The Consolations of Philosophy
by Alain de Botton
Published by Pantheon
265 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Reviewed by Sienna Powers
Forgive the generalization if you can, but Americans have a particular and almost pathological aversion to anything that smacks of philosophy. Witness, for instance, the mysterious case of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter. In his native U.K., the first book featuring Harry was called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Oddly, when the book was published in the U.S. by Scholastic Press -- who you'd think would know better -- it was re-christened Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, as though -- perhaps -- a sorcerer might be more understandable and less threatening than a philosopher. It's hard to think about very much, really. The implications are too frightening.
Then into this medieval outlook on philosophy, drop Alain de Botton and his often humorous attempts to get the rest of us to understand that philosophy has a place in everyone's life. By no stretch is The Consolations of Philosophy anything approaching a Philosophy for Dummies. Rather, de Botton opts to delve into the teachings and writings of a half dozen noted philosophers and break his book into six sections: with the words and thoughts of an appropriate philosopher offering "consolations" on a particular psychic ailment. Thus, de Botton looks to Socrates for advice on Unpopularity in Part I. To Epicurus for Not Having Enough Money in Part II. Seneca's thoughts help us deal with Frustration in Part III and Montaigne helps with Inadequacy in Part IV. Arthur Schopenhauer offers consolations on a dealing with a Broken Heart in Part V and -- on the surface, at least, somewhat ironically -- Nietzsche's words offer Consolation for Difficulties.
The resulting work is a highly readable book that is, if anything, long overdue. That the words of these (in some cases ancient) men of wisdom might have relevance in the modern world has not occurred to a lot of people outside of particularly philosophically bent ivory towers. The Consolations of Philosophy seems aimed at those who enjoy the occasional self-help book. Enrichment through reading: put in the miles and reap the rewards. But here it is, with a twist. Rather than a New Age guru with bare feet and a house in Palm Springs, the wise men in question were offering their words to different places and at different times. And, as students and enthusiasts of philosophy discovered long ago, these ancient and revered words can have relevance even hundreds of years later. Proving, once again, that the measure of a human is not in his aftershave or her brand of nylons. The more things change, after all, the more they stay the same and humans will be humans will be humans: no matter if they inhabit Athens in 469 B.C. or New York City in the year 2000. There's something very reassuring in that.
Of course, none of this could be popularly understood without the ministrations of a truly splendid author and modern philosopher, and Alain de Botton serves here very well. The author of the very successful How Proust Can Change Your Life, de Botton is a director of the Graduate Philosophy Program at London University. He has a complete understanding of his subject and the warmth and wit to make us understand, as well. | June 2000
Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.