Review: The Consolations of Philosophy

BZ recommended this short book by Alain De Botton, which was released in 2000. Although I tend to lose patience with most philosophy books (too many weird words debating too many obscure concepts), I found this book to be just deep enough — and just superficial enough — to hold my interest to its (not-so-bitter) end.

What I found most useful (or accessible) were the short stories and biographical sketches of the philosophers (in bold) that De Botton offers in the course of describing their thinking. The social awkwardnesses and missing relationships Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, for example, explain both their thinking and (to me) my lack of connecting to their thinking.

But let me get to my highlights and spell out a few more things:

    • Epicurus and friends escaped the people they didn’t like by setting up a commune where they could eat, sleep, think and argue without interference or censure. “If we have money without friends, freedom and an analysed life, we will never be truly happy. And if we have them, but are missing the fortune, we will never be unhappy.”
    • “It is in the interests of commercial enterprises to skew the hierarchy of our needs, to promote a material vision of the good and downplay an unsaleable one… Unfortunately, there is no shortage of desirable images of luxurious products and costly surroundings, fewer of ordinary settings and individuals. We receive little encouragement to attend to modest gratifications – playing with a child, conversations with a friend, an afternoon in the sun, a clean house, cheese spread across fresh bread.”
    • “Rich people could be admirable, but this depended on how their wealth had been acquired, just as poverty could not by itself reveal anything of the moral worth of an individual.”
    • “One would never imagine that a good pot or shoe could result from intuition alone; why then assume that the more complex task of directing one’s life could be undertaken without any sustained reflection on premises or goals.”
    • “Pottery looks as difficult as it is. Unfortunately, arriving at good ethical ideas doesn’t, belonging instead to a troublesome class of superficially simple but inherently complex activities. Socrates encourages us not to be unnerved by the confidence of people who fail to respect this complexity and formulate their views without at least as much rigour as a potter.”
    • Socrates was right: “The correctness of a statement cannot, the method suggests, be determined by whether it is held by a majority or has been believed for a long time by important people. A correct statement is one incapable of being rationally contradicted.”
    • “Socrates would naturally have conceded that there are times when we are in the wrong and should be made to doubt our views, but he would have added a vital detail to alter our sense of truth’s relation to unpopularity: errors in our thought and way of life can at no point and in no way ever be proven simply by the fact that we have run into opposition… It may be frightening to hear that a high proportion of a community holds us to be wrong, but before abandoning our position, we should consider the method by which their conclusions have been reached. It is the soundness of their method of thinking that should determine the weight we give to their disapproval.”
    • Important advice in an age of social media (the book is from 2000!): “We seem afflicted by the opposite tendency: to listen to everyone, to be upset by every unkind word and sarcastic observation. We fail to ask ourselves the cardinal and most consoling question: on what basis has this dark censure been made? We treat with equal seriousness the objections of the critic who has thought rigorously and honestly and those of the critic who has acted out of misanthropy and envy. We should take time to look behind the criticism… They [critics] may have acted from impulse and prejudice, and used their status to ennoble their hunches. They may have built up their thoughts like inebriated amateur potters.”
    • “Rage is caused by a conviction, almost comic in its optimistic origins (however tragic in its effects), that a given frustration has not been written into the contract of life… We will cease to be so angry once we cease to be so hopeful.” — cue Carlin.
    • “If you wish to put off all worry, assume that what you fear may happen is certainly going to happen. Seneca wagered that once we look rationally at what will occur if our desires are not fulfilled, we will almost certainly find that the underlying problems are more modest than the anxieties they have bred.”
    • “The wise man is self-sufficient in that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them.”
    • You are not the center of the universe: “Behind their readiness to anticipate insult lay a fear of deserving ridicule. When we suspect that we are appropriate targets for hurt, it does not take much for us to believe that someone or something is out to hurt us. Abject interpretation: The builder is hammering in order to annoy me. Friendly interpretation: The builder is hammering and I am annoyed.” [I find this last bit particularly useful, as it’s much easier to forgive or overlook behavior that’s not directed at you.]
    • “Of course, there would be few great human achievements if we accepted all frustrations. The motor of our ingenuity is the question ‘Does it have to be like this?’, from which arise political reforms, scientific developments, improved relationships, better books. The Romans were consummate at refusing frustration. They hated winter cold and developed under-floor heating. They didn’t wish to walk on muddy roads and so paved them… Unfortunately, the mental faculties which search so assiduously for alternatives are hard to arrest. They continue to play out scenarios of change and progress even when there is no hope of altering reality… for Seneca, wisdom lies in correctly discerning where we are free to mould reality according to our wishes and where we must accept the unalterable with tranquillity.” In other words: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference” — Wygal (1933).
    • “[Montaigne:] To learn that we have said or done a stupid thing is nothing, we must learn a more ample and important lesson: that we are but blockheads… Misplaced confidence in reason was the well-spring of idiocy – and, indirectly, also of inadequacy.”
    • Social media? “What is the use of those high philosophical peaks on which no human being can settle and those rules which exceed our practice and our power? It is not very clever of [man] to tailor his obligations to the standards of a different kind of being.”
    • “The Spanish had butchered the Indians with a clean conscience because they were confident that they knew what a normal human being was… Perhaps we should remember the degree to which accusations of abnormality are regionally and historically founded. To loosen their hold on us, we need only expose ourselves to the diversity of customs across time and space. What is considered abnormal in one group at one moment may not, and will not always be deemed so.”
    • “We may share judgements with friends that would in ordinary company be censured for being too caustic, sexual, despairing, daft, clever or vulnerable – friendship is a minor conspiracy against what other people think of as reasonable.”
    • “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.”
    • “In Montaigne’s redrawn portrait of the adequate, semi-rational human being, it is possible to speak no Greek, fart, change one’s mind after a meal, get bored with books, know none of the ancient philosophers and mistake Scipios. A virtuous, ordinary life, striving for wisdom but never far from folly, is achievement enough.”
    • “They [Italian thinkers] were curious, artistically gifted, and sexually vigorous. Despite their dark sides, they laughed, and many of them danced, too; they were drawn to ‘gentle sunlight, bright and buoyant air, southerly vegetation, the breath of the sea [and] fleeting meals of flesh, fruit and eggs’. Several of them had a gallows humour close to Nietzsche’s own – a joyful, wicked laughter arising from pessimistic hinterlands. They had explored their possibilities, they possessed what Nietzsche called ‘life’, which suggested courage, ambition, dignity, strength of character, humour and independence (and a parallel absence of sanctimoniousness, conformity, resentment and prissiness)… 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” Nietzsche was a bit of a downer, which is maybe why he never had a serious relationship and went crazy before he died?
    • Thus I question some of his “insights” — i.e., “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.” Although one cannot dispute his love for — and inspiration from — exploring mountains.
    • Nietzsche: “Christianity and alcohol have the power to convince us that what we previously thought deficient in ourselves and the world does not require attention; both weaken our resolve to garden our problems; both deny us the chance of fulfilment.”
    • What of Schopenhauer? According to his mother, “You are unbearable and burdensome, and very hard to live with; all your good qualities are overshadowed by your conceit, and made useless to the world simply because you cannot restrain your propensity to pick holes in other people.” Not the first time a philosopher had trouble with the ostensible recipients of his wisdom.

In sum, I preferred the Romans (Epicurus, Socrates, Seneca) and Montaigne to the Germans (Nietzsche and Schopenhauer). I give this book FIVE STARS as an interesting read on a tough subject.

Here are all my reviews.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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