The Consolations of Philosophy: Reviews

Roger Scruton in the Mail on Sunday, 26 March 2000

The title of Alain de Botton’s ride through the clouds is taken from the Roman philosopher Boethius, whose Consolation of Philosophy – not mentioned by de Botton – was a best-seller throughout the Middle Ages, being translated into English by none less than Chaucer.

De Botton has also set out to write a best-seller in an age when books without stories or pictures are unlikely to make it to the top of the charts. His has therefore interspersed his narrative with pictures and personal anecdotes, and the dust-jacket tells us that the book has inspired a forthcoming series on TV.

As a telephobe, I was bound to be sceptical of the book’s camera’s eye view of its subject. After a while, however, de Botton’s engaging style and modest perspective began to work their charm and I floated past Olympus in his company, enjoying the astonishment on those stern old faces as the daring young man in his flying machine buzzed across their sight-path.

Not all philosophers have offered consolation. Hobbes told us the unpalatable truth about human nature (that without firm authority, our lives are ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’) and urged us to accept it and to act on it. Wittgenstein’s frugal diet of pleasure consisted largely in destroying whatever slender hopes he came across. Everyone who met him came away deeply disheartened by the impossible standards he set. Satre offered no refuge save freedom, defined in such a way that only left-wing Parisian intellectuals could enjoy it and only by wrecking other people’s lives.

De Botton, by contrast, is gentle, helpful and humane. He begins with Socrates, whose serene indifference to accepted opinions led in time to his trial and execution. Plato’s wonderfully understated account of Socrates’s death has moved many to tears, de Botton among them. But where is the consolation for the rest of us? De Botton thinks that we learn from Socrates how to live with being unpopular. Socrates had pointed out that majority opinion is one thing, truth another; majority opinion therefore voted to put Socrates to death. As de Botton suggests, there is a lesson here for all of us. It is not snobbery or contempt for mankind that leads us to believe some people have knowledge, while others have only opinions. The danger of democracy is that, by giving equal weight to all opinions, it threatens to marginalise those who know.

De Botton’s method throughout his book is to identify particular human troubles – unpopularity, lack of money, frustration, inadequacy, a broken heart, and something he calls ‘difficulties’ – and to show how particular philosophers have tried to overcome them through thinking. The result is not uniformly persuasive.

Schopenhauer’s ‘consolation’ for a broken heart, for example – to remember when we fall in love we are really being manipulated by the human species – looks more like sour grapes.

And as for Nietzsche – de Botton’s answer to ‘difficulties’ – I cannot help thinking that this profoundly unconsoled writer was in the business of denying consolation to his readers.

Still, the attempt to sift philosophers for their answers is refreshing. Too often the student of philosophy is introduced to the subject as though it contained only questions. If that is so, then it is hard to believe philosophy really matters.

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