The Consolations of Philosophy

The Consolations of Philosophy

by Alain de Botton

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679779179
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/10/2001
Series: Vintage International Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 118,212
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.52(d)

About the Author

Alain de Botton is the author of On Love, The Romantic Movement, Kiss and Tell, and How Proust Can Change Your Life (available in paperback from Vintage Books). His work has been translated into twenty languages. He lives in Washington, D.C., and London, where he is a director of the Graduate Philosophy Program at London University.

Read an Excerpt

Consolations for Unpopularity
1

A few years ago, during a bitter New York winter, with an afternoon to spare before catching a flight to London, I found myself in a deserted gallery on the upper level of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was brightly lit, and aside from the soothing hum of an under-floor heating system, entirely silent. 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 -- when my eye was caught by a canvas which a caption explained had been painted in Paris in the autumn of 1786 by the thirty-eight-year-old Jacques-Louis David.

Socrates, condemned to death by the people of Athens, prepares to drink a cup of hemlock, surrounded by woebegone friends. In the spring of 399 BC, three Athenian citizens had brought legal proceedings against the philosopher. They had accused him of failing to worship the city's gods, of introducing religious novelties and of corrupting the young men of Athens -- and such was the severity of their charges, they had called for the death penalty.

Socrates had responded with legendary equanimity. Though afforded an opportunity to renounce his philosophy in court, he had sided with what he believed to be true rather than what he knew would be popular. In Plato's account he had defiantly told the jury:
So long as I draw breath and have my faculties, I shall never stop practising philosophy and exhorting you and elucidating the truth for everyone that I meet . . . And so gentlemen . . . whether you acquit me or not, you know that I am not going to alter my conduct, not even if I have to die a hundred deaths. And so he had been led to meet his end in an Athenian jail, his death marking a defining moment in the history of philosophy.

An indication of its significance may be the frequency with which it has been painted. In 1650 the French painter Charles-Alphonse Dufresnoy produced a Death of Socrates, now hanging in the Galleria Palatina in Florence (which has no cafeteria).



The eighteenth century witnessed the zenith of interest in Socrates' death, particularly after Diderot drew attention to its painterly potential in a passage in his Treatise on Dramatic Poetry.

Jacques-Louis David received his commission in the spring of 1786 from Charles-Michel Trudaine de la Sablière, a wealthy member of the Parlement and a gifted Greek scholar. The terms were generous, 6,000 livres upfront, with a further 3,000 on delivery (Louis XVI had paid only 6,000 livres for the larger Oath of the Horatii). When the picture was exhibited at the Salon of 1787, it was at once judged the finest of the Socratic ends. Sir Joshua Reynolds thought it 'the most exquisite and admirable effort of art which has appeared since the Cappella Sistina, and the Stanze of Raphael. The picture would have done honour to Athens in the age of Pericles.'

I bought five postcard Davids in the museum gift-shop and later, flying over the ice fields of Newfoundland (turned a luminous green by a full moon and a cloudless sky), examined one while picking at a pale evening meal left on the table in front of me by a stewardess during a misjudged snooze.

Plato sits at the foot of the bed, a pen and a scroll beside him, silent witness to the injustice of the state. He had been twenty-nine at the time of Socrates' death, but David turned him into an old man, grey-haired and grave. Through the passageway, Socrates' wife, Xanthippe, is escorted from the prison cell by warders. Seven friends are in various stages of lamentation. Socrates' closest companion Crito, seated beside him, gazes at the master with devotion and concern. But the philosopher, bolt upright, with an athlete's torso and biceps, shows neither apprehension nor regret. That a large number of Athenians have denounced him as foolish has not shaken him in his convictions. David had planned to paint Socrates in the act of swallowing poison, but the poet André Chenier suggested that there would be greater dramatic tension if he was shown finishing a philosophical point while at the same time reaching serenely for the hemlock that would end his life, symbolizing both obedience to the laws of Athens and allegiance to his calling. We are witnessing the last edifying moments of a transcendent being.





If the postcard struck me so forcefully, it was perhaps because the behaviour it depicted contrasted so sharply with my own. In conversations, my priority was to be liked, rather than to speak the truth. A desire to please led me to laugh at modest jokes like a parent on the opening night of a school play. With strangers, I adopted the servile manner of a concierge greeting wealthy clients in a hotel -- salival enthusiasm born of a morbid, indiscriminate desire for affection. I did not publicly doubt ideas to which the majority was committed. I sought the approval of figures of authority and after encounters with them, worried at length whether they had thought me acceptable. When passing through customs or driving alongside police cars, I harboured a confused wish for the uniformed offcials to think well of me.

But the philosopher had not buckled before unpopularity and the condemnation of the state. He had not retracted his thoughts because others had complained. Moreover, his confidence had sprung from a more profound source than hot-headedness or bull-like courage. It had been grounded in philosophy. Philosophy had supplied Socrates with convictions in which he had been able to have rational, as opposed to hysterical, confidence when faced with disapproval.

That night, above the ice lands, such independence of mind was a revelation and an incitement. It promised a counterweight to a supine tendency to follow socially sanctioned practices and ideas. In Socrates' life and death lay an invitation to intelligent scepticism.

And more generally, the subject of which the Greek philosopher was the supreme symbol seemed to offer an invitation to take on a task at once profound and laughable: to become wise through philosophy. In spite of the vast differences between the many thinkers described as philosophers across time (people in actuality so diverse that had they been gathered together at a giant cocktail party, they would not only have had nothing to say to one another, but would most probably have come to blows after a few drinks), it seemed possible to discern a small group of men, separated by centuries, sharing a loose allegiance to a vision of philosophy suggested by the Greek etymology of the word -- philo, love; sophia, wisdom -- a group bound by a common interest in saying a few consoling and practical things about the causes of our greatest griefs. It was to these men I would turn.

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“Wonderfully original, quirky.... De Botton finds inspiration where others might fail to look.”–Newsday

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Consolations of Philosophy 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
De Botton has taken philosophy back to what many people rightly consider is its finest task - to help us to live. Unfortunately, most philosophers in American universities fill their time teaching their students the dullest subjects imaginable. It's no surprise that, to most people, philosophy has now become synomymous with boredom and irrelevance. That's what makes de Botton's book so unusual and so brilliant. That said, a few gurus have tried to draw wisdom from the sages and have failed singularly - but de Botton knows what to pick and how to integrate it into a gripping narrative. he comes across as wise and learned at the same time. This book will, I think, one day be recognised as a serious classic in its genre.
Joe-NewYork More than 1 year ago
Alain De Botton's book "The Consolation of Philosophy" is excellent. It is easy to read because of De Botton's lucid style, droll sense of humor and useful illustrations. But his gifts as a writer should not be underestimated. He takes the great philosophers, who are often difficult to understand, and brings them to life. For example, his chapter on frustration and the philosopher Seneca is brilliant. What's more, De Botton's work is not only edifying; it is humanizing. So, the book is inspiring as well as informative. In a theological setting, his combination of humor, substance and style, is similar to Steven Ogden's book "I Met God in Bermuda: Faith in the 21st Century". De Botton's work is a great read.
worldsedge on LibraryThing 10 months ago
As surveys go, quite good. Botton obviously dumbed down some of the material to make it easier for a general audience to understand, but it was neither patronizing nor gave the appearance that it was written for children.It would be interesting to know why he chose the philosophers he did and not others, but on balance this was quite well. Especially like the sections on Montaigne and Schopenauer.
Martin444 on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Really explains the insights of various philosophers in various areas well and presents them as ways to deal with real life trials. In so doing he shows how practical philosophy (which I always regarded as a very dry topic until I read this) can actually be. He also links the various Western philosophers that he examines well showing how there has been progress in philosophical thought.
BenDV on LibraryThing 10 months ago
I received this as a gift when leaving school from a teacher I'd really got along with. He knew I was intending to do philosophy at uni, hence the choice of book. Not only was it a nice gesture, the book turned out to be a hell of good read too. What de Botton does with this book is take the thoughts of six different philosophers and show some of their writings can provide consolation for six different sorts of problems that most people deal with in their day-to-day lives- Socrates for unpopularity, Epicurus for not having enough money, Seneca for frustration (anger, sense of injustice etc), Montaigne for inadequacies, Schopenhauer for a broken heart, and Nietzsche for difficulties (tragedies etc). I read a few reviews of this book beforehand and found that, while popular with the general public, de Botton's book was criticised by philosophers for trivialising philosophy and giving the public the wrong impression as to what philosophy is. So I made sure not to let the book give me the impression when I went to uni that philosophy could solve all my personal problems. Having now done some proper philosophy, I can confirm that. This is more like self-help done by philosophers than philosophy. But it seems we should try to do more of that, because it turns out to be damn good self-help. The Consolations of Philosophy is just a fantastic, fascinating and highly useful read. The histories of these six philosophers were very interesting to me, so those alone would have made the book valuable, but even better were the ideas and consolations de Botton extrapolated from the works of these thinkers. They were in some cases, quite exciting and liberating thoughts for me, with my various anxieties. I'd point out which ones I loved most, but quite simply I loved it all with the exception of the chapter on Schopenhauer, whose philosophy, or the portrayals of his philosophy that I have read, I have come across a couple of times now and both times found that I disagree with it strongly. But even then it was highly interesting. So even if The Consolations of Philosophy is just self-help, I found it to be an incredibly fun, inspiring and absorbing read. I'm not sure if I'll read any of de Botton's other stuff, but I certainly don't regret reading this.
zen_923 on LibraryThing 10 months ago
This is a well-written quick read. Gives you basic information on the philosophy of men like Nietzsche, Epicurus and Schopenhauer
Cecilturtle on LibraryThing 10 months ago
This series of essays focuses on six philosophers and six themes. Botton guides the reader through antiquity and the Romantics by giving context, biographical notes and finally a summary of each philosopher's ideas. The essays, because they touch on history, civilization and ultimately philosophy can seem a bit disjointed. However, Botton is able to build on each philosopher's ideas, and his humour, mix of modern and historical examples, illustrations (albeit sometimes fuzzy) and synthesis give an excellent overview of certain aspects of his chosen philosopher's notions. Great for neophytes but very basic.
manque on LibraryThing 10 months ago
This book is highly readable, yet never simple-minded or patronizing to the reader. Alain de Botton succeeds in bringing to life the most important concepts of some of the most important Western philosophers, relating them in a very effective manner to the everyday trials and tribulations any human being might experience.The reviewer who had "trouble" with this approach seems to have missed the point, and to have misunderstood the Socrates section in particular. (Alain de Botton is not suggesting we be consoled by the thought that future generations will think us right; he suggests that if we have reasoned out our position and find it correct by method of such reason, we should not be troubled if that position is unpopular. This is the example Socrates provided, and also what de Botton relates.)This book will turn you on to Montaigne, to philosophy, and to the possibilities of learning in general. The humor that runs throughout the book makes reading it a pleasure, as well as a worthwhile endeavor.
LynleyS on LibraryThing 10 months ago
De Botton does a good job of taking philosophical ideas from other times and translating them for modern plebs like me. Like Status Anxiety, reading this book and thinking about the ideas may help you feel happier with your lot in life... hence 'consolations'. As usual, there are many lines in here that I'd like to stuff into my head word for word and bring out as quotations at appropriate times. Alain de Botton is one of the most quotable authors I can think of, even if his observations are paraphrases of others more verbose.The structure of the book is a little odd, with quirky examples and side-notes. Then it ends abruptly. Still, quirky is good. Anyone wanting something heavier is pointed in the right direction, and can go read the original texts if interested. As for me, I'll stick to the pop philosophy.
joshberg on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Though not as successful as his quirky and insightful The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy is similarly appealing in its friendly, straightforward presentation of abstract thought. Here, the author tries to demonstrate how six major-league philosophers--Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche--teach us how to cope with life's difficulties. While the book makes for a fine introduction to these men's lives and thoughts, it falls short of offering any breathtaking wisdom. Nevertheless, it's stylishly written and, at least, marginally consoling.
brett_in_nyc on LibraryThing 10 months ago
This is good. I like Alain, he is fortunate to have had a very rarefied life to write books like this one and his many more. I always say we in the modern west (e.g. New York) are so miserable with ourselves and our lives despite the classics. If we only paid attention to those ancient stories of the pain and suffering of countless billions who have gone before us, we wouldn't think ourselves to be so misunderstood and suffering above all worse than anyone ever else. The same is true for Philosophers, but our national narrative would rather we pay for expensive pharmaceuticals and therapy sessions than read books that are now free in the public domain to enlighten and empower us. Anyway, this book is a great short introduction to the major ideas of the enlightenment philosophers that are reflected ad infinitum in our world at large (even if we don't know that).Have fun with this and Alain's other book about Proust!
fillechaude on LibraryThing 10 months ago
This was a fantastic introduction to the world of philosophy. The author took six great philosophers and laid them out in a way that is easy to relate to. I now plan on reading a few more books on the subject!
AndresF on LibraryThing 10 months ago
A review of some of the greatest minds through history. Borrowing some of their inspiration to address some of the issues that troubles our minds and causes us anxiety.Don't know any other book from the author, but if they are as near as good as this one I'm sure to look for them. This book got some cyclopean minds on, that on other texts wouldn't be as near as accessible as they are in this book.One of my favorite bits from Seneca, one of the philosophers from the book: "wisdom lies in correctly discerning where we are free to mold reality according to our wishes and where we must accept the unalterable with tranquility"
neurodrew on LibraryThing 10 months ago
This book affected me in a curious way. I was previously familiar with Stoic philosophy, but reading a bit more about Seneca and Epicurus seemed to result in a new satisfaction with my current situation. This is a relatively lightweight philosophy discussion, with many cute photographs, and organized around problems of life, with a philosopher to match. Socrates with consolation for unpopularity, Epicurus for not having money, Seneca for frustration, Montaigne with advice on inadequacy. Most curious was Schopenhauer on a broken heart, since he had a unique view of romantic love as being driven by the biological necessity of finding the correct mate. Nietzsche appeared as counsel for difficulties. The keyword for this book is "philosophical counseling" and it appears to be in reference to the new idea of engaging a philosopher for counseling rather than a psychiatrist. The book was quite easy, and went very quickly.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
If you've ordered this book and read it, then you've taken the first step to freeing your mind from all the garbage the media suffocates us with. And if you swallow these eye-opening books like I do then I earnestly recommed anything by Noam Chomsky, as well as these two books, which will no doubt enlighten you about the Bush administration and the war in Iraq: (1) War Plan Iraq: Ten Reasons Against War with Iraq (Milan Rai); and (2) STUPID WHITE MEN (Michale Moore). And if you love a good laugh, here's a satire on Bush and the media: The little samba boy (Jay Singh). The truth is out there.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I finished reading this book about a week ago and I am still a bit confused. The novel takes a while to read and digest because of its obvious philosophical subjects, but I also found it hard to stay focused while reading the novel. I would have to say that I did come away with a better, almost clearer understanding at looking at things in life. I have to give it that. It wasn't all a blur for me, but still difficult to read. I would recommend this to readers that enjoy philosophy and intellectual types of literatures.
Guest More than 1 year ago
At first I read his book on Proust and loaned it to two other people, one of whom eventually decided to actually read Remembrance of Things Past. A year later I passed this book and bought it, finishing it over a weekend and thinking how I could induce my friends to read it as well. The one I think is a natural to be enraptured by Montaigne. Botton is a genius who thinks nothing pretentiously. His love for literature and philosophy is so great that he wants to share it with those of us who merely hunger for something deeper than our normal lives.