A Few Thoughts on "The Consolations of Philosophy", a New Book by Alain De Botton
Alain de Botton, the young Swiss author of "How Proust Can Change Your Life", has just published a book on philosophy. Its appearance in print has been met with a flurry of publicity, and with no small dose of criticism from reviewers. I first saw it prominently displayed on its own table in the front of a big Barnes and Noble bookstore in New York City, accompanied by a large advertising poster, a rarity for any book of philosophy. I snatched it up with great curiosity and couldn't wait to start reading it.
I hated it. Well, I should be more specific: I hated it until I liked it. But I'll make sense of that in a minute. Let me start from the beginning.
I couldn't believe what I was reading. It struck me page after page as an extraordinarily pretentious presentation of bad philosophy, broken up on every page in the most unusual way by bizarre black and white photographs of anything the author happened to mention in the text, from his favorite chocolate milk to babies and sports watches. His attitude toward the reader seemed to be "I'm richer than you, far better educated, and a lot more cultured, but I'm willing to share some snippets of my recent thoughts with you, for your much needed educational benefit." The text was sometimes more about him than it was about the philosophers he purported to present. And that says a great deal, since he throws out more historical factoids than you're likely to find in any standard book of philosophy. About a hundred pages into its strange interior, I sometimes got the feeling that I knew as much about the author as about any of his subjects. He's been for his whole life a pleaser. He really likes a certain brand of chocolate milk. He has had at least temporary impotence problems, on occasion. I knew his travels. I even closed the book one day with a feeling that I could order for him in a restaurant - well, if I just spoke French as fluently as he surely does.
I should tell you what the book is supposed to be about. De Botton takes six philosophers - Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche - and examines their work for insights that can help us now. The spin is that each of these philosophers has ideas that can give us consolation for problems we may face. We can turn to Socrates when we're feeling unpopular, and come away consoled. Not enough money? No worry, just turn to Epicurus for a look at what's more important than money. If you're feeling any other sort of frustration and thinking that life is not fair, maybe Seneca can be of help. Montaigne can come in handy when you're dealing with a sense of inadequacy - at least he seems to have helped de Botton, not exactly as a philosophical analog to Viagra, but as a consoling sage who can reassure us that all sorts of "delicate" problems we rarely discuss are a normal part of the human condition. De Botton then surprisingly turns to Schopenhauer for consolation on matters of the heart. The great pessimist can at least remind you that, no matter how bad your relationships may be, things can, and very likely will get worse. And finally, there is Nietzsche, who helps us handle the general problem that life has its challenges.
I had a number of problems with this approach. First, I don't think that philosophy at its best is just an alternative to "Dear Abby". And not because I think that philosophy is first and foremost just a matter of esoteric theory. I think it's even more practical than de Botton seems to realize. The great philosophers can give us ideas that are central for better understanding our lives and moving forward in the world. They don't just offer us consolations for our difficulties and failures. It's true that many people often don't think of philosophy until they face difficulties in their lives, the enterprise of philosophy itself is much more than whatever problem solving resources the great thinkers may indeed offer. Second, I have objections to how this author pairs philosophers and problems. I would never go to Schopenhaur for advice, or even perspective, for relationship trouble. Third, even when de Botton gets the pairing of philosopher and problem right, I think he misses the best of what the philosopher tapped has to offer.
Let me give an example. De Botton turns to Socrates as a man who didn't mind not being popular. When we ourselves feel like outsiders, or think that we are unappreciated, when we are swimming against the current and even finding ourselves ignored by people whose attention we crave, we should turn to Socrates for consolation, de Botton believes. Why? Well, Socrates worked hard to help the Athenians of his time to become more philosophical about their lives, and as a result they voted to have him executed. Socrates could have given up his quest to bring real wisdom into people's lives and thereby avoided the death penalty, but he stood firm in what he thought was right. The consolation his example offers, de Botton claims, is that, like him, we can take comfort in potentially being vindicated by "posterity". Socrates, after all, has been judged by subsequent generations to have been one of the greatest of human beings, because of his relentless pursuit of wisdom, despite the unpopularity of his quest.
But this is not how Socrates consoled himself. He did not find it within himself to stand firm against the crowd and persist in his unpopular course because he trusted that posterity would redeem his memory. He did it because he was convinced it was the right thing to do, whatever posterity might think. In fact, he believed that he was on a mission from God, and thus would allow nothing on earth to dissuade him from completing his appointed task.
Posterity had nothing to do with it. And that's a good thing, since most people can't look to posterity as their ultimate court of appeals. Posterity won't pay that much attention to most of us, perhaps including even Mr. de Botton. So it's not a very convincing mental stratagem to entrust ourselves to the higher court of the future. But we can do what Socrates in fact did. We can persist in doing what we think is right whether it is popular or not precisely because we are convinced that it is right. And we can dig even deeper and, again like Socrates, anchor ourselves to the ultimate spiritual supports available to any of us. All this de Botton seems to miss.
But by the time we get to the end of this book, we find some very good advice coming from what may strike many readers as the most unlikely source. Alain de Botton finds insight about fulfillment in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche writes the following about difficulty and achievement:
"Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and peoples and ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favorable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible."
De Botton comments on this:
"Why? Because 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. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfillment."
"Nietzsche was striving to correct the belief that fulfillment must come easily or not at all, a belief ruinous in its effects, for it leads us to withdraw prematurely from challenges that might have been overcome if only we had been prepared for the savagery demanded by almost everything valuable."
Although I would not have used the concept of savagery here, I find this passage to be sagacious in its overall message, a message that we all need to be reminded of on a regular basis. When he is conveying insight like this, de Botton is at his best.
In a recent review in the New York Times, Jonathan Lear finds no real pursuit of truth, and thus no real philosophy in de Botton's book. I concur with most of Lear's remarks in his essay. But perhaps Lear and I both approached this book with inappropriately exacting standards for what counts as philosophy. By the time I finished the book, my feelings about it had changed. I no longer hated it. I had even come to like it. In a way. Not so much as a book of philosophy, but more like a very personal revelation of how bits of philosophy have affected one man. OK, a very well educated man with apparently a lot of money and cultural experiences, but that's all right. If you view this book as an idiosyncratic, personal report on how reading philosophy can positively affect a sensitive and intelligent person, it takes on a very different look. I'm glad he wrote it.
So check it out of the library some time if you want to. When you finish reading my book Philosophy for Dummies. Just kidding. You can read de Botton's book any time you like. By the time you get to the end of it, you may like it. But I can't make any promises on this one.
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