In a recent video, “How the Modern World Makes Us Mentally Ill”, philosopher Alain de Botton and his “School of Life” team diagnose six problems with current-day society. De Botton clearly has a talent for putting his finger on the sore spots of society and communicating those clearly. But is his analysis profound enough, and are his solutions fulfilling?
The video begins by stating that modernity is geared to causing a high background level of anxiety, and a widespread low level of depression. It goes on to point out six features of modern society and corresponding cures. Let me sketch out the key ideas.
The first feature is meritocracy. Even though it is nice to have success attributed to you, the downside to meritocracy is that it implies that a lack of success is due to a lack of talent or laziness. Those who fail are not unfortunate, but are losers. The cure that de Botton proposes is a culturally endorsed belief in luck, which implies that success does not just depend on talent and effort. Tragedy does happen; good, decent people can fail and deserve compassion rather than contempt.
The second is individualism. This promises everyone a special destiny and abhors conforming to a group and being “ordinary” — but in practice it leads most people to be freakish failures. De Botton’s cure is a “cult of the good, ordinary life”, and proper appreciation of the pleasures, and quiet heroism of the everyday.
The third feature is secularism. Because secularist societies cease to believe in anything that is bigger than or beyond themselves, there is nothing to keep our petty ways and status battles in perspective. Our triumphs and mishaps end up feeling like the most important thing that ever happened. The proposed cure would involve regularly using sources of transcendence to generate a benign, relativizing perspective on our personal sorrows. According to de Botton, music, the stars at night, the vast spaces of the desert or of the ocean can humble and console us all.
The fourth is romanticism. This philosophy tells us that each one has one very special person out there who can make us completely happy. The experience of many people, however, is very different: most people are in “moderately bearable relationships”, with someone who is very nice in a few ways, and pretty difficult in many others. The original hopes for complete happiness make this reality feel like a disaster. The cure the video proposes is to realize that we didn’t go wrong, but were just encouraged to believe in a very improbable dream. Instead we should build up our relationships around friendship and non-sexual love.
The fifth is the media. It routinely directs our attention to things that scare, worry, panic, and enrage us, while denying us agency or any chance for effective personal action. It exposes the least admirable sides of human nature, without a balancing exposure to normal good intentions, responsibility and decency. It can even edges us towards mob justice. The cure would be news that focused on presenting solutions rather than generating outrage, that presents the systemic problems rather than emphasizing scapegoats. We could also use reminding that the news we most need comes from our own lives and direct experiences.
Sixth and last is perfectibility. Modern societies stress that it is within our remit to be profoundly content, sane, and accomplished. As a result, we end up loathing ourselves, feeling weak, and sensing we’ve wasted our lives. A cure would be a culture that endlessly promotes the idea that perfection is not within our grasp. That being mentally slightly (and at points very) unwell, is an inescapable part of the human condition, and that what we need above all are good friends with whom we can sit and honestly discuss our real fears and vulnerabilities.
De Botton concludes that we deserve tender pity for the price we have to pay for being born in modern times. But he says cures are now open to us if we distinguish with sufficient clarity the true sources of our anxieties and sorrows.
The deeper problem
In his video, de Botton does an admirable job at pointing out some very real problems in a very accessible way. The solutions he proposes, including friendship and the acceptance of our limitations, are also commonsensical (I mean that as a compliment) and, to a degree, wise. Still, what about the desires for greatness that people find in their hearts, and that have in some sense been the motor of the modern age? Is the “quiet heroism of the everyday” all we may legitimately aspire to? Isn’t de Botton just teaching us to be mediocre?
The human being has often been portrayed as having three inseparable dimensions, that of the hand, the head, and the heart: what we do, what we think and want, and how we relate to other persons. The modern age has had a tendency to “absolutize” these dimensions. The starting points are secularism and perfectibility: there is nothing beyond ourselves, and we can make ourselves into accomplished human beings. Then meritocracy absolutizes what we do (hands), individualism absolutizes what we think and want (head), and romanticism absolutizes our relationships to other human persons (heart).
Finally, the media is an instrument to disclose the failures of others to live up to these ideals — without offering solutions. De Botton is right that we’re in a rut. But what is the underlying problem?
American philosopher Eric Voegelin gives more insight with his famous geeky phrase “don’t immanentize the eschaton”, which in normal language means: don’t try to establish heaven on earth. This phrase is central to Voegelin’s critique of totalitarian systems. But as we see here, modern thought and society in general should heed this warning. If we try to establish heaven on earth by perfecting our hands, heads, and hearts by ourselves, the sure result is failure and disillusionment.
The deeper solution
The solution de Botton seems to offer for our predicament is to accept our failure, have pity on ourselves and on others in the same situation, support each other as friends, adjust our expectations, and learn to live with our imperfect selves. The only greatness we can aspire to is the “quiet heroism of everyday”. And this solution, at least, gives heed to Voeglin’s call: he does not aim to establish paradise on earth in any way. And that is wise. But how satisfying is it if things stay there?
If there is really nothing big to aspire to, the question “so what?” looms large. “What is it all for?” becomes a real problem. If there is no real answer, nihilism — say, as indicated by the French existentialists — lurks just around the corner.
The great paradox about humanity is that we do have desires for greatness within us. The greatness of the Christian religion that has animated the Western world for centuries, is that it gives us hope that we can actually attain this greatness.
What modernity has done is take this hope and direct it towards earthly things. And that misdirection, in truth, as de Botton sees, makes us very unhappy. Still, as I explain here in my own video, the desire for greatness is very strong in us, and points towards a transcendence that goes beyond the music, stars, and vast spaces of ocean and desert that de Botton mentions. Is it really a wise thing to renounce this great desire for deep fulfilment?
As I write this piece, the Western world celebrates the feast of the ascension of Jesus into heaven. Perhaps this — somewhat forgotten — feast is what modernity needs most. Only if we follow Jesus’ movement and direct our gaze to heaven again will we be able to see that developing our hands, minds, and hearts, are not goals in themselves. Rather, they are aspects of a road that we need to travel together, as friends, supporting one another.
This friendship need not have the character of mutual pity and sad support in misery, but rather that of joyful expectation. The road may be long and arduous, and the people traveling it are in no way perfect, nor will we expect them to be. But together we have the hope of reaching the greatness that will fulfill all our desires. This fulfilment will be a gift from above that we need to strive to receive. And if we accept Jesus’ gift here on earth we will receive it, but fully only in heaven, not on earth.
So is de Botton’s school a school of mediocrity? It currently is, and therefore runs the risk of leading people to nihilism. But this need not happen – if it opens up to Christian hope.
Daan van Schalkwijk writes from the Netherlands. He teaches biology at a university in Amsterdam and is the director of Leidenhoven College, a collegiate hall of residence. Visit his blog, Science and Beyond.