“We accept not to panic when, some years from now, what we are doing today will seem like the worst decision of our lives. Yet we promise not to look around, either, for we accept that there cannot be better options out there. Everyone is always impossible. We are a demented species.”
Alain de Botton’s alternative marriage vows say much about his views on love. Alain is not a foe of love, but he does believe that we are starved of examples of true, practical love.
How many stories have you read or seen about falling in love? The heady, laying-in-the-daisies, no need for work or washing type of love. Those stories are a product of romanticism, a relatively modern phenomenon that emerged when society decided that one should not simply tolerate their partner, but love them, and them alone, until death do thee part. Romanticism is the not the issue, its fiction’s obsession with it.
Alain observes that invariably, love stories will settle on a foundation of domesticity. Without example, we are led to believe that there is a kind of bourgeois shame in this life. In this rejection we fail to equip ourselves with tools and skills to navigate domestic life. We tread more consciously in our social and professional lives than we do at home. We lack patience and compassion when it comes to those we love the most.
Alain’s new book, the “The Course of Love” seeks to bridge the divide between fiction and reality and provide original insights into love and relationships. Like this word on conflict: “Few in this world are ever simply nasty, those who hurt us are themselves in pain. The appropriate response is hence never cynicism or aggression but, at the rare moments one can manage it, always love.”
Alain is well-known as a practitioner in the philosophy of the everyday, having written on topics like religion, work, travel and happiness. Until now, I had never picked up a book by Alain, thinking philosophy was too intelligentsian for me. But I adored this book. And I’ve come to appreciate Alain’s style, which is centred around making philosophical ideas accessible.
In “The Course of Love”, Alain does this by writing a fictional story about an ordinary couple and the course of their relationship – from romance to property to children via adultery and despair. Their course is rockier than most, but there’s still value in its example. Alain inserts commentary, italicised and obvious to the reader, throughout the story to lay out his philosophical narrative.
I was concerned that this book would be smug and hyperbolic but I found most of it to be entirely reasonable, and only a little bit cynical. Love is a tediously dissected topic, but “The Course of Love” views it from a new angle, thoughtfully and with tremendous wit.
Alain suggests that effective love starts with choosing the right person: “The Romantic vision of marriage stresses the importance of finding the ‘right’ person, which is taken to mean someone in sympathy with the raft of our interests and values. There is no such person over the long term. We are too varied and peculiar. The partner truly best suited to us is not the one who miraculously happens to share every taste, but the one who can negotiate differences in taste with intelligence and good grace.”
Alain says that we must be teachable: “We are ready for marriage when we accept that in a number of significant areas our partner will be wiser, more reasonable and more mature than we are. We should want to learn from them. We should bear having things pointed out to us. Only if we were already perfect could the idea of mutual education be dismissed as unloving.”
Perhaps the most significant reminder in this book is that love is not something that happens to us, its something that we do. Love is a skill, not just an enthusiasm.
Thought leader(s): Alain de Botton
Book(s): de Botton, A (2016) The Course of Love, Hamilton.