Philosopher and author Alain de Botton is in Australia this week on a whistle-stop tour to promote his new book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. It is a great pity that he will only be making one public appearance each in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne because there is no philosopher in the world today who is more relevant or accessible than Alain de Botton.
De Botton is often snidely criticised for being a pop-philosopher, as though his willingness and ability to communicate ideas to the non-academic public somehow denies him entry into the club of true intellectuals. They may well be right – de Botton has a masters degree in philosophy but never completed his PhD, abandoning it to concentrate on writing fiction. He has thus never produced any truly original philosophical writing – at least none that has been recognised in academic circles. However, I suspect that what offends his critics most is not that his books contain ideas familiar to any undergraduate philosopher, but that he has managed to turn what seems like common sense to the intellectual elite into a series of lucrative best-selling books and documentaries.
Now, I like spending a Sunday afternoon unravelling untenable dualisms and postulating thought experiments as much as the next guy, but they still make my head hurt. And after a weekend struggling with ontological ambiguities about the existence of the world outside my own mind, I still have to face the practical reality of turning up to work on Monday morning. What Alain de Botton does in his books is apply the tools of his philosophical training to issues of relevance in contemporary society and in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work he addresses the very problem that I (and everyone else in society) face each week: gainful employment.
The book is broken into 10 sections, each focusing on a different occupation, including logistics, biscuit manufacture, rocket science and art. The diverse range of industries and jobs is deliberate, allowing de Botton to more easily detect commonalities in our attitudes to work, even between tuna fisherman and accountants. The first thing he points out is the way that people’s attitudes with work have changed over history. The ancient Greeks saw all work as a form of slavery and a barrier to reaching true humanity. Judeo-Christian mythology regards work as a punitive measure by God, ever since Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden and forced to toil in the outside world. The Catholic Church valued work only in terms of holiness, with the Pope at the top.
Protestantism challenged this view with Luther’s assertion that even a woman sweeping the floor could approach Godliness; it was not the work itself but the way in which the work was performed that was important. This gave everyone the opportunity to take pride in and achieve respect for the work they did, whether it be as a bishop or a blacksmith. As a consequence we now see work in almost completely the opposite way to the ancient Greeks – far from being a barrier to reaching our true humanity, work is now seen as the vessel to achieving our full potential as human beings. We define and identify ourselves by our work and modern society aims to be a true meritocracy, where hard work and ability is rewarded with success, regardless of background. We are also now encouraged to do something we love when considering our careers, taking us far away from the biblical notion of work as punishment.
But fewer than 15% of people are truly happy in their jobs and while a true meritocracy sounds ideal in practice, what does it mean for all the regular Joes on the minimum wage? Do they deserve to be there? There are many reasons why someone may not be able to pursue the job of their dreams or why someone of ability may never achieve the success promised by their potential. Conversely, many people who seem outwardly successful may actually be dissatisfied with their work due to the lack of ‘meaning’ in their job. De Botton spends a lot of time discussing ‘meaning’ in relation to work. He concludes that it has a lot to do with improving other people’s lives in some way. The problem in many modern jobs is that career specialisation and the vast scale of commerce these days often separate employees from the people that are benefitted by their work. This is not to say that a business analyst in a biscuit manufacturer doesn’t provide a significant net benefit to the lives of millions of office workers across the country at morning-tea every day, but the separation of the worker from the beneficiary of their work dulls the satisfaction gained from that job.
So what of Alain de Botton and his own job satisfaction? He began his talk to a packed Sydney Opera House Theatre by admitting that being a writer may have many sorrows but it also has some wonderful pleasures, and coming to Australia and meeting his readers was definitely one of them. Well, yes, he would say that, but then, he really did seem to enjoy himself and it was obvious that everyone in the crowd did too. The thing that surprises you most when you hear him speak or read one of his books is just how entertaining he is. This is the key to his success. By maintaining the interest of his audience De Botton is able to make his readers consider strong philosophical concepts and re-examine the world around them more deeply. If that’s pop-philosophy then I’m all for it.