The Consolations of Philosophy
Alain de Botton
Hamish Hamilton, £14.99, 265pp
Buy it at BOL
Once, in Portugal, Alain de Botton found that he could not make love with his girlfriend. It could have been a devastating, humiliating moment, but, fortunately, a few months earlier he had read the 21st chapter of the first volume of Montaigne's Essays. There Montaigne reported that he had counselled a friend with a similar problem. His friend had assumed that he should have unwavering rational control over his penis. What the friend needed to realise, advised Montaigne, was that impotence belonged to a broad range of sexual mishaps, neither very rare nor very peculiar.
De Botton, while detumescent in Iberia, took this to heart and realised that we shouldn't blush or hate ourselves for "the occasional rebellious flaccidity in the penis". What is disturbing here is that de Botton needed the consolation of Montaigne to overcome his upset. Yet such is the tone of this short book, set in big type with lots of pictures, that it wouldn't have been at all surprising to turn the page and find photographs of two flaccid items, one with the caption "My penis" and the other labelled "Montaigne's friend's penis".
The book echoes (though without the grace of an acknowledgment) Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy, written while the minor Roman philosopher was in jail awaiting trial and execution. It's taken nearly 1,500 years, but now, thanks to precocious Alain, philosophy offers more than one consolation. Hurrah! Socrates gives us consolation for being unpopular; Epicurus offers consolation for frustration; Seneca helps us with money troubles; Montaigne with inadequacy, sexual and otherwise; and misanthropic old Schopenhauer is roped in to help with the sorrows of the broken-hearted.
The Consolations of Philosophy purports to be a self-help manual of the annoying but lucrative kind that led de Botton to write How Proust Can Change Your Life. In both cases, he has pulled a glittering skein over his subjects' depths. De Botton's new book consists of obvious, hopeless or contradictory advice culled from great thinkers on how to overcome certain problems of existence. First, the obvious. We learn from de Botton's reflections on the life and death of Socrates that "we will best be rewarded if we strive instead to listen always to the dictates of reason". But this is facile: if we need Socrates to help us arrive at this conclusion, we need more help than philosophy can supply.
Next, the hopeless. De Botton embarks on a scandalously shallow and perverse reading of Schopenhauer, here presented as arguing that when you're ditched by your lover, you shouldn't take it personally. After all, the rejector was only unconsciously respecting humanity's essential drive, namely the will-to-life.
But this is a fanciful, unconvincing argument: only if all romantic rejection can satisfactorily be accounted for in terms of the will-to-life can Schopenhauer possibly be consoling. Worse, even if we accepted that the will-to-life was at the root of all sexual rejection, reading Schopenhauer would not help. The moral de Botton draws is this: "It is consoling, when love has let us down, to hear that happiness was never part of the plan." It is at least arguable that the opposite is the case - that this pseudo-philosophical appropriation of Schopenhauer only rubs salt into the wound.
Thirdly, the contradictory. In the chapter on Socrates, de Botton concludes in favour of reason. Later, influenced by Montaigne, he decides: "Misplaced confidence in reason is the wellspring of idiocy." In philosophy heaven, Socrates and Montaigne are still slugging that one out; down here, de Botton thinks they are compatible.
De Botton is a Nietzschean recycler, insisting everything must be used in order that we lead fulfilled lives. We must, he writes, "endeavour always to transform our tears into knowledge". Must we? Are tears only helpful to the extent that they promote cognition? Is everything to be reduced to its use value?
The dustjacket approvingly quotes Epicurus: "Just as there is no profit in medicine when it doesn't expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy when it doesn't expel the sufferings of the mind." This quote would be justifiable if taken in the Wittgensteinian sense, whereby the intellectual puzzles that cause philosophical suffering are to be therapeutically treated by the enlightened thinker. Here it shows only the uselessness of philosophy in helping us to lead the good life. Philosophy is at its best when it doesn't reassure, when it opens up the wounds that misplaced consolation has healed.
When the first edition of Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation, one of the greatest and most disturbing books in western philosophy, was published in 1819, it sold 230 copies. De Botton's book, with its marketing hoopla, its attendant audio book and TV series, will sell many, many more. How are we to be consoled for that?
Alain de Botton (born 20 December1969) is a Swiss writer, television presenter, and entrepreneur, resident in the UK. His books and television programs discuss various contemporary subjects and themes in a philosophical style, emphasizing philosophy's relevance to everyday life. De Botton comes from a Sephardic Jewish family, originating from a small Castilian town of Boton (now vanished) on the Iberian peninsula. He achieved a double starred first in history at Gonville and Caius College (1988–1991) and completed his master's degree in philosophy at King's College London (1991–1992).
- Life is near-death experience.
- As quoted in de Botton's School of Life lecture, 'On Pessimism' ,
- I think where people tend to end up results from a combination of encouragement, accident, and lucky break, etc. etc. Like many others, my career happened like it did because certain doors opened and certain doors closed. You know, at a certain point I thought it would be great to make film documentaries. Well, in fact, I found that to be incredibly hard and very expensive to do and I didn’t really have the courage to keep battling away at that. In another age, I might have been an academic in a university, if the university system had been different. So it’s all about trying to find the best fit between your talents and what the world can offer at that point in time.
- As quoted in "The Art of Connection – A Conversation with Alain de Botton" by Kim Nagy in Wild River Review (19 November 2007).
- This ideal University of Life … would never take the importance of culture for granted. It would know that culture is kept alive by a constant respectful questioning—not by an excessive and snobbish attitude of respect. Therefore, rather than leaving it hanging why one was reading Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, an ideal course covering nineteenth-century literature would ask plainly “What is it that adultery ruins in a marriage?” Students in the ideal University of Life would end up knowing much the same material as their colleagues in other institutions, they would simply have learned it under a very different set of headings.
- “Reclaiming the Intellectual Life for Posterity,” Liberal Education, vol. 95, no. 2 
The Consolations of Philosophy (2000)
- Philosophy had supplied Socrates with convictions in which he had been able to have rational, as opposed to hysterical, confidence when faced with disapproval.
- Chapter I, Consolations For Unpopularity, p. 7.
- It would scarcely be acceptable, for example, to ask in the course of an ordinary conversation what our society holds to be the purpose of work.
- Chapter I, Consolations For Unpopularity, p. 9.
- It wasn't only fanatics and drunkards who began conversations with strangers in public.
- Chapter I, Consolations For Unpopularity, p. 16.
- Socrates compared living without thinking systematically to practicing an activity like pottery or shoemaking without following or even knowing of technical procedures. One would never imagine that a good pot or shoe would 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? Perhaps because we don’t believe that directing our lives is in fact complicated. Certain difficult activities look very difficult from the outside, while other equally difficult activities look very easy. Arriving at sound views on how to live falls into the second category, making a pot or a shoe into the first.
- There may be no good reason for things to be the way they are.
- Chapter I, Consolations For Unpopularity, p. 23.
- It is by finding out what something is not that one comes closest to understanding what it is.
- Chapter I, Consolations For Unpopularity, p. 25.
- True respectability stems not from the will of the majority but from proper reasoning.
- Chapter I, Consolations For Unpopularity, p. 33.
- Not everyone is worth listening to.
- Chapter I, Consolations For Unpopularity, p. 33.
- Someone who has thought rationally and deeply about how the body works is likely to arrive at better ideas about how to be healthy than someone who has followed a hunch. Medicine presupposes a hierarchy between the confusion the layperson will be in about what is wrong with him, and the more accurate knowledge available to doctors reasoning logically. … At the heart of Epicureanism is the thought that we are as bad at answering the question “What will make me happy?” as “What will make me healthy?” … Our souls do not spell out their troubles.
- We don't exist unless there is someone who can see us existing, what we say has no meaning until someone can understand, while to be surrounded by friends is constantly to have our identity confirmed; their knowledge and care for us have the power to pull us from our numbness. In small comments, many of them teasing, they reveal they know our foibles and except them and so, in turn, accept that we have a place in the world.
- Chapter II, Consolation For Not having Enough Money, p. 57
- Why, then, if expensive things cannot bring us remarkable joy, are we so powerfully drawn to them?
- Chapter II, Consolation For Not having Enough Money, p. 65.
- Happiness may be difficult to obtain. The obstacles are not primarily financial.
- Chapter II, Consolation For Not having Enough Money, p. 72.
- Though the terrain of frustration may be vast — from a stubbed toe to an untimely death — at the heart of every frustration lies a basic structure: the collision of a wish with an unyielding reality.
- Chapter III, Consolation For Frustration, p. 80.
- Our greatest furies spring from events which violate our sense of the ground of our existence.
- Chapter III, Consolation For Frustration, p. 83.
- 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.
- Chapter III, Consolation For Frustration, p. 84.
- We will cease to be angry once we cease to be so hopeful.
- Chapter III, Consolation For Frustration, p. 85.
- Arguments are like eels: however logical, they may slip from the minds weak grasp unless fixed there by imagery and style.
- Chapter III, Consolation For Frustration, p. 92.
- Our bodies hold our minds hostage to their whims and rhythms.
- Chapter IV, Consolation For Inadequacy, p. 122.
- By travelling across frontiers, on horseback and in the imagination, Montaigne invited us to to exchange local prejudices and the self division they induced for less constraining identities as citizens of the world.
- Chapter IV, Consolation For Inadequacy, p. 146.
- Booksellers are the most valuable destination for the lonely, given the numbers of books that were written because authors couldn't find anyone to talk to.
- Chapter IV, Consolation For Inadequacy, p. 148
- It is striking how much more seriously we are likely to be taken after we have been dead a few centuries.
- Chapter IV, Consolation For Inadequacy, p. 163.
- A virtuous, ordinary life, striving for wisdom but never far from folly, is achievement enough.
- Chapter IV, Consolation For Inadequacy, p. 168.
- In their different ways, art and philosophy help us, in Schopenhauer's words, to turn pain into knowledge.
- Chapter V, Consolation For A Broken Heart, p. 199.
- The greatest works of art speak to us without knowing us.
- Chapter V, Consolation For A Broken Heart, p. 200.
- We should not be frightened by appearances.
- Chapter VI, Consolation For Difficulties, p. 206.
- To cut out every negative root would simultaneously mean choking off positive elements that might arise from it further up the stem of the plant.
We should not feel embarrassed by our difficulties, only by our failure to grow anything beautiful from them.
- Chapter VI, Consolation For Difficulties, p. 228.
Status Anxiety (2004)
- Socrates, on being insulted in the marketplace, asked by a passerby, “Don’t you worry about being called names?” retorted, “Why? Do you think I should resent it if an ass had kicked me?”
- The great defect, for Chamfort, consisted in the public’s reluctance to submit its thinking to the rigors of rational examination, and its tendency to rely instead on intuition, emotion, and custom. “One can be certain that every generally held idea, every received notion, will be an idiocy, because it has been able to appeal to a majority,” the Frenchman observed, adding that what is flatteringly called common sense is usually little more than common nonsense, suffering as it does from simplification and illogicality, prejudice and shallowness: “The most absurd customs and the most ridiculous ceremonies are everywhere excused by an appeal to the phrase, but that’s the tradition.”
- Deciding to avoid other people does not necessarily equate with having no desire whatsoever for company; it may simply reflect a dissatisfaction with what—or who—is available. Cynics are, in the end, only idealists with awkwardly high standards. In Chamfort’s words, “It is sometimes said of a man who lives alone that he does not like society. This is like saying of a man he does not like going for walks because he is not fond of walking at night in the forêt de Bondy.”
- Aside from the equation it draws between making money and being good, the modern ideal of a successful life posits a further linkage between making money and being happy. This latter association rests on … assumptions. First, it is presumed that identifying what will make us happy is not an inordinately difficult task. Just as our bodies typically know what they need in order to be healthy… so, too, the theory goes, can our minds to be relied upon to understand what we should aim for so as to flourish as whole human beings. … Second, it is taken for granted that the enormous range of … consumer goods available to modern civilization is not merely a gaudy, enervating show responsible for stoking desires bearing little relevance to our welfare, but is, rather, a helpful array of potentialities and products, capable of satisfying some of our most important needs.
- Our minds are susceptible to the influence of external voices, telling us what we require to be satisfied, voices that may drown our the faint sounds emitted from our souls, and distract us from the careful, arduous task of accurately naming our priorities.
- Chapter 5 (pt.6 29:50) [Paraphrasing Rousseau]
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009)
- The origins and travels of our purchases remain matters of indifference, although—to the more imaginative at least—a slight dampness at the bottom of a carton, or an obscure code printed along a computer cable, may hint at processes of manufacture and transport nobler and more mysterious, more worthy of wonder and study, than the very goods themselves.
- Two centuries ago, our forbears would have known the precise history and origin of nearly every one of the limited number of things they ate and owned, as well as of the people and tools involved in their production. … The range of items available for purchase may have grown exponentially since then. but our understanding of their genesis has diminished almost to the point of obscurity. We are now as imaginatively disconnected from the manufacture and distribution of our goods as we are practically in reach of them, a process of alienation which has stripped us of myriad opportunities for wonder, gratitude and guilt.
- It would be foolish to describe the logistics hub as merely ugly, for it has the horrifying, soulless, immaculate beauty characteristic of many of the workplaces of the modern world.
- Alcohol-inspired fights … are a reminder of the price we pay for our daily submission at the altars of prudence and order.
- The unremitting division of labour resulted in admirable levels of productivity. The company’s success appeared to bear out the principles of efficiency laid down at the turn of the twentieth century by the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who theorized that a society would grow wealthy to the extent that its members forfeited general knowledge in favour of fostering individual ability in narrowly constricted fields. In an ideal Paretan economy, jobs would be ever more finely subdivided to allow for the accumulation of complex skills, which would then be traded among workers. … But however great the economic advantages of segmenting the elements of an afternoon’s work into a range of forty-year-long careers, there was reason to wonder about the unintended side effects of doing so. In particular, one felt tempted to ask … how meaningful the lives might feel as a result.
Alain de Botton, describing a biscuit manufacturer in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009), pp. 76-77.
- The real issue is not whether baking biscuits is meaningful, but the extent to which the activity can seem to be so after it has been continuously stretched and subdivided across five thousand lives.
- I passed by a corner office in which an employee was typing up a document relating to brand performance. … Something about her brought to mind a painting by Edward Hopper which I had seen several years before at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. In New York Movie (1939), an usherette stands by the stairwell of an ornate pre-war theatre. Whereas the audience is sunk in semidarkness, she is bathed in a rich pool of yellow light. As often in Hopper’s work, her expression suggests that her thoughts have carried her elsewhere. She is beautiful and young, with carefully curled blond hair, and there are a touching fragility and an anxiety about her which elicit both care and desire. Despite her lowly job, she is the painting’s guardian of integrity and intelligence, the Cinderella of the cinema. Hopper seems to be delivering a subtle commentary on, and indictment of, the medium itself, implying that a technological invention associated with communal excitement has paradoxically succeeded in curtailing our concern for others. The painting’s power hangs on the juxtaposition of two ideas: first, that the woman is more interesting that the film, and second, that she is being ignored because of the film. In their haste to take their seats, the members of the audience have omitted to notice that they have in their midst a heroine more sympathetic and compelling than any character Hollywood could offer up. It is left to the painter, working in a quieter, more observant idiom, to rescue what the film has encouraged its viewers not to see.
- I wondered aloud to Renae why in our society the greatest sums of money tended to accrue from the sale of the least meaningful things, and why the dramatic improvements in efficiency and productivity at the heart of the Industrial Revolution so seldom extended beyond the provision of commonplace material goods. … I told Renae that our robots and engines were delivering the lion’s share of their benefits at the base of our pyramid of needs, that we were evident experts at swiftly assembling confectionery and yet we were still searching for reliable means of generating emotional stability or marital harmony.
- Workers were occupied with the ancient task of trying to stay alive, which simply happened to require, in a consumer economy overwhelmingly based on the satisfaction of peripheral desires, a series of activities all to easily confused with clownishness.
- I … thought about societies where exceptional fortunes are built up in industries with very little connection to out sincere and significant needs, industries where it is difficult to escape from the disparity between a seriousness of means and a triviality of ends.
- Symons … remarked that the most common and unhelpful illusion plaguing those who came to see him was the idea that they ought somehow, in the normal course of events, to have intuited—long before they had finished their degrees, started families, bought houses and risen to the top of law firms—what they should properly be doing with their lives. They were tormented by a residual notion of having through some error or stupidity on their part missed out on their true calling.
- An understandable hunger for … potential clients tempts many [career counseling therapists] to overpromise, like creative writing teachers who, out of greed or sentimentality, sometimes imply that all of their students could one day produce worthwhile literature, rather than frankly acknowledging the troubling truth, anathema to a democratic society, that the great writer, like the contented worker, remains an erratic and anomalous event, … immune to the methods of factory farming.
- Most of us stand poised at the edge of brilliance, haunted by the knowledge of our proximity, yet still demonstrably on the wrong side of the line, our dealings with reality undermined by a range of minor yet critical psychological flaws (a little too much optimism, an unprocessed rebelliousness, a fatal impatience or sentimentality). We are like an exquisite high-speed aircraft which for lack of a tiny part is left stranded beside the runway, rendered slower than a tractor or bicycle.
- I left Symons’s company newly aware of the unthinking cruelty discreetly coiled within the magnanimous bourgeois assurance that everyone can discover happiness through work and love. It isn’t that these two entities are invariably incapable of delivering fulfilment, only that they almost never do so. And when an exception is represented as a rule, our individual misfortunes, instead of seeming to us quasi-inevitable aspects of life, will weigh down on us like particular curses. In denying the natural place reserved for longing and error in the human lot, the bourgeois ideology denies us the possibility of collective consolation for our fractious marriages and our unexploited ambitions, and condemns us instead to solitary feelings of shame and persecution for having stubbornly failed to become who we are.
- It seemed too easy to claim that there was nothing new under the sun, that … our spear-wielding ancestors had been as wise and good as ourselves and that the onward march of rational thought had brought with it nothing but tragedy. Did any of these arguments take into account Ariane’s profile on her way up? Did they credit the impeccable logic of her hydraulic systems? And most of all, did not such bromides merely betray the resentment of a defeated and unimaginative class? I felt my allegiances shift to the engineers and technicians around me, these new medicine men who often sported baseball caps, and had a tendency towards unsophisticated humour. What astonishing creatures they were! What extraordinary horizons they had opened up!
- [describing his sentiments after the launch of the rocket Ariane] pp. 163-164.
- The pre-scientific age, whatever its deficiencies, had at least offered its members the peace of mind that follows from knowing all man-made achievements to be nothing next to the grandeur of the universe. We, more blessed in our gadgetry but less humble in our outlook, have been left … having no more compelling repository of veneration than our brilliant, precise, blinkered and morally troubling fellow human beings.
- He was reminded of a Dutch book whose moral he often returned to: De Schoonheid van hoogspanningslijnen in het Hollandse landschap, written by a couple of academics in Rotterdam University, Anne Kieke Backer and Arij de Boode. The Beauty of Electricity Pylons in the Dutch Landscape was a defence of the contribution of transmission engineering to the visual appeal of Holland, referencing the often ignored grandeur of the towers on their march from power stations to cities. Its particular interest for Ian, however, lay in its thesis about the history of the Dutch relationship to windmills, for it emphasised that these early industrial objects had originally been felt to have all the pylons’ threateningly alien qualities, rather than the air of enchantment and playfulness now routinely associated with them. They had been denounced from pulpits and occasionally burnt to the ground by suspicious villagers. The re-evaluation of the windmills had in large part been the work of the great painters of the Dutch Golden Age, who, moved by their country’s dependence on the rotating utilitarian objects, gave them pride of place in their canvases, taking care to throw their finest aspect into relief, like their resilience during storms and the glint of their sails in the late afternoon sun. … It would perhaps be left to artists of our own day to teach us to discern the virtues of the furniture of contemporary technology.
- In an essay entitled ‘The Poet’, published in 1844, the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson lamented the narrow definition of beauty subscribed to by his peers, who tended to reserve the term exclusively for the bucolic landscapes and unspoilt pastoral scenes celebrated in the works of well-known artists and poets of the past. Emerson himself, however, writing at the dawn of the industrial age, observing with interest the proliferation of railways, warehouses, canals and factories, wished to make room for the possibility of alternative forms of beauty. He contrasted the nostalgic devotees of old-fashioned poetry with those whom he judged to be true contemporary poetic spirits, deserving of the title less by virtue of anything they had actually written than for their willingness to approach the world without prejudice or partiality. The former camp, he averred, ‘see the factory-village and the railway, and fancy that the beauty of the landscape is broken up by these, for they are not yet consecrated in their reading. But the true poet sees them fall within the great order of nature not less than the beehive or the spider’s geometrical web.
- Newspapers are being read all around. The point is not, of course, to glean new information, but rather to coax the mind out of its sleep-induced introspective temper.
- To look at the paper is to raise a seashell to one’s ear and to be overwhelmed by the roar of humanity.
- The start of work means the end to freedom, but also to doubt, intensity and wayward desires. The accountant’s ten thousand possibilities have been reduced to an agreeable handful. She has a business card which she hands over in meetings and which tells other people—and, more meaningfully perhaps, reminds her—that she is a Business Unit Senior manager, rather than a vaporous transient consciousness in an incidental universe. How satisfying it is to be held in check by the assumptions of colleagues, instead of being forced to contemplate, in the loneliness of the early hours, all that one might have been and now never will be. … Life is no longer mysterious, sad, haunting, touching, confusing or melancholy; it is a practical stage for clear-eyed action.
- Responsible for wrapping the iron fist of authority in its velvet glove is Jane Axtell, head of the accountancy firm’s Human Resources department.
- Year-end financial statements … express a truth about office life which is no less irrefutable—yet also, in the end, no less irrelevant or irritating—than an evolutionary biologist’s proud reminder that the purpose of existence lies in the propagation of our genes.
- In reality, the likelihood of reaching the pinnacle of capitalist society today is only marginally better than were the chances of being accepted into the French nobility four centuries ago, though at least an aristocratic age was franker, and therefore kinder, about the odds. It did not relentlessly play up the possibilities open to all, … and so, in turn, did not cruelly equate an ordinary life with a failed one.
- These inventors were elevating the formulation of entrepreneurial ideas to the status of a visionary activity. Though forced to justify their efforts in the pragmatic language of venture capital, they were at heart utopian thinkers intent on transforming the world.
- It appeared that the one area in which Sir Bob excelled was anxiety. He was marked out by his relentless ability to find fault with others’ mediocrity—suggesting that a certain kind of intelligence may at heart be nothing more or less than a superior capacity for dissatisfaction.
- [These entrepreneurs] were writing their stories in a subgenre of contemporary fiction, the business plan, and populating them with characters endowed with deeply implausible personalities, an oversight which would eventually be punished not by a scathing review, … but by a lack of custom.
- For all his understanding of worldly concerns, when it came to fathoming the deeper meaning of his own furious activity, Sir Bob displayed the sort of laziness for which he himself had no patience in others. He appeared to have only a passing interest in the overall purpose of his financial accumulation.
- Death is hard to keep in mind when there is work to be done. … Work does not by its nature permit us to do anything other than take it too seriously. It must destroy our sense of perspective, and we should be grateful to it for precisely this reason, for allowing us to mingle ourselves promiscuously with events, for letting us wear thoughts of our own death and the destruction of our enterprises with beautiful lightness, as mere intellectual propositions. … We function of the basis of a necessary myopia. Therein is the sheer energy of existence, a blind will no less impressive than that which we find in a moth arduously crossing a window ledge, … refusing to contemplate the broader scheme in which he will be dead by nightfall. The arguments for our triviality and vulnerability are too obvious, too well known and tedious to rehearse. What is interesting is that we may take it upon ourselves to approach tasks with utter determination and gravity even when their wider non-sense is clear. The impulse to exaggerate the significance of what we are doing, far from being an intellectual error, is really life itself coursing through us.