exert overt political force“. He says their argument is not for “press freedom” but for “arbitrary press power“. The press clearly need to be regulated, and not by themselves!

Alternatives

There are people that see the negativity, and the destructive nature of much of the press and they have responded well.

Russell Howard’s Good News is a satirical comedy show with a happier-than-usual look at the news. It is ended each week with a piece called It’s Not All Doom And Gloom, which regularly shows some of the most beautiful and heart warming stories you’ll hear. I’ve often shed a tear watching them.

The Metro newspaper’s Good Deed Feed is a wonderful way for people to say thank you for the kindness of strangers in London, such as making sure lost wallets get back to their owners intact, or helping someone who has fallen over. When I read it I am genuinely inspired. Small acts of kindness can make a bigger difference than we realise.

There are websites that only publish positive news stories, such as Good Mood News. There are others too, one of which has a great quote from Dostoevsky:

Man is fond of counting his troubles, but he does not count his joys. If he counted them up as he ought to, he would see that every lot has enough happiness provided for it.

While nice story websites are encouraging and heart-warming, it seems they’re missing something. I’m not sure simply ignoring the bad stuff really addresses the problem. I wrote this post a year ago, but wasn’t so happy with these alternatives.

Until…

Man Writes Book

Step forward Alain de Botton. He wrote a book. In this lecture he gives an excellent overview of the book. I was nodding along and agreeing with him when I watched it. I appreciate he couldn’t hear me.

Two cool things came out of his book.

First, he wrote an excellent website, News Therapy, which gives good answers to a lot of the problems we feel when we consume news. I recommend you go see and click around.

Second, he and some philosopher friends have started up the Philosopher’s Mail, which I now read regularly. It’s a “news” website, where they write articles about the news stories of the day, however vacuous they may seem, but apply their philosophical wisdom to draw out encouraging and illuminating points about the human condition. They write stories about Taylor Swift’s legs and the queen, yet make rather profound statements about life, the universe and everything. And all in a nicely bite-sized and digestible format. You’ll notice it’s taking the mick out of the Daily Mail, parodying its style.

He saysFor too long, philosophers have been happy merely to be wise and right. This has offered them huge professional satisfaction but it has not influenced the course of society. The average work of philosophy currently reaches 300 people.” And now he has a much larger readership with this new project.

My favourite one this week is apt to this discussion: “Mean journalism has traded the truth for the satisfactions of cheap insult. … The only fruitful way to proceed is to be ‘nice’: not in the sense of naive sentimentality but in the sense of wanting to enter into the mindset of another person, even one who deeply challenges your beliefs….we’ve unfortunately confused being nice with a couple of things we rightly fear: being naive and being weak. Listening carefully to what someone says, trying to see the world through their eyes, this has nothing at all to do with agreement.

They say that their aim is to be “nice’ with a purpose: to get to the truth. Meanness merely confirms prejudice. Niceness is a better scalpel.

Oh, and watch out for their weekend edition.

That’s it.

Have a nice day.

Art As Therapy by Alain de Botton

26 Feb
Soleil Levant by Monet

Soleil Levant by Monet

Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.

– David Hume

Being a long time fan of Alain de Botton I jumped at the chance to see him talk on a new subject – Art As Therapy. His previous work has been fun to read and often helpful, and given I know very little about art, this is an interesting concept where I could learn some new things.

His idea is that “art is ultimately a therapeutic medium, just like music. It, too, is a vehicle through which we can do such things as recover hope, dignify suffering, develop empathy, laugh, wonder, nurture a sense of communion with others and regain a sense of justice and political idealism“.

Grand claims.

He added that some of the consolation that people previously found in religion can be found in art.

He says that this can be achieved using “a psychological method that invites us to align our deeper selves with artworks“.

After a fairly short introduction to this approach, he dived right into interpreting paintings, pottery and the like, making some excellent points with his psychological and philosophical interpretations, and I enjoyed hearing them.

However I found I had a real blocker with this approach. I actually wrote a comment on his Facebook page, on a post where he’d ‘interpreted’ some art, hoping to get some help with my problem. Here’s a snippet:

Alain,

I’m one of the 96.5% you referred to on Friday night, that don’t ‘get’ art, in the way that those ‘in the know’ apparently do. Sure I appreciate the colours and shapes, the aesthetics of a picture. I also appreciate when a picture is skilfully produced.

I did enjoy your pithy aphorisms when looking through the works of art. But when you showed the Korean jug, I just saw a badly made jug – I didn’t extrapolate the commentary on the imperfections of human nature. Again the two-tone picture by a Japanese sounding artist from which you drew parallels to our human perspectives was a nice comment, but I just didn’t get it from the picture.

If we could all have our own mini-Alain to take around galleries with us then we could derive such consolation and insight from art. Otherwise it feels that – rather than drawing out from the works deep meanings intended by the artists – you’re projecting your philosophical and psychological expertise and experience onto the artworks.

Hence I could gain way more insight and consolation from an essay, a chat with a friend, or one of your books, than I could from a picture…

Alas the picture was taken down and the comments with it, even though I got quite a few likes beforehand!

I guess part of the problem is the certainty; he often phrases comments as if he’s telling us what the picture is saying, rather than what it might be saying. It’s blatantly subjective, because there could be plenty of alternative interpretations.

The other part of the problem is, as I say above, that contrary to the famous phrase that “a picture speaks a thousand words“, I disagree, and find I can gain so much more from words than a picture.

Now before I go any further, I should be clear – I’m not really into art. I think the Mona Lisa is crap, and find most art galleries exceptionally dull. I’ve been to loads of galleries including the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, Prado, Musée de l’Orangerie, Tate, Vatican and the National Gallery and not found too many artworks that make me look twice.

But then I came to a bit of a eureka moment when idly jotting notes for this post. I was writing down what I thought of the few pieces of art that I have enjoyed, and some interesting things started to come out. Amusingly, it seems in writing this post, that maybe I’ve started to get what Alain is on about. Here you go:

Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel

Part of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel

Even though I am not that ‘into art’, I have found an occasional piece that I really enjoy looking at. I can appreciate the technical prowess of some art works: say the Sistine Chapel. I was very impressed when I realised what looked like three-dimensional pillars with sculptures on them, were in fact just a part of the painting. I can appreciate the accuracy and detail in Canaletto’s painting of Venice.

Aesthetically, I appreciate beautiful landscapes, especially impressionist ones. I suppose an art aficionado might turn up their nose at such a populist viewpoint. But then I don’t really care.

I really like Monet – I’ve got Soleil Levant hanging up in my living room. But it took me being pissed in a pub in Edinburgh for this painting to catch my eye. Alain did argue strongly that the context in which we usually see art, namely galleries, is not conducive to getting the best out of art.

Monet's Bathers at La Grenouillère

Monet’s Bathers at La Grenouillère

Since then I’ve seen Monet’s stuff in four or five different galleries and I love staring at it. I think it’s something about the way that with really simple brush strokes he can project a quite complex and beautiful image. Perhaps part of it is that I, as an observer, fill in the gaps. Just pondering it now, in the light of Alain’s approach, perhaps I like it because one of my primary joys in my work is to solve a complex problem with something very simple, elegant and easy to understand. Or perhaps it’s just a coincidence. His pictures certainly look nice.

I was stopped short by one image of Jesus on the cross in the Prado. Usually they show a chilled out dude looking all holy with a bit of a glow, but this one showed the agony of a man being tortured to death. The realism was good, though I suspect what drew me is that the artist was able to break a taboo.

Goya's Dog

Goya’s Dog

The only other one that really made me look twice in the Prado was Goya’s painting of a dog. For some reason this forlorn looking fellow, looking lost against the vastness of it all, stood out to me. Perhaps because that’s how I can feel when I contemplate the vastness of time.

So perhaps it is possible for someone like me to get something out of this method. But given the thousands of artworks I’ve seen, compared to the handful I’ve enjoyed, it’s pretty hard work.

If you want to explore the idea further, check out his website . I’ll be interested to hear your views on the way he interprets the art.

If you’re interested to ponder on questions such as what is art, and what is art for, then I recommend Grayson Perry’s excellent attempt at answering them in last year’s Reith Lectures.

Essays in Love by Alain De Botton

2 Aug

Essays In LoveAnother good read from the practical philosopher Alain de Botton.

I would have called this An Anatomy of Love.

It’s a story of love with a gently philosophical explanation of the stages of a relationship.

If you’re going to read this book don’t read the next paragraph – from my perspective it’s better to read it without knowing what’s coming, to enjoy the story for what it is with no expectations.

It is essentially a story of love, from start to end. I empathised with most of the facets of his love story: the irrationality and idealism with which the loved one is initially perceived, despite the randomness of the meeting; what beauty is; what you think of during sex; the dropping of boundaries so that each person takes on the personality traits of the other; the pain of heartbreak.

And the ending is just perfect.

In some ways I would hesitate to recommend this to someone in a relationship. I suspect it is more suited to someone who has recently broken up. It may not offer answers, but the knowledge that others have experienced the same as you is helpful.

(And if it doesn’t work, then Mr Minchen’s fine tune will undoubtedly put things into perspective!)

That said, people in a relationship often make assumptions based on their parental influences, and put hope in feelings, but don’t understand the work required to keep it healthy, so this book can be seen as a helpful way to understand the different aspects of a lover’s relationship – both the good and the bad.

So I didn’t find it revelatory, but it’s a an enjoyable and easy read.

I’ve read a few of Alain de Botton’s books and you can see other reviews here.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain De Botton

23 Jul

Alain de Botton

Alain De Botton is a great chap who makes philosophy accessible, and relevant to everyday life. He not only does this with his books and lectures, but also through his School of Life which “runs courses in the important questions of everyday life” about “things we all tend to care about: careers, relationships, politics, travels, families“.

This book is a fun read, and surprisingly quite a page turner. It’s not a profound philosophical treatise or psychological exposition, rather an almost whimsical insight into different careers.

Alain describes a group of people in different types of work, from boring office work, through aviation and entrepreneurship, to a chap that designs electricity pylons. And that last one was fascinating: did you know that 2/3 of the London power supply comes from one nuclear station on the coast, along a 175km line of cable, which is made up of 69 aluminium strands, configured in the so-called cowslip formation?

cowslip formationWhat Alain perfectly described was the joy of someone who genuinely loved his work. This guy even went on holidays trekking along the routes of major power lines. A geek in the best sense of the word.

At first it seems as if he’s just describing different kinds of jobs. And he is. But there are plenty of gems in there if you look for them. The painter was a fascinating case – a dude that painted a tree. The same tree. Again and again for years. “Have you ever noticed water? Properly noticed it, I mean – as if you had never seen it before?

Or the career counsellor: “It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.

Alain is so good at writing he’s able to bring these different jobs to life. Which is the point really. It doesn’t matter what you do – doing something that is ‘you’ to the best of your ability, and loving it is what’s important. It’s about living. Pointless though it may seem in the grander scheme of things, it does matter from your perspective. So embrace it.

Here is a sample of just how good his writing is:

The man was evidently disinclined by nature to pay extravagant compliments, for when he finally spoke, it was to say ‘Fuck off‘ again with a resolve which his previous riposte had perhaps lacked – to which sentiment he then added, lest there remain any ambiguity, ‘Get the hell out of here before I shoot you in the ass.'”

Religion For Atheists

14 Mar

Alain de Botton gave an excellent lecture at the LSE describing what atheists can take from religion. It was drawn from his latest book.

So he says that he used to be the kind of atheist that wanted to convince the religious against their mistaken choice to believe. Since then he’s moved to a position of looking to some of the positives of religion and making use of them. He says that religion bought good, useful and enlightening things to mankind. He said religions could be regarded as works of culture and drawn from selectively, as we draw on different writers from enlightenment or entertainment.

He explained how religion dealt in things high culture ignored – how to live, how to die, how to have a good life. In short religions were not just about ideas, but dealt in “a total integration of the needs of the human body.”

Some of the key points are:
– organisation
In a church we have people from different walks of life, equalised given they’re all there for the same reason / under an alpha male / under a god. This variety gives great advantage and power to a group; it gives them influence and ability to achieve more things together, and so on.

learning
The inculcation involved in meeting weekly or more to hear the same ideas strengthens the group views repeatedly putting important facts / principles back in your mind that you would otherwise forget. This method should be considered more, given there are so many important things we may learn over our lives but may forget if we don’t return to them. This leads into the next useful idea

ritual
Religions have rituals and annual traditions to focus on important things. For example Alain described (I think) a Japanese festival where people will look at the moon and contemplate the fragility of life. Then eat a rice cracker.

The discussion after the lecture was very interesting. Here are some of the key points that came out:

Changing the mind of a religious person using rational argument may not work as that is not usually the way they arrive at their beliefs in the first place.

Some say this approach may be cherry picking; shouldn’t you take a religion all or nothing? His answer is “yes I’m cherry picking and why not”? One doesn’t have to believe all Shakespeare says to still find some useful things in there. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. In fact, my own view is that all religious people must pick and choose which parts of their religion to believe or use – whether cultural or from their text – due to the myriad contradictions therein, and the moral issues in following many of the millennial old rules, so a religious person does this them self. Whether they may admit that is another question.

Others may not want to go anywhere near such ideas as they dislike religion as they feel they may somehow be tainted by it. This does not have to be the case. Of course this may be much harder for someone with a personal history in the religious world, say, a woman from Saudi Arabia.

It’s also worth noting that religion took many of its traditions from other sources and appropriated them as their own, so they don’t necessarily have a unique claim to many of these ideas.

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