Since his first book in 1993, Alain de Botton has become the figurehead of what we might call ‘popular philosophy,’ with some of his books selling over two million copies each. In serious philosophical circles he may not be taken as seriously as he might hope, but the commonly heard defence is that de Botton’s work bridges the gap between philosophy and the popular, making philosophy accessible to the masses. Of course, ‘masses’ here refers to a quite particular strand of bourgeois reader, but that discussion is for elsewhere. What we want to suggest here is that the appeal of Alain de Botton is found somewhere else entirely. De Botton’s philosophy is popular because it indulges (and indeed takes part in the production of) the role that melancholy plays in contemporary society: as a form of narcissistic self-affirmation.
De Botton’s work is openly about possible paths from misery and melancholy to happiness. He locates unhappiness as a universal and primary problem which we have to take as a kind of starting point. The first line of How Proust Can Change Your Life is ‘there are few things humans are more dedicated to than unhappiness’ and in the later Status Anxiety, he takes the line further, creating this concept ‘status anxiety’ to describe a universal condition responsible for sorrow and misery – which the text then sets out to ‘deal with.’
De Botton’s obsession is with causes. In the introduction to this text he states that ‘status anxiety’ is the cause of sorrow. In turn, ‘status anxiety’ is caused by ‘recession, redundancy, promotions, retirement, envy’ and many other things. One thing is caused by another, seemingly endlessly, and it comes as no surprise when one turns the page to find in large type: PART ONE: CAUSES.
But there is no theory of causality here, only the endless deferral of one thing back to a cause elsewhere. What this does is complicate the issue; I have to see my sorrow as having a cause, and of that cause as itself having a complex set of causes, some of which I know and some of which I don’t. In short, I must think of my melancholy as a symptom, as something with a deep rooted cause connected to me which I cannot make sense of. Thus, melancholy is not the breakdown of myself but rather a gesture of something like ‘oh, I am so complicated I don’t even understand myself’ – who I really am is not challenged but affirmed; it is hidden in an impossible-to-decode string of causes and effects, but it is down there somewhere. Structurally it maps onto de Botton’s own self-affirming narcissism. In Status Anxiety one finds a remarkable language, utterly incongruous with modern philosophy, asserting that ultimately there is such a thing as ‘who we are deep down…who we are outside of our status.’ For de Bottom the contributing factors are primarily economic (redundancy, recession etc) and he may well acknowledge that our complex economic desires are the result of internalising standardised consumer desires, but he sees melancholy as the symptom of a disjoint between the way we are socially and who we are ‘deep down.’ Melancholy as symptom then, re-affirms this logic, asserting a complex inner me which I affirm the existence of, even if I cannot make sense of it.
The identification of melancholy as being rooted in the relationship between internal and external (often uncontrollable) sources contributes to the idea that it’s not ‘your’ fault, so you don’t need to feel too bad, whilst actually reinforcing a narcissistic, inward-lookingness. Alain de Botton’s books have a self-help dimension, appealing to those who are ‘unhappy,’ but in fact they are ordering the reader to be unhappy, in order to create an appearance of an inner self at odds with the complex world, a relationship which then appears as the root of that unhappiness.