It’s become too easy of late to be rude about Alain de Botton. His banal aphoristic “insights” and homilies on Twitter, his efforts to turn the media away from “meanness” (news should provide moral uplift and teach us how to be better people), his plea for museums to emulate churches by replacing their “bland captions” with a set of moral “commands”, thereby using the art in their collections to make us “good and wise and kind”, have all begun to pall somewhat.
When did the playful essayist become so cloyingly dumb? And please, before I say another word, do let’s stop calling him a philosopher. He’s a businessman and a writer whose pop-psych, mind-body-spirit essays make Paulo Coelho look like Dostoevsky. He’s also a writer who thinks Plato was the original self-help guru, for it was the Greek philosopher’s big idea, according to a bizarre Alain tweet – which he subsequently deleted because it was too dumb even for his own timeline – that the wise should be rewarded with fame and elevated status because even the clever need to feel wanted.
Naturally, this must have been exactly what Plato was thinking when he introduced us to the philosopher-kings of The Republic. It wasn’t about the running of an ideal state (totalitarian, as we might understand it today), but how best to ensure self-fulfilment for eggheads, that tiresome class of person who can beat you at a pub quiz but whose thoughts and insights are so trite and banal that you wouldn’t want to prop up a bar with them afterwards. It also says rather more about de Botton, who seems to dwell in the shadow-cave of delusion, than it does about Plato.
All this would be easy to ignore, except that his latest book Art as Therapy, co-written with art historian John Armstrong, now has a wretched afterlife in a museum.