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The Consolations of Philosophy (thoughts)

February 25, 2009

deweydecimalchallengeFor the Dewey Decimal 100s (Philosophy and Psychology), I decided to read Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy. I originally heard of Botton on a blog that has since disappeared (Toujours Jacques), and I love philosophy, so I thought it’d be a great fit! However, I didn’t bother reading what the book was actually about, so imagine my surprise when I discovered it’s a philosophical self-help book.

I know, I know. Even the term ‘self-help’ has a definite negative connotation. But The Consolations of Philosophyisn’t like that. I doubt it would actually be shelved in the self-help section, since it’s much more about philosophy. Specifically, Botton looks at six specific philosophers and how their lives and philosophy can help you deal with the not-so-great aspects of your own, modern life (Unpopularity, Not Having Enough Money, Frustration, Inadequacy, A Broken Heart, and Difficulties).

I can’t begin to express how charming this book is. Botton has a very down-to-earth, intelligent style that immediately won me over. He also has a subtle but wicked sense of humour: check out this description of medieval French travellers:

French travellers were prone to be very upset by the differences. In hotels, they kept away from sideboards with strange foods, requesting the normal dishes they knew from home. They tried not to talk to anyone who had made the error of not speaking their language, and picked gingerly at the fennel bread.

And there are hilarious little sketches mixed throughout! The chapters are perfectly spaced, and the writing just draws the reader on. I never had to drag myself through any part of this book; instead, I found myself trying to slow down and savour it. :)

My very favourite section was the one on “Not Having Enough Money.” Botton discusses Epicurus, and how the necessary things for happiness are either simple (i.e. basic shelter and food) or can’t be bought (i.e. good conversation with friends). Here’s a great excerpt:

True friends do not evaluate us according to worldly criteria, it is the core self they are interested in; like ideal parents, their love for us remains unaffected by our appearance or position in the social hierarchy, and so we have no qualms in dressing in old clothes and revealing that we have made little money this year.

I hope I’ve convinced you that this is an excellent book. It’s informing and inspiring and funny and touching…just a wonderful read. Oh, and it’s short and accessible, so a great place to get your toes wet in philosophy if it’s always made you nervous. ;) As for me? I’m just excited Botton has such a long back-list…right now I’m trying to decide between The Art of Travel and Status Anxiety.

Notable Passages
If the postcard [of a painting of the death of Socrates] struck me so forcefully, it was perhaps because the behavior it depicted contrasted so sharply with my own. In conversations, my priority was to be liked, rather than to speak the truth. A desire to please led me to laugh at modest jokes like a parent on the opening night of a school play. With strangers, I adopted the servile manner of a concierge greeting wealthy clients in a hotel-salival enthusiasm born of a morbid, indiscriminate desire for affection. I did not publicly doubt ideas to which the majority was committed. I sought the approval of figures of authority and after encounters with them, worried at length whether they had thought me acceptable …That night, above the ice lands, such independence of mind was a revelation and an incitement. It promised a counterweight to a supine tendency to follow socially sanctioned practices and ideas. In Socrates’ life and death lay an invitation to intelligent scepticism.

But it is not only the hostility of others that may prevent us from questioning the status quo. Our will to doubt can be just as powerfully sapped by an internal sense that societal conventions must have a sound basis, even if we are not sure exactly what this may be, because they have been adhered to by a great many people for a long time. It seems implausible that our society could be gravely mistaken in its beliefs and at the same time that we would be alone in noticing the fact. We stifle our doubts and follow the flock because we cannot conceive of ourselves as pioneers of hitherto unknown, difficult truths. It is for help in overcoming our meekness that we may turn to the philosopher.

To calm us down in noisy streets, we should trust that those making a noise know nothing of us. We should place a fireguard between the noise outside and an internal sense of deserving punishment. We should not import into scenarios where they don’t belong pessimistic interpretations of tohers’ motives. Thereafter, noise will never be pleasant, but it will not have to make us furious.

But Seneca’s point is more subtle. It is no less unreasonable to accept something as necessary when it isn’t as to rebel against something when it is. We can as easily go astray by accepting the unnecessary and denying the possible, as by denying the necessary and wishing for the impossible. It is for reason to make the distinction.

How would Nietzsche have preferred us to approach our setbacks? To continue to believe in what we wish for, when when we do not have it, and may never. Put another way, to resist the temptation to denigrate and declare evil certain goods because they have proved hard to secure-a pattern of behaviour of which Nietzsche’s own, infintely tragic life offers us perhaps the best model.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2009 12:17 pm

    I haven’t read any of Botton’s work as yet but I have always heard good things about his books. Apparently he has a new one coming out this year on the joys and sorrows or work (or something like that!)

  2. February 25, 2009 1:01 pm

    Oh, you definitely DID convince me…this sounds so different from anything I’ve ever read. And different can be very, very good sometimes.

  3. February 25, 2009 3:00 pm

    The Architecture of Happiness as well as How Proust Can Save Your Life, both by Botton, are also really enjoyable reads. I just finished The Book of Dead Philosophers (based on this review I think you would really like it) so feel in the mood to pick this Botton up now. Thanks for the great review.

  4. February 25, 2009 3:09 pm

    He’s a wonderful writer! I loved How Proust Can Save Your Life — and now I’m going to go and get this out of the library. Thanks for the review!!

  5. February 25, 2009 3:40 pm

    great review. Philosophy is not typically one I venture towards but I really like the idea of this book…

  6. February 25, 2009 3:52 pm

    This sounds like fun. I’ve only recently become interested in philosophy, and I’m interested in anything that makes it a little more accessible.

  7. February 25, 2009 4:18 pm

    Karen, I think the work one is already published, though I’m not positive about that!

    Debi, yay-I think you’d really like it. :)

    Frances, I saw that you were reading The Book of Dead Philosophers, and I totally perked up, lol. Glad to hear I’d enjoy it!

    BlogLily, yay! I’m curious about How Proust Can Save Your Life, although I’m not curious about Proust’s actually writing. Weird, huh?

    Michelle, thanks! This definitely isn’t a typical philosophy book.

    Teresa, Botton is very accesible, so I think it’d be a good fit.

  8. February 25, 2009 6:27 pm

    Sounds very interesting….It’s on my list about five times over now. Must get to it some day!

  9. February 25, 2009 7:01 pm

    Now this is something I can definitely sink my teeth into! I wouldn’t mind going back to reading about philosophy with this kind of book!

  10. February 25, 2009 7:10 pm

    I’m quite intrigued. Thank you.

  11. February 25, 2009 7:19 pm

    Ever since I read River Town, which is probably the most memorable book I have read on modern China, I have scrupulously followed Peter Hessler’s writings in the New Yorker magazine. Happy reading. :)

  12. February 26, 2009 3:13 am

    This sounds great – I’ve seen some of his TV programmes in the UK and he seems interesting but accessible. This might be the only book that would get past my own “self help” block :-)

  13. stacybuckeye permalink
    February 26, 2009 9:37 am

    I’d not heard of this, but you have convinced me to add it to my list :)

  14. February 26, 2009 1:43 pm

    You’re a bit ahead of me with the Dewey Decimal challenge. I’ll be look for a 100’s book next week since I’m doing one century a month.

    This one does sound good. The Art of Travel sounds like fun, too. Is it in the 100’s???

  15. February 26, 2009 2:43 pm

    I really enjoyed Botton’s “Proust” book as well. I have a couple more of his books on my list to be read, this is one. Now I want to pick it up next. :)

  16. February 27, 2009 11:36 pm

    Rebecca, it’s funny how certain books pop up a lot, isn’t it?!

    Lightheaded, it’s a great book. :)

    Care, I hope you enjoy it if you end up reading it!

    Matt, I’m glad you enjoyed River Town so much! I loved Oracle Bones, his second book.

    Logophile, I have a self-help block too, so I was a littl etaken aback when I realised what the book was. But it’s awesome!

    Stacy, yay!

    CB, I’ve been reading one a month too! I did the 000s in Jan. and the 100s in Feb. :p I don’t think The Art of Travel is in the 100s, because I probably would have picked it instead of this one (just based on the title). I could be wrong though.

    Melanie, I want to try out his Proust book! I’m curious about how many books I can read with Proust in the title while still avoiding Proust’s actual writings, lol.


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