Letter of scorn to Alain de Botton


We believe the point of art in general is to offer therapeutic assistance; it should help us to better endure and enjoy their lives.

So says Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, an art historian, in a jointly written book called Art as Therapy. There is so much that’s mistaken about this statement I feel disempowered typing it.

It’s in the idea of enduring. Consider this as a restatement: the purpose of our lives is to get through our lives. Insane! And as for the idea the best response to life is a therapeutic one? If anything needs therapy it’s this view!


Human being is not inherently fragile, sick, pathetic, small, weak. All this is inauthenticity. Human being is basic goodness itself, not goodness in the good/bad, right/wrong dichotomies of the world of inauthenticity, but goodness as soundness, wholeness, perfection. Going to work on what is inauthentic, what is not real − whether by therapy or any other “corrective” means − is a waste of time and unnecessary.

All there is to do is to observe one’s inauthenticities and LET THEM BE.

De Botton and Armstrong use the concept of “completion” in relation to Nicolas Poussin’s, The Crossing of the Red Sea, that I saw on a visit to the National Gallery of Victoria. They fail to look beyond the most banal observations on “closure”.

The painting shows the Israelites having arrived safely on the far shore after the parting of the Red Sea on the forced exit from Egypt. Here’s the statement pinned next to the painting from de Botton and Armstrong’s book:

Sickness: the desire for closure [Can you believe that? They even use the word “sickness”]

They have just escaped from terrible danger. The Egyptian army was chasing them as they fled from Egypt. God made the waters of the Red Sea part while they scurried across, then released the waters again on top of the Egyptians.

Nicolas Poussin has not shown the big drama. He’s taken us to the moment when, in a way, it feels as if the story has finished. They must have been thinking, “If only we can escape from Pharoah’s chariots, if only we can get to the other side, then all will be well.” They are across the Red Sea and safe, but it’s not over — new difficulties and challenges are just beginning. Now they have to get all their things together, set off on a long march through the desert, find water and find enough to eat.

The picture says: “This is the human condition — we don’t get the rest (and sense of completion) we deserve.”

The picture says? How about this, de Botton, as you say: “You’re alive, ergo, commiserations are in order”?

What an utterly rancid view! Tell that to someone dying, tell that to someone who has just given birth to a child, tell that to someone living to be of service to others. De Botton, call yourself a philosopher? You haven’t got a clue. Let me remind you of what another British man, much wiser than you’re being at present, said of the matter:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognised by yourself as a mighty one, the being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making me happy.

I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and, as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live.

I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got to hold up for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

~ George Bernand Shaw


Image: The Crossing of the Red Sea, Nicolas Poussin, 1632-1634



11 thoughts on “Letter of scorn to Alain de Botton

  1. Well, I do like A de Botton’s work and have thought often that life at times is an endurance test. It would be an insensitive soul not, at times, falling in despair. I mean, mention Syria or our own Manus Island misery,the missing school girls. Lately even politicians. Both George Shaw and Botton make valid points. It is up to us to make sense of it all.


  2. Life and art reduced to a huddled state of misery? God parts the waters and all that’s left is a lack of closure? How strange. I’m with you on this one: life, art, miracles–glorious!


  3. While I don’t think we can deny the struggles of life, those struggles are evidence of the miracle of who we are and why we’re here. I don’t know who said it (or if anyone said it, but I people have two elemental needs: to be connected to others and to love. A life defined with connections and genuine love is a life well-lived.

    Like you, I disagree that we are meant to endure our time here. We are meant to celebrate every bit of it.


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