Full text of Alain de Botton, Philosopher & Author on The Theory of Everything
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I’m here to talk about the mysterious disappearance or absence, of what one could call the psychological within the world of modern business, education and life more broadly, but with a particular emphasis on business because that’s partly what we’re here for.
I want to begin my story in ancient Greece fourth century BC, Aristotle, the Greeks used to do some things very good, very accomplished, and one of the things they were very good at was philosophy. And Aristotle famously defined the goal of every human being as that of acquiring two kinds of knowledge. The first kind of knowledge, he defined, as techne, that’s where we get our word technical from, and that’s all the sort of things that make an economy work, in his day it was shipbuilding, silver mining, you know, archery that sort of thing.
And the other form of knowledge that he believed, we very much, all of us need is what he termed sophia or wisdom, and that’s of course where we get the word philosophy from — philo, love, sophia, wisdom. He believed that all of us need to spend a considerable part of our lives in the pursuit of sophia, and through pursuing wisdom, we will reach a stage of what he called eudaimonia, another complicated Greek word that is often translated as fulfillment. We could translate it as happiness but it’s a deeper form of satisfaction. It’s a way of fully exploiting everything that makes us distinctively human. It’s a form of happiness in line with our rational natures and eudaimonia is achieved through self-knowledge Aristotle tells us, and it’s connected up with knowing who to be friends with, knowing what your purpose in life should be, being part of a community to which you’re properly contributing, and other sorts of ingredients like that. So a very important part of the meaning of life at the beginning of the Western journey — the Western experience, the meaning of life is the pursuit of wisdom. We might also nowadays call it the pursuit of the psychological, the psyche of course another Greek word, the interior, the soul the bit of us that is most closely connected up with our emotions and our rational natures.
Now I want to argue that oddly, despite our accomplishments in so many areas, we’ve become very bad at the sophia bit of the economy and our human pursuits. A lot of the blame has to do with religion because when Christianity descends upon Europe, it sucks up all the interest in the soul, the very word soul starts to become a religious word, and the whole study of the psyche gets imported into religion. And it’s not really until the middle of the 19th century that suddenly people start to reconsider the psychological, and concepts like wisdom apart from a religious structure. So we’re still very much in the early days of knowing how to think about ourselves and our interior lives without the particular cast that Christianity gave to the Western mind’s exploration of its own processes.
Part of the really big problem, part of the reason why we’re not so good at wisdom, we’re not so good at the psychological, is this movement that also strikes Western Europe in the 19th century known as Romanticism. And romanticism’s number one concern is the worship of what we would call instinct. Now if there’s anybody in the room who’s made an unfortunate marriage, anyone who’s unhappily married, picked the wrong person to marry? Put up your hand, we’ll talk about it. Okay, yes thank you very much.
Anyone here who’s fallen into the wrong job, who feels they’ve just fallen in love, as it were, with the wrong job? Okay, we’ll come back with that later. But the reason I mention these two things is because love and work are the two constituents of contemporary happiness, also ancient Greek happiness, but they’re also the two things that we imagine we can get right simply by instinct. It would be considered very rude to stop anyone and say, ‘Why are you getting married to that person?’ or, ‘Why are you going for that job?’ We believe that people’s best chances of finding fulfilment comes from not thinking too hard about why they’re doing it. We worship instinct and impulse in the two areas where they actually have catastrophic results, which is in relationships and in the pursuit of our talents and our exploitation of our talents within the workplace. So romanticism has a lot to blame.