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Monday, June 18, 2012

docu review: Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness

Alain de Botton's documentary brings treatises to the ordinary

People of all kinds came to Socrates in then Athens, narrates Alain de Botton, Swiss born British philosopher in his 6-part documentary, Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness. But his wisdom trotting camera also shows that Athens now is visited only by tourists. Alain interviews people on the road, shopping malls and cafes, often well-received but ignored by some. He also interviews professionals like the ballerina to explain Nietzsche's philosophy of no pain no gain, and he has people who enact certain points that six of his favorite philosophers preached and exceptionally practiced.

Each segment in the documentary is a visual treatise on philosophers who are seen today in their own birthplaces, with changes of matter but retaining the spirit of the thinkers. The 2 and a half hours documentary tries to enliven the ideas that are perhaps in dogmatic slumber. After watching this mix of thoughts on well being against the backdrops of philosophically important places, sprinkled with onlooker
opinions, life’s problems are still unresolved. But our frame of mind may have a pep-up.

Part 1: Socrates on self-confidence

In one of the scenes the camera follows a flock of sheep before cutting into some people walking aimlessly while Alain voices over: we like to follow some people because we think they know where they are going. We horror the idea of breaking away from the group. Socrates wanted us to challenge by urging us to think logically about the nonsense the so called leaders often come out with.

So Alain asks Andrew Miller, a clinical researcher at the British Biogas who had an opinion problem in his company once. ‘Socrates died for truth. How far can you go’, asks Alain. I've a family, says the loner who went against the majority holding only on reason.
Alain shows us a potter shaping a pot. Socrates compared thinking to pottery, Alain reminds us. You have to go over and over to shed the discrepancies of a statement.

Part 2: Epicurus on Happiness

Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC), an advocate of “friends, freedom and thought” is still misunderstood by many people who think that Epicureanism means pleasure and consumerism. Alain says the happiness seer was a simple man who preferred water to wine. "Send me a pot of cheese so that I can have a feast", Epicurus said to a friend. What we want is not necessarily what we need. The ingredients of happiness come pretty cheap. A philosopher can help you find happiness, Alain says, more than a credit card.

Alain takes us to the town where Diogenes, the disciple of Epicurus inscribed his master's thoughts on a wall on a mountain, opposite to an ancient market where people gathered at least once a week. Now the market is gone. The inscribed stone pieces are scattered on the ground.

The camera also goes to the garden where Epicurus lived with his friends as a commune. The friend seeker had this dictum: who you eat with is more important than what you eat. The garden is now a taxi graveyard.

Part 3: Seneca on Anger

Roman philosopher Lucious Annaeus Seneca refused to see anger as an irrational outburst over which we have no control. Instead he saw it as a philosophical problem and amenable to treatment by philosophical
argument. The philosopher was the tutor to a boy who would become Emperor Nero, who was infamous for throwing whoever displeased him to lions, crocodiles and wolves. Alain shows us the underground chamber where people were thrown to become pieces.

We are like dogs tied to moving chariots, unleashed not long enough to move around. Anger is the result of our expectations. We think the world will go our way. We are not ready for the surprises when things happen against our expectations. Seneca's advice to be pessimistic. We have reason, dogs don't. We cannot change events, but we can change our attitude towards them. Seneca is not of the opinion, things will
be fine, don't worry. Be prepared, bad things are bound to happen.

Part 4: Montaigne on Self-Esteem

The French philosopher singled out three main reasons for feeling bad about oneself – bodily inadequacy, failure to live up to social norms, and intellectual inferiority – and then offered practical solutions for overcoming them.

Alain shocks us, perhaps for the first time, by carrying a covered food item at a restaurant. He goes to a table where some women are seated, dining, places the food on the table and asks, ‘would you like
to join me to share this international dish?’. To the curious diners, it is a goat's head from Turkey and some plant leaves from elsewhere. Alain then says Montaigne was not a blind multiculturalist but asked us
to accept whatever good the world holds. Accept the ordinary in us. We don't have many role models.

Part 5: Schopenhauer on Love

The 19th Century German thinker Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) believed that love was the most important thing in life because of its powerful impulse towards ‘the will-to-life’. The philosopher who liked
to keep dogs as companions named one of his poodles Atma, the Sanskrit term for soul.

Alain interviews Michelle, a young lady who is ditched by her boyfriend through a letter. Alain pacifies her by quoting Schopenhauer: Michelle's boyfriend denied only her biological self, not her psychological self. The young lady, shrunk to her own bed's comfort zone smiles without much admiration for the philosophical
prescription. Alain then invites her for a dinner.

Part 6: Nietzsche on Hardship

"To my friends, I wish desolation, suffering, profound self-contempt, sickness, ill-treatment, indignity, torture and the wretchedness of the vanquished", exhorted the German philosopher, who said overcoming hardships is life all about.

In the beginning of the concluding part, we see Alain ascending a mountain with a backpack. The documentarian then goes to a garden where he shows the ugly roots of a plant to prove the toil in the soil beneath the beautiful surface. The beauty is not in the hardships alone but the manner in which failures have been met. We are like the gardener who cultivates the plants.

After a trip to Nietzsche's house and graveyard, we see the documentarian back in the mountains. This time clouds move away to reveal the panoramic scenery. The scene from the top is worth the climb.

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