Alain de Botton, bestselling author of The Consolations of Philosophy, provides the perfect antidote to guide books that tell us what to do when we get there in his new book, The Art of Travel. Here, in an exclusive interview, he reveals the truth behind the myth of travelling, and opens up on the joys of bedroom holidays, and on his guilty secret – being a plane-spotter.
Why is it so hard to be truly happy when we travel?
I think that travelling brings with it a huge amount of expectation. When we look forward to travelling we’re really looking forward to being happy, and yet very often we arrive in a place and things are not quite as we would like them to be. When we dream of a place, and when we’re reading a brochure of a holiday destination, what we forget is that we’re going to take ourselves with us.
When we look at a place we’re simply aware of the place, but when we get to the place we find that we’ve come with ourselves and that means all sorts of troublesome things. For a start we’ve brought our bodies and our bodies suffer from terrible things like jetlag and they get upset by food and mosquitoes, for example. Also, we bring our minds with us, and that means all sorts of thoughts and anxieties and regrets. All too often we bring unfortunate bits of ourselves with us, so that perhaps is one major reason why our travels are not quite what we might expect.
What’s your favourite part of travelling?
I’m actually a bit of a plane-spotter, and I don’t mean that entirely jokingly. I rather like an airport at 5 o’clock in the morning, I think they have a great and rather romantic connotation. I’m also a fan of motorway service stations and other sorts of deserted places of travel. I think these places have a particular power and draw because they stand outside of ordinary life. Most of the time we’re in homes and in offices and in cities, and then when we travel we enter these strange in-between places that are nowhere in particular. I think these places can give us a new perspective on life and on ourselves, and can free us from some of the constraints of home. I think it can be very liberating, for example, to spend a night in a hotel, even if it’s a hotel in your own city. What’s happening is that you’ve changed the décor of your life and in that way you’ve liberated yourself to discover a new part of yourself.
Why do tourists frequently look so bored?
I think the great problem of tourism is that tourists are expected to be excited by everything. You read the average guide book and it’s like, what to do in Stockholm or in London or in New York, and there’s an enormous range of things you’re supposed to be interested in: museums, skating rinks, monuments to dead heroes, etc. I think the way that we get curious about things really proceeds in a much slower and more modest way, I think most of us can only really be interested in a few things. Guide books just shove everything in your face, so I have a lot of patience for a bored tourist - I’ve been a very bored tourist myself in lots of places and I think that there’s lots of good reasons for that.
Do you like taking holiday snaps?
I do rather like taking holiday snaps, as I want to try and remember something that’s made an impression on me. I think it’s a natural response whenever you see something beautiful that you want to try and capture it. Most of life is pretty ugly and yet sometimes you come across scenes that are so beautiful that it makes you want to capture them. I think that’s the moment when we take our cameras out.
What would you say to people who don’t have enough money to travel?
I think there’s an awful lot of pressure at the moment to take ever more glamorous holidays. People out-do each other by the exoticness of their locations. I make a strong argument in my book for the rather perverse aspect to this. In this city behind me [London] there are lots of tourists. I live in London, but these tourists are completely excited to be in London. They’re going around looking at things, they’re thinking about things, their world-view is opening. When I walk around London I’m just thinking about me and people I know and what I do and what I’ve got to buy for lunch. I think that really shows that travelling is a state of mind. It’s not about where you go but it’s about the attitude that you have towards a place.
In my book, I argue that a traveller’s mind-set it what you need above all, rather than an exotic destination. By a travelling mind-set I mean an openness to things and a curiosity about the world - very often we shut that curiosity down. I end my book by discussing the work of an 18th century French thinker and philosopher called De Maistre who wrote a very charming book called Journey Around my Bedroom. He makes a case for bedroom travel, and suggests that we should stay at home and simply wander around our bedrooms. If we look at them in the right way, our own bedrooms could be, he says, as exciting as the Steppes of Russia or the beaches of France. I think it’s an exaggerated point but I think a very valid point. So if you can’t afford a holiday, take a holiday in your own bedroom!
What is the meaning of life, and can Philosophy help you to find it?
Asking oneself what the meaning of life is, is usually just another way of saying, 'What will make me happy?' Most of us ask ourselves this question in puzzlement because we're offered many visions of what will make us happy, which usually leave us feeling miserable, exhausted or bored. So the stereo-typical middle-aged executive might ask himself what the meaning of life was as a way of getting to an underlying anxiety: 'Why am I not happy given that I am earning £90k a year, have a family and own a sports utility vehicle?' Philosophy, - by which in this context one should really understand logical thinking - can be an excellent way of finding out what can make you happy.
We might turn to a philosopher I consider in the second chapter of The Consolations of Philosophy. In our attitudes to sudden wealth (winning the lottery, floating our dot.com company), we tend to swing between two extreme views: that huge wealth will make us very happy. Or that it will make us very unhappy. The newspapers are filled as much with stories about the joys of luxury as about the depression and marital breakdowns of overnight millionaires. For a saner approach, we should turn to the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, who argued that money was simply irrelevant to happiness - neither a guarantee of misery nor of joy. To expect that we must be miserable because we are poor is as misguided as to suppose that we must be happy if we are rich. Money is not the determining factor.
Epicurus founded a school of philosophy which placed great emphasis on the importance of pleasure. "Pleasure is the beginning and the goal of a happy life," he asserted, confirming what many had long thought, but philosophers had rarely accepted. Vulgar opinion at once imagined that the pleasure Epicurus had in mind involved a lot of money, sex, drink and debauchery (associations that survive in our use of the word 'Epicurean'). But true Epicureanism was more subtle. Epicurus led a very simple life, because after rational analysis, he had come to some striking conclusions about what actually made life pleasurable - and fortunately for those lacking a large income, it seemed that the essential ingredients of pleasure, however elusive, were not very expensive.
The first ingredient was friendship. 'Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one's entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship,' he wrote. So he bought a house near Athens where he lived in the company of congenial souls. The desire for riches should perhaps not always be understood as a simple hunger for a luxurious life, a more important motive might be the wish to be appreciated and treated nicely. We may seek a fortune for no greater reason than to secure the respect and attention of people who would otherwise look straight through us. Epicurus, discerning our underlying need, recognised that a handful of true friends could deliver the love and respect that even a fortune may not.
Epicurus and his friends located a second secret of happiness: freedom. In order not to have to work for people they didn't like and answer to potentially humiliating whims, they removed themselves from employment in the commercial world of Athens ('We must free ourselves from the prison of everyday affairs and politics'), and began what could best have been described as a commune, accepting a simpler way of life in exchange for independence. They would have less money, but would never again have to follow the commands of odious superiors.
The third ingredient of happiness was, in Epicurus's view, to lead an examined life. Epicurus was concerned that he and his friends learn to analyse their anxieties about money, illness, death and the supernatural. There are few better remedies for anxiety than thought. In writing a problem down or airing it in conversation we let its essential aspects emerge. And by knowing its character, we remove, if not the problem itself, then its secondary, aggravating characteristics: confusion, displacement, surprise. Wealth is of course unlikely ever to make anyone miserable. But the crux of Epicurus's argument is that if we have money without friends, freedom and an analysed life, we will never be truly happy. And if we have them, but are missing the fortune, we will never be unhappy.
To highlight what was essential for happiness and what could, if one failed to win the lottery, or was denied prosperity through social injustice or economic turmoil, be foregone without great regrets, Epicurus divided our needs into three categories: 'Of the desires, some are natural and necessary. Others are natural but unnecessary. And there are desires that are neither natural nor necessary. To those who had just won a lottery, Epicurus's tripartite division suggested that happiness was dependent on some complex psychological goods, but was relatively independent of material ones, beyond the means required to purchase some warm clothes, somewhere to live and something to eat - a set of priorities designed to provoke thought in those who had equated happiness with the fruition of grand financial schemes, and misery with a modest income. It may be tempting to attribute this disparagement of luxury to the primitive range of products available to the rich in the undeveloped economy of Hellenistic Greece. Yet the argument may still be defended by pointing to an imbalance in the ratio of price to happiness in certain costly products of later ages. We cannot be happy in a luxury car when we have no friends; with a villa without freedom; with linen sheets, but too much anxiety to fall asleep. So long as our essential non-material needs are unattended, our levels of happiness will remain stubbornly low.
Do you agree with Socrates that the wise man is the man who admits he knows nothing?
Saying that you know nothing is clearly exaggerated, but realising that you know a lot less than you think you might do is also clearly wise. Most of us hold in mind a huge number of unexamined ideas which it would be well worth prodding with the stick of reason/logic/philosophy.
Have you ever heard a tree fall in the middle of a forest?
I try to spend as much time as possible in cities and have poor hearing.
A priori or A posteriori?
From a strict philosophy of language point of view, language is always accurate if it is understood. Both are therefore OK; as is difference and differance.
Which do you think is more important for modern philosophy: to ask new questions, or to question the old answers?
The key priority for modern philosophy is to sack every university philosophy lecturer apart from Martha Nussbaum at Chicago and entirely reorientate the subject away from the hairsplitting issues it now considers to the pursuit of answers to the great questions of everyday life. As Schopenhauer wrote; 'For a philosophy professor to practice real philosophy is as unlikely as for the Pope to practice real Christianity.' Unfortunately this revolution will not occur in the foreseeable future because of the entrenched interests (mortgages etc.) of existing staff, which is why - in the meantime - it is highly important for commercial organizations like Penguin to be supporting philosophy books which stick close to the true mission of philosophy. It is unsurprising that the market is in this area better at promoting what philosophy should be than the state-funded university system; for the market is most of the time better at responding to people's true needs.
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