Philosophers show us how to handle life

The Consolations of Philosophy - Alain de Botton

I guess the question that has been raised a number of times is whether this book is a self-help book. I guess the problem with self-help books is that people don't like to be seen reading them because it creates the suggestion that maybe they have problems and that their life is not where they want it to be – in a sense it is a neon sign that blares to the world 'I am weak and helpless'. This is probably why people don't like to admit that they are going to psychologists because of the same thing – it makes them appear weak and socially inept. Well, to be honest with you, one of the biggest selling books ever compiled is basically a self-help book, and that would be the Bible, though I would probably suggest that it is a little more than a self-help book in that it is not so much telling us how to overcome our problems, but rather that the God who is there is willing to provide us with that assistance.


Anyway, with regards to this book, it seems to take the name of a book written back in the middle ages by a guy name Boetheus. Now, I have never read the original book but it appears that Botton borrowed his ideas for this book from the original, in that the works of numerous eminent philosophers can assist us in the struggles that life throws at us. The difference is that Botton is able to draw on both modern and ancient philosophers in his search for comfort, as well as instruct us how their teachings can help us make sense of a chaotic world.


What I found interesting in this book is Botton's use of pictures, and he uses them extensively in this work, no doubt providing a break in the text. This reminds of some Goodreads commentators who also extensively use pictures to attempt to outline their views on a particular work. For instances, Botton will be writing about Socrates and be discussing a painting portraying his death, and will reproduce the painting as such:

However, he does a little more than simply produce copies of pictures that he is referring to, or even pictures (or carvings) or the specific philosophers. If, say, he is talking about a goat (which he does) he will then produce a picture as such:

Or when he is talking about Neiztsche and the concept of the superman, he points out that it is not so much Neiztsche's writings that influenced Hitler, but rather his sister, as demonstrated by this picture:

Anyway, I am probably getting a bit off track by using pictures, not that using pictures is a bad thing, but I will move on and outline each of the philosophers that Botton looks at, say a few words about their consolations, and then point out that the Bible actually also has answers for these problems as well (though the philosophers are also quite helpful in that they tend to flesh these ideas out a bit more). However, one point I need to make is that after reading this book I have a little more understanding of Francis Schaeffer's concerns when he was talking about how modern philosophy is attempting to find away to provide answers to these problems by moving away from the bible.


Socrates: The whole idea about Socrates is not so much his philosophy, though he does explore his philosophy and the concept of virtue, but rather the fact that at the end of his life Socrates was put on trial and sentenced to death on what turned out to be trumped up charges. However, Socrates never despaired at his sudden unpopularity because even though his philosophy may have offended people, he still believed that he was right. To back this up, Botton then outlines that after his execution, the original people that brought him to court were suddenly turned upon and either forced into exile or executed themselves. While that may be cold comfort, one must remember that it is not the man who has lived on, but his teaching. Despite that moment of unpopularity, Socrates has gone on, after death, to become an incredibly influencial philosopher.


However, one should also remember that this was the same fate that Jesus suffered. There is a difference because at the end of Socrates' life he still had a core group of friends that supported him, and that when he was found guilty it was only by a small margin. Right up until the end he had friends and companions. Jesus did not. He died alone, on the cross, with pretty much everybody either deserting him or turning against him. Okay, I may be slightly exaggerating, but Socrates had more company at his death than did Jesus, yet Jesus went on to become one of the most influential figures in the history of humanity.


Epicurus: I once suggested that the core of Epicurean philosophy is 'if it feels good, do it.' Well, after reading the section on Epicurus I have come to realise that I am pretty much correct. However, the idea that comes out here is that wealth does not necessarily bring happiness, friendship does. Okay, Epicurus did not live a life of poverty, but his philosophical writings pointed out that happiness does not come out of possessions, but out of the company of others. I can attest to that personally because even though I lived in a big house and had a nice car I also desired companionship, and love, and the lack of that still made me depressed. Also, while the car itself started off nice it pretty much ended up where all cars finish their lives: the scrap heap.


However, while Epicurus is correct in pointing out that friendship is more valuable than wealth, what happens when these friendships break down. The problem with friendship is that we desire it so much that when we get caught up with the wrong type of friends we simply do not want to give them up for fear of being alone. The same is the case with people who live in abusive relationships. Also friendships are not necessarily permanent as we humans are a flawed lot and are prone to fight. While it might be fun living in a commune for a while, that is not necessarily going to last.


Once again the Bible offers an answer to that as well and that is the suggestion that God is the perfect friend, and father. Granted, he may be slow at answering prayers, and may impose certain rules on us that we may not like, but seriously, is a good Earthly father going to give us everything we want. If we want to stick our tongue in a power socket, is a good father going to let us do that, or is he going to want to prevent it. You see, the difference between friends and God is that God is reliable, though the other difference is that he is not present physically, which ends up requiring a leap of faith.


Seneca: The section on Seneca deals with frustrations, and what better person to turn to since he was the tutor to one of the most sadistic emperors Rome had ever known, and no matter how much he tried to get away, Nero would step in and prevent him. In a way, just like a spoilt child, Nero wanted Seneca as his play thing, and when he no longer wanted him, he had him killed. The basis of Seneca's philosophy is simply this: the world is a chaotic mess – learn to deal with it. To go further: just because something annoys you, it does not necessarily mean that the person causing that annoyance is specifically targeting you (though some people are sadistic enough that they will go out of their way to annoy as many people as possible). So, the crux of the philosophy is this: don't take everything so personally, expect the unexpected, and expect the worst. Goblets get smashed at parties and builders make noise – that does not mean that the builder, or the universe, is out to get you.


Jesus suggested something similar, though I think the Church does not necessarily enunciate it appropriately. Basically Jesus once said 'if the world hates you, it is because they hated me first'. What he is saying is that if, as a Christian, you are being persecuted, it is not because they are persecuting you, but because they hate the Christian message. However, we can take this further. If somebody is acting like a git, and you are suffering because they are acting like a git, it does not necessarily mean that they are personally targeting you (though sometimes they are) but rather because they are basically a git. In fact, you may be surprised to discover that if you are being annoyed by a particular person, there are probably quite a lot of other people out there that are annoyed by this particular person as well, so, as Seneca says, don't take things so personally.


Montaigne: I have written a lot about Montaigne elsewhere, but the crux of this section deals with difference. Basically, the idea is that if you are different, then that is not necessarily a bad thing because there are a lot of different people out there, and you are one of them. In fact, the Bible actually points out that each and every one of us are unique, and that is something to be joyful about.


Schopenhauer: Now the idea that comes out of Schopenhauer is how to deal with rejection. Basically his idea is that there is this subconscious 'will to live' namely an innate part of the human race that wants to propagate itself. However he goes further to suggest that we want to propagate with the person who will produce for us the best child, and as such we will seek out that partner that can give us that child. Therefore, if we are rejected it is not something that is conscious, but something that is subconscious. Darwin explores this idea further in his writings on sexual selection, and no doubt he borrowed from Schopenhauer's thesis when he was writing this.


My concern here is that because we live in a flawed universe, this 'will to live' in itself is going to be flawed as well. Humanity does not necessarily want to breed out the worst traits and keep the best traits, because if that were the case, we would be clearly on our way to becoming ubermensch. However, we are not. We are still greedy, selfish, and racist. While our technology has increased, we have also remained lazy. Instead of using slaves to do the work we don't want to do we use machines. This demonstrates that this so called 'will to live' is not breeding out those traits that we don't like. In fact, the whole Hollywood premise is that we should marry physical beauty, and if the idea of the 'will to live' is to propagate beauty, then we are far from moving towards the idea of the ubermensch.


Nietzsche: I cannot begin writing about Nietzsche without doing this:

Okay, he is not necessarily one of my favourite philosophers, but I also think he is a much misunderstood philosopher. For instance, the idea of the ubermensch was not Hitler's idea of the Ayrian Master Race, but rather the idea of the enlightened person. A person who has risen above their base, animalistic urges, to embrace the reality of the universe, and developed the ability to think and reason. Now, the philosophy of Nietzsche that is explored here is an idea that is actually not new, and that is 'no pain, no gain'. The idea of climbing a mountain is used. To get to the top of the mountain, one must climb the mountain, and in climbing the mountain, one suffers pain, but at the top of the mountain the person is rewarded with spectacular views. Yes, granted, this is simplistic because these days we can also catch a cable car, but that can provide other forms of pain (such as waiting in line and paying exorbitant fees).


Now, Nietzsche hated alcohol because he believed that it was a quick way to happiness which was not happiness in itself. Basically Nietzsche suggested that to achieve our goals, one had to experience pain to get there and all alcohol did was to dull that pain. However, he also hated the New Testament, believing that it taught the same thing. Personally I believe that the apostle Paul would disagree with him vehemently. In the end though, Nietzsche died a mad man in an insane asylum, having sold little of his philosophy, though one could argue that the pain that he had to suffer to become famous was death because Nietzsche these days is actually a well known and well read philosopher. Therefore, in conclusion, some of us may not even get to see our fame in our lifetime, yet it does not mean that we will not, one day, become famous.