Problem One: I am a nervous public speaker and next month I have to address a meeting of top business managers. Do you have any advice on how I might keep calm on stage?

The origins of your problem lie in a gross over-estimation of the people you are planning to talk to. After all, you talk confidently with your family and the greengrocer, largely because you accept that they are ordinary human beings. But in the case of these business managers, you ascribe them an other-wordly aura, which has a paralysing effect on your powers of speech. It is therefore essential that you bring them down to earth in your own mind. To help with the task, I recommend that you read (and perhaps repeat to yourself shortly before going on stage) a passage from the sixteenth century French philosopher Montaigne, taking care to substitute ‘top business managers’ for the words ‘kings’ and ‘philosophers’:

‘Upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses. Kings and philosophers shit: and so do ladies.’

‘Au plus eslevé throne du monde si ne sommes assis que sus nostre cul. Les Roys et les philosophes fientent, et les dames aussi.’

Problem Two: My boyfriend (Tom) is a kind and loving man, but often when he pays me a compliment, I get upset, because of the way he does it. Last week he said he loved me and then added, almost immediately after, ‘because your bottom is so pert.’ It’s true that my bottom is pert (I go to the gym a lot), but I’m uncomfortable with such remarks. Another time, he said that what he really liked about me was my breasts (they are quite large!!!!). Am I being ungrateful or is there something to complain about?

Your question raises a profound philosophical issue, namely, ‘What do we want to be loved for?’ Though we all want love, we also recognize that there are better and worse things to be loved for. To take an example, if our beloved says they love us because we are ‘so old-fashioned’, when in fact we’ve never noticed we are old-fashioned and actually pride ourselves on being ‘modern’, we will feel perturbed, and perhaps more unhappy than if they’d never said anything in the first place. So we don’t just want any kind of love, we want to be loved for the person who we think we are. We want to see an accurate, albeit flattering, picture of ourselves emerging from within the comments of others. If a lover says they love us for our body or our car, our money or our cat, these elements may not constitute appropriate targets for love.

Women in particular are often disturbed by the idea of being loved for their bodies. They may spend a considerable amount of time thinking of their appearance (the gym etc), but when someone falls in love with them, they don’t wish these bodies to be the central focus of love. In fantasy, and it has nothing to do with prudishness, the body would be beside the point. They would be loved for the mysterious rest one is left with after it is discounted: the habits, moods, history, and temperament we tend to call ‘ourselves’.

Give a person enough beauty or success, someone will sooner or later fall in love with them. But love has as its idealized prototype what should be the unconditional love of a parent for their baby. Our earliest memory of love is of being cared for in a helpless and weak condition. Some babies are notably cute, but they are by definition unable to bargain with the world on account of extrinsic characteristics. In so far as they are loved and looked after, they are therefore loved simply for who they are – which tends to be rather a messy business. They are loved for, or in spite of, their dribbling, peeing, vomiting, howling and selfish characters.

Only as the baby grows up does affection become conditional on a number of achievements – saying thank you at table, fetching mummy her glasses, scrubbing dishes and later, looking attractive, acquiring status, houses etc. But though these things guarantee the interest of others, the true desire is not so much to impress through one’s assets as to recreate the contract made by the parent with the child at infancy: a contract binding the parent to love and loyalty and fidelity, come what may. After all, if we are loved conditionally, what happens when the original conditions of love disappear – when the money goes and the body ages?

In short, we want to be loved for simply existing, not for doing a certain thing or looking a certain way. Then again, the desire is somewhat unrealistic and many people, philosophers among them, have at times judged it wise to continue visiting the gym.

Problem Three: A friend of mine has recently been left by her boyfriend and is very upset. I’d like to cheer her up and thought of taking her out to dinner somewhere nice. I live in Grimsby and wondered if you had any nice ideas for restaurants in the town or the vicinity?

I rarely dine out – but the greater question is whether you should be taking your friend out anywhere in the first place. Your intended goal is to make her feel better about the (unspecified) romantic disaster she has suffered. And if this is the goal, we must analyse what it is truly useful to say to someone who has been left in love. Part of the pain of a sad love affair comes from the preconception, which is fostered in a thousand Hollywood films and in the generally optimistic atmosphere of the modern media, that love is a happy business. This optimism makes us suffer doubly when love goes wrong for us: we suffer not only from the pain of the loss of love, but also from the pain of being in pain when we are supposed to be happy. In this situation, it is apparent that the most useful thing one can do with someone who has been abandoned is to provide them with evidence that life is not in fact a happy process, whatever the songs say. This will appease their feeling of persecution and place their own pain in context. Rather than a restaurant invitation, I therefore suggest that you send your friend a box containing: the Pensees of Pascal, the aphorisms of La Rochefoucauld, the collected works of Chamfort, Schopenhauer and Cioran, and selections from the work of Seneca. Your friend may particularly appreciate the Roman philosopher’s remark (you may even want to embroider this for her on a cushion or bedcover): ‘What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.’