Volume 15 Number 2
Down to Earth Philosophers
01 April 2002
Pierre Spoerri finds both inspiration and food for thought in Alain de Botton’s, ‘The consolations of philosophy’.
'The consolations of philosophy', by Alain de Botton, Penguin Books, London, 2001
Philosophy, at least here in European lands, seems to be an ‘in’ subject at the present moment. One first noticed it when, some years ago, the book of a relatively unknown Norwegian author, Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World, suddenly became a world bestseller and was soon translated into 42 languages. The book did not contain violence or sex but described how a little girl learns the basics of philosophy. And now, Alain de Botton’s book, The consolations of philosophy, is enjoying a similar success. First published in April 2000 in the UK and USA, its hardback edition sold 72,000 copies in the first year in the UK alone.
Is this just a passing fad or are we witnessing something which a BBC commentator described a few weeks after 11 September as ‘the end of the age of shallowness’?
After I picked up de Botton’s book by chance, I discovered that not a week went by without another book with philosophical content being published. In Germany a major new introduction to philosophy has been written, and the German TV Channel ZDF has renamed one of its most popular programmes from Literarisches Quartett to Philosophisches Quartett, moderated by the well-known professor of philosophy, Peter Sloterdijk.
One feature of this development is the linking of philosophy with daily life. Major reviews appeared at the beginning of 2002 of a book written by a professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne University, André Comte-Sponville. Its title: A short treatise on the great virtues—the uses of philosophy in everyday life. I have not read the learned Frenchman’s book, partly because the author—according to the reviews—seems to be good at raising doubts about everything, including values and morality. He seems to believe in neither God nor absolute and universal moral laws, and ends up getting mixed up in the problem of human free will—the existence of which he denies.
Alain de Botton’s approach is quite different. He was born in Zurich in 1969 of a Sephardic Jewish family who had to leave Spain in 1492 and which finally settled in Alexandria, Egypt, where he grew up. In a conversation published on the internet he says he found ‘something nice in the idea of a book changing your life for the better’. He adds: ‘The consolations of philosophy is a search for wisdom in the writings of six of the greatest philosophers.... Most of these do not appear on college courses—they are at the liveliest end of philosophy, they are themselves interested in helping one to live. They are practical thinkers.’
De Botton’s approach is simple. He takes six issues which are common to every person’s life and asks one philosopher to give his answer to that problem. So we look for consolation from Unpopularity by studying the life and thinking of Socrates; from Not having enough money by studying Epicurus. Frustration is dealt with by Seneca; Inadequacy by Montaigne; A broken heart by Schopenhauer; and finally Difficulties by Nietzsche.
The idea of writing such a book struck the author when he was looking at a picture by the French artist Jacques-Louis David in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It shows Socrates amongst his friends finishing a philosophical point while at the same time reaching serenely for the hemlock that would end his life. De Botton writes that the picture struck him so forcefully ‘because the behaviour 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... But the philosopher had not buckled before unpopularity and the condemnation of the state... Moreover, his confidence had sprung from a more profound source than hot-headedness or bull-like courage.’
Not all the philosophers in the book may speak to all its readers. But no doubt each one will find some stimulating, even startling, new thoughts—some of them expressed many centuries ago. The popular idea of the philosophy of Epicurus is that he recommended the pursuit of pleasure in all its forms. Yet for him the task of philosophy was ‘to help us interpret our indistinct pulses of distress and desire and thereby save us from mistaken schemes for happiness’. So when he made a list of what is natural and necessary for happiness the three first items were ‘friends, freedom and thought’.
Obviously, a reviewer cannot summarize the thinking of six great philosophers in a thousand-word article. But he can give a few of the quotes which struck him most forcefully.
Seneca, a philosopher at the time of the Roman emperors Nero and Caligula, faced and witnessed exceptional disasters. Earthquakes had shattered Pompeii; Rome had burnt to the ground. And Seneca himself was first banned to Corsica because of Empress Messalina’s scheming and then eventually forced to kill himself by Nero. So his consolation for frustration is not just theoretical but painfully practical: ‘Never did I trust fortune, even when she seemed to be offering peace. All those blessings which she kindly bestowed on me—money, public office, influence—I relegated to a place from which she could take them back without disturbing me. Between them and me, I have kept a wide gap, and so she has merely taken them, not torn them from me.’
The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne amazes the reader by his insights and his honesty about himself. ‘When good health and a fine sunny day smile at me, I am quite debonair; give me an ingrown toe-nail, and I am touchy, bad-tempered and unapproachable.’
Interesting ideas are to be found in every life, Montaigne insists. However modest our stories, we can derive greater insight from ourselves than from all the books of old: ‘Were I a good scholar, I would find enough in my own experience to make me wise. Whoever recalls to mind his last bout of anger... sees the ugliness of this passion better than in Aristotle. Anyone who recalls the ills he has undergone, those which have threatened him and the trivial incidents which have moved him from one condition to another, makes himself thereby ready for future mutations and the exploring of his condition. Even the life of Caesar is less exemplary to us than our own; a life whether imperial or plebeian is always a life affected by everything that can happen to a man... We are richer than we think, each one of us.’
If I had the chance to meet Alain de Botton I would ask him why he ended his book with the stories and thinking of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. Is it because he considers Schopenhauer, who has been called the greatest pessimist in the history of philosophy, to be the ‘finest among philosophers... for the griefs of love’? Or in Nietzsche’s case, that some of the best and the worst of the 20th century can be found in his writings? I am sure that many will disagree with the following statement: ‘The emotions of hatred, envy, covetousness and lust for domination [are] life-conditioning emotions... which must fundamentally and essentially be present in the total economy of life.’ Nietzsche’s aim was to ‘climb as high into the pure icy Alpine air as a philosopher ever climbed, up to where all the mist and obscurity cease and where the fundamental constitution of things speaks in a voice rough and rigid but ineluctably comprehensible’.
Possibly de Botton left Nietzsche and his tragic ending at the end of his book to show that what really counts in the realm of philosophy is not to agree or disagree with somebody else’s views but to do a bit of thinking ourselves. Certainly it may be hard work, but it could be worth it.