The Idler Academy versus The School of Life: 'It's like the Beatles versus the Stones'
As part of the revival of ancient philosophy in modern life, some people have tried to establish philosophy schools where ordinary people can come, eat, drink and learn about philosophy and the art of living, just as they used to do in ancient Greece and Rome. One such place is the Idler Academy, set up in West London in 2010 by Tom Hodgkinson, the 43-year-old founder of The Idler magazine. Tom wants his Academy to combine the buzz of an 18th century coffee house with the sort of leisured philosophical enquiry practiced at the schools of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus and the Stoics in the ancient world.
I enter the Academy and browse the bookshelves, while a young shop assistant offers me a cup of tea. Anarchist handbooks rub covers with 19th century guides to Latin grammar. Shortly afterwards, a figure in a blue suit and plimsolls appears blinking from the basement. “Oh hi”, says Tom. “I was just having a nap.” For a few minutes his assistant and he rummage around in boxes of books, trying to find an order for a customer. The Academy includes a cafe, bookstore and main room where classes take place every evening in the three main subjects of the tripos: philosophy, husbandry and merriment. Tonight there is a workshop on Hellenistic philosophy. "Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus and the rest can be read with great ease by anybody", Tom says, "and they are just as relevant today as they were 2,300 years ago."
The Academy is still young, and slightly chaotic (in a good way). Last week, the sewers burst. This week, the boiler is on the fritz. Setting up a small business is hard work, but the local businesses are, on the whole, friendly and helpful to this unusual venture set up in their midst.
Tom's new philosophy school is the latest experiment in a defiantly unconventional career. In fact, ‘career’ is probably the wrong word. “Career is a try-hard notion”, says Tom. “It’s a middle class affliction.” After studying philosophy at Cambridge, Tom’s misadventures began with a job at the Sunday Mirror magazine in London. He hated it. He went from a student life of leisure, partying and punk rock to having to get out of bed at 7.30, commute to work, and spend most of the day in (what seemed to him) a joyless and soulless office where the workers were forbidden to talk to each other. Looking back on it, he realizes he was perhaps “a bit puffed up” after university and that his new employers were simply trying to take him down a peg or two. But he nonetheless found the experience traumatic. “I remember going round to my parents and bursting into tears”, he says.
“Your early twenties is a weird time. Everyone is terrified of failing or not fitting in. Even the parties have this horrible competitive edge: ‘what are you doing at the moment?’ All my friends seemed to be doing better than me.” He and his friends tried to escape the horrors of office life by raving at the weekend, but the ecstasy comedowns “only heightened the misery on Mondays”. Eventually the Mirror fired him, but rather than be crushed by this setback, Tom decided to strike out on his own path. In 1995, at the age of 26, he set up an alternative magazine, The Idler, which celebrated the Generation X ethos of leaving the rat-race and pursuing a life of pleasure, creativity and political apathy (or 'opting out').
“Things got much better when I had my own little project and outlet for creativity”, he says. Quite quickly, the magazine did well. His friend and co-founder, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, was a design graduate and the magazine looked much better than the average alternative zine. Tom’s writing articulately laid out his Idler philosophy. And, from the start, he showed a genius for getting interviews and guest articles, from the likes of Damien Hirst, Will Self, Louis Theroux, Alain De Botton, Alex James of Blur, Bill Drummond of the KLF, and others. “We were interested in interviewing anyone who had managed to get through life without a proper job.” The Idler diversified into books, producing works glorifying the Idler lifestyle such as How To Be Free, How To Be Idle, and The Book of Idle Pleasures, and other books attacking the rat-race, such as Crap Jobs. For one who openly extolled the pleasures of the slacker life, Tom was surprisingly busy, and successful.
And then there were the parties: “We used to throw a party every new issue of the magazine, so that was five or six a year. We held them in a semi-illegal squat in Farringdon. It was a real bohemian hang-out, full of criminals and drug-dealers. They were really wild parties, with 300 people or so, cabaret, comedy, bands like Zodiac Mindwarp.” I went to one of these parties myself, and remember a cabaret performer being suspended from the ceiling by wires attached to her nipples. “The 90s were quite a wild time, what with ecstasy, rave and Britpop. We got up to all kinds of adventures. One year, we set up a crazy golf course with each hole designed by a young British artist - Damien Hirst, Gavin Turk and so on. Another year Keith Allen (the actor and father of Lily Allen) sang Anarchy In The UK while dressed as Bin Laden. Merriment and partying was a big part of the Idler philosophy.”
In his early 30s, however, Tom and his wife, Victoria, decided to leave the wild London nights behind them and move to Devon, where they rented a ramshackle old house without central heating, and devoted themselves to the bucolic dream of growing your own vegetables, raising livestock (including some ferrets), making your own beer (“that particular experiment was a disaster”, Tom confesses), and having long, leisurely lunches. “I can make a living working three to four hours a day on writing and journalism, and the rest I can hanging out with my kids, reading, going for walks, doing whatever I want really.” It has been quite a creative time: Tom’s written three books since he moved to Devon in the early Noughties. His wife and he also organized occasional weekend workshops on rural self-sufficiency, in partnership with Alain De Botton's School of Life.
De Botton set up the School of Life in 2008, in Bloomsbury. He wrote (in The Idler, in fact) that his dream was to set up a modern version of Epicurus’ philosophical commune, The Garden: “The example of the Garden has haunted me ever since I read about it at university”, De Botton wrote. “I too have longed to live in a philosophical community rather than simply read about wisdom and truth in a lonely study. For years, I joked that I wished to start a new version of the Garden...[then] a wise friend told me to stop defending my dreams with irony and to get on this project before it was too late...So that’s how I and a few other philosophically-minded friends came to start our own version of The Garden in autumn 2008.”
The School of Life, like the Idler Academy, has a bookstore and a classroom where workshops and talks take place. It also holds ‘secular sermons’ every Sunday, the first of which was given by Tom back in 2008. The shop has tree trunks in it “in honour of Epicurus”, and a bust of the master. De Botton says that the School, like the Garden, “gathers a regular contingent of people, and together we eat, hear lectures, go on journeys and, most importantly, attempt to live philosophically.”
He makes it sound a bit more of an Epicurean commune than it is. In fact, I have never seen De Botton at one of their events. He is more of a grey cardinal figure behind the scenes than a daily presence - he's still mainly in his study, writing books. The School does not gather “a regular contingent” of fellow searchers, but rather whoever turns up and pays the £35 charge for evening events. And the School does not teach any particular way of life, but rather classes in which various different philosophical approaches to an issue are discussed. Nonetheless, it was, and is, an interesting new addition to British philosophy and self-help.
Tom decided to set up his own Academy in 2010, after organizing Idler events at Port Eliot literary festival and other festivals during that year, where talks and classes were held alongside lessons in music and merriment. Classes at the Academy also take place beneath a bust of Epicurus, and cost around the same as the School of Life (£20-35 a class, including wine and nibbles). However, unlike Alain De Botton, Tom is a very visible presence at his Academy - manning the till, answering the phone, making the tea, introducing the classes in the evening, although he doesn’t actually teach them himself. The philosophy classes are mainly taught by Mark Vernon, who also teaches at The School of Life (both schools ask him what the other school is up to).
Tom says he received a phone call from The School of Life shortly after opening the Academy. “They were pissed off at the time. They thought I was copying them, and asked me if we were competing. To me, it’s like the Beatles and the Stones. A bit of friendly rivalry is good for creative people. But ultimately, people can choose whether they see you as a competitor or collaborator. I think there’s room enough for both of us, and even for more such places. I’d like there to be philosophy schools in North London, South London, in other cities, in the countryside. Epicureans established philosophical communes across the whole of the Roman Empire. This is just the beginning.”