Profile

From Trieste to Tasmania, philosopher John Armstrong has pondered the fate of the intellectual. By Adam Ouston.

Purely academic

John Armstrong.
Credit: DAN CRIPPS

“There’s that wonderful painting of Chatterton,” he says, squaring himself in his chair, miming the dimensions of the canvas, “that illustrates exactly what Plato was on about. The fate of the intellectual.”

I’m on a two-seater sofa while, opposite me, philosopher and writer John Armstrong is sitting, one leg slung over the other, in an antique desk chair, searching the middle distance for the next phrase. 

Although the painting itself is not hanging on the walls around us, it might well be. Armstrong has invited me to his home, a two- or three-storey Georgian, at the leafy end of a street in South Hobart, on a warm morning shortly before Christmas. We are in a sort of reception room at the front of the house, not quite underfurnished with several mahogany bookcases filled with jacketless hardbacks embossed in gold, oriental rug over rustic floorboards, prints on the walls: a hunting scene, a sketch of a distant castle. Everything is neat, just so. Armstrong has an air of friendly authority about him.

Having approximated the canvas, his pale hands hang in the air, projecting above the dormant fireplace. He is thinking about Henry Wallis’s 1856 painting The Death of Chatterton, depicting the 17-year-old early Romantic poet Thomas Chatterton draped limply over the edge of his bed in a tiny garret, destitute and unknown, just moments after downing a lethal dose of arsenic. Armstrong looks up at me. “The intellectual returns to the cave to share what he has found outside,” he says, recalling Plato. “Nobody understands him. And so they kill him.”

A fortnight before our meeting, Armstrong returned from Trieste, where he rents a single-bedroom apartment in order to work at a distance from the responsibilities and distractions of domestic life. He is there four months of the year, two stints of two months apiece. When I ask if he’s back on Hobart time yet, he throws me a boyish grin that matches the college cowlick of his grey hair. “It isn’t time that I need adjusting to,” he says. “It’s getting back into family life, getting used to having people around again.”

Much of his time in Italy is spent in solitude. “The only people I talk to, really, are the people I buy groceries from, or the people serving me in cafes and restaurants.” For the rest of that time he works as the global head of content and philosopher-in-chief of The School of Life, an organisation established in London in 2008 by writer and philosopher Alain de Botton, now with branches in Paris, Amsterdam, Belgrade, Rio, Istanbul, Melbourne and elsewhere. These centres aim to help people develop emotional intelligence through culture, holding classes, encouraging conversations, and offering therapy sessions that address issues such as how to find fulfilling work, manage relationships, achieve calm, worry less about money and think more about sex. 

“Whether they are conscious of it or not,” Armstrong says, “people live by a core idea or set of ideas. The School of Life is about challenging or refining those ideas. Because, as we know, big, serious ideas can be powerful in the world.”

He is animated now. The calm is gone. He shifts forward to the edge of his seat. Feet fall flat on the floor, a hand ruffles through the hair. “We like to show how the great minds of the past have grappled with certain issues – many of which are the same ones we grapple with today – and offer other ways of seeing, ways of coping with the modern world.”

 

Raised and Jesuit-schooled in Glasgow, Armstrong was educated in Oxford and London, undertaking 10 years of an “intellectual apprenticeship” in philosophy and art history from 1986 to 1996. After gaining his PhD from University College, he became director of the philosophy program at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study.

In 2009 he and his family moved to Australia, where he took up a position at the University of Melbourne as the senior adviser in the office of the vice-chancellor. “That was primarily for family reasons. We found it difficult to raise our children in London and live the lives we wanted to live. My wife, Helen, is from Adelaide. It was always an option.”

After five years in Melbourne, as Armstrong’s work at the university gave way to his work at the School of Life, he and his family moved to Hobart. “Again, that was for family and lifestyle reasons. Like London, we were finding ourselves stretched too thin. I mean, I don’t want our decision to come to Hobart to sound trivial, but we were spending half our Melbourne life in the car. There was so little time for family, work, socialising. Once again, we just found it so difficult to live the way we wanted to.”

The order of the objects in the room around us speaks to another kind of order: the invisible arrangement of Armstrong’s domestic and professional lives. The many relocations, living between Hobart and Trieste, the work that sits somewhere between research essay and self-help, the half-in/half-out life of the intellectual, all seem to have required careful orchestration and negotiation. Perhaps even trial and error. Do the issues he curates at the School of Life have any basis in his own life? “I do try to take a sympathetic approach,” he says, “that what keeps me awake at night are the same things that, broadly speaking, keep others awake, too.” 

When I ask him what does keep him awake at night, he chuckles and looks away. There’s a pause as he collects his thoughts and I look about the room, the paintings, the bookcases, the framed sketch of that distant castle.

“Relationships are a high priority, both with others and myself. There are aspects of my personality that make some relationships tricky. Work is important. The brevity of life and the prospect of my own death. The times I’ve let other people down. Excitement about what might be possible in the future.”

To date, Armstrong has published nine books. Each is difficult to classify, generically somewhere between academic inquiry, biography, autobiography and self-help, using ideas of art, philosophy and culture – as well as the lives of artists and philosophers – to help people navigate contemporary society. The titles include In Search of Civilisation; Love, Life, Goethe; Life Lessons from Nietzsche and; more recently, Art as Therapy, co-written with de Botton, 

It’s dangerous territory, I suggest, offering advice to people on how better to live their lives. “Yes,” he replies, “it’s dangerous on two levels. Firstly, people hate being bossed around, being told what to do, what to think. We are very sensitive to the way information is given to us. The truth discovered by the intellectual who journeys outside the cave – as Plato reminds us – might not be appealing to the others who’ve remained inside the cave. 

“On the other hand, though, as one of my favourite writers, Benjamin Disraeli, pointed out in the 19th century: people also have an appetite for belonging, for ‘worship and obedience’. We love joining in just as much as we loathe being told what to do. It’s a delicate balance. The question is: How do you make an idea powerful in someone’s mind? And that’s the second part of the problem: if you sex up these traditional ideas for a modern audience, you might be seen to be selling out, diluting or even betraying the ideas you are putting forward. That’s when they come for you. Again, the fate of the intellectual.”

 

In his 2009 book, In Search of Civilisation, Armstrong makes a candid disclosure: “My deepest fear is of loutish bullying and, close second, of appealing for help and being told the problem lies in me.”

I wonder if these fears have anything to do with his growing up in the 1960s as a bright boy with intellectual and artistic sensibilities in working-class Glasgow. “Yes, but I think they are more connected to the peculiarities of my life and personality than to that specific city. When I was young I was ambitious but sadly quite fragile. I think I’d have encountered similar difficulties pretty much anywhere.”

To some, his childhood in Glasgow might sound idyllic: growing up in close proximity to an extended family – uncles, aunts and cousins around the corner – who all shared the same politics, the same ideas, socialised together. Community. Solidarity. 

“Really,” admits Armstrong, “I didn’t feel that I quite belonged. And I did want to belong, to fit in. Desperately. But my feelings and ideas were different to those around me, and I sensed that others would be completely unsympathetic, or at least uninterested, in what I was thinking about.”

Was London any better? Did he feel that there was more sympathy for his outlook and ideas? “Yes, of course, but that’s simply the nature of the diversity of London. And yet there’s also this mentality that London is the centre of everything – culture, ideas, literature, fashion. And in some ways it is. If you want to engage with a certain kind of, say, writing or academia, if you wish to be a certain kind of literary author, then it certainly pays to base yourself there. But that can be limiting, too. One day, I was standing outside the British Museum–”

There’s a knock at the door. Armstrong’s voice softens, shifts down in volume but up an octave to its usual delicate register, as he asks whomever it is to enter. Standing on the threshold is Helen Hayward, his wife – a writer as well as a former university lecturer trained in psychotherapy. She carries purse and papers and is seemingly on her way out. The introductions go round and it occurs to both Helen and me that we’ve met before. These things happen in Hobart, even after the few short years that Armstrong and his family have lived here. 

Hayward brings news of the dishwasher. The repairman will be by early in the afternoon. Armstrong thinks for a moment, then reassures his wife that he’ll be around to let him in. As they’re talking, I notice through the large bay window overlooking the front garden a figure darting out the gate, no doubt one of the two Armstrong children. Outside this little room, a sort of silent inner cloister, the household seems, almost conversely, to buzz with life.

“One day I was standing outside the British Museum,” Armstrong continues, “practically at the centre of the intellectual world. It ought to have been the centre of my world. Here I was, from Glasgow to Oxford to London, slowly moving towards the hub of everything. And I felt totally out of place.”

Despite his stories of the misfit child and young man, Armstrong now appears settled, or at least to have found the “delicate balance” between the intellectual’s desire to be outside, for solitude, and the human desire to be inside. Still, is there a sense that, having ventured “out” from London, he’s now on the margins, that he’s moved away from where it’s all happening? 

“As far as I’m concerned, given our current resources of communication, there isn’t a centre to be close to or distant from. I go to Italy and feel no closer to any kind of centre. In fact, if anything, I go there for distance: physical and psychological distance. There I experience the joy of the tourist, free-floating, unconnected, at liberty to think, to focus on my work without interruption or distraction. It is the ideas that have the central place, that are the centre. How to live. What to devote your time to. They are what we all live by, whether we acknowledge it or not. And that’s why the stakes are so high for the intellectual, as Plato said, as Wallis says in his painting of Chatterton. Such can be the fate of those who challenge or at least modify accepted ways of living, ideas of right and wrong, the good life, belonging.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 11, 2017 as "Purely academic". Subscribe here.

Adam Ouston
is a Hobart-based writer and the recipient of the 2014 Erica Bell Literary Award.