Can Tolstoy Save Your Marriage?

By Alain de Botton

Hard-working, pragmatic types, who abound in the United States, have always been suspicious of university education in the humanities. What good does it do to study the works of Milton or Rousseau, let alone the enigmatic pronouncements of Buddha or the Zen poet Basho? The unemployment rate hovers near 10%, and the Chinese are feeding their undergraduates a strict diet of engineering and accountancy. How can we pampered, decadent sorts possibly still be indulging our youth with lectures on Roman poetry and Renaissance painting?

Unfortunately, university professors in the humanities tend to get unproductively upset when asked to explain the importance of what they do. They know that their opposite numbers in the technical and scientific departments can justify their work in utilitarian terms to impatient government officials and donors. But fearing that they cannot compete effectively, the denizens of the humanities prefer to take refuge in ambiguity and silence, having carefully calculated that they retain just enough prestige to get away with leaving the reasons for their existence somewhat murky.


My own answer to what the humanities are for is simple: They should help us to live. We should look to culture as a storehouse of useful ideas about how to face our most pressing personal and professional issues. Novels and historical narratives can impart moral instruction and edification. Great paintings can suggest the requirements for happiness. Philosophy can probe our anxieties and offer consolation. It should be the job of a university education to tease out the therapeutic and illuminative aspects of culture, so that we emerge from a period of study as slightly less disturbed, selfish and blinkered human beings. Such a transformation benefits not only the economy but also our friends, children and spouses.


I’m hardly the first to express these hopes of education. In mid-19th-century Victorian Britain, we find men like John Stuart Mill saying that “the object of universities is not to make skilful lawyers, physicians or engineers” but “to make capable and cultivated human beings.” His contemporary Matthew Arnold sounded similar notes, arguing that liberal education should help to inspire in us “a love of our neighbour, a desire for clearing human confusion and for diminishing human misery.” At its most ambitious, it should even engender the “noble aspiration to leave the world better and happier than we found it.”

These well-meaning mid-Victorians wanted universities to become our new churches, places that would teach us how to live, but without dogma or superstition. Given the dramatic decline in religious belief in the 19th century in Europe, anguished questions were raised about how, in the absence of a Christian framework, people would manage to find meaning, understand themselves, behave in a moral fashion, forgive their fellow humans and confront their own mortality. It was hoped that cultural works might henceforth be consulted in place of the biblical texts.

The claim that culture can stand in for scripture—that “Middlemarch” or the essays of Schopenhauer can take up the responsibilities previously handled by the Psalms—still has a way of sounding eccentric or insane. But the ambition is not misplaced: Culture can and should change and save our lives. The problem is the way that culture is taught at our universities, which have a knack for killing its higher possibilities.


The modern university has achieved unparalleled expertise in imparting factual information about culture, but it remains wholly uninterested in training students to use culture as a repertoire of wisdom—that is, a kind of knowledge concerned with things that are not only true but also inwardly beneficial, providing comfort in the face of life’s infinite challenges, from a tyrannical employer to a fatal diagnosis. Our universities have never offered what churches invariably focus on: guidance.

It is a basic tenet of contemporary scholarship that no academic should connect works of culture to individual sorrows. It remains shocking to ask what “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” might usefully teach us about love or to read the novels of Henry James as if they might contain instructive parables. When confronted by those who demand that a university education should be relevant and useful, that it should offer advice on how to choose a career or survive the end of a marriage, how to contain sexual impulses or cope with the news of a medical death sentence, the guardians of culture become disdainful. They prefer students who are mature, independent, temperamentally able to live with questions rather than answers, and ready to put aside their own needs for the sake of years of disinterested study.

Whatever the rhetoric of promotional prospectuses and graduation ceremonies, the modern university has precious little interest in teaching us any emotional or ethical life skills: how to love our neighbors, clear human confusion, diminish human misery and “leave the world better and happier than we found it.” To judge by what they do rather than what they airily declaim, universities are in the business of turning out tightly focused professionals and a minority of culturally well-informed but ethically confused arts graduates, who have limited prospects for employment. We have charged our higher-education system with a dual and possibly contradictory mission: to teach us both how to make a living and how to live. But we have left the second of these aims recklessly vague and unattended.


Because this situation cries out for a remedy, a few years ago I joined with a group of similarly disaffected academics, artists and writers and helped to start a new kind of university. We call it, plainly, the School of Life, and it operates from a modest space in central London. On the menu of our school, you won’t find subjects like philosophy, French and history. You’ll find courses in marriage, child-rearing, choosing a career, changing the world and death. Along the way, our students encounter many of the books and ideas that traditional universities serve up, but they seldom get bored—and often come away with a different take on the world.

The School of Life draws upon the same rich catalog of culture treated by its traditional counterparts; we study novels, histories, plays and paintings. But we teach this material with a view to illuminating students’ lives rather than merely prodding them toward academic goals. “Anna Karenina” and “Madame Bovary” are assigned in a course on understanding the tensions of marriage instead of in one focused on narrative trends in 19th-century fiction. Epicurus and Plato appear in the syllabus for a course about wisdom rather than in a survey of Hellenistic philosophy.

We are currently teaching a class on anger using the works of Seneca, the Stoic philosopher who proposed that anger results not from an uncontrollable eruption of the passions but from a basic (and correctible) error of reasoning. In his view, what makes us angry is having dangerously optimistic ideas about what the world and other people are like. How badly we react to frustration is critically determined by what we consider to be normal. We may be frustrated by a rain storm, but we are unlikely to respond to one with anger. So Seneca’s answer to anger is to disappoint ourselves fully before life has a chance to do it for us. Students who thought they had enrolled merely to read some old books have come away with tools to live in a better way. There’s a waiting list for almost every course we run.

A university might follow this model by identifying the problematic areas in people’s lives and designing courses that address them head on. There should be classes devoted to, among other things: being alone, reconsidering work, improving relationships with children, reconnecting with nature and facing illness. A university alive to its true responsibilities in a secular age would establish a Department for Relationships, an Institute of Dying and a Center for Self-Knowledge. This is less a matter of finding new books to teach than of asking the right questions of the ones we already have.

Our most celebrated intellectual institutions rarely consent to ask, let alone to answer, the most serious questions of the soul. Oprah Winfrey may not provide the deepest possible analysis of the human condition, but her questions are often more probing and meaningful than those posed by Ivy League professors in the humanities. It is time for humanistic education to outgrow its fears of irrelevance and to engage directly with our most pressing personal and spiritual needs.

Classes Taught at ‘The School of Life” in London

How to Make Love Last:

Is love something we’re destined to fall in and out of, or can it be sustained over time? Is sexual desire the essential lubricant…or a pale companion compared with friendship and trust?

Readings include:
‘Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
‘The Iris Triology’ by John Bayley
‘The Art of Loving’ by Erich Fromm

How to Face Death:

Is there such a good thing as a good death? How might we best mourn the loss of those we cared about?

Readings include:
‘Consolation in the Face of Death’ by Samuel Johnson
‘My Last Sigh’ by Luis Bunuel;
‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ by Joan Didion

How to Fill the God-Shaped Hole:

In what ways might people who are disinclined to follow a particular religion nurture their spiritual side?

Readings include:
‘Confessions’ by Augustine
‘Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion’ by David Hume
‘Selected Poems’ by Emily Dickinson

How to Find a Job You Love:

What would a meaningful working life really look like?

Readings include:
‘Walden’ by Henry David Thoreau
‘The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ by Max Weber
‘The Conditions of the Working Class in England’ by Frederich Engels

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s