The Consolations of Philosophy
Alain de Botton
Pantheon Books, New York (USA), 2000 (2000)
265 pages, including index and notes.

Philosophy has changed a lot over the years. Althogh most of us identify it with wild abstractions and mere reflections on profound questions that "nobody cares about" (i.e., it tends to be confused with metaphysics, which is only one of its many branches), the fact is that, until very recently (relatively speaking), scientists were called "natural philosophers" and the discipline as such had a good level of influence on everyday life. As a matter of fact, one suspects that philosophy started to go on a tangent precisely at the point where it became a subject of academic specialization. It was then that the professors took over, created their own highly complex and self-referential language, and argued endlessly over minutiae (in other words, what academicians of any other discipline tend to do). Yet, we would be fools to believe that this type of philosophy (sure, the only one we ever seem to hear about anymore, assuming you even care about these issues) is the only one. Even after specialization came to distort things, thinkers like Nietzsche, Ortega y Gasset or Fernando Savater (mind you, not all three are at the same level, judging from their accomplishments and influence) still had plenty to say that was (and is) relevant to our life. But these are a different type of philosopher. In some cases they are barely known too, perhaps because they avoided pie in the sky abstractions, as well as ambitious systems, and chose to center their attention on the here and now, the problems that we face. Obviously, that is the reason why they are actually more relevant to our lives than other better known thinkers.

In any case, why did this happen? Aside from the fact that our activities became ever more specialized, why did philosophy become just one more academic discipline and lost touch with reality? I suppose people like Hegel are to blame, at least partially. They thrived in obscure prose. Their strange gobbledygook sounded fascinating to some. They talked as if they knew. We, the rest of humanity, unable to understand what the heck they were talking about sure were ignorant. Or are we? I don't know. I think there is something to say for the type of phylosophy that speaks in a plain language, poses regular questions and worries about... well, the same things that the vast majority of mortals worry about. Mind you, in general this is what the classic Hellenistic philosophy was all about. But then, theology showed up to muddy the waters with endless considerations about the sex of the angels. To some extent, the Renaissance tried to right the course, not only in this realm, but also in the realm of the arts. Yet, with modern society also came the academic specialization that we know today, which undid it all.

Sure, this is all a very schematic approach to the topic, but, overall, I think it is correct. One way or another, the thing is that Alain de Botton, professor as he is, belongs to that old tradition of authors who tries to connect philosophy with our daily lives. Needless to say, this causes plenty of confusion among the people who have to stack the shelves at most bookstores. They don't know if his books should go in the Philosophy section, or perhaps that other one dedicated to Self-improvement, together with a good amount of quacks and snake oil salesmen. As far as I'm concerned, they should be considered a real-life application of philosophy to our problems and concerns, which is as valuable (if not more valuable) than deep analysis of the metaphysics of the soul in the work of this or that philosopher.

So, what is The Consolations of Philosophy?

The first chapter, Consolation for Unpopularity, is about Socrates:

Every society has notions of what one should believe and how one should behave in order to avoid suspicion and unpopularity. Some of these societal conventions are given explicit formulaion in a legal code, others are more intuitively held in a vast body of ethical and practical judgements described as "common sense", which dictates what we should wear, which financial values we should adopt, whom we should esteem, which etiquette we should follow and what domestic life we should lead. To start questioning these conventions would seem bizarre, even aggressive. If common sense is cordoned off from questions, it is because its judgements are deemed plainly too sensible to be the targets of scrutiny.

(Alain de Botton: The Consolations of Philosophy, p. 9)

The philosopher does not only help us to conceive that others may be wrong, he offers us a simple method by which we can ourselves determine what is right. Few philosophers have had a more minimal sense of what is needed to begin a thinking life. We do not need years of formal education and a leisured existence. Anyone with a curious and well-ordered mind who seeks to evaluate a common-sense belief can start a conversation with a friend in a city street and, by following a Socratic method, may arrive at one or two ground-breaking ideas in under half an hour.

(Alain de Botton: The Consolations of Philosophy, p. 23)

And the conclusion:

Yet there is a danger that Socrate's death will seduce us for the wrong reasons. It may foster a sentimental belief in a secure connection between being hated by the majority and being right. It can seem the destiny of geniuses and saints to suffer early misunderstanding, then to be accorded bronze statues by Lysippus. We may be neither geniuses nor saints. We may simply be privileging the stance of defiance over good reasons for it, childishly trusting that we are never so right as when others tell us we are wrong.

(Alain de Botton: The Consolations of Philosophy, pp. 41-42)

Onto Epicurus and the Consolation for Not Having Enough Money:

At the heart of Epicureanism is the thought that we are as bad at intuitively answering "What will make me happy?" as "What will make me healthy?" The answer which most rapidly comes to mind is liable to be as faulty. Our souls do not spell out their troubles more clearly than our bodies, and our intuitive diagnoses are rarely any more accurate. Trepanning might serve as a symbol of the difficulties of understanding our psychological as much as our physiological selves.

(Alain de Botton: The Consolations of Philosophy, p. 54)

The task of philosophy was, for Epicirus, to help us interpret our indistinct pulses of distress and desire and thereby save us from mistaken schemes of happiness. We were to cease acting on first impulses, and instead investigate the rationality of our desires according to a method of questioning close to that used by Socrates in evaluating ethical definitions over a hundred years earlier. And by providing what might at times feel like counter-intuitive diagnoses of our ailments, philosophy would —Epicurus promised— guide us to superior cures and true happiness.

(Alain de Botton: The Consolations of Philosophy, p. 55)

So, what are the key components of a happy life (or, as de Boton says, what is "the happiness acquisition list")? According to Epicurus, a truly fulfilled life would include friendship, freedom (from work, as well as from other conventions) and thought (i.e., an analyzed, or "mindful", as a Buddhist might say, life).

Why, then, if expensive things cannot bring us remarkable joy, are we so powerfully drawn to them? Because of an error similar to that of the migraine sufferer who drills a hole in the side of his skull: because expensive objects can feel like plausible solutions to needs we don't understand. Objects mimic in a material dimension what we require in a psychological one. We need to rearrange our minds but are lured towards new shelves. We buy a chasmere cardigan as a substitute for the counsel of friends.

(Alain de Botton: The Consolations of Philosophy, p. 65)

The third chapter, titled Consolation for Frustration, is dedicated to Seneca:

A single idea recurs throughout his work: that we best endure those frustrations which we have prepared ourseves for and understand and are hurt most by those we least expected and cannot fathom. Philosophy must reconcile us to the true dimensions of reality, and so spare us, if not frustration itself, then at least its panoply of prenicious accompanying emotions.

Her task is to prepare for our wishes the softest landing possible on the adamantine wall of reality.

(Alain de Botton: The Consolations of Philosophy, p. 81)

The chapter titled Consolation for Inadequacy is inspired by the philosophy of Montaigne:

Beneath his painted beams, Montaigne had outlined a new kind of philosophy, one which acknowledged how far we were from the rational, serene creatures whom most of the ancient thinkers had taken us to be. We were for the most part hysterical and demented, gross and agitated souls beside whom animals were in many respects paragons of health and virtue —an unfortunate reality which philosophy was obliged to reflect, but rarely did:

Our life consists partly in madness, partly in wisdom: whoever writes about it merely respectfully and by rule leaves more than half of it behind.

And yet if we accepted our frailties, and ceased claiming a mastery we did not have, we stood to find —in Montaigne's generous, redemptive philosophy— that we were ultimately still adequate in our own distinctive half-wise, half-blockheadish way.

(Alain de Botton: The Consolations of Philosophy, p. 121)

So what annoyed Montaigne were the firm, unexamined convictions of both the Augsburg gentleman and the French that their own system of heating was superior. Had Montaigne returned from Germany and installed in his library an iron stove from Augsburg, his countrymen would have greeted the object with the suspicion they accorded anything new:

Each nation has many customs and practices which are not only unknown to another nation but barbarous and a cause of wonder

When there was of course nothing barbarous nor wondrous about either a stove or a fireplace. The definition of normality proposed by any given society seems to capture only a fraction of what is in fact reasonable, unfairly condemning vast areas of experience to an alien status. By pointing out to the man from Augsburg and his Gascon neighbours that an iron stove and an open fireplace had a legitimate place in the vast realm of acceptable heating systems, Montaigne was attempting to broaden his readers' provincial conception of the normal —and following in the footsteps of his favourite philosopher:

When they asked Socrates where he came from, he did not say "From Athens", but "From the world."

(Alain de Botton: The Consolations of Philosophy, pp. 134-135)

There are, so Montaigne implied, no legitimate reasons why books in the humanities should be difficult or boring: wisdom does not require a specialized vocabulary or syntax, nor does an audience benefit from being wearied. Carefully used, boredom can be a valuable indicator of the merit of books. Though it can never be a sufficient judge (and in its more degenerate forms, slips into wilful indifference and impatience), taking our levels of boredom into account can temper an otherwise excessive tolerance for balderdash. Those who do not listen to their boredom when reading, like those who pay no attention to pain, may be increasing their suffering unnecessarily. Whatever the dangers of being wrongly bored, there are as many pitfalls in never allowing ourselves to lose patience with our reading matter.

(Alain de Botton: The Consolations of Philosophy, p. 158)

So, what should clever people know, then, according to Montaigne?

They should know the facts, and if they do not and if they have in addition been so foolish as to get these wrong in a book, they should expect no mercy from scholars, who will be justified in slapping them down, and pointing out, with supercilious civility, that a date is wrong or a word misquoted, a passage is out of context or an important source forgotten.

(Alain de Botton: The Consolations of Philosophy, p. 160)

As for the sources of their ideas, Montaigne was a bit of a skeptic about our tendency to overestimate the wisdom of the ancient classics:

It is striking how much more seriously we are likely to be taken after we have been dead a few centuries. Statements which might be acceptable when they issue from the quills of ancient authors are likely to attract ridicule when expressed by contemporaries. Critics are not inclined to bow before the grander pronouncements of those with whom they attended university. It is not these individuals who will be allowed to speak as though they were ancient philosophers. "No man has escaped paying the penalty for being born," wrote Seneca, but a man struck by a similar sentiment in latter ages would not be advised to speak like this unless he manifested a particular appetite for humiliation. Montaigne, who did not, took shelter, and at the end of the Essays, made a confession, touching for its vulnerability:

If I had confidence to do what I really wanted, I would have spoken utterly alone, come what may.

(Alain de Botton: The Consolations of Philosophy, pp. 163-164)

His position on this was indeed quite radical:

If scholars paid such attention to the classics, it was, suggested Montaigne, from a vainglorious wish to be thought intelligent through association with prestigious names. The result for the reading public was a mountain of very learned, very unwise books:

There are more books on books than on any other subject: all we do is gloss each other. All is a-swarm with commentaries: of authors there is a dearth.

(Alain de Botton: The Consolations of Philosophy, p. 166)

Needless to say, this tradition is overwhelming in academia, where one is actually supposed to always quote other authors, pretty much regardless of the matter, as a way to prove that one did his work.

Next, de Botton turns to Schopenhauer in the chapter titled Consolation for a Broken Heart, where he starts by sharing the idea from the German philosopher that what attracts a man to a woman has little to do with the idealized compatibility of characters, but rather with a mora instictive suitability to bear children:

Unfortunately, the theory of attraction led Schopenhauer to a conclusion so bleak, it may be best if readers about to be married left the next few paragraphs unread in order not to have to rethink their plans; namely, that a person who is highly suitable for our child is almost never (though we cannot realize it at the time because we have been blindfolded by the will-of-life) very suitable for us.

"That convenience and passionate love should go hand in hand is the rarest stroke of good fortune." observed Schopenhauer. The lover who saves our child from having an enormous chin or an effeminate temperament is seldom the person who will make us happy over a lifetime. The pursuit of personal happiness and the production of healthy children are two radically contrasting projects, which love maliciously confuses us into thinking of as one for a requisite number of years. We should not be surprised by marriages between people who would never have been friends.

(Alain de Botton: The Consolations of Philosophy, pp. 191-192)

The philosopher admired his mother's friend Johann Wolfgang von Goethe because he had turned so many of the pains of love into knowledge, most famously in the novel he had published at the age of twenty-five, and which had made his name throughout Europe. The Sorrows of Young Werther described the unrequited love felt by a particular young man for a particular young woman (the charming Lotte, who shared Werther's taste for The Vicar of Wakefield and wore white dresses with pink ribbons at the sleeves), but it simultaneously described the love of thousands of irs readers (Napoleon was said to have read the novel nine times). The greatest works of art speak to us without knowing of us.

(Alain de Botton: The Consolations of Philosophy, pp. 199-200)

Finally, de Botton discussed Nietzsche in the chapter titled Consolation for Difficulties, and he # starts by tackling one of his most controversial concepts:

But Nietzsche's Übermenschen had little to do with either airborne aces or fascists. A better indication of their identity came in a passing remark in a letter to his mother and sister:

Really, there is nobody living about whom I care much. The people I like have been dead for a long, long time —for example, the Abbé Galiani, or Henri Beyle, or Montaigne.

He could have added another hero, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. These four men were perhaps the richest clues for what Nietzsche came in his maturity to understand by a fulfilled life.

(Alain de Botton: The Consolations of Philosophy, p. 211)

These were, Nietzsche implied, some of the elements that human beings naturally needed for a fulfilled life. He added an important detail; that it was impossible to attain them without feeling very miserable some of the time.

(Alain de Botton: The Consolations of Philosophy, p. 214)

Why? Because no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfillment.

(Alain de Botton: The Consolations of Philosophy, p. 215)

Christianity had, in Nietzsche's account, emerged from the minds of timid slaves in the Roman Empire who had lacked the stomach to climb to the tops of mountains, and so had built themselves a philosophy claiming that their bases were delightful. Christians had wished to enjoy the real ingredients of fulfilment (a position in the world, sex, intellectual mastery, creativity) but did not have the courage to endure the difficulties these goods demanded. They had therefore fashioned a hypocritical creed denouncing what they wanted but were too weak to fight for while praising what they did not want but happened to have. Powerlessness became "goodness", baseness "humility", submission to people one hated "obedience" and, in Nietzsche's phrase, "not-being-able-to-take-revenge" turned into "forgiveness". Every feeling of weakness was overlaid with a sanctifying name, and made to seem "a voluntary achievement, something wanted, chosen, a deed, an accomplishment". Addicted to "the religion of comfortableness", Christians, in their value system, had given precedence to what was easy, not what was desirable, and so had drained life of its potential.

(Alain de Botton: The Consolations of Philosophy, pp. 237-238)

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