Last month I finally did something I had meant to do for a while: I attended a talk at the intriguingly named “School of Life” – the bookshop/events-space founded by best selling author/philosopher Alain de Botton.
The school’s objective is what it says on the tin: teach us the bits of philosophy you never learnt at school (assuming you were taught philosophy at school). Scrap the abstract debates, such as whether the outside world would exist if no one was there to look at it (who knows), students will be shown teach students how to improve their lives using philosophy’s practical answers to everyday questions. So you can expect self-help advice from top notch thinkers ranging from say Plato to Arianna Huffington… You could do worse.
If you’ve ever wondered how to find fulfilling work, how to be confident, how to realise your potential or why we need relationships, the School of Life might have your answer – most probably in the form of a book, and a 3-hour “class” at prices from £35.
I’m not sure whether they appeal most to the curious, the intellectual, or the neurotic (perhaps all three, if you look at me), but the talks sell like hotcakes: in the week I visited, there were only two available: “How to worry less about money” or “How to fill the God-shaped hole”. Because I don’t worry that much about money (and also, considering that any worry I might have could potentially be solved by taking on a better-paid job), on I went to the God lecture.
Although I wasn’t sure what to expect on arrival, I was pleasantly surprised – the place feels fresh and trendy. In a attractive shop window, philosophy books are artfully displayed in a minimalist manner, like in a designer shop. This bode well. What bode even better was being greeted upon arrival with tasty nibbles and a glass of wine until all the participants arrived.
At the set time, I, and a dozen or so budding philosophers, were then invited to proceed to the classroom. Everyone was slightly nervous like on a first day at school, but we needn’t have been – teacher Mark Vernon (who I must admit I’d never heard of but turned out to be amazing), made everyone comfortable from the start with a series of group exercises:
Rather than having to present ourselves in front of a room of strangers, which is always a bit daunting, we were asked to stand up as a group, and place ourselves along an imaginary line according to what we felt about words such as “religion”, “God”, “Christianity”, “Buddha” or “Stephen Hawking” (towards the wall: bad, towards the window: good).
This got us in the mood, and was also a bit of a giggle, especially when everyone tried to stand onto the same spot, so that a few minutes in all participants were in good cheer and happily discussing their personal religious beliefs – thing that aren’t usually discussed much in public, or in my case, at all.
In this open-minded, non-judgemental environment, it made for interesting debate. The topic of the evening being the “God-shaped hole”, we were guided to consider what atheists (which it turned out, only a couple of us were) might miss by not belonging to a religion or church community, and how they could find fulfillment (a sense of wonder, deeper meaning, community, charity, etc) in other places outside religion.
The group was a relatively mixed crowd – some of us really into the issue, others having just come, like me, out of curiosity. In pairs or all together, we were invited to share our own experience as part of the conversation.
Thus I ended up talking to a fiercely anti-religious young Australian couple; a philosophy student who was driven nuts by not knowing whether God existed; a young Mum who wasn’t sure what she believed in, but wanted to figure it out before her children started asking; a lady in her fifties who wanted very much to believe in God, but not that of her strict Catholic upbringing. The teacher himself was a former Anglican priest, who, after a period of atheism, now best described himself as a Christian Buddhist.
By far the most entertaining encounter was with a father and son (who else!) from New York who, in a bid to understand religion, had started attending a different service every week, alternating between Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Scientologist, Sufi, you name it- including some seriously New Age traditions. So far their favourite was Thich Nhat Han’s community.
Over the course of the evening I realised I don’t really have any problems with God, although I may not have a very traditional view of Him/ Her/ It. I guess mine is more of a “church-shaped” hole. But in a way I was happy (or should I say relieved) to find everyone else seemed fairly confused too, and as the debate continued I became increasingly fascinated with the topic. We kept on talking intensely even during the canapes break. This was the most fun my brain had had in a long time.
Someone mentioned the inspiration behind the School was to recreate an Epicurean Garden- a community of friends living together to talk philosophy and share a simple life. A dubious claim for this London affair, since participants are hardly a community. Plus the places feels less monastic, more middle class (but since when do I to complain about that?).
Still, I found everyone to be pretty genuine, and as far as sharing ideas in a friendly environment, I had a great evening.
I shall certainly attend again.
To give it a try for yourself, visit the School of Life You Tube channel, or your local branch in London, Paris or Melbourne.