Alain de Botton's poor parties
Today in the Guardian the popular philosopher, Alain de Botton, was the subject of an aggressive attack. He was interviewed in the Times about his ideal dinner party, and revealed that he buys ready-meals to feed his guests. He also likes his guests to be vulnerable, and here things get complicated, or maybe just plain patronising. Without his oversight, he thinks that conversation would be boring, so he asks people questions: “What’s everyone afraid of at the moment?” or “Why have you come out tonight?” or “What’s the point in your life?”
Why not get straight to the point?
The Guardian’s food blogger rightly took him to task for serving up pre-prepared Marks & Spencers fodder, and for dividing up a measly two bottles of wine between eight people.
Infinitely more surprising to me, since I’m a former a classicist and de Botton is after all a philosopher, is his failure to note the dinner party’s philosophical pedigree. How could he forget! Plato, Xenophon, Plutarch, Athenaeus and Aulus Gellius all staged symposia, using the dinner-party to showcase intellectual bickering, Socratic brilliance, discussion, and argument.
De Botton thinks everyone should contribute to conversation (an idea of Plato’s and of Plutarch). So far so good. But vulnerability shouldn’t be dragged from guests by questions, it should organically peep into life. Plutarch, my most beloved ancient sage, advised giving extra wine to shy people, and mixing water into the drinks of rowdier guests. In Plutarch’s Table Talks (at nine books, it’s well worth a read) the questions for discussion arise from the spirited conversation itself.
My favourite Plutarchan question is Concerning the Suitable Time for Coition in book 3. It’s actually a group of young men that bring up the subject. They’re horrified because Epicurus introduced the “unseemly” topic in his Symposium (note, Mr. de Botton, Epicurus wrote about dinner-parties as well). A doctor called Zopyrus contradicts the modest youngsters, suggesting that it’s only right and proper for a philosopher to talk about such matters. “For my part,” he says, “I wish that Zeno had put his remarks on ‘thigh-spreading’ in the playful context of some dinner-party piece and not in his Government, a work which aims at such great seriousness.”
Philosophical conversation doesn’t have to be about deep subjects like life and death. Philosophers should not start tedious arguments (I paraphrase Plutarch) or make people uncomfortable. Plutarch prefers to sprinkle philosophy in with seriousness so he can teach his subject subtly. Even the imposing Plato makes the comic playwright Aristophanes a character at his Symposium, to brighten the narrative.
Perhaps the saddest thing is that de Botton’s parties don’t sound like that much fun. De B. doesn’t drink, he says; he likes to set friends up but often one person takes advantage of the other. And he ends with this: “I think the ideal note a dinner party should end on is everyone feeling that we should all live in a commune, or couples going away thinking: ‘It’s so much better to be in a big group than just us.’
Compare and contrast Xenophon, 4th century BC: at the end of his Symposium, an actor and actress perform a risque erotic scene, showing Dionysus making love to Ariadne, and mixing representation with reality. It’s so highly charged that afterwards the guests all rush off home: “Whilst those of them who were unmarried swore that they would wed, those who were wedded mounted their horses and galloped off to join their wives, in quest of married joys.”