The School of Life: An Interview With Alain de Botton

The philosopher and author Alain de Botton has dedicated his life to seeking answers—for himself and others—to one of life’s chief questions: How do we live a good life? His prolific body of work has helped bring accessible philosophy to millions of people through bestselling books like The Consolations of Philosophy, How Proust Can Change Your Life and Status Anxiety, his widely popular TED talks on religion for atheists and meritocracy, and his own school, The School of Life. (This short video from The School of Life on Stoicism, narrated by Alain, is fantastic.) We were honored that he responded with enthusiasm to our interview request (proof again that he is a real and selfless advocate for philosophy of all kinds).

Below you will find one of the most exhaustive and remarkable interviews that we have published (and if you could see how quickly he got the answers back you almost wouldn’t believe it). Alain thoughtfully explains to us the role and value of philosophy in everyday life, what philosophy can learn from pop music, why we should study Augustine in parallel with the Stoics and much more. Enjoy this wide-ranging interview with the one and only, Alain de Botton!

You’ve been a huge advocate about the value of philosophy to help us lead better lives, both with your own books like The Consolations of Philosophy, documentary series, as well as the The School of Life. Part of the reason you and others have had to advocate for philosophy is that many people don’t see the practical benefits. Why do you think that is? How did philosophy go from its more practical roots to whatever it seems to be today?

People are understandably confused about what philosophy is. From a distance, it seems weird, irrelevant, boring and yet also – just a little – intriguing. But it’s hard to put a finger on what the interest really is. What are philosophers? What do they do? And why does one need them?

Luckily, the answer is already contained in the word philosophy itself. In Greek, philo means love – or devotion – and sophia means wisdom. Philosophers are people devoted to wisdom.

Though a rather abstract term, the concept of ‘wisdom’ isn’t mysterious. Being wise means attempting to live and die well, leading as good a life as possible within the troubled conditions of existence. The goal of wisdom is fulfilment. You could perhaps say ‘happiness’ but ‘happiness’ is misleading, for it suggests continuous chirpiness and joy, whereas ‘fulfilment’ seems compatible with a lot of pain and suffering, which every decent life must by necessity have.

So a philosopher or ‘person devoted to wisdom’ is someone who strives for systematic expertise at working out how one may best find individual and collective fulfilment. In their pursuit of wisdom, philosophers have developed a very specific skill-set. They have, over the centuries, become experts in many of the general, large things that make people not very wise. Six central ones have been identified:

 

  1. We don’t ask big questions

What is the meaning of life? What should I do with my work? Where are we going as a society? What is love? Most of us have these questions in our minds at some point (often in the middle of the night), but we despair of trying to answer them. They have the status of jokes in most social circles: and we get shy of expressing them (except for brief moments in adolescence) for fear of being thought pretentious and of getting nowhere. But these questions matter deeply because only with sound answers to them can we direct our energies meaningfully.

Philosophers are people unafraid of the large questions. They have, over the centuries, asked the very largest. They realise that these questions can always be broken down into more manageable chunks and that the only really pretentious thing is to think one is above regularly raising naive-sounding enquiries.

 

  1. We are vulnerable to errors of common sense

Public opinion—or what gets called ‘common sense’—is sensible and reasonable in countless areas. It’s what you hear about from friends and neighbours, the stuff that’s just assumed to be true, the stuff you take in without even thinking about it. The media pumps it out by the gallon every day. But in some cases, common sense is also full of daftness, error and the most lamentable prejudice.

Philosophy gets us to submit all aspects of common sense to reason. It wants us to think for ourselves, to be more independent. Is it really true what people say about love, about money, about children, about travel, about work? Philosophers are interested in asking whether an idea is logical–rather than simply assuming it must be right because it is popular and long-established.

 

  1. We are mentally confused

We’re not very good at knowing what goes on in our own minds. We know we really like a piece of music. But we struggle to say quite why. Or someone we meet is very annoying, but we can’t pin down what the issue is. Or we lose our temper, but can’t readily tell what we’re so cross about. We lack insight into our own satisfactions and dislikes

That’s why we need to examine our own minds. Philosophy is committed to self-knowledge – and its central precept – articulated by the earliest, greatest philosopher, Socrates – is just two words long: Know yourself.

 

  1. We have muddled ideas about what will make us happy

We’re powerfully set on trying to be happy, but go wrong in our search for it on a regular basis. We overrate the power of some things to improve our lives – and underrate others. In a consumer society, we make the wrong choices because, guided by false glamour, we keep on imagining that a particular kind of holiday, or car, or computer will make a bigger difference than it can. At the same time, we underestimate the contribution of other things – like going for a walk, tidying a cupboard, having a structured conversation or going to bed early – which may have little prestige but can contribute deeply to the character of existence.

Philosophers seek to be wise by getting more precise about the activities and attitudes that really can help our lives to go better.

 

  1. Our emotions can send us in dangerous directions

We are inescapably emotional beings but regularly forget this uncomfortable fact. Occasionally certain emotions – certain kinds of anger, envy or resentment – lead us into serious trouble. Philosophers teach us to think about our emotions, rather than simply have them. By understanding and analysing our feelings, we learn to see how emotions impact on our behaviour in unexpected, counterintuitive and sometimes dangerous ways. Philosophers were the first therapists.

 

  1. We panic and lose perspective

We are constantly losing a sense of what matters and what doesn’t. We are – as the expression goes – constantly ‘losing perspective’. That’s what philosophers are good at keeping a hold of. On hearing the news that he’d lost all his possessions in a shipwreck, the Stoic philosopher Zeno simply said: ‘Fortune commands me to be a less encumbered philosopher.’ It’s responses like these that have made the very term ‘philosophical’ a byword for calm, long-term thinking and strength-of-mind, in short, for perspective.

What we call the ‘history of philosophy‘ is made up of repeated attempts over the centuries to address ways in which we are unwise. So, for example, in ancient Athens, Socrates paid special attention to the problem of how people get confused in their minds. He was struck that people didn’t quite know what they meant by key ideas – like courage or justice or success – even though these were the main ideas they used when talking about their own lives. Socrates developed a method (which still bears his name) by which you can learn to get clearer about what you mean by playing devil’s advocate with any idea. The aim isn’t necessarily to change your mind. It is to test whether the ideas guiding your life are sound.

A few decades later, the philosopher Aristotle tried to make us more confident around big questions. He thought that the best questions were those that ask what something is for. He did this a lot and over many books, asked: What is government for? What is the economy for? What is money for? What is art for? Today he would be encouraging us to ask questions like: What is the news media for? What is marriage for? What are schools for? What is pornography for?

Also active in Ancient Greece were the Stoic philosophers, who were interested in panic. The Stoics noticed a really central feature of panic: we panic not just when something bad occurs, but when it does so unexpectedly, when we were assuming that everything was going to go rather well. So they suggested that we should arm ourselves against panic by getting used to the idea that danger, trouble and difficulty are very likely to occur at every turn.

The overall task of studying philosophy is to absorb these and many other lessons and put them to work in the world today. The point isn’t just to know what this or that philosopher happened to say, but to aim to exercise wisdom at an individual and societal level – starting now.

The wisdom of philosophy is – in modern times – mostly delivered in the form of books. But in the past, philosophers sat in market squares and discussed their ideas with shopkeepers or went into government offices and palaces to give advice. It wasn’t abnormal to have a philosopher on the payroll. Philosophy was thought of as a normal, basic activity – rather than as an unusual, esoteric, optional extra.

Nowadays, it’s not so much that we overtly deny this thought – we are always getting snippets of wisdom here and there – but we just don’t have the right institutions set up to promulgate wisdom coherently in the world. In the future, though, when the value of philosophy is a little clearer, we can expect to meet more philosophers in daily life. They won’t be locked up, living mainly in university departments, because the points at which our unwisdom bites – and messes up our lives – are multiple and urgently need attention right now.

 

Is there anything you’ve found with the many people you and the team at The School of Life have reached that seems to be the best introduction to philosophy for beginners?

At The School of Life, we’re very concerned with ways to make philosophy more seductive and appealing to a mass audience. We want, if you like, for philosophy to learn the right lessons from pop music.

When pop music started in a big way in the 1960s, it seemed at times like an especially silly medium, favoured by hormonal school girls and connected up with delinquent and tediously bizarre behaviour.

By contrast, philosophy had a reputation for being deeply serious and impressive – the natural home of the big ambition to understand ourselves and transform the world through ideas.

But since the 1960s, philosophy has stalled and pop has conquered the world. It is now the foremost medium for the articulation of ideas on a mass scale. This explains why, if it is to survive, philosophy must study pop; part of its salvation lies in understanding pop’s techniques so as to be able to become, in crucial ways, a little more like it.

There are a host of critical lessons philosophy can learn from pop. For a start, pop teaches us about charm. The great pop songs are bewitchingly, dazzlingly charming in the manner in which they get their messages across: they know exactly how to wear away our defences and enter our imaginations with easy grace. It’s a reminder that it isn’t enough for ideas to be correct. For them to become powerful and deliver on their promises, they need to know how to win over an audience. Pop is the most seductive force the world has ever known; it has more – and more devoted – adherents than all religions put together. It is more deeply loved, more trusted, and a more constant companion in our joys and sorrows than any other art form.

Pop has become powerful in part because it has cleverly understood the division of labour. Those who can sing and hold the crowd may not be the same as those who know how to write music or arrange instruments. Pop is unashamed about uniting talent wherever it finds it, so that the final result can combine the most beautiful face with the finest voice, the best score and the most beguiling instrumental arrangement. Pop has overcome the Romantic hangup about the unique creator, it knows that the most intimate, heartfelt result may be the outcome of large-scale institutional collaboration.

Pop teaches us too about compression. It knows our lives are busy and has an extraordinarily ambitious sense of what could be achieved in under three minutes. Like all other art forms, pop is trying to communicate ideas, but it bypasses the more resistant intellectual parts of the mind. All the usual obstacles to reaching another person are stripped away in the name of visceral intimacy. Pop achieves what Pericles, Lincoln, Dickens and Proust were attempting – and spectacularly exceeds all of them. It provides the ultimate demonstration of the 19th-century theorist Walter Pater’s tantalising assertion that ‘All art aspires to the condition of music.’

Like religion, pop knows that repetition is key. It works its effect through being heard again and again. It would prefer to grab three minutes from you every day, than three hours every two months. Like religious incantation, it is interested in working upon our souls cumulatively.

Pop is intelligent in not being afraid of simplicity; it is too wise to be held back by pedantry or erudition. It knows that our emotional needs are in essence obvious: to be encouraged, to be held, to be jollied, to be reassured when we are alone, to be told something beautiful and uplifting. It doesn’t suffer from high art’s perverse addiction to subtlety. It accepts that the core of our minds may be astonishingly basic in its structure.

Pop is ultimately the master of collective euphoria. It possesses what churches and politicians would like, but are so rarely able to secure. It has worked out how to generate shared moments of deep emotion about important things. In the stadium, the singer functions as a high priest, for whom the flock might be ready to make major sacrifices; they would, in their benign frenzy, be willing to go anywhere.

That philosophy needs to learn from pop doesn’t preclude that pop needs – of course – to learn quite a bit from philosophy as well. Pop currently touches on the big themes but doesn’t, as yet, properly take up many of the opportunities that lie its way. It is lacking in ultimate ambitions.

In the future, we need pop musicians to take up the challenge of investigating the deepest truths, of getting behind transformative concepts and of making these into the things we’ll sing about in front of the bathroom mirror with our hairbrushes – so that they become the background sounds of our inner lives. The world waits for a redemptive synthesis between philosophy and pop.

 

Nassim Taleb has talked about taking a ‘via negativa’ approach—solving problems through elimination rather than addition. What do you find are the biggest impediments to achieving a more wise, serene and meaningful life? Any behaviors that the philosophers can warn us against?

Most of us are rather interested in being normal. We want to belong – and worry about ways in which we don’t quite. No matter how much we praise individualism and celebrate ourselves as unique, we are, in many areas, deeply concerned with fitting in.

It’s therefore unfortunate that our picture of what is normal is in fact – very often – way out of line with what is actually true and widespread. Many things that we might assume to be uniquely odd or disconcertingly strange about us are in reality completely average and ubiquitous, though simply rarely spoken of in the reserved and cautious public sphere.

The idea of the normal currently in circulation is not an accurate map of what is actually customary for a human being. We are – each one of us – far more compulsive, anxious, sexual, high-minded, mean, generous, playful, thoughtful, dazed and at sea than we are ever encouraged to admit.

Part of the reason for our misunderstanding of our normality comes down to a basic fact about our minds: that we know through immediate experience what is going on inside us, but can only know about other people from what they choose to tell us – which will almost always be a very edited version of the truth.

We know what we’ve done at 3am, but imagine others sleeping peacefully. We know our somewhat shocking desires from close up; we are left to guess about other people’s from what their faces tell us, which is not very much.

This asymmetry between self-knowledge and knowledge-of-others is what lies behind loneliness. We simply can’t trust that our deep selves can have counterparts in those we meet, and so we stay silent and isolated. The asymmetry encourages shyness too, for we struggle to believe that the imposing, competent strangers we encounter can have any of the vulnerabilities and idiocies we’re so intimately familiar with inside our own characters.

Ideally, the task of culture should be to compensate for the failings of our brains by assisting us to a more correct vision of what other people are normally like – by taking us, in a realistic but seductive way, into the inner lives of strangers. This is what novels, films and songs should constantly be doing: defining and evoking states of mind we thought we were alone in experiencing – in order to alleviate our shyness and loneliness.

We are particularly bad at recognizing how normal it is to suffer and to be unhappy. Around relationships, for example, we constantly operate with an image of the bliss of others which mocks and undermines our own efforts to keep going with many flawed but eminently ‘good enough’ unions. We find it hard to bear in mind that more or less everyone is, beneath a cheery surface, intermittently profoundly sad and rarely not anxious.

We become embarrassed too by our close-up knowledge of our own sexuality, which appears necessarily more perverse than that of anyone we know. It almost certainly isn’t. We simply haven’t been told the full story.

Ideally, art works would offer us a hugely consoling truth: that our hidden worries, the nagging anxieties we keep to our chests and our stranger thoughts and impulses don’t actually make us strange; on the contrary they are precisely what make us normal. One great goal of the love novel, for instance, should be to tell us what love and long-term relationships are really like; so that our own tribulations do not appear so readily as signs that everything is going wrong – but rather that our sufferings are proof that we are in line with common human experience.

Our culture often tries to project an idea of an organised, poised and polished self, as the standard way most people are. We should discount any such myth. Other people are always far more likely to be as we know we are – with all our quirks, fragilities, compulsions and surprising aspects – than they are to be like the apparently ‘normal’ types we meet in social life.

 

You talk about the Stoics a bit in your books, but I get the sense that you see it as a somewhat flawed or incomplete philosophy. Is that fair? Is there something you do admire about the Stoics? Any favorite quotes?

You’ll know from reading my work just how much I admire the Stoics – it’s a strand that runs through all my writing. I especially admire Seneca and his quote: What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears. I love the Stoic approach to anger. We start to reduce the danger of anger through the insight that not everything that makes sad makes us angry. We may be irritated that it is raining, but we are unlikely ever to respond to a shower by screaming. We aren’t overwhelmed by anger whenever we are frustrated; we are sent into a rage only when we first allowed ourselves to believe in a hopeful scenario which was then dashed suddenly and apparently without warning. Our greatest furies spring from unfortunate events which we had not factored into our vision of reality.

We typically think of anger as a dark and pessimistic state of mind. But behind anger lies a surprising emotion: optimism. The angry are, beneath their ranting, possessed of some recklessly optimistic notions of how life might go. They are not merely in a destructive fury, they are in the grip of hope.

The person who shouts every time they encounter a traffic jam betrays a faith, at once touching and demented, that roads must always be (mysteriously) traffic-free. The person who loses their temper with every new employee or partner evinces a curious belief that perfection is an option for the human animal.

Serenity therefore begins with pessimism. We must learn to disappoint ourselves at leisure before the world ever has a chance to slap us by surprise at a time of its own choosing. The angry must learn to check their fury via a systematic, patient surrender of their more fervent hopes. They need to be carefully inducted to the darkest realities of life, to the stupidities of others, to the ineluctable failings of technology, to the necessary flaws of infrastructure. They should start each day with a short yet thorough premeditation on the many humiliations and insults to which the coming hours risk subsequently subjecting them.

One of the goals of civilisation is to instruct us in how to be sad rather than angry. Sadness may not sound very appealing. But it carries – in this context – a huge advantage. It is what allows us to detach our emotional energies from fruitless fury around things that (however bad) we cannot change and that are the fault of no-one in particular and – after a period of mourning – to refocus our efforts in places where our few remaining legitimate hopes and expectations have a realistic chance of success.

 

In one of his letters, Seneca urged us to “choose ourselves a Cato”—a role model to look up to, to measure ourselves against. Who are the people—dead, alive or even fictional—that you consider as role models and look up to?

How do you build a better world? There are so many well-known, urgent places you might start: malaria, carbon emissions, tax evasion, the drug trade, soil erosion, water pollution…

Donald Winnicott deserves his place in history because of the dramatic simplicity of his approach. He proposed that the happiness and future satisfaction of the human race depended ultimately not so much on external political issues, but on something far closer to home: the way parents bring up their children. All the sicknesses of humanity were, in his view, in essence consequences of a failure of parental provision. Fascism, delinquency, rage, misogyny, alcoholism, these were only the symptoms of poor childhoods that the collective would have to pay for. The road to a better society begins in the nursery.

Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) was an English paediatrician, who early on in his career became passionate about the then new field of psychoanalysis. He was analysed by James Strachey, who had translated Freud into English, and became Britain’s first medically-trained child psychoanalyst. He worked as a consultant in children’s medicine at the Paddington Green Children’s Hospital in London, and also played a crucial role in public education around child-rearing, delivering some 600 talks on the BBC, tirelessly lecturing around the country and authoring 15 books, among which the bestselling Home is Where We Start From.

It must have felt very odd, in 1954, to tune into BBC Radio at prime time and hear someone with a gentle, intelligent voice arguing incisively against the idea that babies cry ‘to get attention’ or that sending seven year olds to boarding school might be a good idea so as to ‘toughen them up.’

It was rather strange, too, that Winnicott should even have been English, given that his country was notorious, then as now, for its lack of tenderness and its resistance to introspection (and its commitment to irony, detachment and sarcasm instead). As he pointed out: ‘The Englishman does not want to be upset, to be reminded that there are personal tragedies all over the place, that he is really not happy in himself; in short, he refuses to be put off his golf.’

And yet Winnicott’s brand of psychoanalysis was, on closer inspection, peculiarly English. He wrote pragmatic, homespun prose, expressing the deepest ideas in plain, unadorned language. There was no German incomprehensibility or abstraction here. There was also a characteristic English modesty about what he saw as the point of child psychoanalysis. He wanted to help people to be, in his famous formulation, ‘good enough’ parents; not brilliant or perfect ones (as other nations might have wished), but just OK. And that was because he displayed, to a high degree, the downbeat, modest, realistic, temperament which is the particular glory of the English mind.

In an early paper, he announced his project as such: ‘I find it useful to divide the world of people into two classes. There are those who were never ‘let down’ as babies and who are to that extent candidates for the enjoyment of life and of living. There are also those who did suffer traumatic experiences of the kind that result from environmental letdown, and who must carry with them all their lives the memories of the state they were in at moments of disaster. These are candidates for lives of storm and stress and perhaps illness.’

It was this second category that he wanted to save and spare in the next generation. So what would it take, in his eyes, to encourage the ‘good enough’ parent? Winnicott put forward a number of suggestions:

 

Remember that your child is very vulnerable

Winnicott begins by impressing on his audience how psychologically fragile an infant is. It doesn’t understand itself, it doesn’t know where it is, it is struggling to stay alive, it has no way of grasping when the next feed will come, it can’t communicate with itself or others. It is an undifferentiated, unindividuated mass of competing drives. It isn’t a person. The early months are hence an immense struggle. Winnicott’s work never loses sight of this, and he therefore repeatedly insists that it is those around the infant who have to ‘adapt’, adapt so as to do everything to interpret the child’s needs and not impose demands for which the child is not ready.

A child who has adapted to the world too early, or who has had inappropriate demands made upon it, will be a prime candidate for mental problems, just as health is the result of an environment that can respond appropriately to the child, which can keep elements of reality at bay, until the small creature is ready.

At worse, a depressed mother might prematurely force an infant to be ‘cheerful’, to be together because she was not; a child of very angry, unstable parents might be terrified from expressing any of its darker emotions; or a child of intrusive parents might be prevented from developing a capacity to be alone.

 

Let a child be angry

Winnicott knew what violence, what hate there could be in a healthy infant. Referring to what happens if a parent forgets a feed, he cautioned: ‘If you fail him, it must feel to him as if the wild beasts will gobble him up.’

But though the infant might sometimes want to kill and destroy, it is vital for the parents to allow rage to expend itself, and for them not in any way to be threatened or moralistic about ‘bad’ behaviour: ‘If a baby cries in a state of rage and feels as if he has destroyed everyone and everything, and yet the people round him remain calm and unhurt, this experience greatly strengthens his ability to see that what he feels to be true is not necessarily real, that fantasy and fact, both important, are nevertheless different from each other.’

Winnicott interpreted violent feelings against parents as a natural aspect of the maturational process: ‘For a child to be brought up so that he can discover the deepest part of his nature, someone has to be defied, and even at times hated, without there being a danger of a complete break in the relationship.’

This is why he appreciated and spoke out for difficult adolescents, the sort that scream at their parents and try the odd bit of stealing from their purses. They were proof of children who had been properly loved and could hence dare to defy and test the adult world: ‘A normal child, if he has confidence in mother and father, pulls out all the stops. In the course of time, he tries out his power to disrupt, to destroy, to frighten, to wear down, to waste, to wangle, and to appropriate. Everything that takes people to the courts (or to the asylums for that matter) has its normal equivalent in childhood… If the parents can stand up to all the child can do to disrupt the parents’ world, things will settle down.’ (Winnicott is almost always deeply encouraging in his tone).

 

Make sure your child isn’t too compliant

Parents are delighted when infants and children follow their rules. Such children are called good. Winnicott was very scared of ‘good’ children. He had a messier view of childhood. The point of the early years was to be able to express freely a lot of ‘bad’ feelings without consequences, and without fear of retribution.

However, there might be parents who could not tolerate too much bad behaviour and would demand compliance too early and too strictly. This would lead, in Winnicott’s formulation, to the emergence of a ‘False Self’ – a persona that would be outwardly compliant, outwardly good, but was suppressing its vital instincts; who was not able to properly balance up its social with its destructive sides and that couldn’t be capable of real generosity or love, because it hadn’t been allowed fully to explore selfishness and hate. Only through proper, attentive nurture would a child be able to generate a ‘True Self’.

In Winnicott’s scheme, adults who can’t be creative, who are somehow a little dead inside, are almost always the children of parents who have not been able to tolerate defiance, parents who have made their offspring ‘good’ way before their time, thereby killing their capacity to be properly good, properly generous and kind (for the compliant personality is in truth only a fake version of a responsible, giving self).

 

Let your child be

Every failure of the environment forces a child to adapt prematurely. For example, if the parents are too chaotic, the child quickly tries to over-think the situation. Its rational faculties are over-stimulated (it may, in later life, try to be an intellectual).

A parent who is depressed might unwittingly force the child to be too cheerful – giving it no time to process its own melancholy feelings. Winnicott saw the dangers in a child who, in his words, has to ‘look after mother’s mood’.

Winnicott had a special hatred for ‘people who are always jogging babies up and down on their knees trying to produce a giggle.’ This was merely their way of warding off their own sadness, by demanding laughter from a baby who might have very different things on its mind.

The primordial act of parental health for Winnicott is simply to be able to tune out of oneself for a time in the name of empathising with the ways and needs of a small, mysterious, beautiful fragile person whose unique otherness must be acknowledged and respected in full measure.

 

Realise the gravity of the job you’ve taken on

Many of the parents Winnicott saw were worn down by their labours. Winnicott tried to bolster them by reminding them of the utmost importance of what they were doing. They were, in their own way, as significant to the nation as the Prime Minister and the Cabinet: ‘The foundation of the health of the human being is laid by you in the baby’s first weeks and months. This thought should help when you feel strange at the temporary loss of your interest in world affairs. It is not surprising. You are engaged in founding the mental health of the next generation.’ Winnicott called parenting: ‘the only real basis for a healthy society, and the only factory for the democratic tendency in a country’s social system.’

Of course, there will be errors. Things go wrong in childhood. And that’s what psychoanalysis is for. In Winnicott’s eyes, the analyst in later years acts as a substitute parent, a proxy ‘good enough’ figure who ‘is in a position of the mother of an infant’. Good analysis has things in common with those early years. Here too, the analyst should listen without forcing the patient to get ‘better’ ahead of time. She shouldn’t force a cure down his or her throat, she should provide a safe place where bits of childhood that weren’t completed or went awry can be recreated and rehearsed. Analysis is a chance to fill in the missing steps.

In his descriptions of what parents should do for their children, Winnicott was in effect referring to a term which he rarely mentioned directly: love. We often imagine love to be about a magical intuitive ‘connection’ with someone. But, in Winnicott’s writings, we get a different picture. It’s about a surrender of the ego, a putting aside of one’s own needs and assumptions, for the sake of close, attentive listening to another, whose mystery one respects, along with a commitment not to get offended, not to retaliate, when something ‘bad’ emerges, as it often does when one is close to someone, child or adult.

Since Winnicott’s death, we’ve collectively grown a little better at parenting. But only a little. We may spend more time with our children, we know in theory that they matter a lot, but we’re arguably still failing at the part Winnicott focused on: adaptation. We still routinely fail to suppress our own needs or stifle our own demands when we’re with a child. We’re still learning how to love our children – and that, Winnicott would argue, is why the world is still full of the walking-wounded, people of outward ‘success’ and respectability who are nevertheless not quite ‘real’ inside and inflict their wounds on others. We’ve a way to go until we get to be ‘good enough.’ It’s a task – Winnicott would have insisted – that’s in its own way as important as curing malaria or slowing global warming.

 

And one final question, our readers are pretty familiar with Stoicism. What are some other schools of thoughts that you recommend that they pick next? Or even specific philosophers or books?

Augustine has to come next. In the late 4th century, as the immense Roman Empire was collapsing, the leading philosopher of the age, St Augustine, became deeply interested in possible explanations for the evident tragic disorder of the human world. One central idea he developed was what he legendarily termed Peccatum Originale: original sin. Augustine proposed that human nature is inherently damaged and tainted because – in the Garden of Eden – the mother of all people, Eve, sinned against God by eating an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. Her guilt was then passed down to her descendants and now all earthly human endeavours are bound to fail because they are the work of a corrupt and faulty human spirit. This odd idea might not be literally true, of course. However, as a metaphor for why the world is in a mess, it has a beguiling poetic truth, as relevant to atheists as believers. We should not – perhaps – expect too much from the human race, Augustine implies. We’ve been somewhat doomed from the outset. And that can, in certain moods, be a highly redemptive thought to keep in mind.