The ‘Philosophy of Life’ as philosophy (or, in praise of Alain de Botton)

A few years ago I would have taken a low opinion of the idea of a popular philosopher diluting insights for a middle class time poor audience who want deep insights at little effort and dismissive of the general genre of ‘Popular Philosophy’. Then I read a few of the ‘pop philosophy’ books. I think having a varied diet means, to paraphrase Dwayne Johnson as Luke Hobbs: having your dessert first, and then the veggies.

 

I would consider Popular Philosophy (and most literature for that matter) as a dessert. But having those veggies and salads are just as important. For every dozen popular non fiction books I’ve read this year, I’ve gone ahead 1/6th through a single volume of Gibbon.

 

De Botton should be praised for his literary efforts. There is a distinct degree to which he dilutes heavy insights from literary and philosophical figures in a way that is most appeasing to the White Middle Class faux-intelligentsia (or as Veblen referred to them: the Leisure class [or as Furrygrrl [[I bet you are looking her up]]) sometimes refers to as the ‘leisure of the theory class’]) to make them look clever for their bookshelves containing books that are ‘better than the film version’. But critiquing his audience is hardly a critique of his body of work.

 

What de Botton has taught me which is immensely valuable is something that Nussbaum wrote in Love’s Knowledge, or that Eileen John writes in her papers on Aesthetics and Literature: there is moral insight to be had in literature. By reading novels exploring character (de Botton favours Stendhal and Proust), we expand our own inner world and that in turn deepens our moral character.

 

Another aspect that I have enjoyed from Consolations of Philosophy and Status Anxiety, is how de Botton makes everyday life seem philosophical. De Botton is hardly original in his views or combining the idea that literature-is-philosophical and the-everyday-is-philosophical. But you don’t have to read papers in contemporary philosophical aesthetics, or have to read John Cottingham’s recent Heythrop-era work to gain that insight.

 

De Botton makes me want to read Montaigne properly. Montaigne’s work is about his musings on the every day, but he makes his very unique problems very universal. I have been captivated by the idea of how particular situations in life, loves and relationships while are not directly the same or relevant to other people’s lives, are deeply relatable in some fundamental way. We do not need to know what it’s like to have kidney stones, to find sympathy in Montaigne’s woes, or even to find insight in our own lives. Perhaps in that way we are going back to what Cottingham refers to as the ‘Philosophy of Life’.

 

What I enjoy about de Botton is the immanent nature and grounded aspect of what he portrays in the world. Avoiding metaphysics or theoretical philosophy, he focusses on the mundane as psychologically insightful. This is hardly systematic philosophy, but it does certainly have a valuable place.

Sinistre

Reading: Bart D. Ehrman (or, In Praise of the Historical Jesus programme)

I’ve lately been reading quite a few of the books by Bart D. Ehrman. Ehrman has the same story to set up most of his books, which are mostly about the same subject matter: the historicity of the Christian Bible. Like a bad Vonnegut novel, it starts off with the identical origin story. Ehrman grew up in a not particularly religious household, and then became evangelised as a teenager. Ehrman then went to religious colleges and was warned about ‘secular’ institutions which have course on bible study.

 

Eventually Ehrman widens his academic horizons and discovers philosophy and literature. Ehrman becomes the bible scholar but finds that his initial evangelical pretentions to the inerrance of the bible are predicated on premises such as: the book that we read today (i.e. what we can buy from bookshops, churches or online etc) has a long historical narrative as to how it came to be.

 

Ehrman explores the histories of early Christianity and finds a story of how certain narratives won in historical disputes and the result of that is the Christianity that we understand today. As someone reading Gibbon I can definitely recall the disputes of the likes of the Arians and the Donatists, how questions of Christology, Soteriology and Mariology (not the study of an Italian plumber) reveal deep schisms of belief between people and was hardly a dry scholarly issue at the time. The history of Late Antiquity is the story of how our Christianity of today came to be.

 

Let’s take a bit of a step back. I like Ehrman’s work, even though I haven’t read many of the commentators he’s referring to. I’m currently pacing through DF Strauss’s Life of Jesus Critically Examined at the moment. I find this fasincation with the Historical Jesus utterly fascinating for a few reasons. One is that it shows the success of Kant’s programme on religion. If we are to take the idea of moral religion seriously we have to then consider the historicity of the character of Jesus.

 

There’s a divide in the so-called apologetics of today where people try to use hokey rational arguments which don’t convince someone with a background in philosophy, and other arguments on the vein of William Lane Craig or William Alston or Malcolm Platinga which applies some pretty heavy metaphysics (which is always very attractive to me) to give arguments for the existence of God. Then there’s the other side of apologetics: claim that Jesus was an Historical figure.

 

Back in the turn of the 20th Century this tradition might have been called ‘Liberal Theology’ or ‘Protestant Theology’. I find it astounding that Atheist/sceptics have finally caught up with 19th Century Theology in the form of Bart D. Erhman. Many of the atheists of the 2000s had arguments which were no better than Hume in the 18th Century. When it comes to critique of religion, I always thought that the powerful arguments came from Kant, who came from within the spiritual and exegetical tradition to critique the articles of Christian faith. It is one thing to convince someone who has no background or interest in understanding a religion or any religion, but it takes another to see the logical extensions of what it means to have faith and see where it leads. Kant I take it, follows the latter route in his moral philosophy. It is often said that the liberal protestant tradition has come from Kant’s programmatic statements in the Religion within the bounds of Mere Reason work. I find the argumentative strategy in Ehrman’s book refreshing, as if atheism has their own ‘Catholics’ and ‘Protestants’ of their own. As it happens, with the controversies and immense criticisms going towards people like Sam Harris and Bill Maher (on contemporary political issues) or Richard Dawkins (on his, perhaps one should refer to them as ‘social opinions’); perhaps we need a protestant movement within atheist intellectual circles to distance ourselves from their doctrines.

 

Destre returns from the mists to write this post

 

Watching: Blacula

Recently I had the amazing opportunity to watch the film Blacula, as part of Eureka Video’s ‘Masters of Cinema’ series. I have been informed about the ‘Masters of Cinema DVD/Blu Ray series for a while and I find the choices of films particularly interesting, exploring films which have merit from a cinematic point of view significantly varies from what we might consider as the popular opinions of the public on cinema.

 

Blacula was a film that I heard about a few years ago, and I thought just by the name and discovering it was part of the blaxploitation genre, was comedic and not serious. How wrong I was, although there are comedic elements, much of the humour comes from being distant from the 1970s and observing how things have changed. Which leads me to my main consideration of the film.

 

Blacula is a story of an ‘African Prince’, Mamualde. Mamualde has impressed many of the 18th Century intellects of the time and has gained a deserved modicum of respectability. Mamualde, visiting one ‘Count Dracula’ (many of the tropes and lores of vampires are assumed familiar by the audience) who acknowledges the cultural capital and sophistication (i..e. Eurocentric things of value) but ultimately rebuffs and rejects Mamualde’s calls for an end to the slave trade.

 

Dracula entirely unconvinced or unwilling to seriously consider this, traps Mamualde in a tomb after transforming the prince into one of his own kind. Mamualde is given the additional indignity of being buried in a sarcophagus with his wife. Skip 200 years and the Prince now Christened ‘Blacula’ is discovered by a pair of gay antique dealers (one white, one black). It is established and much is made upon that these dealers are both homosexual and presumably partners.

 

Perhaps watching this film in 2014, in an age where we ‘call out’ microaggressions, injustices and the way that our culture of yesteryear was less sensitive to our own time, is the blatant and ubiquitous homophobia of the Blacula world. I am convinced that the homophobia is purposeful as a metaphor to the way that racism against the Black American was ubiquitous in the decades leading to the 1970s.

 

In one scene, a police officer seeking out the antiquities dealers asserted that ‘they all look alike’, making a generalisation about homosexuals that would be familiar to any person of colour who grew up in a white majority and unfavourable society. The way in which many black characters were in varied professions is quite progressive as a part of the story, such as the female cab driver (who refers to Blacula as ‘boy!’) and the coroner/funeral director who described the police pathologist (Thalmus Rusala/Dr. Gordon Thomas) looking into Blacula’s killings as ‘…the rudest nigger I’ve ever seen in my life!’. These are notable black-on-black racial slurs while conversely the white police chief while suspicious of the pathologist’s pet theory does ultimately trust Dr. Thomas professionally as competent at his job.

 

There’s something that I dare say aspirational about Blacula, in the way that the world depicted gives a sense of distinction to many of the black characters who are all doing a job who happen to get drawn into the Vampiric killings. The real thing to make an audience of today think is the homophobia rampant and even presented as comedic. If we can see one form of oppression, we can surely be sympathetic to another. That, I think, is one of the salient messages of Blacula.

 

Blacula: The Complete Collection is released in the UK from the 27th October 2014 as part of Eureka Classics: Masters of Cinema.