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The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Philosopher-author Alain de Botton asks: Why do we work?

By Stephen Humphries / June 25, 2009



Meet someone for the first time and, within minutes, the tentative small talk will shuffle toward an inevitable question: “What do you do for a living?” It’s not an unreasonable query. After all, our occupations occupy the premium hours of each day and, often, preoccupy our thoughts during the parole periods in between. Moreover, as Alain de Botton observes in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, this conversational icebreaker at cocktail parties illustrates how closely we align our identities – indeed, the very meaning of our lives – with our choice of vocation.

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De Botton’s ambitious treatise aims to discover what makes a job either meaningful or a remunerative exercise that saps the soul. As such, each chapter in the book is devoted to the study of arbitrarily chosen professions such as rocket science, accountancy, landscape painting, and even biscuit manufacturing. The author strives to understand the satisfactions and frustrations inherent in each of these pursuits and, by extension, to derive macroeconomic conclusions from them.

By now you may be wondering about de Botton’s own line of work. Put it this way: Pray you never bump into him at a cocktail party. Unless you happen to be a Nobel Prize winner, an astronaut, or Bono, you may feel hopelessly dull and inadequate compared to de Botton, Britain’s most popular modern philosopher.

A prose stylist whose literary skills have few peers, de Botton is the author of books such as “How Proust Can Change Your Life” and “The Architecture of Happiness.” The self-styled polymath renaissance man is also founder of The School of Life, a London shop where the intellectually curious can engage in big-idea dinner conversations, pay for personally tailored reading lists, or enroll in philosophical courses about love, politics, and family.

Refreshingly, de Botton isn’t a deskbound philosopher. To research “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work,” the writer fills his passport with stamps that even David Attenborough might deem exotic. At one point, de Botton visits a satellite-launch facility in French Guiana, a jungle off the coast of Brazil where the stealthy encroachment of tendrils, spores, and slithering creatures threatens to topple the fragile stilts of civilization.

Here, the author marvels at the fortitude of accomplished scientists who not only choose to live in a habitat reminiscent of that in a Joseph Conrad novel, but also suppress their egos to complete a collective project.“There were no opportunities for individual glory here, no prospect of biographies or street names to be remembered by,” de Botton writes.

These engineers at least have the satisfaction of witnessing a successful rocket launch. The end result of their efforts is fleetingly tangible. By contrast, few individuals get to see others pluck the fruits of their labors. In a biscuit factory in Belgium, for instance, the author observes two women whose horizons extend no further than the conveyor belt they toil at day after day.

“The real issue is not whether baking biscuits is meaningful,” concludes de Botton, “but the extent to which the activity can be seen to be so after it has been continuously stretched and subdivided across five thousand lives and half a dozen manufacturing sites.”

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