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

Book Reviews, Soul + Spirit

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.

Sunday Spotlight: San Francisco’s Big Book Sale 

Sunday Spotlight
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San Francisco Big Book Sale, Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason

It’s that time again for one of my favorite sale events in the Bay — the San Francisco Big Book Sale! This bi-annual event is put together by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library around Spring time and in the Fall, wherein donated books and media are sold for $1-$3 each.

My first BBS was back in 2011 and I came on the last day of the sale where coincidentally, all books were on (an even bigger) sale for $1 each. I was so overwhelmed with the quantity and accessibility of the sale that I must have bought around 50+ titles. Bibliophile gone wild.

I admit that I haven’t been able to go through all of those books and I’ve also donated most of them. This time however, I planned on being more intentional.

Hello warehouse of my dreams.

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The Courage it Takes with Sunil Yapa

Book Reviews, Fiction

It’s a little weird to read the chants you’ve been yelling at protests, rallies, in meetings and conferences centered around social justice. I saw these on the text of Sunil Yapa’s book Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, a book set in Seattle amidst the 1999 anti-World Trade Organization (WTO) protests.

Weird because I’ve been stepping back on my participation in social justice endeavors lately, and reading about some of the characters in the book feels like déjà vu. Most of it too real, too familiar. I feel a certain tiredness in my body that I’ve been trying to keep at bay but sometimes, the spirit needs to rest.

A Different Way of Looking, with Marcel Proust and Alain de Botton

Book Reviews, Soul + Spirit, Writing

What I know of Marcel Proust: nada. What I know of Alain de Botton: quite a lot, although not personally, but enough for me to dive deep into one of his books, How Proust Can Change Your Life (Shop your local indie bookstore).

One of the things that I’ve truly been enamored with Proust/de Botton’s compendium is a new way of looking: of a character in one of Proust’s essays where he forces a dissatisfied youth to take in Jean-Baptiste Chardin’s paintings of mundane things, not-so-special moments: of bowls of fruit, loaves of bread, kitchen utensils, one reading a book, a mother showing her daughter some mistakes in needlework as opposed to paintings in the Louvre’s “grand palaces painted by Veronese, harbor scenes by Claude, and princely lives by Van Dyck.” That there is beauty in a lot of things that is already around us, and that we are just plainly inattentive to these details. de Botton points out this lack of capacity of seeing beauty is not due to laziness or inattention, but more so because we are inexperienced with looking. 

The happiness that may emerge from taking a second look is central to Proust’s therapeutic conception. It reveals the extent to which our dissatisfactions may be the result of failing to look properly at our lives rather than the result of anything inherently deficient about them. Appreciating the beauty of crusty loaves does not preclude our interest in a chateau, but failing to do so must call into question our overall capacity for appreciation.

 

Discovering Joseph Campbell

Book Reviews, Soul + Spirit

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.

I ended 2015 by finishing The Power of Myth, the lovingly transcribed manuscript of a PBS interview between Bill Moyers and mythologist and writer, Joseph Campbell.

My path to reading Campbell felt like a literary treasure hunt, as I came across his words on several books I’ve been reading throughout the year: Elle Luna’s The Crossroads of Should and Must: Follow Your Passion, Brené Brown’s Rising Strong and Danielle LaPorte’s The Fire Starter Sessions: A Soulful + Practical Guide to Creating Success on Your Own Terms.

2015 was a year filled with major shifts, most of them internal. I was coming face to face with a lot of past traumas and I was uncertain about my future. I was overcome with fear.

And as I have done in the past, I turned to the only thing that gave me solace: reading.