The Consolations of Philosophy: Reviews

John Banville in Irish Times, 1 April 2000

No doubt about it, philosophy is the new rock and roll, and Alain de Botton is its Colonel Tom Parker. The Consolations of Philosophy is the book of the Channel 4 television series, Philosophy: A Guide to Life, written and presented by de Botton, and is also available as an audiobook, read by the author. The book and the series set out to show us how a study of certain aspects of the work of certain philosophers can support us along the potholed road of life. De Botton fixes on six well-known thinkers – that is, their names are well-known – and extracts from their work some basic tenets that may be applied, not just to the debate with other philosophical systems, but to life as we live it in the world. Thus he finds consolation for unpopularity in Socrates, for poverty in Epicurus, for frustration in Seneca, for inadequacy in Montaigne, for failure in love in Schopenhauer – yes, really – and for difficulties in Nietzsche. Given the general public’s unshakeable and endearing faith in the notion that we can be “helped” to achieve worldly success, find love, and have a trim waistline, The Consolations of Philosophy is bound to be a bestseller. And why not.

Alain de Botton, who is all of 31, is Associate Research Fellow of the Philosophy Programme at the School of Advanced Study, the University of London – whew – and is the author of three volumes of fiction, and the charming and highly successful How Proust Can Change Your Life; he also writes an entertaining column for the Independent on Sunday on what might be termed living philosophy, which was most likely the inspiration for this book and the television show. He takes a light-hearted but not unserious approach to his subject, and no doubt will cheerfully absorb the sneers of the academy. It is apparent that he knows his philosophy, but takes a refreshingly open and simple approach to it. To say that he wears his learning lightly would be an understatement; indeed, he does not wear it at all, but carries it slung over his arm like an old raincoat. As he says in his essay on Montaigne:

It is common to assume that we are dealing with a highly intelligent book when we cease to understand it. Profound ideas cannot, after all, be explained in the language of children. Yet the association between difficulty and profundity might less generously be described as a manifestation in the literary sphere of a perversity familiar from emotional life, where people who are mysterious and elusive can inspire a respect in modest minds that reliable and clear ones do not.

Anyone will be disappointed, then, who looks here for the thrill of grappling with great and barely comprehensible ideas and systems. Part of the pleasure of philosophy is the feeling that one is stumbling through a fog of ignorance made luminous by the sun of comprehension shining somewhere. Most people, and all philosophers, who read philosophy do so for reasons of epistemology or aesthetics, or both. The notion that philosophy should or could be relevant to ordinary living is certainly not a common Anglo-Saxon attitude. In our century, professional English philosophy has limited itself to clarifying a few definitions, and showing up certain nonsensical hypotheses; it has been a kind of higher hygiene. Russell and Whitehead sought to reduce speculative thought to mathematics – they failed – while Ayer and his followers were adamant that philosophy is a closed system, separate from lived life.

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