The Consolations of Philosophy

Ben Rogers in The Sunday Telegraph, 2 April 2000

Nietzsche believed, according to Alain de Botton, that artists are not so much born but self-made. It is by learning from their failures that great writers and painters are formed. One living counter-instance of this theory is surely de Botton himself, just 30 years old, with four effortlessly charming books behind him and a style to die for. Now he has added a fifth book to the collection and it turns out, if anything, to be better than the rest.

The recipe for the book seems simple enough. Take six philosophers and describe, in an easy and accessible manner, using any photographs, stories or personal experiences that come to hand, one or two lessons that each philosopher could teach us.

So de Botton explains, for example, why Socrates thought we should follow reason rather than fashion, Seneca that we should learn to accept life’s afflictions, and Schopenhauer that we should not expect too much from love.

Recipes, however, can be deceptive. The dish is harder to prepare than it looks. For one thing, de Botton’s seemingly light little sketches rest on a deep bedrock of learning. None of the philosophers whom he explores, with the exception of Socrates, are to any degree mainstream, at least in this country (on the Continent the case is a bit different). Unsystematic, impressionistic, speculative, literary … many analytical philosophers would hardly recognise them as philosophers at all.

Yet these thinkers have profound things to say; we can learn from them still. They all saw philosophy not as a remote and abstract discipline removed from ordinary concerns, but as a vital inquiry into everyday problems. Noting that men are almost everywhere irrational and wretched, they sought to map out the path to wisdom and happiness. And they wrote (or in Socrates’ case spoke) so as to be understood.

Each of these thinkers, indeed, was a supreme stylist. They dealt typically in the sort of social observations we more readily associate with novelists and painters – they hated all forms of sophistry, pedantry or obscurantism. They were ironic, sceptical, tolerant, profound and wise. The classical ones among them – Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca – once formed part of the furniture of every educated mind.

De Botton has done a great service in reminding us of their existence. But singling these thinkers out and grouping them together is only the smaller part of de Botton’s achievement. He has also succeeded in bringing each one to life. The lessons that he draws from his sages might, in other hands, have appeared trite. But he writes with such charm and freshness that he somehow avoids the pitfall.

True, some of the many photographs and illustrations that punctuate the text feel a little contrived – they have the whiff of the picture library about them. But de Botton clearly loves these authors and writes about them with feeling and insight. His treatment is delightfully idiosyncratic, brimming in witty modern-day parables, self-deprecating autobiographical reflections, surprising turns of argument and unexpected connections. He artfully side-steps the academic controversies that inevitably surround his subjects and charitably overlooks some of their less attractive characteristics, such as Schopenhauer’s misogyny or Nietzsche’s undemocratic contempt for the crowd.

Comments are closed.