His most interesting point is that, no matter how much we like to pretend they are, our societies are not strict meritocracies but that there are many accidental factors that go into the making of the life of any given person. This means that just because someone isn’t “successful” in the minds of the general public (rich, famous, blah blah), it does not follow that they are intrinsically unworthy.* De Botton goes on to suggest that we should show much more something to people who are not “successful” in the popular sense. I say something because he never really defines what he means. It’s like being nicer to those people, but without the sense of patronizing them. It’s like understanding those people and understanding that given a different set of circumstances you or I could be in that self-same situation, but with the additional burden of also loving them. What he’s talking about, though he never uses the term, is grace. Not ballet-dancer kind of grace, but the grace-of-our-Lord-Jesus-Christ kind of grace.
De Batton also talks about the importance of strong father/mother role models in the lives of men/women respectively, and how what we need in a father (or mother) is a combination of firm discipline to instill in us the sense that we are responsible creatures, and deeply compassionate love to remind us that we are also subject to the vicissitudes of life. He is describing, whether he knows it or not, the Christian conception of God and also the Christian conception of good human parenting.
When I had this thought during his talk it struck me that, though de Batton explicitly characterizes himself as a secularist, I was listening to the Christian metanarrative (that is, the Christian story or worldview). Note that when de Batton cherry-picks from another thinker he doesn’t go to Nieztche or Plato, he goes to St. Augustine of Hippo. I was tangentially involved with a conversation on Jon’s blog a few months ago where the claim was put forward that Christianity is basically just a religiousy version of the culture in which it is found. This is certainly true some of the time, but it is important to note that the waters run both ways on this issue. Whether he would admit it or not de Botton is, in this talk, pinching a Christian idea and dressing it in a secular waistcoat. The problem, I would contend, is that disassociating the idea of grace from God robs the concept of both its legitimate philosophical underpinnings and also of its ultimate power and authority.
*I freely grant the tension here between this and my recent post on personal responsibility. The tension is important, but that’s not what I want to talk about here. Perhaps in a future post.