Can Tolstoy Save Your Marriage?

My brother-in-law told me about an article with this title in the weekend issue of  The Wall Street Journal.

Since both my vocation and my avocation are wedded to the idea that that great literature, art and music can and should help teach us how to live well and wisely, I immediately called up the article on my computer.

The author turned out to be Alain de Botton (b. 1969), a Swiss writer, television presenter and entrepreneur resident in the UK. His books and television programs discuss various contemporary subjects and themes in a philosophical style, emphasising philosophy’s relevance to everyday life. Perhaps his best-known book is his first non-fiction work, How Proust Can Change Your Life, published in 1998.

De Botton’s most recent project is the School of Life – a new cultural enterprise based in central London aiming to offer instruction on how to lead a fulfilled life. In an interview with de Botton said:

The idea is to challenge traditional universities and reorganise knowledge, directing it towards life, and away from knowledge for its own sake. In a modest way, it’s an institution that is trying to give people what universities rarely give them: a sense of direction and wisdom for their lives with the help of culture.

Here are some course descriptions with the required readings.


Is love something we’re destined to fall in and out of, or can it be sustained over time? Is sexual desire the essential lubricant…or a pale companion compared with friendship and trust?

Readings include Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy; The Iris Trilogy by John Bayley; The Art of Loving by Eric Fromm.


Is there such a thing as a good death? How might we best mourn the loss of those we cared about?

Readings include Consolation in the Face of Death by Samuel Johnson, My Last Sigh by Luis Bunuel ; The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.


In what ways might peole who are disinclined to follow a partucular religion nuture their spiritual side?

Readings include Confessions by Augustine; Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion by David Hume; selected poems by Emily Dickinson.


What would a meaningful working life really look like?

Readings include Walden by Henry David Thoreau; The Protestant Work Ethic and the Sprit of Capitalism by Max Weber; The Conditions of the Working Class in England by Frederich Engels.

One might quibble with the choices of readings, but I would like to know what you think about de Botton’s essential premise, that “we should look to culture as a storehouse of useful ideas about how to face our most pressing personal and professional issues.” Do you believe… “Novels and historical narratives can impart moral instruciton and edification.reat paintings can suggest the requirements for happiness. Philosophy can probe our anxieties and offer consolation.”…? I invite you to share a personal example, perhaps from a Classical Pursuits experience.

Here is a link to the School of Life.


  1. steve moore

    I think we can look to great literature and less often great music opera or theatre to guide us in facing life’s great questions.
    To answer Ann’s question about novel’s and historical narratives imparting moral instruction and edification, I think the best example for me was the “arc” of Pierre’s life in War and Peace. in the course of 800 pages of the best novel I have ever read, Pierre’s internal musings about his goals and values changed from those of a man who thought he could and should do much to improve the world to those of man with a simple goal of seeing the world more clearly, and appreciating it’s good parts without trying to hard to change it’s bad parts. A lesson that many of us learn by the end of our lives.
    Ann’s sign off from her last letter from Classical Pursuits says it correctly in my view– “see much, overlook a great deal, change little”. The only problem is that it was said by Pope John the 23rd, so that when I read this, I immediately thought of all the Catholic Church has been accused of “overlooking” in the past 3 decades regarding priesthood misbehaviour!!

    • Thank you Steve. I do think that music, opera, poetry, drama and art can also also sources of meaning and guidance. A few quick examples of my own…

      The music of Gustav Mahler conveys to me, in ways words rarely can, an internal struggle between alienation and a spiritual longing.
      Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger explores questions of the artist’s creativity – his relation to his art, and to tradition, and to society (and how a “terrible” man can create deeply truthful art).
      David Mamet’s play Oleanna made clear to me how elusive the goal of objectivity is.
      Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Sandpiper” reminds me that beauty and truth can be found in contemplation of the smallest details of life, including the poem itself.
      Rembrandt’s painting “Return of the Prodigal Son” imparts in me empathy for the human condition.

      I agree with Steve that the author of the quote does throw it under suspicion.

  2. Ah, Tolstoy. The great writer who refused to let his devoted wife be with him at his bedside when he died in a train station She was forced to stand in the throng outside, peering at him through a window. When Tolstoy realized she was there, he had his attendants hang a curtain so she could not see him. I think he’s a brilliant writer, but I wouldn’t count on him as a marriage counselor.

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