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A Summary of the Summaries
on September 18, 2016
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 if we only have faith and employ a bit of self-help, these are the consolations of philosophy. Easy consolations are cruel lies as Nietzsche tells us. Philosophy provides understanding, not consolation, but the greatest consolation comes from understanding.
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. It is my modest hope that this abbreviated summary will help increase the appetite for philosophy.
Unpopularity – Look to Socrates and understand that your unpopular 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. 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!
Frustration – 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.
Inadequacy – 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 that 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.
Broken Heart – 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.
Difficulties – 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.