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The Consolations of Philosophy Paperback – April 3, 2001
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Solace for the broken heart can be found in the words of Schopenhauer. The ancient Greek Epicurus has the wisest, and most affordable, solution to cash flow problems. A remedy for impotence lies in Montaigne. Seneca offers advice upon losing a job. And Nietzsche has shrewd counsel for everything from loneliness to illness. The Consolations of Philosophy is a book as accessibly erudite as it is useful and entertaining.
- Publisher : Vintage; Reprint edition (April 3, 2001)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 272 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0679779175
- ISBN-13 : 978-0679779179
- Item Weight : 8.8 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.14 x 0.56 x 8 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #32,670 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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These are not the easy consolations of religion or psychology, telling us that everything will work out in the end or that we can be cured of our anxieties, these are the consolations of philosophy. Easy consolations are cruel lies as Nietzsche tells us. Philosophy as consolation certainly has a much more inclusive and embracing sense in that it suggests reflecting about one’s experience of existence as opposed to the more technical narrow meaning that philosophy has acquired over the recent century. This I think is unfortunate. For to reflect is to think and in this thinking we encounter a broader understanding of our experience of existence. Philosophy, at its best, provides resources for thinking about living.
What I present here is a quick summary of the consolations offered. I cannot do the chapters written by Alain de Botton justice with these short summaries, please read the book. The book itself cannot do justice to the philosophers selected, please read the philosophers. Each has much more to offer, far beyond the simple consolations outlined in this book, but this book is a readable and easily accessible introduction.
The subject matter of philosophy is drawn from the real life problems faced by real people confronted by reality. As such, Alain de Button follows the example of Socrates in trying to make philosophy accessible to anyone with a taste for it and Boethius in showing us that philosophy can bring us to a higher understating of existence by providing us with the mental equipment needed for a more rigorous contemplation of the our experience of existence. It is my modest hope that this abbreviated summary will help increase the appetite for philosophy.
Look to Socrates and understand that your unpopularity is simply a majority or plurality opinion and that very often majority opinions are irrational. Most popular opinions about life and reality are based upon misunderstandings, ignorance and mistakes anyway. Take comfort and treat such easy popular opinions and conventional wisdom with the skepticism that they deserve. Popular opinion is often as mistaken as it is held to be certain and common sense is too common to be of any value. We have the right, and the duty, to question all popular opinions, especially opinions about our worth. Living without thinking is popular, but you think, therefor you are unpopular- take consolation.
Not Having Enough Money:
Look to Epicurus and understand that wealth cannot buy happiness. Pursuit of wealth, power and fame is a fool’s errand. The fool mistakes the acquisition of wealth for the things in this very short life that do have value such as friendship, thoughtfulness and freedom from exaggerated desire. You do not have enough money? How much money is enough? There is a diminishing marginal utility to wealth not found in friendship and thoughtfulness. The exterior trapping of great personal wealth are the things that impress only the most common of people. Take consolation, you have not contracted the plague of endless desire, not everything desired is desirable anyway. You are not owned by material things, rejoice, you are the healthy one! Or, from the original author of ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’, Boethius himself: Wealth cannot alleviate desire, quite the contrary, it only creates new desires so why should we chase after it in the hopes that it will provide satisfaction to our desires?
Look to Seneca and understand that frustration is the product of your unrealistic and overly optimistic expectations. Temper your expectations and you will reduce your frustration level. We take great comfort in anticipation only to find that anticipation lies. A belief that everything will go well or as planned is the surest road to frustration. The cruel evil empress of the world herself, Fortune, intervenes in our lives too often. We should meditate on death and disaster daily to temper unrealistic hopes, anticipations and expectations and thus avoid metaphysical shocks. Always anticipate the worst and you find consolation in that things are not that bad after all.
Look to Montaigne and understand that those who find you to be inadequate or weird cannot see beyond their own limited experience of existence. What is accepted as ‘normal’ leaves out more of the human experience than it includes. The world is more peculiar than the ‘adequate’ and ‘normal’ people can see. The dichotomy between normal and abnormal, adequate and inadequate is a false one. I will quote from the Roman playwright Terence who once said: “I am human, nothing of that which is human is alien to me.” So the next time you meet or hear about a trans-gendered person, cut them a break, their experience of life is just a human as yours. Take consolation, error stalks all narrowly conceived human judgments, there is more to you than the judgment of another person can do justice. Certainty is the hobgoblin of small minds.
Look to Schopenhauer and take consolation in never having found the perfect spouse, there is no such thing. The best that can be hoped for is mutual toleration and at its worst, the spouses become the object of disgust to each other. We should not be surprised by misery. Happiness was never part of nature’s plan; just reproduction of suitable offspring. All of this bother about romantic love is nothing more than the path to fulfill the command of nature to reproduce. Your broken heart is just a symptom of the reproductive impulse being frustrated. Be consoled, your broken heart is result of a love interest that itself is the result of a misjudgment as what would make you ‘happy’. Be glad that your misjudgment was terminated, thank the one who rejected you and be wiser in the next encounter if this is possible.
Look to Nietzsche and find that difficulty, mastering difficulty, is the source of fulfillment. Difficulties are thus a source of joy. Our greatest pain is thus juxtaposed with our greatest joy. Rejoice in your difficulties, your growth is impossible without them. We all know the Neitzschean aphorism, “…what does not kill me makes me stronger”. Without pain to move us, we will languish in mediocrity. We will suffer in the course of overcoming difficulty and this is necessary as well as unavoidable and even desirable. Find in your difficulties great consolation, the mistake is to believe that success is possible without difficulty. Every adversity is thus an opportunity for growth if we do not waste it. Difficulty is the path to acquiring greatness. In Nietzschean terms, adversity is the necessary root for the flower of triumph. The consolation is that often a desirable result must start with an undesirable beginning. The road to fulfillment is not an easy one. The desire to abolish difficulty is as stupid as the desire to abolish bad weather.
In these consolations, we are called to think very carefully about what matters and how to act into the world of our experience and avoid imprisoning ourselves in false ideas, six of which are listed here. Consolation thus brings liberation when we gain the ability to see things as they are without false valuations.
The only philosopher whose works I had read previous to reading "Consolations of Philosophy" was Nietzsche, a writer whose books ("Birth of Tragedy", "The Case of Wagner", "Twilight of the Idols" and "Also Sprach Zarathustra"; the latter being the most memorable) I've found to be simultaneously inspiring, mystifying, and incomprehensible. I attempted to read Schopenhauer a few years ago but it didn't hold my interest. Since completing this work by de Botton, I also tried to read "Selected Essays" by Michel de Montaigne (Dover Thrift Editions, 2011). But I had trouble connecting with Montaigne as well.
What I ultimately found to be one of the most important and moving aspects of "Consolations of Philosophy" was the fact that Nietzsche, in spite of his hardships and loneliness -- Did not allow his vision to be influenced by pessimism (this notion being stressed by de Botton in this book). Although the life of Nietzsche seems to have been cursed; to have been deprived of happiness -- Deep down he must have known that he alone was responsible for his state of being (as conversely, he advised men "to live dangerously").
Stephen C. Bird
Author, "To Be to Is to Was"
Top reviews from other countries
Plus, references to Philosophy are amazing.. I'm a Philosophy student who studies the theories of philosophers but this brings you into their weird lives and personal characters, into their weird failures and misfortunes, into their thoughts and their little revolutions.
It also made me realize that Schopenhauer, the founder of pessimist philosophy, is literally me... made me seriously consider whether I am a reincarnation of him. xD
"Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius, commonly called Boethius, was a Roman senator, consul, magister officiorum, and philosopher of the early 6th century. He wrote The Consolation of Philosophy in AD 523 during a one-year imprisonment he served while awaiting trial – and eventual execution – for the alleged crime of treason under the OstrogothicKing Theodoric the Great. Boethius was at the very heights of power in Rome and was brought down by treachery. This experience inspired the book which reflects on how evil can exist in a world governed by God, and how happiness is still attainable amidst fickle fortune, while also considering the nature of happiness and God. It has been described as "by far the most interesting example of prison literature the world has ever seen."
De Botton’s book is organised into 6 sections as shown below, each with a "guiding philosopher" and their views quoted extensively in terms of advice in overcoming the specific demise or problem.
Not having enough money (Epicurus)
A broken heart (Schopenhauer)
The section I enjoyed most was "frustration" with Seneca as my guide to overcome my own personal frustrations. Of course Seneca hadn’t anticipated the problems of an ordinary bloke utterly frustrated with all things concerning Brexit, but despite what 48% of the British population would say, I DO have enough intelligence to apply Seneca’s logic to the current situation!
Let’s start with Seneca’s definition of frustration:
"Though the terrain of frustration may be vast –from a stubbed toe to an untimely death ......... –at the heart of every frustration lies a basic structure: the collision of a wish with an unyielding reality."
Seneca’s collisions are frustrations arising from Anger, Shock, Injustice, Anxiety and Mockery, quite a list that seems spot-on regarding modern day politics. I don’t want
to give too much away about overcoming said frustrations, but this is an excellent
book to understand a range of philosophers interpreting a range of human problems in an ancient and modern setting. But to round off with Seneca:
"We may be powerless to alter certain events, but we remain free to choose our
attitude towards them, and it is in our spontaneous acceptance of necessity that we
find our distinctive freedom." It seems to me however that the words "free" and "freedom" and their practical meaning are being rapidly eroded across the western world and that will surely lead to an extreme version of frustration.
It has a diverse plethora or useful and mentally satisfying ideas, and is a fantastic introduction to these philosophers.
My reading list has quadrupled as I've been inspired to read some of the original philosopher's works, Montaigne's Complete Essays n particular.