I bought this book on a whim, since it seemed to be about something that I trouble to think about quite a lot – the disappearance of religious belief and what, if anything, should replace it. It was a well justified whim; this is a lovely, mellow, intriguing book.

Perhaps best to begin with the author’s style. I read his The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work and enjoyed it so much that I sent it to my brother, since it was written with the gentle but telling irony so familiar to him. The format of Pleasures and Sorrows is similar to this book – clever and thoughtful pieces of writing, interleaved with black and white photographs that complement the text and, actually, illustrate its meaning. There must be a name in the publishing world for this sort of book, so different from the ‘plates’ approach, where pictures are stuck in the middle and need to be referred to by some sort of process that takes you out of the flow of the text. The pictures here are not ‘plates’, printed on a glossier type of paper, but just photographs or photomontages printed as if it was all part of the same, seamless weave.

But the writing style is also consistent. Deep, observational, factual and, well….philosophical. De Botton is, at least in the UK, seen as that rarity: a thinker or public philosopher. Each short section contains a few sentences of aphoristic prose, some of which really  make you sit up and take notice. For instance:

“In essence, religions understand that to belong to a community is both very desirable and not very easy. In this respect, they are greatly more sophisticated than those secular political theorists who write lyrically about the loss of a sense of community, while refusing to acknowledge the inherently dark aspects of social life.”
Or, even better:
“Ultimately, the purpose of all education is to save us time and spare us errors. It is a mechanism……to inculcate in society’s members , within a set span of years, what it took the very brightest and most determined of their ancestors centuries of painful and sporadic efforts to work out.
Secular society has proved itself ready enough to accept the logic of this mission in relation to scientific and technical knowledge. It sees nothing to regret in the fact that a university student ….will in a matter of months be able to learn as much as Faraday ever knew and in a couple of years may be pushing at the outer limits of Einstein’s unified field theory.
Yet this selfsame principle, which seems at once so obvious and so inoffensive in science, tends to be met with extraordinary opposition when applied to wisdom; to insights related to the self-aware and moral stewardship of the soul.”
The style is also humorous and self-deprecating. Diffident and tentative, almost; not didactic or patronising.
He makes some very interesting points about life in modern western society. Some examples:

  • Most people are at best embarrassed and at worst angered by religious exhortations in signs or in leaflets. I know I am. But we are actually bombarded with messages from companies telling us to behave differently, to value ourselves and other things differently, to hold particular attitudes. But we do not object to this at all. Why? 

  • Museums and galleries carry out some of the same roles, in modern secular societies, as churches. They are places for reflection and the contemplation of depths and perspectives outside our daily experience. But they are organised in accordance with academic categories, like ‘Early Renaissance" or “Cubism and Dada”. Why not arrange objects or artworks in line with the meanings and purposes they share, like ‘insights to the self’ or ‘mankind’s place in the cosmos’? Would this not serve these needs for contemplation and perspective more adequately?

  • Religions of all kinds use institutions to promote, reinforce and control their teachings. Yet the secular equivalent, an ethical world view or a philosophy of life, is left to the a cottage industry of individuals. So a Kant or a Neitzsche communicates through a handful of obscure books, read by a few academics. While the Catholic Church deports vast resources over millennia. Could the secular thinkers not do with some institutional support, too?

    I was waiting for him to say something, as I neared the end of the book, of the attempt during the French Revolution to create a new religion, called I think the Cult of the Supreme Being. Instead, he writes about the fascinating Auguste Comte, who seems in a number of ways to have been de Botton’s intellectual ancestor. He created a secular religion, complete with icons and worship, in the first half of the nineteenth century. He identified secular saints, like Shakespeare and Descartes, who could inspire awe and admiration simply by their talents. According to de Botton, his big mistake was to call it a ‘religion’, and it never got off the ground. A ‘church’ was however built in an apartment in Paris some decades later, by a group of enthusiasts and it survives to this day.

    So, a nicely written, thoughtful book, enjoyable to read and very thought provoking. Recommended.

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