Oops! TV Has Swallowed Socrates ; Have You Been Dumped by Your Lover? Do You Suffer from Road Rage? the Great Philosophers Can Help, and Television Has Found a Way to Prove It, Says Alain De Botton, Presenter of a New Channel 4 Series
Botton, Alain de, The Independent (London, England)
I never wanted to be on TV. I never thought it would be possible. I have little hair, my head is strangely shaped, I have a weird name, people suspect I may be a French aristocrat. Yet two years ago, I bumped into a TV producer who asked me what I was working on. I told him it was a book of essays looking at how six great philosophers can help us over six common emotional problems (Socrates is good for unpopularity, Epicurus for poverty, Seneca for anger, Montaigne for inadequacy, Schopenhauer for love-sickness, Nietzsche for difficulties). With an enthusiasm untypical even among TV folk, he at once declared this to be a brilliant idea for a programme and promised that, if I so wished, he would get it made. I didn't believe a word of it, but gradually an idea for the series took shape that managed to convince even the severest sceptics at Channel 4. The programme airs next Sunday. My head remains strangely shaped.
Philosophy doesn't get on television much. In fact, there hasn't been any series on it since Bryan Magee's studio discussions in the 1970s - which, though masterful, wouldn't stand a chance of getting commissioned these days. Presenting ideas on TV is notoriously hard. The audience will not tolerate an expert lecturing to them for long, and philosophy can take years to explain. Even worse, there's little to show on screen, because the greatest philosophers are dead and their homes a pile of old stones. But to get round the problem, the TV production company came up with an ingenious solution; the six programmes would introduce the great philosophers and then would confront ordinary people with the philosophers' ideas to see if these had any relevance in a modern context. "Think of it as an Oprah Winfrey meets Omnibus," one of the production team told me - in order to try to reassure me, I believe.
The first task was to turn me into something resembling a presenter. All my current clothes were judged unsuitable and I was sent off to a stylist (who had once applied make-up to Jeremy Paxman). Claire took me to Paul Smith to buy me five identical denim shirts, to facilitate editing. A summit was then held at the production company to decide what to do with my hair. Should it all be shaved off, should a bit be left on? Calls were put through to Channel 4. The assistant producer pointed to various bits of my scalp. A solution (see above) was eventually found.
A team of researchers was hired and each philosopher was assigned a desk. Next to me, a researcher would answer, "Hello, Nietzsche, how can I help you?" every time the phone rang. For a couple of months, we worked on turning my book into a workable script. TV is routinely accused of dumbing down the most serious subjects. It's true that in order to convey a philosopher's argument in half an hour, much of the argument of my book had to be thrown out. And yet, being forced to explain a large idea in a few seconds is a valuable discipline.
We then located six people suffering from the kinds of problems that the great philosophers had discussed. Our first candidate was a hair technician from Manchester. Stephen Perry spent all his money on superfluous shopping. He had dozens of watches and more shoes than Imelda Marcos. He recognised that something was wrong, but didn't know where to turn for help. We suggested the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, much of whose work is concerned with getting us to live a simple, unmaterialistic life. At the giant Trafford Shopping Centre near Manchester, one of Stephen's favourite hang- outs, we introduced him to Epicurus's idea that our desire to go shopping is always caused by not having enough friends. Sort out that problem and you will stop abusing your credit card. Despite initial scepticism, Stephen gradually became convinced and even rather moved by Epicurus's message. He vowed to reduce his spending and listen to this wise sage of antiquity. …