The Consolations of Philosophy

George Brock in The Times (Metro), 8-14 April 2000

For an egghead, Alain de Botton suddenly finds himself a hot property. He’s just made a Channel 4 television series on philosophy; he popped up the other day in a recent BBC documentary on Proust. In that delicious new coining, our small, perfectly informed pundit is tubiquitous.

Cerebral celebrity is sexy. While I was reading this book, no fewer than three of my female colleagues eagerly asked whether I was enjoying it. One confessed that she had wanted to review it herself; works of philosophy are not usually the source of this kind of rivalry.

De Botton has achieved this level of chic with a book which starts with Socrates and finishes with Nietzsche, taking in Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne and Schopenhauer in between. He selected this eclectic assortment by looking for sages whose work was designed not only to seek truth, but also to console. His lightning raid on their thoughts and writing is personal, deft, witty, selective and cheeky. Academic philosophers will hate it.

I can honestly say that it is the only account of philosophical thought I have ever enjoyed reading. Whether glancing at Seneca’s theory of earthquakes (colossal geological flatulence), Montaigne on detumescence or Lucretius and Epicurus on the importance of advertising, de Botton laces the learning with gentle jokes, helpful parallels between ancient Rome and the 21st century and a refreshing faith that open-minded common sense is all you need to dig something helpful out of these dense and dusty texts.

Readers may not be consoled by Nietzsche’s theory of fulfilment through endurance, but they will grasp it, partly because they are kept amused in this version by the poor philosopher’s struggle to find a wife.

Large ideas are squeezed into a small number of sentences. A short, lucid exposition of a heavyweight philosopher is hard enough; accessible humour is more difficult still. De Botton’s pastiche exam paper in Montaignean wisdom reveals the intuition of a natural teacher.

The book’s glaring defect lies in the traces of the television programmes which inspired it. Neither author nor publisher could quite bear to part company with the visual wheezes they had dreamt up to illustrate abstractions.

The chapter on Socrates opens with a picture of the philosopher’s death, followed rapidly by a picture of a glass of Nesquik. The former image tells you more than the latter. De Botton finds a goat near Montaigne’s house, observes its contentment, and lumbers awkwardly into an account of the French philosopher’s reflection on the advantages of living as an animal rather than as a human. It is one thing to gaze on Nietzsche’s luxuriant moustache; to break a sentence about café chat with a picture of the same adds nothing.

De Botton does not neglect the consolation of laughter. Among the gems is a quickfire biography of the comically disgruntled, poodle-loving Schopenhauer. The Frankfurt philosopher would apparently tell people, when he could bring himself to speak to them at all, that he was superior to other people – superior to, as he put it, “the common biped”.

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