The Consolations of Philosophy
© 2000 Alain de Botton
A number of months ago, I stumbled by chance upon a fascinating television series called Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness. Host Alain de Botton addressed the everyday concerns of six famous philosophers in the show’s six episodes, demonstrating on video his and others’ attempts to take the advice of thinkers past to heart. I’ve mentioned here and other places innumerable times, so taken was I with the idea — and when I found out that the shows were based on one of de Botton’s works, I knew I would someday read it.
Like the show that it spawned, The Consolations of Philosophy is divided into six sections focusing on the works of Socrates, Epicures, Seneca, Michel de Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. The focus of the book chapters tends to be more broad than the television episodes on them, and present philosophy as a salve to eliminate our distress at being stressed, angry, unpopular, or heartbroken — just for starters. De Botton integrates pictures directly into the text: while they sometimes serve as garnish for the text, more often than not they are directly used in the course of de Botton’s discussion. Consolations is Epictetus’ kind of philosophy: it’s street wisdom, to be employed anyone. Our author writes plainly and candidly, with the kind of self-revelation he finds so endearing in reading de Montaigne’s Essays.
The book’s contents, in brief:
- Socrates’ Consolation for Unpopularity, or his view of self-esteem, is that people should draw their self-image not from what others think about them or their opinions, but from the assurance that their beliefs and actions are guided by Reason. The section includes an explanation of the Socratic method, and it is this de Botton believes to be the basis for Socrates’ grace in accepting his imposed death sentence.
- Epicurus’ Consolation for Not Having Enough Money is realizing that happiness is the ends and money is not necessarily the means. He advocates a life filled with simple pleasures, and believes we buy things in a misguided attempt to find fulfillment. True fulfillment, Epicures says, lies in freedom, friends, and self-reflection. Epicures is a personality who comes to mind whenever I read about simple living, the slow movement, and anti-consumerism.
- Seneca’s Consolation for Frustration is Stoicism, and de Botton focuses on Stoicism’s treatment of anger as well as addressing questions of theodicy. de Botton places more emphasis on what we cannot control than what we can.
- Michel de Montaigne’s Consolation for Inadequacy is twice as long as any of the other sections and is difficult to summarize, but it may suffice to say that Montaigne believes we humans live far too much in our heads: we are embarrassed by our “animal” functions of sex and defecation and arrogant about our opinions not because our opinions are great and truthful and our estimation of ourselves is deserving, but because we are deluding ourselves. Thoughtful humility seems to be in order.
- Similarly, Schopenhauer’s Consolation for a Broken Heart is that we’re animals, driven to procreate, and this business of falling in love is our genes’ way of screwing with us. It’s not our fault we fall in and out of love and find ourselves stuck in hopeless relationships: forces within our bodies impel us to seek out viable genetic mates, and they do not care if those mates are compatible with us in the long term.
- Nietzsche brings up the rear by offering a Consolation for Hardship: it’s the struggle up the mountain that leads to fulfillment. Life is hard, and we must persevere if we are to make anything of it.
Although de Botton’s emphasis is on the everyday applicability of these ideas, he does establish background as necessary to understand where these men are coming from. He doesn’t go into a system of thought like Stoicism in a great deal of detail, for instance — but does so enough that we understand Seneca’s basis for saying what he says. This is the kind of thinking that Epictetus thought needed to be “rescued” from the high-tower academics and brought down to everyday life. I’ve found the television series and the book to be ever helpful. This is what philosophy, the love of wisdom, should be going for: making sense of life. I imagine this is one I shall return to for future reads, and it is of course a recommendation to you.