Friday, May 31, 2013

The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

A helpful primer for the philosophically challenged
In The Consolations of Philosophy, published in 2000, Swiss-British thinker Alain de Botton examines the ways in which teachings from the canon of Western philosophy can be used to combat, or at least alleviate, the problems and worries of 21st-century life. The book is broken down into six chapters, each devoted to a specific worry—unpopularity, financial distress, frustration, inadequacy, romantic woes, and a catch-all chapter on life’s difficulties in general. As consolation for these ills, de Botton prescribes the teachings of Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, respectively. De Botton provides a brief biography of each philosopher, describing the hardships faced by each in his own life, how these personal difficulties influenced the development of their individual philosophies, and how the reader of today can benefit from those same philosophical ideas by applying them to their own problems. Along the way, de Botton gives pithy encapsulations of the thought of these six illustrious thinkers, liberally sprinkled with quotes from their work. He does a very admirable job of summarizing these big ideas in clear and simple language, devoid of philosophical jargon, that is not only accessible but also entertaining to the general reader.

For those uninitiated into the reading of philosophy and perhaps even intimidated by it, this book would make a great introduction to the subject and a persuasive argument for the relevance of philosophy to daily life. The problem, of course, is how do you get those unfamiliar with philosophy to read this book in the first place. If you’re the type of reader who’s willing to tackle a book with the word Philosophy in the title, and you’ve even heard of Alain de Botton, then you probably already have an interest in the field, in which case you will most likely find that this book inspires a profound “Duh.” Those who already appreciate the teachings of the worthy philosophers chosen for inclusion will make few new discoveries here. De Botton’s lively and engaging prose and knack for selecting interesting biographical anecdotes rescues this book from becoming another Philosophy for Dummies, yet it still amounts to little more than a secular Chicken Soup for the Soul. For those who are already well aware of the consolations of philosophy, it serves much the same function as a book of well-chosen quotations or aphorisms, in that some pleasant comfort is derived from reviewing the main thrust of these philosophers’ teachings as de Botton has rendered them in a nutshell.

De Botton is to be commended for attempting to popularize philosophy and remind us all of the relevance of philosophical inquiry to our daily lives. This book reads like a preface to a larger body of work devoted to this mission, hopefully to be followed up by more penetrating works on specific issues. His 2012 book Religion for Atheists, for example, is a more intellectually challenging and originally argued book that presents a more focused argument for the relevance of philosophy. The Consolations of Philosophy is far more simplistic, but if it finds its proper audience it will prove a rewarding and enlightening read.

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