Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Consolations of Philosophy

The Consolations of Philosophy

Firstly I am not referring to that great classic Consolatio Philosophiae by Boethius, or Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius as he was known in ancient Rome (480 – 526 A.D.), but rather to The Consolations of Philosophy by the modern guru Alain de Botton.  Obviously Alain stole his title from Boethius, but whereas the ancient scholar used the singular of the first noun, the modern writer used the plural.

What impresses me most about books that appeal to me are the passion and enthusiasm of the writer, his/her commitment to the characters (if it is a novel or work of fiction), his/her passion for the subject, his/her sheer honesty in dealing with the topic.  De Botton delivers in all these necessary areas.  In dealing with that most famous of all the ancient philosophers, Socrates, here is what Alain says with respect to his noble and moving death: “It is hard not to start crying oneself.  Perhaps because Socrates is said to have had a bulbous head and peculiarly wide-spaced eyes, the scene of his death made me think of an afternoon on which I had wept while watching a tape of The Elephant Man.  It seemed that both men had suffered one of the saddest of fates – to be good and yet to be judged evil.”(p 40)

All good literature, like good plays and films have this attribute to my mind, namely that the sheer honesty and humanity of the author engage our sympathies and emotions and we can be made to cry or laugh or be enthused or inspired.  

Alain de Botton's book suggests that consolation for many things can be found in philosophy. Using six philosophers (and their philosophies) as examples he offers consolations for the following perennial human problems: (1) unpopularity, (2) not having enough money, (3) frustration, (4) inadequacy, (5) a broken heart, and (6) difficulties. The book is presented as a cross between a self-help book and an introductory philosophy textbook, divided into short chapters and with many illustrations from both art and contemporary life.

Another thing that I like is the way de Botton engages with the lived experiences of his subjects and then how he relates their beliefs to living our lives in the modern world.  Also I love how he reveals his own feelings to us. De Botton harps on biography -- the lived lives (and lived philosophies) – all of which allows him an anecdotal style beloved of the entertainer and hence to engage our feelings – he even reveals how on one occasion he was unable to rise to the occasion with a lady-friend.

There is much wisdom in this book.  If you are looking for pure philosophy, this is not the book for you.  It is the work of a popularizer, not of a scholar.  Also the provenance of the book is such that it accompanies a TV series and hence this imposes considerable restrictions on the text.  There are many brilliant introductions to philosophy (such as Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, my favourite introduction) that such a person might read besides this little book, this minimum opus, if I may be so rude to call it that!  

This brings me to my own specific interests - how the book can be used in philosophical counselling and/or applied to everyday life. If we are concerned by unpopularity de Botton suggests that we should look to how Socrates ‘maintain[ed] confidence in an intelligent position which has met with illogical opposition’. If you are worried about your lack of wealth then Epicurus can be read for suggestions which don't require a lot of money. Perhaps you are concerned about frustration and anger? In that case he recommends Seneca and the Stoics for the insight that we should lower our expectations; recognize that Fortune can take away the contingent delights of life as easily as she gives them. Consolations for inadequacy can be sought in the wonderful meditations and thoughts of the Renaissance French philosopher Michel de Montaigne,(1533-1592) who hated any form of intellectual arrogance, saw the shortcomings of many contemporary prejudices and who realized that many beliefs were coloured if not formed by customs and weak reasoning.  De Botton succinctly says: “Montaigne had filled his library with books that helped him cross the borders of prejudice.”(p. 144) by following his words of wisdom we will, argues our author, learn to cross the borders of prejudice in our own minds.  He argues that Schopenhauer will provide us with consolation for a broken heart, which I must say I found somewhat lacking in consolation in my own case.  His arguments were lost on me here, as they were in his proposing Nietzsche for the consolation for difficulties.  These two final chapters were the two least satisfying for me as I think de Botton didn’t really write with equal passion, enthusiasm and conviction here as he did with the first four philosophers.

However unsatisfying this book is an introduction to philosophy, it makes up abundantly for this flaw by its surfeit of wise gems that can help us in our lives if we are reflective beings.  One such gem is this, which the ancient philosopher Seneca found in a book he was reading by a philosopher whose name I never ever heard before (Hecato): “What progress, you ask have I made? I have begun to be a friend to myself.”(Quoted p. 103).  If this little book can allow us the slightest possibility to do exactly that, then it is truly a good and worthwhile read.  




The picture I have appended above centre is one I took of the trunk/roots of a dead tree in Newbridge house Summer 2006. For me it represents the mystery of life and life in death.

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