The Wonders of Philosophy on our Lives, with Alain de Botton

Philosophy as a tool for practicality, as a means for living our lives more fruitfully. This is what Alain de Botton’s book The Consolations of Philosophy aims to achieve, by exploring the lives of Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

In spite of the vast differences between the many thinkers described as philosophers across time, it seemed possible to discern a small group of men, separated by centuries, sharing a loose allegiance to a vision of philosophy suggested by the Greek etymology of the word — philo, love; sophia, wisdom — a group bound by a common interest in saying a few consoling and practical things about the causes of our greatest griefs.

It is easy to dismiss philosophy as useless, only fit for intellectuals, a bourgeosie occupation. But de Botton proves it isn’t so.

After all, weren’t Karl Marx, Hegel, Hippocrates, Socrates, Vladimir Lenin all philosophers who have created uncharted pathways in revolutions, industries and institutions?

While political philosophers like Marx tackled the evils of capitalism, philosophers featured in de Botton’s book all point to things in our lives that do need some balming, quiet, internal revolutions of their own: unpopularity, not having enough money, broken-heartedness, inadequacy, anxiety and the fear of failure.

Relevant and accessible, The Consolations of Philosophy points out similarities between the philosophers’ live and our own, problems that wo/man has encountered since the earliest time. It is funny, poignant and honest, things we all need to face what afflicts us.

On unpopularity

At one point in our lives we’ve all encountered who Socrates was; you might’ve learned about him in school or you’ve probably seen his infamous quote:

De Botton details Socrates’s life and challenges popular beliefs. Instead, he asks us to investigate ideas with little to no following. He believed that this is vital specially when the pressure to conform abounds. Socrates also provided a way of challenging beliefs that we may not agree with, and to do so with intentions of arriving at the truth.

For a man who was sentenced to die precisely for wanting to seek and arrive with others at the fundamental truth of any matter, we’re at an opportune time when independent thinking garners a lot less danger.

Socrates’s method of thinking promised us a way to develop opinions in which we could, even if confronted with a storm, feel veritable confidence.

It would be a shame to deprive ourselves, loved ones and our communities of this chance at truth; his death did not occur for us to receive what we don’t understand with blind acceptance.

True respectability stems not from the will of the majority but from proper reasoning.

On not having enough money 

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When it comes to matters of money, de Botton brings up the life and the work of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who is perhaps known as a man who valued the good life — measured by the absence of pain.

What is remarkable is Epicurus’s ability to live his life in community — you can call him the modern-age hippie/anti-capitalist (depending on how you look at it). He lived in a commune with his friends, where they tended to a garden that provided for their sustenance and where they also consistently explored their needs without resorting to consumption.

To plot the Epicurean relation between money and happiness on a graph, money’s capacity to deliver happiness is already present in small salaries and will not rise with the largest. We will not cease being happy with greater outlay, but we we not, Epicurus insisted, surpass levels of happiness already available to those on a limited income.

His is the first philosophy I’ve read that looked at what lies behind our impulses, desires and needs — and not to cover it up or confuse it material things. de Botton showed how this philosopher was intent on ensuring that we investigate ourselves thoroughly, so as not to fall prey to “mistaken schemes for happiness” whether they be money, or glory.

He also spoke of friendship, as one of the richest bonds that we could ever have with those closest to us, of which money can’t ever buy.

The desire for riches should perhaps not always be understood as a simple hunger for a luxurious life, a more important motive might be the wish to be appreciated and treated nicely. We may seek a fortune for no greater reason than to secure the respect and attention of people who would otherwise look straight through us. Epicurus, discerning our underlying need, recognized that a handful of true friends could deliver the love and respect that even a fortune may not.

On frustration 

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Being frustrated at something or someone is barely a cause of grief, but combined with the number of times we do get frustrated amounts to a lot of lost moments in our lifetimes when we could’ve been anything but frustrated.

The Roman Stoic philosopher, humorist and dramatist Seneca had a “temperate, self-approached to disaster.” Having lived through Pompeii’s earthquakes, the burning of rome and Lugdunum and subjected to a 28-year old ruler known as “the Monster” (Nero), he used philosophy to rise above it all.

He had from the first conceived of philosophy as a discipline to assist human beings in overcoming conflicts between their wishes and reality.

When it comes to being frustrated, de Botton explores different forms: anger, shock, anxiety and a sense of injustice. We’ve felt all of those things and there is nothing more debilitating than the feeling of not being able to do anything.

This is where the core of Seneca’s teaching lies: in changing the way we look at things.

Our frustrations are tempered by what we understand we can expect from the world, by our experience of what it is normal to hope for. We aren’t overwhelmed by anger whenever we are denied an object we desire, only when we believe ourselves entitled to obtain it. Our greatest furies spring from event which violate our sense of ground rules of existence.

While the thought of his proposition that we must hold the possibility of disaster at all times is not appealing, it could possibly save us the feeling of frustration when unexpected occurrences happen.

This runs counter to contemporary metaphysics (The SecretThe Alchemist) and tools of nourishing spirituality (the work of Deepak Chopra comes to mind) wherein optimism and the belief “that the universe conspires to give you what you want.” Seneca basically just shut down Maktub

Perhaps pessimists may have something to teach us.

What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.

On inadequacy 

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Montaigne grew up in the Aquitaine region of France, preferring to spend his time at the circular library of his family’s château. Taught in a pedagogical style that the mind and ability/capacity to reason afforded us happiness and greatness, what he eventually understood is that it is our intellect that causes our suffering.

Beneath his painted beams, Montaigne had outline a new kind of philosophy, one which acknowledged how far we were from the rational, serene creatures whom most of the ancient thinkers had taken us to be.

We were for the most part hysterical and demented, gross and agitate should beside whom animals were in many respects paragons of health and virtue 00 an unfortunate reality which philosophy was obliged to reflect, but rarely did.

As creatures of reason and also of “appalling troubles,” de Botton then mused that on these darkest moments, we would’ve been luckier if we were born as creatures devoid of reason: ants, tortoises or a certain goat to be exact.

Worth a chuckle, and some deep introspection:

I found [the goat] in the yard of a farm a few kilometers from Montaigne’s château, in the hamlet of Les Gauchers. She had never read the Tusculan Disputations nor CIcero’s On the Laws. And yet she seemed content, nibbling at stray pieces of lettuce, occasionally shaking her head like an elderly woman expressing quiet disagreement. It was not an unenviable existence.

Having both body and mind, we, humans, were relegated to an existence that our bodies “smell, ache, sag, throb, pulse and age,” how quickly our perspectives on life can change after a heavy lunch, how we get “hangry” (intense, frustrated hunger).

Today, bodily humiliations trump mindsets in the form of what we see as beauty standards. There are several industries dedicated to this cause: skincare, makeup, plastic surgery. Businesses have taken advantage of the fact that who we are and what we look like will never be enough, so we need an injection of Botox here, a $100 jar of cream, a set of false eyelashes.

Montaigne’s philosophy is one of reconciliation: “The most uncouth of our afflictions is to despise our being.” Rather than trying to cut ourselves in two, we should cease waging civil war on our perplexing physical envelopes and learn to accept them as unalterable facts of our condition, neither so terrible nor so humiliating.

On broken-heartedness 

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Known as a pessimist even as a child (as young as six years old), Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher who came from a wealthy family. A man of fragile moods, one of the major points of his work was understanding life’s greatest dilemma: love.

Love…interrupts at every hour the most serious occupations, and sometimes perplexes for a while even the greatest minds. It does not hesitate…to interfere with the negotiations of statesmen and the investigations of the learned. It knows how to slip its love-notes and ringlets even into ministerial portfolios and philosophical manuscripts… It sometimes demands the sacrifice of…health, sometimes of wealth, position and happiness.

In an effort to grasp precisely why we fall in love,and how it seemingly turns us into irrational beings, Schopenhauer contended that what is behind love is a force within us that had precedence over reason: the will-to-life, or the drive to stay alive and reproduce.

He explained that this could be the reason why people who would’ve never been friends in the first place marry each other. The will of surviving and assuring the continuity of our species is primary, that love is biologically inevitable.

By conceiving of love as biologically inevitable, key to the continuation of the species, Schopenhauer’s theory of the will invites us to adopt a more forgiving stance toward the eccentric behavior to which love so often makes us subject.

He takes the romanticism out of love and relationships, insisting that “love is nothing but the conscious manifestation of the will-to-life’s discovery of an ideal parent.”

In this regard, he assures those who are broken-hearted that rejection is not a result of one’s flaws or insufficiencies, but rather the search of a being for a partner that can produce the ideal offspring.

He did not mean to depress us, rather to free us from expectations which inspire bitterness. It is consoling, when love has let us down, to hear that happiness was never part of the plan.

On difficulties

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Friedrich Nietzsche is one of the more popular philosophers featured in this book, who was greatly influenced by the work of Schopenhauer.

No one is more fitting perhaps, to offer consolation on life’s difficulties than Nietzsche himself who was for decades of his life suffering from serious illness and unrelenting pain. He was also half-blind at 35.

In spite of the failure of his health complications, Nietzsche believed that what ailed us was necessary. In short, the painful things in our lives could increase our capacities for joy.

…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.

There is something valuable in our hardships, lessons in our failures. Nietzsche did not shy away from life’s difficulties and advises us to do the same. It’s not what kinds of difficulties lay in our paths but rather how we respond to them.

How would Nietzsche have prepared us to approach our setbacks? To continue to believe in what we wish for, even when 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 behavior of which Nietzsche’s own, infinitely tragic life offers us perhaps the best model.

* * * 

For more of de Botton’s work on exploring philosophy, check out the curriculum at The Book of Life.

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