You don’t often find anything “normal” on YouTube and that’s a good thing. It is a repository of niches, illegally uploaded music and movies, commentaries, commentaries on commentaries, and many more. Archived footage once thought lost surface on the site and people can talk about their favorite video games and books. You could say YouTube is a subculture on its own right thanks to all of that.
I don’t watch television nowadays and if I do watch something like a film or an anime, I make sure I don’t have anything that will distract me for hours. But with YouTube, I often eat my lunch and dinner while looking through my subscriptions to find something to watch. I have lately been addicted to speedruns and the players’ commentaries give me food for thought when it comes to game design. I also watch a Yale Open Lecture once in a while whenever I’m in that “college study” mode. And then, there’s Fredrik Knudsen’s Down the Rabbit Hole series and hbomberguy‘s videos, both I recommend for how deeply informative they can be without being boring. It’s the definition of infotainment and it is quite fun to learn about things you have no idea about.
School of Life is neither of those.
This YouTube channel comes up as a rudimentary layman introduction to philosophy, media culture, and how to live life. On its about page, it describes itself as
“both a You Tube channel and a real-life school (for adults) devoted to emotional education and located in 10 campuses around the world.”
That sounds fine and dandy to me; a channel meant to discuss philosophy and other hard subjects in the humanities is needed nowadays. Philosophy, especially postmodernism, is one of the most fascinating and obfuscating fields that lends itself to ridicule way too easily. The School of Life also mentions that they are all about “wisdom, emotional intelligence and self-understanding.”
Unfortunately, that is quite far from the truth.
Wisdom: You Are What You Earn
“A fundamental belief of the modern world, which explains a lot of our anxiety around failure, is that we are what we earn.”
This declaration of the human condition comes from one of their newest videos titled “You Are Not What You Earn”. Alain de Botton, the founder of School of Life, and his writers argue that saying the adage implies that “our income is the source of information, crucial decisive information about character, our intelligence, our moral fibre: in short, money is the key indicator of our worth in human and just not financial terms.”
In other words: more money means more reasons to exist.
This and many other videos feature an existentialist angst that has been created by the values of late capitalism. Characters share a sense of emptiness and longing for some kind of reason and meaning through what they perceive is a world of nonsense. “You Are Not What You Earn” takes a step back and looks from the “outsider’s perspective” to see what the economics of salaries are like:
“Wages are not decided by the extent of someone’s human worth or social contribution per se. Wages are simply the result of the intensity with which certain people want a job done relative to the number of people who happen to be able to do it.”
Botton points out that “holding a hand on a cancer ward” will offer little money, no matter how “humanely important” that is. Skilled labor is the reason for this existentialist drain. He goes on to say that “money is in fact no accurate measure of the human work in question; the determinant of wages is just the strength of demand in relation to supply.” Botton calls this an “issue of appreciation” and concludes that assessing a salary in its context is a better way to understand the efforts of someone in a particular vocation. In the end, knowing someone well will define them more than how much they’re making.
A long-winded video about a simple hot take, but that’s the School of Life for you.
But let’s go back to the introduction of the video: “A fundamental belief of the modern world, which explains a lot of our anxiety around failure, is that we are what we earn.” This “anxiety” is caused by a “fundamental belief of the modern world”. In many School of Life videos, Botton implores his viewers to analyze the situation around them and make them understand the world is quite horrible.
This pessimistic worldview seeps into the videos the channel is most famous for: their so-called open-minded discussions on the humanities they claim to love a lot. Philosophical problems found in literature and philosophical texts are treated like relationship or self-esteem problems. Botton describes the premise of Albert Camus’s The Stranger as a
“story about a laconic detached ironic hero called Meursault, a man who can’t see the point of love or work and relationship and who one day, somewhat by mistake, shoots dead an Arab man without knowing his [Meursault’s] motivations and ends up being put to death, partly because he doesn’t show any remorse but not really caring for his fate one way or the other.”
The Stranger is apparently a “rite of passage” for many French teenagers and Meursault is apparently seen as something like a French Holden Caulfield:
“He [Meursault] sees hypocrisy and sentimentality everywhere and he can’t overlook it. He’s a man who can’t accept the normal explanations given to explain things like the education system, the workplace, relationships or the mechanism of the government. He stands outside bourgeois life, highly critical of its pinched morality and narrow concerns for money and family.”
This judgmental description of Meursault (and French teenagers) has little to do with the book. The Stranger begins with Meursault alienated by the death of his mother. He knows he should grieve, but he doesn’t. Indeed, the first two sentences of the novella denote this confusion: “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.”
He finds that living life is in fact quite absurd. It doesn’t matter how or when people will die. People will die. Full stop. Camus owes a lot of this alienation to Franz Kafka’s work who he admires and writes about in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Both Camus and Kafka depict a world where the logic of the world makes perfect sense and nonsense at all. Their characters have difficulty expressing their emotions as a result. They don’t know what to make of life itself.
In fact, Camus claims in “The Absurd Man” essay from the same collection that
“All systems of morality are based on the idea that an action has consequences that legitimize or cancel it. A mind imbued with the absurd merely judges that those consequences must be considered calmly. It is ready to pay up. In other words, there may be responsible persons, but there are no guilty ones, in its opinion. At very most, such a mind will consent to use past experience as a basis for its future actions.”
This nonsensical world is difficult to live in. That’s what Meursault is trying to say. It is just absurd. Camus writes in the afterword of the American edition of the book that “Meursault doesn’t play the game. He doesn’t lie. He says what he is. He refuses to hide his feelings. And so, society immediately feels threatened.”
That particular quote comes from the School of Life video itself. Botton and his writers misconstrue it to say that Meursault is not apologetic for being quite the contrarian. Their interpretation of that quote is bizarre. It’s like they never read the damn book and only read the synopsis on Wikipedia with the narrowest perspective on teenagers possible.
But Botton wants to end his bizarre monologue on The Stranger on a lighter sentiment:
“Even if we’re not killers and we’ll ourselves be really quite sad when our mother dies, the mood of The Outsider [The Stranger] is one we’re all liable to have some experience of: When we have enough freedom to realize we are in a cage but not quite enough freedom to escape it, when no one seems to understand and everything appears a little hopeless, perhaps in the summer before we go to college.”
Those pesky, emotional college students probably look like this since this appears when he says the quote above:
Later on, Botton starts talking about Camus’s proclamation that Sisyphus, eternally punished to roll up boulders forever, must be quite happy. Rolling boulders up a hill is the perfect metaphor to describe the meaningless yet productive mindset of an absurdist. Botton instead redirects us to
“the most charming and seductive side of Camus, the Camus who wants to remind himself and us of the reasons why life can be worth enduring and who in the process writes with exceptional intensity and wisdom about relationships, nature, the summer, food, and friendship. As a guide to the reasons to live, Camus is delightful.
Many philosophers have been ugly and cut off from their bodies — think of sickly Pascal, crippled Leopardi, sexually unsuccessful Schopenhauer, or poor peculiar Nietzsche.
Camus was by contrast very good-looking, extremely successful with women for the last ten years of his life. He never had fewer than three girlfriends on the go and wives as well and he had a great dress sense, influenced by James Dean and Humphrey Bogart. It isn’t surprising he was asked to pose by the American Vogue.
These weren’t all just stylistic quirks. Once you properly realize that life is absurd, you’re on the verge of despair perhaps but also compelled to live life more intensely.”
So we come to the proper conclusion of what Camus’s philosophical contributions are: they aren’t about the examination of what it means to be alienated in society; they are about living life better and some shit.
It is also a contradiction of his “you are not what you earn” video because Botton is literally comparing philosophers to Camus’s worth. But I guess that doesn’t matter when this video barely resembles anything like philosophy. It’s a hit job. A very biased attack on the philosopher.
Camus isn’t the only one stripped away of any dignity. In what universe does Michel Foucault’s repressed homosexuality and Nietzsche being depressed about his dog’s death have anything to do with their philosophies? Alain de Botton’s universe, apparently. It is apparently a place where discussions on the authoritarianism of psychiatry and the existentialist angst of what it means to be an individualist become armchair psychiatrist sessions of their traumas.
One of the points Coffee Break makes in his video about “The Problem with the School of Life” is that it pretends to be openminded and objective. Botton doesn’t seem to care if he views children as “the harbinger of doom” with relationships or if “religions are technically false” and people just want to believe. Masquerading these dumb opinions as “facts” doesn’t fly too well in the face of philosophy and it is why the channel never ends up being serious about its subjects.
Emotional Intelligence: Everything Solves Sex
But if you ever think of it as a self-help work, the opinions are as “factual” as they can be. The world is depraved, so here are some factual opinions about how to make your life better. You can find any of this bullshit in self-help literature because this is a common premise shared by self-help literature.
Sandra K. Dolby’s Self-Help Books: Why American Keeps Reading Them describes the ever pervasive literature as akin to the legends and myths she studies in folkloristics, though they are not obviously one and the same. Legends and myths are ways to teach people about the taboos and moral things to do in a society. These ideas pass down from one generation to another like a fairytale told by ancestors. You can think of this as a cultural meme.
Self-help books functions similarly: writers often share the same criticisms of culture and solutions in their books. Dolby observes in the fifth chapter of the book that self-help writers write about eight themes: “(1) fear; (2) control; (3) competition; (4) judgment; (5) dishonesty; (6) individualism; (7) violence; (8) impatience.”
“Most of the concerns that self-help writers address can be grouped under one of these eight themes. In fact, a number of writers suggest that all concerns or problems are a result of the first theme—fear, that eliminating fear or at least learning to respond more appropriately to it is the one answer to all questions posed by self-help books.”
Their advice sounds remarkably similar to one another. In fact, it is not difficult to find similar ideas and even phrases lifted from one book or another; that’s why writers try to find ways to change up the structure lest they are accused of plagiarism. These writers are working from literally memes after all.
And this is where Botton really comes in: he writes self-help books in the guise of philosophy. I have the unfortunate experience of stumbling upon his work before I knew anything about the School of Life. His books show the problems of the school quite clearly because they show you how rehashed the content are throughout his videos and books. He’s just reusing memes the same way self-help writers write.
The book I got to read was A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary. Botton was asked by Heathrow Airport to be their “airport ambassador” and he was allowed to write whatever he wished to write about — observation, criticism, and whatever — about the airport. He set upon his work writing in the middle of Heathrow Airport with millions of people passing by him as he tried to type down notes about what he saw in the airport. It’s a very intriguing premise and that’s why I read it.
Some of the stories Botton got to write about were fascinating but went nowhere. A shoe cleaner on the first floor, after learning Botton’s task here, claimed that he had many stories to tell from wiping shoes clean. Each shoe tells one story. As the story became good, Botton cut it off and started heading elsewhere to look for more material.
His main objective is to paint Heathrow Airport as a place of death or something. It’s quite similar to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities in which everything looks the same no matter where you go. However, Botton describes the whole environment of an airport like this:
“Nowhere was the airport’s charm more concentrated than on the screens placed at intervals across the terminal which announced, in deliberately workmanlike fonts, the itineraries of aircraft about to take to the skies. These screens implied a feeling of infinite and immediate possibility: they suggested the ease with which we might impulsively approach a ticket desk and, within a few hours, embark for a country where the call to prayer rang out over shuttered whitewashed houses, where we understood nothing of the language and where no one knew our identities. The lack of detail about the destinations served only to stir unfocused images of nostalgia and longing: Tel Aviv, Tripoli, St Petersburg, Miami, Muscat via Abu Dhabi, Algiers, Grand Cayman via Nassau … all of these promises of alternative lives, to which we might appeal at moments of claustrophobia and stagnation.
He wastes opportunities to describe what it meant to be a traveller in the airport. Botton seems to grasp the hesitation that the travel destination will be great and all that money one spent would be all worth it. He then associated that hesitation with philosophers like Bataille’s and the psychological-sexual fixation on death. It could have been interesting, but a book with only 107 pages to spare had other observations.
Other observations like:
“Out of the millions of people we live among, most of whom we habitually ignore and are ignored by in turn, there are always a few that hold hostage our capacity for happiness, whom we could recognize by their smell alone and whom we would rather die than be without.”
“It seems that most of us could benefit from a brush with a near-fatal disaster to help us recognise the important things that we are too defeated or embittered to recognise from day to day.”
These so-called familiar sights are nothing but memes reused everywhere in his works. He isn’t interested in trekking new material but the area where he is most comfortable with. It’s why most of his videos end up feeling like the same thing. Nothing new comes up and the subjects talked about often feel reactionary to what is commonly perceived. He just finds things wrong everywhere he sees.
But airports are not the worst things Botton could ever imagine. That would be sex. In How to Think More About Sex, sexual desires are problematic and we are Oedipal by nature. Because of how our parents are restrictive, we seek people who resemble our parents. We might get weirded out how our significant others may be too close to our parents and thus some of us could bang some younger person as a means to escape. For him, the true meaningful sex can only be done if people share the same values; otherwise:
There are of course ways to have an orgasm that have very little to do with finding common purpose with another person, but these must be thought of as a greater or lesser betrayal of what sex should really be about.
AV Flox sums up Botton’s message in Sex and the 405 that “sex is the enemy of goodness. It corrupts. It distracts. It is a problem. That, essentially, is the message of Alain de Botton’s How To Think More About Sex.”
Pornography, which was mentioned in the book, makes an appearance in The School of Life as well. In the video titled “Better Porn”, the woman narrator laments the same Botton ideas: meaningless sex is a betrayal of trust or something. Same with masturbation. Popular pornography videos can be harmful to people’s mind. Thus, it is important that we need “better porn”. A more sensual and loving type.
Of course, there’s already a thing called sensual porn but The School of Life went beyond and made a website about their new goal on sex: Porn as Therapy. Its mission? Not to make sex “difficult” but “a search for a ‘better’ sort of pornography, ‘better’ meaning not more or less explicit or unusual, but more aligned with the highest capacities of humankind: intelligence, sensitivity and empathy.”
If you ever wanted self-help erotica, Botton knows the website.
The most interesting erotica comes from the “Seriousness” section. It is about a philosophy student reading some Spinoza’s Ethics; she thinks that beard is damn sexy and she really wants him to smother her hard. She starts masturbating while reciting passages from the translation in her mind. It’s pretty great stuff and I recommend reading it once.
But it also reveals an obsession to make sex meaningful and this can be found in so many of School of Life’s videos about sex. “The Pleasures of Outdoor Sex” has two women getting it on while Botton un-sexily narrates about how nature makes sex more enticing. “The Philosophy of Oral Sex” says sucking dicks cures loneliness.
And my personal favorite is “Art and Masturbation”.
It is here where you are free to laugh but it is where we also see this bizarre desire to rationalize masturbation as a meaningful thing. This meme of meaningful sex is worth contemplating about. In “Art and Masturbation”, he argues that masturbation invites people to enter into an “autistic” mindset that some artists share; this inspires the spark of creativity artists are generally well-known for. It is a long-winded explanation about how masturbation is a form of art and it uses both Van Gogh’s portrait and a woman masturbating back to back.
But the most telling (and most depraved) video comes from a now-deleted video on YouTube called “The Dick Pic”. A mirror of it is available on Vimeo. Botton argues that sending a dick pic is a way to show man’s vulnerability and talks about the history of nudity from Greece to today. He finds it shameful that men are shamed for sending dick pics because dick appreciation is kind of an art form. Botton is right when he says that people should love their own bodies, but he may not be aware of the context dick pics are usually sent for. He has followed that meme of loving one’s own body to the pure extreme without realizing the social consequences that it may cause.
Self-Understanding: Ignorance is Bliss
So you could say the School of Life is all meme’d up. The blatant ignorance Botton and the School of Life display is just unbelievable. It may be more reassuring to me personally if they live in a different world from myself if they know nothing about how most dick pics are unwarranted. But they live in the world I live because their most watched video shows they do live in my reality; they’re just really stupid.
Well then, what is the most watched video?
It is a video titled “Why Some Countries are Rich and Why Some Poor“. Spoilers: it has nothing to do with colonialism and imperialism. The developed nations worked their way up to where they were. No mention of slavery and exploitation. It’s all hard work. The poor countries have themselves to blame for their geopolitical conflicts, their access to too many natural recourses, and corruption. The tropics especially are destined for poverty. God save those poor souls. You could watch the whole video by yourself and write a whole post dedicated to it.
The School of Life was surprised by the massive influx of comments on this particular Youtube video. They “have, unusually, had to disable comments because of the number of people writing to tell us that we have forgotten about colonialism. We are very aware of colonialism but didn’t, on this occasion, give this factor a central role.” It must be surprising indeed.
This and How to Make a Country Rich are two of the many videos that detail a bizarre capitalist revisionist world. In the latter video especially, this is what the ultimate life is: to be a citizen of Richland. A Richland citizen is someone who lives a good life but still wants meaning. They have high suicide rates, shitty work hours, are materialist, and believe that their job is their life (you are what you earn).
After all, life is miserable and we need some compensation for living it somehow.
When you, a citizen of Richland, read a writer like Virginia Woolf and like her, it isn’t about how much you interpret her ideas but how much you can absorb those ideas into your pathetic life. We connect through literature inside a “permafrost of loneliness” and the book teaches you how to “correct your life”. Literature becomes a drug that alters your substances and you are encouraged to take such “drugs” to achieve a better understanding of your life and place in Richland society. Finding better ways to live is what life is all about. Better is life. Your life isn’t miserable; it’s just misunderstood.
Showing evidence that colonialism exists, sexual harassment exists, sex exists, and consequences exist will be antithetical to this ideal life as an intellectual in Richland. They will show that progress isn’t linear — you can’t just go up — and being human is about accepting, of many things, that it is okay to be ordinary. You don’t have to pursue a life that will always be better; you can roll the same rock up the same cliff for eternity and be happy about it.
But we are in a culture susceptible to the School of Life’s cultish message. We are unsatisfied that the pursuit of knowledge isn’t simple like attending college classes. We want to be constantly showered with affection over our cliched phrases and typical lives. We hate the idea of climbing a ladder that seems never-ending. That’s not a better life. A better life takes out the complicated things in life and gives us morals and fables as lessons instead.
When we go to work the next morning after watching TV shows talk about how coffee cures cancer and the newest School of Life videos about the importance of self-pity, we take our next steps to simplify our lives through culture, philosophy, and sex.
We are walking toward what we are promised is an intellectual life. It is the light at the end of the tunnel. Away from the bustling darkness and into the sereneness of the light. Our bodies become lighter as we keep on reading books to forget and learn. A world without misery. A world without sex and colonialism. A world where your meaning can be shaped by your own hands and the books you read. A world that is practical in every regard.
We reach the Gates of St. Peter and think to ourselves, “This is what the School of Life has taught us. This is the world without complication. It all makes sense. We have found the meaning to my salaryman life.”
A happy, thoughtless death.
That is how I envision the ideal watcher of The School of Life based on the self-help literature they produce in the guise of the humanities. It is life brimming of ignorance and self-pity. It is a know-it-all attitude without understanding why anything about it matters.
It is an education of ignorance because it misleads people into believing some really dumb memes.
How to Live Life: By Not Living It
Because of the nature of this post, I bet there might be people who will say that you can’t learn anything on YouTube and it’s silly to think otherwise. But I disagree: I do learn a lot of crap there. Infotainment is great for trivia lords like me and people who need to review their notes in a simple to watch video.
Introductory videos can be beneficial too. I don’t watch Thug Notes because it’s just a simplistic retelling of the events in literature; however, it is entertaining and tons of high school students would often comment on there about how that makes reading enjoyable. Those kinds of videos, no matter how introductory and layman they can be, help engage viewers more than any traditional means and I would have loved the channel if I were younger.
The School of Life could have been that, but they do a pretty damn good job at misinforming people. When they touch on good ideas, it’s glossed over and ignored for the more sensationalist and self-help-ish narratives that have little to do with the overall subject. Indeed, the message of the videos is “life sucks, find something better to do”.
Their videos are an active discouragement of what the humanities stands for. You are supposed to try living your life and think for yourself. It’s surreal to see a “school of life” be so critical about life itself.
I’m not a fan of life myself — I think life sucks too — but life can be quite interesting. There are many things in the world to learn and appreciate about. Letting these things bloom into something beautiful is why life can be cool sometimes.
So maybe life is not about hammering philosophy to your own worldview. Maybe life is all about filtering the bad YouTube videos out of your subscriptions. Who knows. Life can be mysterious sometimes and that’s why I dig it.