Stoics might not have been so stoical if they’d had bloggers to deal with, says Ophelia BensonSeneca remarked in “On Firmness” (subtitled “the wise man can receive neither injury nor insult”) that Socrates “took in good part the published and acted gibes directed against him in comedies.” That kind of thing takes a lot of living up to. Alain de Botton praised Seneca in his 2000 book Consolations of Philosophy and his 2001 TV series Philosophy: a Guide to Happiness; the latter included an episode titled “Seneca on Anger”. Yet de Botton has lately revealed that he is capable of an occasional moment of pique himself.
Nina Power of Infinite Thought wrote a very funny and not entirely admiring post about de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work last February, taking particular exception to the blurb, which described him as “intrigued” by work’s pleasures and pains.
“The man is…intrigued?! What, like a captivity-raised squirrel suddenly let out in to the world for the first time, little sparkly opal eyes blinking at the overwhelming wonder and diversity of it all? Gasping at the, ahem, ‘sheer strangeness’ of the modern workplace?! I’m sure cleaners setting off on the 472 at 4am to get the first tube to Canary Wharf find their pitiful paycheck ‘strange’ and ‘beautiful’.”
De Botton sent Power a furious email, which started “Your latest blog makes my blood boil” and ended “I don’t know what you think you’re doing writing such blogs other than adding to the not already inconsiderable sum of human misery. If you’ve got any honesty or sincerity, you’ll take the post down immediately and if you’ve got a trace of courage, you’ll reply to this email and confront me as one person.” Power replied politely but trenchantly, saying interesting things about class and privilege and who gets to write for newspapers and magazines, ending “If indeed the email I received really was from the real Alain de Botton, I’m very surprised that you would be bothered by such a post, let alone write to its author!” De Botton replied more cordially and asked Power to publish their correspondence, which she did.
In April, the day de Botton’s book was published, an anonymous blogger who works in a bookshop wrote a mildly critical paragraph about him in a post largely about a book by Paco Underhill. De Botton wrote the first comment, ending “How dare you suggest for even a second that I don’t know about hard work. It’s 10 o’clock at night, I’ve been up since 5.30am working my guts out – blogs like yours make me want to be sick, you ignorant vindictive and mean-spirited person.” Subsequent posts by other people expressed a certain surprise at de Botton’s tone.
Two days later, Stephen Law wrote a brief facetious post about the book. De Botton commented again. “Stephen, your blog is normally great but this time, you’ve really a hit low. For a start, you write about a book you haven’t even read and imagine what it is…You’re such a fool to blunder in like this.”
Law apologised, then on further consideration added a few points in his defence, while still expressing regret.
Then, in June, the journalist and critic Caleb Crain wrote a review of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work for The New York Times Book Review, and posted a link to the review on his blog Steamboats Are Ruining Everything, saying regretfully that he wasn’t crazy about it and adding that he wrote a favourable review of de Botton’s earlier How Proust Can Change Your Life. But that was not enough to save him. A few days later de Botton pounced. Sadly for him, what he said is now notorious.
“Caleb, you make it sound on your blog that your review is somehow a sane and fair assessment. In my eyes, and all those who have read it with anything like impartiality, it is a review driven by an almost manic desire to bad-mouth and perversely depreciate anything of value. The accusations you level at me are simply extraordinary. I genuinely hope that you will find yourself on the receiving end of such a daft review some time very soon – so that you can grow up and start to take some responsibility for your work as a reviewer. You have now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that … I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.”
A few days later the Telegraph ran a story on the dust-up, and the day after that the literary journalist Edward Champion posted a Q&A with de Botton, first asking if he had indeed posted the comments on Crain’s blog. “He confirmed that he had, and he felt very bad about his outburst.” De Botton explained his frustration: his intention was to “write a book that would open our eyes to the beauty, complexity, banality and occasional horror of the working world,” partly in order to correct for its absence from literature, and Crain’s review suggested “that I was interested rather in patronising and insulting people who had jobs and that I was mocking anyone who worked.” He added that he wished he had put his response in an envelope, not on the internet. Perhaps he also wishes he had remembered his Seneca, if not his Socrates.