25 November 2010

Why Self-Help Books Should Be Useful

There is no more ridiculed genre than the self-help book. Yet far too many turn to this genre to escape from bureaucracy and the chatter of societies. It always surprises me when people, especially women, crowd the two narrow corridors with awe expressions to learn how to be successful or millionaire with a handful of tips. If self-help book seems to offer consolations of our miserable lives, it is perhaps because it wishes to pin our hopes firmly on the sentiment of fierce optimism. Rather than telling us how the world actually operates, it tends to depict the world as totally just and equal, rendering it completely meritocratic.

Whatever shortcomings self-help books may have, though novels and literature may offer a better solution to human condition, to undermine the value of self-help book is to downplay its traditional role in literary history in contribution to our wellbeing. Much of the history of this genre spent its gloriest history analysing aspects of human psychology and aiming to enrich our lives through practical advice on the art of living such as friendship, romantic love, and diet instead of how we might boost up our self-esteem . The prestige of self-help books owed its success to its practitioners who were largely made up of philosophers and essayists, whose writings seduce us to bear a philosophical mind to even the most trivial details of our everyday life, through sensitising our awareness of the habitual, attuning our minds to pick up certain details that we are previously ignorant of.

Many of these writers were Stoic thinkers. Philosophers ranging from Epicurus and Seneca, Cicero to Marcus Aurelius, wrote a great deal of self-help books almost on every topic, offering practical advice to help us deal with death, the rejections of our lovers, and how to be happy without being rich. Instead of telling us how we might save up our money and invest in stock market, their advice went to the very core of human nature, urging us to perfect the art of going with the flow even when what was before us was as hard to swallow as, to use Arthur Schopenhauer's phrase, a toad.

This is precisely the bent of thinking that underlay the prominence of traditional self-help books. Not only they ventured to portray the world as it is, but also convinced us to be lightened by life's absurdities, adapting to the change rather than resisting it. But this is no optimism. Rather, it suggests pessimism, refuting the grave assumption that we will be cheered up when we are told all is well, and instead drawing us to the thought that we should never expect anything to go well, so we may restore the tranquility of our mind.

If the tradition of self-help books is deliberately divorced from philosophy, then perhaps philosophers are largely to blame, for they are no longer concerned with how to live happily, but, rather, how to get facts and concepts right. The greatest enemy of this genre may be thought as analytical philosophy, whose main objectives are clarification of concepts and logical consistency which seem almost totally irrelevant to our everyday experience however much we need logic to distinguish good arguments from the bad ones. Modern philosophy is entirely lacking its traditional vigour to improve our wellbeing.

Unfortunately, our steering away from analytical philosophy is not enough. The crucial danger of modern philosophy is that many philosophers suffer from the rigid inability to write beautifully. If we survey the history of philosophy, most of the philosophers, aside from the ancients, are terrible writers. Their inability lies not in being unable to articulate their ideas clearly, but, rather, in taking on a wrong perspective of how the human mind operates. The fact is the human mind needs to be seduced and entertained. Instead of employing the art of writing in merely a logical, coherent manner, they should pay more attention to plotting, a characteristic to which novels and literature are anchored.

Therefore, not only philosophy should resume its importance in self-help books, philosophers should also relearn to recast our moral confusions and griefs and collapse an old wisdom into beautiful, communal sentences in order to appeal to the lay audience. I wish to imagine one day where philosophers write much less for philosophy journals and fill their own writings without the slightest trace of jargons, where the self-help sections in any franchise bookshops whose bookshelves will be filled with volumes of Stoic writings, the entire collection of Alain de Botton's popular philosophy, and Bertrand Russell's essays instead of books with lurid covers and images of optimistic-looking faces that tend to falsely do away our anxieties and worries. Because, as the British philosopher John Stuart Mill put it so well, "ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so."


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