This review of Alain de Botton's book was originally published in the November 2000 issue of the the Bay Review, an online liberal arts journal no longer in existence. Readers who wish to purchase the book may, of course, do so by ordering it from
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A Review of Alain de Botton's Consolations of Philosophy (New York: Pantheon Books, 2000)
Steven C. Scheer
The original Consolation of Philosophy (in the singular), written by Boethius in 524 A.D., offers solace to the author by a series of arguments in which Philosophy, personified by a woman, argues the paradoxical point that misfortune is better than good fortune in that the former teaches us a good lesson while the latter perpetually deceives us as to the transitory and illusory nature of all earthly happiness. Let me note in passing that it was in this book that the idea that love makes the world go round got its first forceful formulation.
Alain de Botton's Consolations of Philosophy (in the plural) is more than a worthy successor to the "original." And it doesn't read like a typical philosophical text either. Rather, it reads the way we expect wisdom to read, with charm and whimsy and surprisingly illuminating insights that also tend to turn our thinking about things around (if not upside down). De Botton, the author of On Love: A Novel (1993), The Romantic Movement: Sex, Shopping, and the Novel (1994), Kiss & Tell: A Novel (1995), and How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), has repeatedly shown his readers how great thinkers can teach us wonderful lessons about ourselves. His novels read more like essays and extended meditations than stories, while his essays intertwine profound thinking with familiar moments in everyday life, thus making the former easily accessible to even the non-philosophically inclined reader.
The book consists of six meditations on how three ancient and three modern philosophers can help us overcome our perennial anxieties about unpopularity (Socrates), poverty (Epicurus), frustration (Seneca), inadequacy (Montaigne), heartbreak (Schopenhauer), and difficulties (Nietzsche). If we attend carefully to the unjust treatment Socrates was accorded by his fellow Athenians we realize that "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" (41). As de Botton tells us, Socrates was right and his accusers wrong, and Socrates could have saved his life by renouncing his "rightness," which he chose not to do. He was that sure that he was right. Which is not to say that we should follow his example, for the meditation ends with a warning that it is altogether too easy to fall victim to the possibly illusory feeling that we are never so right as when we find that the majority disagrees with us.
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). (A notion, by the way, also explored by Henry David Thoreau in Walden.) 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 (and it can happen any time), we won't succumb to inconsolable frustrations.
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 carefully 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). In this Montaigne is in strong agreement with Terence's famous dictum: "I am human, nothing human is foreign to me." Paradoxically, then, it is by reconciling ourselves to our inadequacies that we learn to overcome them.
For Schopenhauer love is reminiscent of the old line, "this thing is greater than the two of us." He 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 blissfully unaware of the fact that love is ultimately all about the perpetuation 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.
The lesson we learn from Nietzsche is reminiscent of the paradoxical assertion in the original Consolation of Philosophy that misfortune is better than good fortune. For Nietzsche "difficulties" play and important and salutary role in our lives. He argues that "fulfillment is reached by responding wisely to difficulties that could tear [us] apart" (230). Through Stendhal, he warns us against the "religion of comfortableness," which fails to recognize that "happiness and unhappiness" are "sisters and even twins that grow up together" (233). Nietzsche avoided both alcohol and the consolations of Christianity, for the latter has turned "difficulties" into "virtues" (237). For Nietzsche climbing mountains was the greatest metaphor for our eventual recognition that what makes us feel good is not necessarily good and what makes us feel bad is not necessarily bad.
This brief summary of de Botton's Consolations of Philosophy hardly does justice to the many delightful turns in the "plot" of the book. You should experience it yourself, by reading it from cover to cover. Finally, let me say that in addition to the six philosophers the book also presents us with a seventh, Alain de Botton himself. His presence in the text is both personal and unobtrusive, a rare combination, not easy to achieve but easy to take. This book is truly helpful and a lot of fun, too. It delights us into wisdom even in spite of ourselves, whatever that may mean.
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