|Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness: Press Release|
Alain de Botton
Philosophy is rarely a subject you see on film or television. Yet for many people, philosophy can seem like an ultimate authority on life's great questions, a natural place to seek answers to the riddles of human unhappiness. It promises something at once completely naive and deeply profound; a way to change one's life for the better, to become a somewhat less disturbed, paranoid, inadequate, lovesick and panicked individual.
Philosophy is of course a vast subject, many of its practitioners are entirely unconcerned with making one feel happier, but it nevertheless seems possible to discern a small group of men, separated by centuries, who shared a loose allegiance to a single vision of philosophy suggested by the Greek etymology of the word -- philo; love, sophia; wisdom -- a group of philosophers with a common interest in saying a few consoling and practical things about the causes of our greatest griefs. Alain de Botton, the presenter and writer of this documentary series has paired six philosophers - Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche -- with six everyday problems to which he feels they are able to give most helpful and fascinating answers (unpopularity, poverty, anxiety, inadequacy, a broken heart and despair).
The idea of the programs is to show how these philosophers relate to the present day and to present their thought in a manner that is lucid, wise and above all accessible.
Alain de Botton is a popular young British philosopher, with a talent for bringing the great ideas to life and a genial manner. In designing the shows, he located six people suffering from the kinds of problems that the great philosophers had discussed. One candidate is a hair technician from Manchester. Stephen Perry spends all his money on superfluous shopping. He has dozens of watches and more shoes than Imelda Marcos. He recognizes that something is wrong, but doesn't know where to turn for help. De Botton suggested the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, much of whose work is concerned with getting us to live a simple, non-materialistic life. At a giant shopping Center in England, one of Stephen's favorite hang-outs, he is introduced to Epicurus's idea that our desire to go shopping is always caused by not having enough friends: Sort out that problem and you will stop abusing your credit card. Despite initial scepticism, Stephen gradually becomes convinced and even rather moved by Epicurus's message. He vowed to reduce his spending and listen to this wise sage of antiquity.
In another encounter, we meet a van driver for a London delivery company. Wayne Allingham has a terrible problem with anger. He once got out of his van and tried to hit a driver who hadn't signalled properly. The Roman philosopher Seneca seems to have the answer. According to Seneca, anger always arises from misplaced optimism about the world. We shout because we are both surprised and disappointed. So Seneca urges us to adopt a more pessimistic view of how other people actually behave and to meditate for half an hour every morning on the disasters we are liable to face in the day ahead - so that we will not bellow so loudly if they occur. Once we accept that people drive very badly in London, we will no longer be so prone to sudden rages when they do so. 'What need is there to shout about parts of life, the whole of it calls for tears,' wrote Seneca. Wayne takes a deep interest, he gets Seneca's books out of the library. London's roads are now a little safer thanks to a philosopher.
Making the series involved a lot of travelling. The team travelled to five different countries to track down the remains of the philosophers. In Switzerland, they went to an isolated mountain hut where Nietzsche wrote Beyond Good and Evil and Thus Spake Zarathustra. The moustachioed philosopher repeatedly compares life to a mountain; the view is great once you reach the top, but getting there requires great struggle -- a struggle which Nietzsche wishes to prepare us for. 'Whatever you survive is good for you,' as he famously put it. To illustrate the idea, the program makers climbed a gigantic mountain which Nietzsche knew and loved. It nearly killed them, they spent hours in freezing clouds, but the view was fabulous from the top, bringing home with an intensity a truth that they would never have felt in a library.
In Athens, to illustrate Socrates's view that most of us are like sheep (but shouldn't be), the de Botton drives a yellow motorcycle through a flock of sheep. In France, to illustrate Montaigne's point that animals are often cleverer than human, he delivers his argument in a pig pen during which he is almost attacked by an enormous muddy creature.
'Philosophers should not spend all of their lives alone in their studies,' suggested Seneca, they should bring philosophy into the streets and the market places. Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness shows what can happen when they go out and about with a camera.
Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness is a KQED presentation. It is distributed to public television stations by American Public Television (APT).