We know that the unexamined life is not worth living. But how best to do the examining? Academia can be dry as old bones, self-help gooey as jelly. In this information age where everything is available, nothing seems worthwhile. Where and how should the enquiring mind enquire?
This is where the School of Life comes in, offering radical new ways to help us raid the treasure trove of human knowledge. Some of our leading intellectuals are founder members, but before you sneer – this is Britain, after all, where de Botton-baiting is practically a national sport – let us step into its premises in Bloomsbury. I defy you not to be enthralled.
It is a dinky, old fashioned shop set up like a cerebral apothecary, a sweet shop for the brain. Go in with an ailment (recurring Sunday-night back-to-work terror, for example) and you will be supplied with useful cultural resources – perhaps a few choice texts on the topic (Trotsky's Appeal to the Toiling Oppressed Exhausted Peoples of Europe, say, or Studs Terkel's Working). Present an aching heart and you would be directed to the shelf marked "For those who have fallen unexpectedly and profoundly in love" (Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse is prescribed). You could even sign up for a six-week course on "Love" (£195), rumoured to include one session co-hosted by a priest and a Relate sex therapist.
"It's all about cutting to the chase," says the school's director, Sophie Howarth. "And asking: what keeps people awake at night? The aim is to give them all the conceptual and historical apparatus they need to think it through. And because the ideas are so big – Politics, Death, even Love – we need to wear them lightly." Hence the playful touches around the shop, such as the tiny model academics in jam jars (£5) that point to the availability of one-to-one time with an expert (£50). Then there's the Bibliotherapy service (£50 for five months), which includes a diagnosis of your reading rut: "Symptoms: too much Harry Potter. Prescription: three comic novels this month, one every month thereafter...."
Another innovation is the conversation class, held over dinner at a nearby restaurant. The menu starts with canapés and aphorisms, leading on to main courses of personal revelations, and ending, perhaps, in petit fours and aperçus.
Howarth's inspirations include McSweeney's Superheroes' Supply store in Brooklyn (your first port of call for capes, grappling hooks etc), the artist Hannah Hurtzig's Blackmarket for Useful Knowledge (an information-swapping art event) and Cafe Scientifique (informal science debates taking place across the world). Oh, and Plato's Academy. "Even though, as a woman, I wouldn't have been allowed in, and I get the feeling it would have been full of semi-naked clever clogs."
For a voraciously erudite public pedagogue (she set up the massively successful events and studies programme at Tate Modern), Howarth is also a bit of a laugh. You can see why Toby Litt, Alain de Botton, Grayson Perry et al would want to work with her. "It's a bonkers project, but at the same time totally sane," she says. "The history of human ideas is a great big bumfundling mound that belongs to all of us. It is our heritage. Why shouldn't we be able to access it in a way that matters to us, right here, right now?" '
The School of Life is at 70 Marchmont Street, London WC1 (tel: 020 7833 1010, www.theschooloflife.com)
Life by Geoff Dyer
I have a bad attitude to life. There are certain things in life I like a great deal, things I like doing. Then there are the things that come between me and the things I like. Life, in this scheme of things, is an obstacle course.
I have a friend who likes to eat intense, exotic food that requires careful preparation and the expenditure of considerable sums of money: foie gras, stuff like that. Not only does he like eating it, he also likes cooking it, and going to the market to buy it. The only part of the process I like is the eating and, in the case of foie gras, I don't even like that. You're meant to relish foie gras but I just try to swallow it without tasting it or puking. When it comes to stuff I do like – nut roast, say – I shovel it down so eagerly that, as with foie gras but for the opposite reason, I barely taste it. Whenever I spend any time with this friend of mine, who has a good attitude to life, I always resolve to mend my ways, to turn my bad attitude into a good attitude but then, as soon as my wife says, "What shall we have for dinner tonight?" and I'm about to say "Nut roast!", the thought of having to go out and find more nuts fills me with such dread that I yell back, "I'm fine with Pringles again." Was stone-age man prone to this kind of lethargy? Did he sometimes feel chasing a mammoth was more hassle than it was worth?
Yesterday, on an increasingly rare outing from my cave, I found myself ranting at the guy at the supermarket check-out about how I'd been queuing so long it looked like I was going to spend the rest of my life in this supermarket, and he responded, "Well, that's shopping, mate." Wise words. Effectively, he said, "That's living, mate." They should get him in as a motivational speaker at the School of Life.
Geoff Dyer is an author. He will be giving a School of Life sermon on punctuality on 30 November
Play by Grayson Perry
Allowing yourself to play and dream is deeply satisfying. I'm full of admiration for the guy who builds some fantasy into his life and doesn't worry about what the neighbours think. People discount their needs and dreams because they think they're silly and they'll be judged, but that's how I've made my career.
To a degree, creativity is play. My job is playing seriously. I have to put myself in a non-judgemental frame of mind about the ridiculous fantasies that swim into my mind.
I found my career and my wife at an evening class. I don't go to one now, but at a certain point in your life they're great. Going on dates, sitting there wondering if this is the person for you, puts a lot of pressure on one evening. Whereas at an evening class it all happens out of the corner of your eye.
The communal spare-time activities are the ones that make you happiest. We need the human contact. We're set up for it. I made a film for More4 a few years ago about what people do in their time off, and the Sealed Knot, a group who enact civil war battles, were having a very jolly time. Likewise those who got together to play sport once a week.
The activities that are most satisfying are the difficult ones, such as playing a musical instrument. They take a lot of skill, but after a while you reach a high level that is often described as a state of bliss. I'm a bit worried that people nowadays are afraid of difficult activities. Computer games operate at a weirdly pedestrian level, like doing crosswords; they are the monosodium glutamate of spare time.
Leisure has become an industry and people have become excitement-driven, adrenaline junkies who are afraid of being bored. But it's actually good for you to be bored, because you remember what it is you might have been running away from and you realise what it is you actually want.
Grayson Perry is an artist. His short film "Spare Time" is shown at the beginning of the School of Life's play course.
Love by Toby Litt
Most people believe that love is one of the, if not the, most important things in life. Only an arch anti-Romantic like WH Auden would dare say, "Thousands have lived without love, not one without water." But Auden, as he knew, was taking a Canute-like stand against a flood of Romanticism. (He also said, "I loathe the sea. The sea is formless.")
The Romantic poet Shelley, one of the main surfers on this incoming tide, has been mocked ever since he asserted that "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." But, to me, this seems like a simple statement of fact: poets invented love – and all the accoutrements that come with it.
Before the poets, a rose had nothing more to do with love than a turnip. The seat of human affection is not necessarily the heart; before poetry romanticised that organ, attraction was just as likely felt elsewhere – in the pining liver or the yearning bowels.
Generations of poets have added to the mythology of love. The Latin poets mocked the emotion even as they elevated it above all others. The Arabic poets brought hearts and flowers, ornateness and sweetness. The Troubadours assigned the beloved a position second only to God. The Romantics advocated a life lived in pursuit of extreme sensations – especially love. And if poets invented the thing that is most important to most people, then they rule the world.
How can a knowledge of this help us to understand our own hearts? One of the great Romantic constructs is a sense of inevitability, that this love had to be, that Romeo and Juliet are "star-crossed" – destined for one another not merely by social proximity or biological necessity but by cosmic forces. For us, this reduces to the idea of 'The One'. When people search for love – when they answer personals or go on blind dates – they are hoping to find "The One". Beneath the flirtatious chatter, they are listening out to see if the universe says "Yes!"
Clearly, this is nuts. Fun nuts. Romantic nuts. Take-less-responsibility-for-your-life-than-you-should nuts. But nuts all the same.
The love lesson to be learnt from poets is that things could be completely different to how they are – and that goes for yourself and for whomever or whatever you love.
Next Valentine's Day, consider sending turnips instead.
Toby Litt is an author and the School of Life's expert on writing. He has also contributed to the School of Life's course on love
Friendship by Tom Hodgkinson
Earlier this year we killed a pig at home. We had so much delicious pork – joints of ham and chorizo and sausages – that we shared it with our neighbours, who in turn gave us some of their vegetables. When I wrote in a newspaper about what a wonderful community experience it was, I had a visit the next day from a man with a clipboard. He was from the local Food Standards Agency, and he was there to tell me that by giving my neighbours pork that hadn't been slaughtered in an abattoir, I'd broken the law. When did loving thy neighbour become illegal?
We started to lose the idea of community in around 1500. Before that the medieval church actively promoted brotherhood and communality, using free parties, beer, food and dancing as a way of encouraging social cohesion. Households were judged on how hospitable they were; monasteries took in ambulants. Life was all about communality.
Things started to go wrong when Henry VIII smashed the monasteries and in came the Lutheran idea of each man alone in the world, working hard for himself. A Protestant theologian called Richard Baxter counselled against trusting your neighbour. Another villain was Benjamin Franklin, who had the idea that time is money. Before that, time wasn't money – it was a gift from God.
The Sermon on the Mount said "Love thy neighbour" – not just the person who lived next door, but your fellow man, the person you find yourself next to at work or on the bus. Nowadays we pick and choose our friends. So-and-so is "not my kind of person". But surely it's crazy, delusional even, to think you're in such control of your life that you won't need help from a stranger one day? Being compassionate to those around you pays off as a practical, reciprocal arrangement. It is also, quite simply, good for the soul.
During the Second World War, there was a comeback in community feeling. There were parties in village halls, and we shared vehicles so as not to waste oil. The 1950s post-war economy shifted us back to being lone consumers again. But these things come and go. Maybe the banking collapse will lead to other approaches to life flowering. Where I live in Devon, the rise in oil prices has already led people to offer each other lifts. Maybe we're entering a new era of neighbourliness.
Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler' . He is giving a School of Life sermon on loving your neighbour on 26 October
Work by Alain de Botton
The most unusual feature of the modern workplace is the expectation that we should find happiness there. Work has occupied the greatest share of human energies since the beginning of our species, but only in the past 50 years or so has the extraordinary idea taken hold that our work shouldn't be just a means to a financial end, but a pleasurable activity in itself. An expectation that had once been the preserve of a few has now become general: being miserable at work has come to seem like a personal failing rather than an unavoidable feature of life.
Yet, despite such hopes, we remain remarkably cavalier about how we approach our careers. Most of us are still in jobs chosen for us by our unthinking 16-year-old selves. We find it hard to get the distance necessary to evaluate what we are up to and why. Sunday evenings and the end of holidays are traditionally the time when challenging thoughts appear, but they tend to get lost in confusion and quietly shelved by the start of the working week.
At the same time, society gives us little support for our passing doubts. The school career counsellor is a figure of mythic fun. Most of us had 40 minutes with him or her, filled in a daft questionnaire and were then authoritatively and unexpectedly told we'd make a good life guard or archaeologist. The world abounds with career gurus and psychotherapists but there is often something shadowy about their operations. We're still waiting for the reliably branded and regulated career expert.
If you ask people who are unhappy in their jobs what they would rather be up to, there's often a distinctive focus on particular careers. There are common fantasies about wanting to leave it all in order to teach, nurse, run a café or bakery, become an artist of some sort, or help out in developing countries. Often these fantasies turn around in our minds without going anywhere or else we make a leap into the unknown and find out too late, after the repossession order, that perhaps we aren't ideally suited to café life.
There are, though, practical exercises that can help in the search for more fulfilling ways of arranging ourselves. For example, you could draw a "map" of your career choices down the years, focusing in on particular roads not taken. The idea is to reveal the scale of your surrendered hopes and to revive a few of them where it's realistic. Most of us have a career crisis after leaving university, when we realise the gap between what we want to do and what we're able to do, and then settle for a job offering stability. It's often not for another 20 years or so that we allow ourselves to take a look at what we've sacrificed.
If this process sounds uncomfortably utopian, there is also much to be gained from considering the topics of resignation and expectation (it's hard in modern society to know when one is expecting too much or else has made an unnecessary compromise). The answer isn't necessarily to leave your current job, but to come to a clearer view of what you're up to and why."
Alain de Botton is a writer and philosopher. He is leading a School of Life "holiday" to Heathrow on 22-23 November