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From Seneca to Self-Help

HowProustIn 1997, Alain de Botton published his book How Proust Can Change Your Life. I was charmed by it. I remember using it in a course on cultural criticism for a graduate class that had a mix of theorists and creative writers. I thought of de Botton’s book as a model we could adopt. Here was an original work of criticism that taught me something about Proust while it playfully adopted a popular or low-brow form of writing — that is, the self-help book.

Like every other self-respecting academic, I’m distrustful of self-help books. In my hometown in India, at the bookstore where I once bought a Saul Bellow novel as a teen, mostly textbooks are sold now. And self-help books, immediately recognizable because of their lurid covers, promising a bright future. Learning is replaced by the reading of instruction manuals; change narrowed to individual striving; all of human emancipation instrumentalized, reduced to the acquisition of a better attitude or a few simple skills.

There is something else about self-help books that I find disturbing. At the book-kiosk in the railway station in my hometown, books that purport to teach you how to be successful, or the art of writing letters, or how to grow rich sit next to books like Adolf Hitler’s My Struggle. The self that is assumed in self-help is a submissive and yielding one, a wholly fungible category — so that any struggle, even that of a mass-murderer, is seen as a lesson in self-improvement.

But while I ridicule books of self-help, I’m also quite susceptible to them. They help simplify things. And it is useful to return to them to remind one of the rules that have been forgotten. Geoff Pullum’s criticism notwithstanding, I think of Strunk and White as a self-help book. In my home, I also keep a book handy about curing back pain. Recently I bought a popular self-help book about getting rid of clutter. I hope to read it as soon as I’ve organized my time and the space in my crowded study a bit better.

In academe we ought to temper our criticism of the idea of self-help because, in a more complex way, it is precisely what we offer our students through our teaching. And I’ve seen how positively my colleagues respond when I have shared helpful information on how to improve our academic writing and enhance productivity. A few years ago, I began contemplating the idea of writing a self-help book for academics and turned to Alain de Botton for help.

De Botton wrote back to me: “For two thousand years in the history of the west, the self-help book stood as a pinnacle of literary achievement.” He listed the ancients who were masters of that form, including Epicurus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. Christianity, de Botton said, had continued in the same vein. The Benedictines and Jesuits poured out handbooks to help one navigate the perils of earthly life. “The assumption behind this long tradition was that the words of others can benefit us not only by giving us a practical advice, but also – and more subtly – by recasting our private confusions and griefs into eloquent communal sentences. We feel at once less alone and less afraid.”

How did this practice decline and self-help books lose their prestige? De Botton blamed the modern university system that “in the mid-nineteenth century became the main employer for philosophers and intellectuals and started to reward them not for being useful or consoling, but for getting facts right.” Another feature of modernity was the “growing secularization of society which emphasized that the modern human being could do the business of living and dying by relying on sheer common sense, a good accountant, a sympathetic doctor and hearty doses of faith in science.”

This abandonment of writing that emphasizes utility has meant that the genre of self-help is flooded by practitioners who traffic in offering salvation. Those who smother any intelligence-seeking under the blanket of cheerful optimism. De Botton reminded me that the noble predecessors of today’s writers insisted on hard truths instead of pablum. Seneca, for example, asked: “What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.”

De Botton wanted me to contemplate the prospect of Virginia Woolf having a shot at writing a self-help book. But I was thinking of someone more along the lines of Thomas Piketty (“A Guide to the Long Run”). Or Martha Nussbaum (“Ten Questions to Answer Before You Vote.”). And Wendy Doniger (“How to Be a Hindu.”).

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