Alain de Botton: The Bohemian challenge to bourgeois values

From a lecture delivered by the writer and philosopher at Tate Britain, in London
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The Independent Online

One way of overcoming our anxieties about our status is to drop out of bourgeois life altogether - in order to become "a bohemian".The word bohemian emerged in the early19th century, and was used to refer to a new group of people being noticed in big cities like London and Paris. They often dressed simply, lived in the cheaper parts of town, read a lot, seemed not to care too much about money and were interested in art and emotion rather than business and material success.

A bohemian writer like Henry Thoreau tried to reconfigure our sense of what having little money could indicate about a person. It was not always a sign of being a loser at the game of life. Having little money might simply mean that one had opted to focus one's energies on activities other than business, growing rich in things other than cash in the process. Instead of using the word poverty to describe his condition, Thoreau preferred the word simplicity - this, he felt, conveyed a consciously chosen, rather than an imposed material situation.

Bohemia provided legitimacy for the pursuit of an alternative way of life; it staked out a sub-culture where certain of the values underrated by the bourgeois mainstream could have authority and prestige. Like Christianity, for which it in many ways functioned as an emotional substitute - emerging in the 19th century at around the very time when Christianity began to loosen its grip on the imagination - bohemia articulated a case for a spiritual, as opposed to a material, method of evaluating oneself.