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The Boston Phoenix Some Consolation

Alain de Botton's Philosophy 101

By Michael Joseph Grossa

JULY 24, 2000: 

The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton (Pantheon), 244 pages, $22.95

On the first page of the first chapter of The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton describes a desultory moment in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art: "Having reached a surfeit of paintings in the Impressionist galleries, I was looking for a sign for the cafeteria -- where I hoped to buy a glass of a certain variety of American chocolate milk of which I was at that time extremely fond."

What comes between Alain and his NesQuik is Jacques-Louis David's 1786 painting The Death of Socrates. (Images of both the chocolate milk and the David appear on succeeding pages; and throughout this book, the many well-chosen illustrations -- e.g., a goat, a lamprey, a mountain -- elicit both giggling and insight.) The painting prompts de Botton to reflect on the trial in which Socrates was convicted "of failing to worship the city's gods, of introducing religious novelties and of corrupting the young men of Athens" and was sentenced to death. De Botton envies the philosopher's refusal to renounce his philosophy -- an independence of mind that contrasts with his own disposition toward servility. With strangers, the author says, he often displays "salival enthusiasm born of a morbid, indiscriminate desire for affection." So he resolves to accept Socrates's exemplary invitation to "intelligent skepticism." He will do so by turning to a small group of philosophers "bound by a common interest in saying a few consoling and practical things about the causes of our greatest griefs."

De Botton is both droll and earnest -- it's the voice of a man who wears starched collars but has messy hair. His novel The Romantic Movement used the language of self-help to look at how romance challenges a lover's sense of reality; his brilliant nonfiction book How Proust Can Change Your Life mingled self-help with literary criticism and biography. The Consolations of Philosophy grafts self-help onto yet one more genre -- the academic primer.

Some readers may conclude that with this book (named after Boethius's sixth-century text) de Botton's ambition has gotten the better of him. In chapters of roughly 40 pages each, he summarizes the thought of Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, distilling each philosopher's career into a few aphoristic lessons that offer consolation for, respectively, "Unpopularity," "Not Having Enough Money," "Frustration," "Inadequacy," "A Broken Heart," and "Difficulties." But Socrates offers more than just "help in overcoming our meekness" and the common-sense imperative that one should logically examine one's beliefs. And when de Botton asserts that "Montaigne outlined a new kind of philosophy, one which acknowledged how far we were from the rational, serene creatures whom most of the ancient thinkers had taken us to be" and that he gave unprecedented attention to the human body and to everyday material things (like melons and radishes), you might find yourself asking whether Aristotle didn't make similar observations a couple millennia earlier.

It would be easier to overlook this sort of oversimplification if de Botton weren't a director of the graduate philosophy program at London University. The Consolations of Philosophy's simple, witty, trustworthy sentences reminded me of another popularizing work, C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity. I cringe when I meet people who accept Lewis's simplistic theology as gospel truth; yet I know many people whose mature, sophisticated, and gracious faiths it first ignited. The Consolations of Philosophy will surely have the same diverse effects on would-be philosophers. In describing Montaigne's heavily allusive style, de Botton identifies one important aspect of the ideal relationship between a book and its reader. "What is shy and confused in us is succinctly and elegantly phrased in them, our pencil lines and annotations in the margins of their books and our borrowings from them indicating where we find a piece of ourselves, a sentence or two built of the very substance of which our own minds are made." Certainly self-help books work this way. So does The Consolations of Philosophy, offering myriad answers to readers who come asking, "What's in it for me?"

Like a good 101 professor, de Botton indulges that question, milks it for laughs, and then presses lightly toward parsing the ethical and political dimensions of his readers' self-interest. Discussing Seneca's writings on irrational anger and frustration, he suggests, "There is an easy way to measure our inner levels of abjectness and friendliness to ourselves: we should examine how well we respond to noise." Despite its shortcomings, The Consolations of Philosophy satisfies our self-interest in order to ease our ignorance and isolation.

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