The Consolations of Philosophy

Anthony Clare in the Literary Review, April 2000

At the heart of this witty, thoughtful, entertaining book is the provocative belief that there is no point in philosophy unless it helps dispel mental sufferings. In support of such an arguable thesis and to help us overcome such contemporary problems as unpopularity, poverty and wealth, frustration, human weakness and the afflictions of love, Alain de Botton summons a sextet of philosophers. His title is a teasing piece of literary larceny – the original De Consolatione Philosophiae having been written around 500 BC by the Roman statesman Boethius, during his imprisonment for treason against the Gothic king, Theodoric. Boethius, whose work was translated by Chaucer, discusses with the goddess Philosophy the transience and insecurity of everything save virtue. De Botton’s message is similar. Men are seduced by the trappings of wealth, power, status and possessions but the secret of a fulfilled and satisfying life is the wisdom to know what will truly make us happy.

De Botton reclaims for the philosopher what today’s society has transferred to the psychiatrist – the task of providing answers to how we are to live. But his selection and analysis of the observation and reflections of Socrates, Seneca, Schopenhauer, Montaigne, Epicurus and Nietzsche only serve to show how much modern psychiatry, whether it knows it or not, is busy implementing some of their most fundamental beliefs. Consider Epicurus. Here was a man prepared to confront the question, what does it take to make a man happy? – and answer: friendship; freedom; a willingness to analyse and dispel anxieties about such things as money; illness; death; the possession of a purpose in life; and wealth sufficient to provide food, shelter and clothing. The capacity of money to deliver happiness, he insisted, is present in small salaries but will not rise with the largest. His claims, some two millennia later, receive robust confirmation. In the recently published The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (Yale University Press) by the eminent sociologist Robert E Lane, a number of scrupulously designed studies are described which have indeed shown that once a person’s income is above the poverty level, a larger and larger one contributes next to nothing to happiness. Quite the reverse happens: as wealth increases, family solidarity and community bonding disintegrate.

To Seneca we are referred for advice on coping with setbacks, and indeed he has much to say of relevance to such contemporary inanities as football hooliganism and road rage. Anger he sees as a kind of madness, given that what makes us angry tends to be the frustration of dangerously optimistic ideas about the world and other people. In this modern world of affluence and plenty, effective medicine, and a political system devoted to shepherding us safely from the cradle to the grave, we do not anticipate evils before they arrive. We are, like the passengers on the Titanic, expecting that things will turn out the way we believe they should. Yet since so many funerals pass our door, should we not be better prepared for our own? The wise man always considers what can happen and because we are injured most by what we do not expect we must expect everything to happen. Shades here of the latest thinking in post-traumatic stress disorder theory, which suggests that the attitude of those who cope best after trauma is not infused with personal resentment or frustration, but with acceptance and relief that they have survived and even prospered.

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