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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Book review: The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

Definitely worth reading. I picked this book up last year to read on a long flight, and it kept me completely engaged. I re-read it again recently, and it still speaks to me, which is what I like in a book that I have spent money on buying new.

This book is a collection of 6 extended essays each called "Consolation for" a particular problem. The problems for which the author uses philosophy to give us consolation are: "Unpopularity", "Not having enough money", "Frustration", "Inadequacy", "A broken heart" and the rather generic "Difficulties". It's probably fair to say that every human over a certain age has encountered one or more of this group of obstacles (or the modern idea is to call them "issues", probably in an attempt to diminish their seriousness. Happy clappy crap, lol ).

As an attempt to make philosophy relevant to Everyman, this is a very readable, entertaining, informative and encouraging book. The approach is quite interesting; in each essay de Botton gives an account of a particular philosopher's life and work, and tries to encourage us to take comfort in our own lives.

There is a layered approach to the essays: presenting paintings and photos of the various subjects, landscapes, and people, together with lists of things to be considered on the various topics, lists of counterpoints, with biographical details, extensive quotations and commentaries. This is certainly makes the book interesting and gives a multi-media feel. Apparently it has been turned into a television series - "Philosophy: A guide to Happiness".

The first four essays are very effective. His accounts of Socrates (unpopularity, of course) and Epicurus (not having enough money) are fresh and thought provoking.
Frustration's consolation is illustrated by the life and thought (or mostly the death) of Seneca.
Inadequacy (including sexual, cultural and intellectual) is covered by a survey of the life and work of Michel de Montaigne.
Up to this point everything was going very well and I was fair entranced by the author's arguments.

Things started to fall apart somewhat when his consolation for a broken heart covered the life and work of Schopenhauer and the consolation for difficulties was the life of Nietzsche. The ideas of these two are perhaps more a reason for gloom than a consolation. Interesting though.

De Botton's explanation of Schopenhauer's ideas about the heart are a bit histrionic, in my opinion. I was not convinced at all about the reasons that people fall in love and may or may not be rejected, especially in the light of subsequent biological and psychological research or even my own life experiences. The idea that our subconscious is assessing everyone for fitness as a parent of potential children is surely not sufficient to explain the full range of human sexual response and the wide variety of misery that everyone may encounter when the course of true love runs over a cliff. Every person is different and we all have our hot spots, as it were, but it's not just about reproduction. The mind is the biggest sexual organ, after all; and for a wide range of non-reproducing potential shaggers (elders, same sex lovers, one-night stands and so on) there must be other reasons for attraction. Certainly there is some kind of imprinting that happens in childhood or youthful early sexual experience that appears to determine the kinds of people we find interesting.

The idea that the life of Nietzsche could console anyone for anything, is also bit of a stretch. The Nietzsche essay was, frankly, mealy mouthed. The fact that this fellow spent most of his life miserable and then made his own suffering into a kind of virtue is, well, sad, but it doesn't translate into making me (or anyone I would think) feel better about confronting difficulties. The idea that striving for something makes the achievement sweeter is worth pondering, and the journey can be the reward - especially if one never arrives. However, what about all the people who struggle without achievement, or those who give up in despair? Somewhat harsh to say that they are unworthy weaklings and that the struggle is worth it because it somehow makes one more of a human. At best it may be a totem to keep up the spirits, but is it a real consolation for an intelligent person? Where is the room for compassion, recovery or redemption? Or is it all "Arbeit macht frei"?

Conclusions and quotes:
Unpopularity: "The philosopher offered us a way out of two powerful delusions: that we should always or never listen to the dictates of public opinion" To follow his example, we will be best be rewarded if we strive instead to listen to the dictates of reason."

Not having enough money: "Happiness may be difficult to obtain. The obstacles are not primarily financial."

Frustration: "What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears."

A broken heart: "We must, between periods of digging in the dark, endeavour always to transform our tears into knowledge."

Difficulties: "Not everything which makes us feel better is good for us. Not everything which hurts may be bad."

However, in spite of minor quibbles, this is a book worth reading, re-reading and, yes, buying new. Fancy that!

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