‘The School of Life’ Preaches Pessimism over Romanticism

Our families, schools, churches, and universities do not sufficiently educate, counsel, or nurture us. Neither do our museums, community organizations, sports clubs, or restaurants (yes, even the places we dine can play a role). Many of us mire in the existential tasks we face daily, scrambling for a wise mentor to relieve us of our emotional ineptitudes—worse off are those not seeking a corrective, unaware of their psychological and social shortcomings. 

The School of Life: An Emotional Education (2019) is a carefully curated volume compiled by the philosopher Alain de Botton (founder of an organization that shares the book’s name). It serves as a guide for living a fulfilled life in the twenty-first century (specifically for denizens of modern, developed Western countries). 

The School of Life is on a crusade to avail us of our emotional ignorance. De Botton seeks to remedy the shortcomings of contemporary education systems and the institutions that have failed to instruct us in how to approach the big questions in life. What do we do in the wake of religion? What can our emotions teach us? Why are we so alienated in such a connected world? What are the proper expectations to have of parents, friends, and romantic partners? What clarifying role can pessimism, melancholy, or emotional breakdowns have in our lives?

[Read “True Happiness Means Embracing Sadness and Pain”]

Educational Institutions Have Failed Us

Our educational institutions are oriented in an upside-down manner. We’re hyper-focused toward “material, scientific, and technical subjects and away from psychological and emotional ones,” de Botton argues. Conventional schooling makes knowledge acquisition its primary goal while emotional education trails as an afterthought. Countless hours are spent on rote memorization of concepts that bear little direct relevance to the questions that keep us anxious or bewildered. What use are mathematical formulas, knowledge of chemical structures, or the ability to recite state capitals when the loss of a parent stares us straight in the face or the burdens of guilt from relationship missteps threaten our sanity? Why are so many public resources dedicated to schooling systems that ignore or undermine emotional intelligence?

The School of Life promotes a more humanistic approach to a successful life. Emotional intelligence points to “whether someone understands key components of emotional functioning.” How well does a person introspect and connect, discern the emotions of others, and unwrap the wellspring of information carried to us by our emotions? According to de Botton, “The emotionally intelligent person knows that they will only ever be mentally healthy in a few areas and at certain moments, but is committed to fathoming their inadequacies and warning others of them in good time, with apology and charm.” 

Humanists have long hoped culture could serve as a secular alternative to faith, but society has not quite lived up to this ideal. As religion recedes across the West, we need now more than ever for literature to fill the gap left behind by scripture, for museums to become cathedrals rather than “smart filing cabinets for the art of the past,” for universities to recenter themselves around the pursuit of meaning, and for communal rituals that can transcend dogma and cosmology. Our institutions must rally to the cause of emotional intelligence—or human flourishing, as the philosophically-inclined might articulate it.

Preempting critics who might deem these ills as “first world problems,” de Botton bemoans the epidemic of “loneliness, anxiety, relationship breakdown, rage, humiliation, and depression” that abound in developed Western societies. “People may not starve, life expectancy is high, and child mortality almost eradicated, but populations remain beleaguered.” We face exceptionally high suicide rates, despite historically unrivaled prosperity and peace. Our narrow focus on material security has left us utterly deficient in our ability to thrive emotionally.

To those who might belittle the quiet suffering of a parent in a middle-class suburb, The School of Life cautions that the ills which inflame the lives of individuals in “Switzerland and Norway, Australia and the Netherlands are the problems that will be rife around the globe in 2319.” (An imprecise future date, but the sentiment is well-founded.) Developing countries become developed countries—societies are likely to face similar emotional wastelands if they tread the same consumerist paths distracted by outward escapes because of their underdeveloped capacity for emotionally intelligent living. 

[Read “First Impressions of an Unschooling School”]

The Ravages of Romanticism

De Botton states upfront his anti-Romanticism, decrying, “We are the troubled inheritors of what can be defined as a Romantic view of emotions. . . . . Romanticism has been deeply committed to casting doubt on the need to apply reason to emotional life, preferring to let spontaneous feelings play an unhampered role instead.” He highlights the often unreflective impulses we have to let our passions—unconsidered or unchallenged—to guide the important decisions in our life: particularly in the way they play out in our interpersonal relationships. This leads many to embrace the mistaken notion that love is something that happens to us, we “fall in love,” that it isn’t a skill which can be developed but is merely an emotional state of euphoria. 

He praises Rilke who, upon an encounter with an ancient statue of Apollo, realizes the need to escape the “unhealthy way of German Romanticism” that had caused him to develop “an abstruse way of thinking and expressing himself.” Rather than becoming a slave to momentary enthusiasm or despair, The School of Life champions a Classical (or Enlightenment) ethos penned by Rilke: “Du mußt dein Leben ändern [You must change your life].” 

Careful consideration of our emotions allows us to change course, uncover inner psychological dynamics previously hidden, and to better discern the world’s impact on us. 

Alternatively, while maintaining his assault on Romanticism, he does advocate for the benefits of the sublime (a concept in step with the movement he wants to tear asunder). The sublime is about the jarring but inspiring encounters with Nature that cause us to realize our own limitations, the sometimes terrifying power (and beauty) of the natural world: “The scale of the place forces upon us the unwelcome fact that we don’t matter in the greater scheme of things and that what is of great concern to us doesn’t figure at all in the minds of others. It’s a crushing, lonely experience that intensifies anxiety and agitation.” Sure, a thunderstorm or tornado can frighten us from a moderate distance—and at their worst, physically devastate a community—but their grandeur delivers humble reminders. We are tiny and insignificant. And that should be an encouraging thought: “The sublime drags us away from the minor details that normally and inevitably occupy our attention and makes us concentrate on what is truly major.” 

[Read “‘Enlightenment Now’ Demands a New Romanticism”]

The School of Life’s rebuke of Romanticism is most severe in his section on relationships. Claiming we have been “living in the age of Romanticism” since around 1750, it’s an ideology that indirectly informs our views on love, whether it’s how our son approaches his first date, a screenwriter crafts a script, or when a couple in the throes of relational conflict decide to call it quits because they just don’t feel it anymore. According to de Botton, Romantic notions of love are a “historical creation” which can be dazzling and thrilling but only for a while. He states, “The Romantics were brilliantly perceptive about some dimensions of emotional life and were extremely talented about expressing their hopes and longings. Many of the feelings they celebrated had existed before, but the Romantics elevated them, turning them from passing fancies into serious concepts with the power to determine the course of relationships over a lifetime.”

Romanticism is unreservedly rosy about marriage. Marriage can somehow wed the elation of a love affair with all the benefits of an unchanging, practical union. It has bound up love and sex. Sex is the climactic manifestation of admiration for a person, a “frequent, mutually satisfying” act “assumed to be not just pleasurable but the expected bellwether of the health of a relationship.” The Romantic view asserts that true love will annihilate all of our loneliness and alienation, becoming the workhorse that can avail us of all our world-weariness and hardships. Further, love must be subservient to our emotions, practical evaluations being deemed intrusive considerations that shouldn’t derail our obviously fated love affairs. Romanticism holds a fierce contempt for practicalities, be they money, social advantages, how well partners might enrich each other’s career ambitions or development of talents, or mundane things such as household etiquette and vacation habits. 

Romanticism’s great sin is the belief that truly loving somebody means accepting everything about them, rejecting the reality that both partners will need to change or mature to become better lovers—hence, the need for emotional education and the need to develop our ability to love others. 

We must challenge these assumptions of the Romantic view of love, “not in order to destroy love, but to save it.” The School of Life provides an encouraging and psychologically mature version of love—what de Botton refers to as a Classical view. He encourages us to consider: “It is normal that love and sex do not always belong together; that discussing money early on, upfront, in a serious way is not a betrayal of love.” Our partners are deeply flawed and accepting this will lead to an increased degree of tolerance and generosity. We will only find a few key things in another person. To expect the everything relationship dooms us to fail. Intuition is not enough. We must regularly make gargantuan efforts to understand one another. And ultimately, practicality matters quite a lot. Bedtime rituals, holiday traditions, household responsibilities actually play sizable roles in the success of relationships. De Botton believes these attitudes “belong to the new, more hopeful future of love.” 

[Read “Self-Esteem, Self-Compassion, or Self-Indifference? Which Is Best?”]

An Emotional Self-Diagnostic, Not a Treatment Plan

Despite its attempts to exorcize culture from the lingering spirits of Romanticism, The School of Life reads more like a self-help book than an applied philosophical treatise. Save an occasional pithy quote from popular philosophers like William James or Plato, or concepts derived from psychotherapeutic thinkers like Carl Jung, this book lacks philosophical substance. In lieu, it operates as a survey of the extensive landscape that is our emotional lives. 

Covering such a vast and dynamic mileu with much depth is a herculean task. Instead, de Botton stays near the surface in order to expose readers to each of the key aspects of living that an emotionally intelligent person should have familiarity with. He divides the volume into five sections: self, others, relationships, work (capitalism), and culture. Each section is laced with questions to be considered, unique psychotherapeutic explanations and attendant prescriptions for readers to ponder for personal relevance.

It’s an opportunity to self-diagnosis a plethora of emotional deficiencies or blind spots one might have so as to know what applied work or further researching one might need to pursue beyond the confines of this brisk three-hundred-page read. For example, regarding a child who suffered at the hands of an adult, he counsels that this frequently results in the child internalizing their parent’s shortcomings as their own. And it may take many years into adulthood to realize the hurt they experienced was undeserved, the outcome of their parent’s stormy internal life and not something for which the child ought to feel blame. 

Additionally, he speaks to our multitudinous forms of addiction. Few of us escape this human frailty: “We are addicts whenever we develop a manic reliance on something—anything—to keep our darker and more unsettling feelings at bay.” This can manifest in our unrelentless checking of the news, ambitious work ethic, obsessive house-cleaning, eagerness to super-parent our children, compulsions to reach for our smartphones, or avoiding our emotions by hiding ourselves in “service projects,” in addition to the more commonly-classified substance-based addictions. Few are immune. Due to our lack of emotional education, failure to acquire the proper toolkit for navigating the challenges of life, we turn to distractions or addictions—emotions loom too large, their complexities too labyrinthian for us to willingly or more fully embrace. 

The School of Life catalogues an overabundance of worthwhile questions to consider, ways to assess our emotional health, such as the following from a subsection on candor: “How much we do need to insist on our own normality and wholehearted sanity? Can we explore our own minds, and look into their darker and more troubled corners, without flinching overly? Can we admit folly, envy, sadness, and confusion?” The subsections on kindness, listening, trust, communication, teasing, vulnerability, shyness, and inner voices hold similar gut-check, self-evaluative questions. This rhetorical device continues as scaffolding for readers to begin remedying or identifying the areas in which their emotional illiteracy roils their peace or prevents their psychological resiliency.  

[Read “How CBT Strengthens Political Life and Untruths That Weaken It”]

‘The School of Life’ Is Self-help, Not Philosophy

This volume is most certainly not philosophy—despite its marketers attempts to cloak it in an air of academe. Or rather, it is philosophy in the original, love-of-wisdom sense and not the specialized, professional kind found in ivory towers. Simply, it is self-help for those who might need a bit more engagement with the intellect in order to consider the more complete living that comes with also employing our faculties that operate from the neck down. 

This is not a knock, per se, against The School of Life, but meant to guide readers’ expectations. As de Botton cautions, “Oddly (and interestingly) this means intellectual people can have a particularly tricky time in therapy. They get interested in the ideas.” And so, instead of allowing the ideas to impact them or do work on their psyches, they reflect on them from a safe, detached distance. We aren’t just emotionally stunted because of our ignorance—through no fault of our own, usually—but often because of our unwillingness to uncover the terrifying, unknown, or intentionally concealed psychic forces within. As children of the West, we love control, and unembodied ideas are easy to control. In our rather physically and politically safe, Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies, few things frighten us more than the dynamics hidden within the confines of our rigid and timid psyches.

De Botton continues, “But they don’t so easily recreate and exhibit the pains and distresses of their earlier, less sophisticated selves, though it’s actually these parts who we all are that need to be encountered, listened to, and—perhaps for the first time—comforted and reassured.” Being better equipped to adventure through our emotional lives allows us to find the consolation and existential clarity each one of us seeks.

As we each do our part to remake our institutions to be more focused on human flourishing, we can and should begin with ourselves, using the insights gathered in this practical volume. After all, societal flourishing is an inside job.  

(Featured image: Sean Kong/Unsplash)

Jeffrey Howard

Jeffrey is the Founder and Editor-in-chief of Erraticus. He also hosts and produces the philosophy-centric podcast Damn the Absolute! He is a journalist and writer whose research interests center around bioregionalism, philosophical pragmatism, pluralism, and resilient communities. He lives in Southern Appalachia.

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