The word Philosophy comes from the Greek Philo and Sophia, meaning love and wisdom, respectively. If philosophy is the love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual means and moral self-discipline, why then has it almost disappeared from our modern society? The truth is that in the last fifty years, western societies have pursued the search of instant gratification and immediate happiness, and have lost the meaning of life’s true values. By looking at life’s everyday functions: the way we eat, think, dress and communicate, it quickly becomes apparent that western modern civilization has become nothing but a life of bogus morals.
Alain de Botton’s book, The Consolations of Philosophy, introduces six famous philosophers and uses his storyteller style to approach philosophical themes. The many pictures, drawings and art works throughout the book tend to make the reading of the book easy and enjoyable. De Botton reviews the writings of six major philosophers and looks for wisdom that we can apply to our everyday lives. In his book, de Botton calls upon Socrates for advice on unpopularity in Part I; to Epicures for Not Having Enough Money in Part II. Seneca’s thoughts are required to deal with Frustration in Part III and Montaigne helps with Inadequacy in Part IV.
Arthur Schopenhauer offers consolations on dealing with a Broken Heart in Part V. Finally, Nietzsche’s point of view offers Consolation for Difficulties. We should note that de Botton is far from giving much philosophical theory in his book. Far from it, the popularity of his book is due to the fact that he talks about philosophy. He talks about Socrates, Epicures, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. De Botton aims at the average individual in Western societies, including of course North America, who seldom touches the subject of philosophy.
The book has the merit of introducing to the general public the ideas of some of the most important philosophers of all time. We can say that de Botton has succeeded in reconciling learnedness, fantasy, seriousness and the pleasure of reading. He puts a human and modern face to serious thinkers and by doing so he gives them a more human dimension. We feel we are almost at an equal footing with Socrates or Montaigne. The Ivory tower in which these philosophers were hiding has vanished and their abstract ideas have taken a real and concrete dimension.
De Botton begins with Socrates, in the chapter on “unpopularity”, focusing on the philosopher’s court-imposed sentence of death. Certainly, this is an example of unpopularity. It is not possible to be more out-cast than Socrates-cast out not only from Athenian society, but also from existence itself. There is a lesson here for many, as de Botton holds that, “we should not look to Socrates for advice on escaping a death sentence; we should look to him as an extreme example of how to maintain confidence in an intelligent position, which has met with illogical opposition. (37)
Even though Socrates does wind up dead, he is someone we can all look up to. There is something noble in dying for what one believes in, but nobility is an artificial construct and vastly overrated. De Botton writes of Socrates’ “intelligent position” — something apparently worth dying for. As de Botton himself acknowledges, Socrates’ positions did not seem particularly intelligent to a significant proportion of the Athenian people. De Botton lauds Socrates for “maintaining confidence in an intelligent position” in the face of illogical opposition.
One thing is certain, Socrates wound up dead, Athenian democracy went down in flames, but the world is a better place today because of it. From Epicurus we learn that the best things in life are free, that “when measured by the natural purpose of life, poverty is great wealth; limitless wealth, great poverty” (70). Epicurus is meant to console us for not having enough money, by explaining, “the needs which expensive goods cater to cannot be those on which our happiness depends. ” Such ancient thoughts are still today powerfully true.
De Botton’s simplistic style contrasts the philosophers’ ideologies. He successfully turns their highly academic edification into readable and logical tales. From Seneca we learn that “what makes us angry are dangerously optimistic notions about what the world and other people are like. ” Whence “our greatest furies spring from events which violate our sense of the ground rules of existence” (83). Seneca faults our thinking for this by assuring us that it is better to be prepared for the worst, for the worst is surely possible. So that when it happens, we won’t succumb to inconsolable frustrations.
De Botton’s Montaigne interpretation encompasses the genius’s implied belief that there is “no legitimate reason why books in the humanities should be difficult or boring; wisdom does not require a specialized vocabulary or syntax”. These are fine thoughts, but de Botton does a poor job of demonstrating the complexity of these subjects, something he has been criticized for. Montaigne teaches us that we tend to place unreasonable value on our reasonableness. For Montaigne, “misplaced confidence in reason” may well be the “well-spring of idiocy – and, indirectly, also of inadequacy” (121).
De Botton takes us through some of Montaigne’s essays to show why our sense of inadequacy is grounded in “our conventional portraits” of ourselves, which “leave out so much of what we are” (128). Montaigne places special emphasis on the fact that 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” (135). Strangely enough, then, we are left with the impression that it is by reconciling ourselves to our inadequacies that we learn to overcome them.
Schopenhauer sees in love the manifestation of a biological necessity. The reason why our hearts break when we are rejected by those we love is because we remain unaware of the fact that love is ultimately all about the upholding of the human race. Consolation from the pain of a broken heart comes when we recognize that we are not alone in this. Works of art and philosophy can help, too, in that they give us “objective versions of our own pains and struggles, evoked and defined by sound, language or image” (199).
As de Botton puts it, it is remarkable how the “greatest works of art speak to us without knowing of us. In the end our pain becomes knowledge. Therein lies the only true consolation for a broken heart. For Nietzsche “difficulties” play an important and beneficial role in our lives. He argues, “fulfillment is reached by responding wisely to difficulties that could tear [us] apart” (230). Nietzsche avoided both alcohol and the consolations of Christianity, for the latter has turned “difficulties” into “virtues”. Nietzsche claimed that what makes us feel good is not necessarily good and what makes us feel bad is not necessarily bad.
Today Nietzsche is regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of all time and rightly so. De Botton’s book sets out to show us how a study of certain philosophers works’ can support us along the bumpy road of life. De Botton fixes on six well-known thinkers and extracts from their work some basic beliefs that may be applied to life as we live it in the world today. Even though his book does not illustrate the academic level that the half dozen philosophers achieved, it does help the readers learn and enrich themself with philosophy in a manner that is pleasing and enjoyable.
Thus he finds consolation for unpopularity in Socrates, for poverty in Epicurus, for frustration in Seneca, for inadequacy in Montaigne, for failure in love in Schopenhauer, and for difficulties in Nietzsche. Given the general public’s endearing faith that life is nothing but a continuing effort to obtain instant gratification in material goods, The Consolations of Philosophy will go great lengths in teaching life lessons and making sure philosophy never fades away.