The Consolations of Philosophy

Humphrey Carpenter in The Sunday Times, 2 April 2000

“There are more books on books than on any other subject: all we do is gloss each other. All is a-swarm with commentaries: of authors there is a dearth.” So wrote the essayist Montaigne in the late 16th century, and, at first glance, Alain de Botton’s new book seems to run a risk by quoting this remark in its chapter on Montaigne, since the book itself exemplifies this trend, which has continued unabated since Montaigne’s day.

The Consolations of Philosophy is certainly a commentary rather than a work of original thought; but few discussions on the great philosophers can have been so entertaining. De Botton takes us on a brisk, playful tour of the lives and ideas of half-a-dozen of the big names in the history of philosophy, done in the manner of his celebrated How Proust Can Change Your Life.

Short, often whimsical passages of prose are punctuated with little pictures dotted around the text. As in the Proust book, these have occasionally been chosen with irritating facetiousness – for example, the passing mention of chocolate milk gives rise to a photograph of a packet of NesQuik. Yet most are thoroughly justifiable. The pictures of Schopenhauer sunk in a typical angry gloom and of Nietzsche sporting a ridiculous moustache like a hearth-brush superbly complement de Botton’s verbal portraits of these two restless thinkers. Even better, the weeping Adam and Eve from Masaccio’s fresco of the Expulsion from Eden provides an eloquent visual climax to the excellent chapter about Schopenhauer’s analysis of misery.

De Botton’s title alludes, unacknowledged, to the De Consolatione Philosophiae of the 6th-century philosopher Boethius, but de Botton uses “consolation” in an entirely modern sense. His tour begins with a chapter called Consolation for Unpopularity, which is about Socrates. The title and its subject-matter don’t really mesh here, since Socrates didn’t care two figs that he was unpopular with the Athenian rabble, who had him sentenced to death because they blamed him for the city’s misfortunes. Moreover de Botton’s exposition of the Socratic method (philosophy by question-and-answer) doesn’t improve on, or add to, Plato’s readable accounts of his old teacher. How could it?

In contrast, the Greek philosopher Epicurus gets a witty chapter with a fresh feel, entitled Consolation for Not Having Enough Money. De Botton begins it by listing the constituent parts of his imaginary ideal lifestyle but, as it progresses, the chapter shows us that Epicurus, supposedly the high priest of hedonism, actually preferred water to wine, bread and cheese to fancy cooking, and the company of friends to limitless wealth. Consequently, de Botton (aided by appropriate illustrations) revises his list to a few simple needs, of which the most important is friendship.

The chapter Consolation for Frustration unpacks the stoicism of Seneca, who (among other things) warns us against getting into rages with inanimate objects. De Botton might have cited John Cleese in Fawlty Towers beating his car with a tree-branch when it won’t start. Instead he retells the legend of Cyrus, king of Persia, who was so furious with the river which had drowned his favourite horse that he wasted military time by ordering his army to punish it by dividing it into 360 feeble little channels.

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