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The Consolations Of Philosophy – How to Use Philosophy to Guide Your Life

The Consolations Of PhilosophyThe Consolations Of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As I went through the book I was unable to make up my mind whether it was a work on philosophy masquerading as a self-help book to reach a wide audience or if it was a pretentious self-help book with aspirations to be a book on deep philosophy.

Even after I finished it, I am not sure how to judge it. Should I judge it harshly or picking and choosing among the works of these great philosophers to fit them into the narrow framework that Botton has drawn for them and thus making them draw his yoke? Or should I be lenient with thought that Botton makes lofty thoughts so accessible by dragging them down and tethering them to the normal privations of men and offering consolations for the same?

The title is of course a brilliant one and almost irresistible. Not original maybe, as Boethius has already used it, but Boethius’ was a private consolation with his own philosophy (personified as a woman) while Botton offers up his philosopher‘s thoughts for a public audience for his reader’s consolation. I am no judge on which was the more effective work as I am yet to read the original work.

As for the book itself, Botton tries hard to make it entertaining and relevant and uses almost a bullet-point like efficiency to ensure that he can pack everything into a ‘airport size’ book.

The framework of the book is to use the wisdom of six philosophers, almost in chronological order, to offer consolations for some of the common maladies that afflict the average person. The fact that he spends more time and pages detailing out the lives of the philosophers should not deter from the fact that he does manage to stick admirably to the overall structure of the book and does offer a coherent sequence and logic of ‘consolations’.

Consolation For Unpopularity

Botton uses the example and philosophy of Socrates and his life to illustrate that the judgement of others should have no real bearing on how we judge ourselves. This is not to say that we should count ourselves superior by being in the minority. No, the real message is that the weight of numbers supporting any argument or moral standpoint has nothing to do with the real strength of that position. Only reason should guide us in our judgements of ourselves and of others. In the hatred unfairly directed towards an innocent philosopher we recognize an echo of the hurt we ourselves encounter at the hands of those who are either unable or unwilling to do us justice. But if your reason tells us we are right, we should stick to our beliefs and we might be redeemed as Socrates was by the very people who condemned him and be consoled by the prospect of posterity’s verdict.

Consolation For Not Having Enough Money

What is wealth? Is it mere material wealth or is it anything that provides us real happiness? These were the questions that Epicurus grappled with. His answer was that just as we are not capable of judging what is good for our physical body and would gladly gorge ourselves with unhealthy food to the point of death (as a lot of us do). so we are not capable of judging what is truly good for our souls, for our life.

I want to belabor this point – If left to ourselves and our instinctive tastes, we would find no reason to refrain from consuming as much as we can of everything that tastes good and this only leads to a decay in bodily health. It takes an expert opinion and self-control to be able to give up this unhealthy habit and adopt a moderate and healthy diet that allows us much better health.

Epicurus says that we similarly gorge on money and all the other pleasurable thing sin life and jump head long into the rat race thinking that is important. But only deep reflection can show us that it is a bad for our spiritual well-being and health as all that good food is for our bodily health.

So he says pleasure is the ultimate goal of life – but what gives you true pleasure can only be found by deep reflection. So what should we dedicate all our energies to if we want a happy life?

We should find Friendship, good companionship – association with people who recognize our true nature with all our defects is what we really need. in fact all our mad scramble after money and power is just a manifestation of our need to be esteemed and listened to by our fellow beings. We may seek a fortune for no reason but to secure the respect and attention of people who would otherwise look straight through us. But do we need money to get them to respect us? Would not a true friend value every word of yours and respect you even if you were penniless?

The second most important constituent of happiness is Freedom – the freedom to be ourselves. This eventually connects back to being with people who will accept us as us. Epicurus and his friends made a radical innovation. In order not to have to work for people they didn’t like and answer to potentially humiliating whims, they removed themselves from employment in the commercial world of Athens (‘We must free ourselves from the prison of everyday affairs and polities’), and began what could best have been described as a commune, accepting a simpler way of life in exchange for independence. They would have less money but would never again have to follow the commands of odious superiors.

Simplicity did not affect the friends’ sense of status because, by distancing themselves from the values of Athens, they had ceased to judge themselves on a material basis. There was no need to be embarrassed by bare walls, and no benefit in showing off gold. Among a group of friends living outside the political and economic centre of the city, there was – in the financial sense – nothing to prove.

So, Happiness, an acquisition list:

1. A hut 2. Friends 3. To avoid superiors, patronization, infighting and competition 4. Thought 5. Art.

Happiness may indeed be difficult to attain. The obstacles are not primarily financial.

Consolation For Frustration

All frustration arises from a faulty view of the world says Lucius Annaeus Seneca. We are frustrated because we expect the world to behave in a particular way and then reality turns out to be different. the Great Stoic philosopher advises us to be always aware that the worst scenario is always possible and to be prepared for it so that when it does happen we are ready for it and will not descend into anger, shock, anxiety or despair, all of which are marks of an unprepared mind that was not in tune with reality. Correct your worldview to accept the fact that reality is cruel and thus find escape from these common frustrations. This does not mean that you should accept everything, you may struggle mightily to avoid the misfortune but you just need to be aware of its possibility to be not prey to anger, grief and other frustrations.

Consolation For Inadequacy

Michel de Montaigne consoles us about the ultimately human nature of us all. We have to accept that we are not perfect, no one ever was. Once we accept that every inadequacy we find so appalling in ourselves is shared by millions and is one of the side effects of being human and being alive, we will learn to be less embarrassed by them and can live a more fulfilling life.

Consolation For Heartbreak

The nerve to invoke the greatest pessimist of the western world to console heartbroken young Werthers!

But it is Arthur Schopenhauer who is being called upon to give advice on how to deal with rejection and broken love affairs. Schopenhauer’s famous ‘will to life’ theory which modern readers might as well read as a sort of natural selection through conditioned unconscious eugenics states that we are controlled in who we find attractive and lovable by a great force of nature which is concerned only with the need to propagate the species. It is not concerned with our happiness and more often than not we will end up with people who are our anti-thesis and inconducive to our happiness. So a happy marriage is a statistical anomaly and unnatural rather than something we can naturally expect.

So, if and when you find yourself a Young Werther with a broken heart or a girl for that matter, understand that it is not you who were rejected but it was just that the union was not approved by the good of the species by the ‘will to power’ or natural selection. This might sound like an artificial explanation but think about it, please, it is all just genetics.

Consolation For Difficulties

Finally Friedrich Nietzsche makes his grand entry and gives The Ultimate Consolation – You do not need consolations in life!

All life’s difficulties are to be embraced. So accept your unpopularity, poverty, inadequacy, frustrations, heart-breaks and every sorrow as necessary to become the best you can be. If you do not have these difficulties you will be a mindless creature without knowledge of life. Use all these grief and ills of life to forge a character and life that is noble and grand.

Your greatest gifts are your difficulties.

Disclaimer: I have modified the views expressed in this review from that in the book to match my own understanding of these philosophers at times (especially for Nietzsche). At other times I have reproduced the core message of the book without modification. I have not distinguished the two as the original works of all these great minds are always available to anyone who finds any disparity between this review and their own convictions. I have done justice neither to this book nor to the philosophers in this review and would ask you to pursue them further if you find it interesting. I will try to do a comprehensive review of Will Durant‘s The Story of Philosophy as a counterpoint to this simplistic interpretation of multi-faceted thoughts.

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Posted by on February 18, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts


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