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Beginnings: The Breakthrough Moment

Alain de Botton, Philosopher

"I realized that it might be possible to be both 'in the world' and involved in books."

Philosophy As a Way of Life.  

When I was at university, I remember reading a wonderful book by a French philosopher called Pierre Hadot: Philosophy As a Way of Life. The essential argument was that the ancient Greeks and Romans had used philosophy in a very different way to us moderns: They had used it as a kind of therapy, seeking enlightenment, wisdom, and calm for their troubled minds through reflection and analysis. In other words, philosophy had been intensely practical as well as intellectually rich and nourishing. This was very welcome news, because I’d been suffering from an awareness that two things I longed for seemed incompatible: (a) making a difference (b) pursuing a life of the mind. My reading of Hadot’s book marked a turning point. Suddenly I realized that it might be possible to be both “in the world” and involved in books and thought: After all, the Greek and Roman thinkers I liked had pulled it off a few thousand years back. That’s how optimistic and naïve I was at 21; thank goodness I didn’t quite realize the scale of my blindness or I would have stopped right away. Another thing struck me deeply in Hadot’s book. In those days, philosophers had belonged to little schools that went around selling their wisdom on the open market. Epicurus had a school, Zeno had a school, etc. This again seemed profoundly charming. It tapped into a longing of mine to be entrepreneurial and band together with like-minded souls. It was at that moment that I hatched a plan to set up what I called to myself (at age 21) “the School of Life.” It would be a little place that could offer guidance in how to approach the big questions of existence; it might publish books, run classes, and offer psychotherapy — very much like the Ancients had done (they didn’t call it therapy, of course). All this was going on in a back room of my mind. And on rare occasions when I met a like-minded soul, and we hit it off, I’d share my plans for the future and the School of Life. I realized how absurd and grandiose it could sound, so I did limit such revelations. The sensible path would have been to get an M.B.A. and move into the real world. Still, I stuck with the dream and, 25 years later, it’s more or less come to fruition. I now write books about philosophical things and set up a philosophical school called It’s now got branches in ten countries, and 50,000 people have been through our doors. I’m a deep pessimist by nature — but I recognize it can pay off to formulate a dream and stick with it over years. Not least, I’m deeply grateful to Professor Hadot for that beautiful, wise little book, which — unknowingly — wrote the script to my life.