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.”

5 Responses to “Alain de Botton's poor parties”
  1. louche says:

    Great minds think alike — I am hoping to post a de Botton-related article on my own blog today. Thanks for sharing the classical info on the dinner party, it really is fascinating.

  2. Frieda says:

    Thanks F. — I look forward to your take. I haven’t actually read De Botton’s books and I’m sure some of his observations are interesting, but I do feel he’s a bit precious too. Perhaps I’m just jealous.

  3. Christina Shankton says:

    I love your blog but this article is really strange: I mean, de Botton was called up by some hack from the Times and asked to make a few remarks about what’s good for dinner. You somehow seem to assume that he’s here delivering his mature thoughts on the art of dining and conversation like Plutarch did. That’s just a way for you then to attack him and show your own erudition. OK, great you read Plutarch, I’m sure de Botton did too – he just is wiser/more gentle on his reader in not thrusting it down their throats.

  4. Frieda says:

    Hi Christina, thanks for reading, and for letting me know your thoughts! The way I see it, De Botton was interviewed because he is a professional philosopher. His School of Life organizes meals, including breakfasts and “conversation dinners.” In that context, I think he missed a trick in failing to mention the role dinner parties have had in philosophy, or to refer to Plato at least — the Symposium’s one of his most famous works. And even though this was just an interview, I expect de Botton to express mature opinions.

    I’ve spent a long time studying this material but I wasn’t intending to show off, more to share what I know in the hopes that it would interest people. I’m sorry if my post seemed to ram it down your throat.


  5. Christina Shankton says:

    Frieda,Thanks so much for replying. I think though that you just don’t understand that Times slot, maybe because you don’t read the Times regularly. It’s a slot where people are asked to give a recipe. They are not asked to deliver a theory about dining. De Botton was being incredibly philosophical within a genre that is generally utterly banal and focused on recipes. You might say he ‘missed a trick’, but he actually got a trick into an area where normally tricks are not all allowed. Anyway, to think that because you write books about philosophy, every time you are interviewed you have to mention Plato or some philosopher is a really academic way of looking at things. I mean, there’s no need always to look back. And De Botton did express mature opinions, he just didn’t quote Plato; the two are not synonymous for goodness sake!!

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