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The Consolations of PhilosophyReview - The Consolations of Philosophy
by Alain De Botton
Pantheon Books, 2000
Review by Natalie Simpson
Sep 3rd 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 36)

The problems for which this self-help book offers advice are those which most of us have faced at one time or another: unpopularity, not having enough money, frustration, inadequacy, a broken heart and the sheer difficulties that we encounter in our lives. The difference between this book and others is that some of the advice in it is over 2000 years old.

Consider, for example, the problem of not having enough money. This is discussed by drawing on the teachings of Epicurus, who was born in 341 BC. Epicurus claimed that once basic needs were met, the requirements for a happy life were, in fact, not very expensive: to spend time with friends, to be free from having to work for an unpleasant boss, and to make a practice of thoughtfully examining one’s own anxieties. An unhappy person who seeks expensive goods instead of these three things is like a migraine sufferer who drills a hole in his head to relieve the tension of the headache. Interestingly, despite the fact that the word "Epicurean" is today associated with luxury and even gluttony, Epicurus himself ate and lived simply, living off bread, vegetables and olives. Happiness may not be easy to obtain, but the difficulties are not overcome by spending more money.

The other chapters in the book follow the same format, showing how the teachings of a particular philosopher can be applied to the problem that is being considered. I particularly liked the chapter on Montaigne, a philosopher who was not ashamed to write very frankly about the workings of the body as well as the mind. The book is simply and clearly written, with frequent illustrations and no shortage of detailed information. The use of illustration is sometimes quirky: for example, it may be reasonable for the author to mention that he was intending to buy some chocolate milk at the art gallery when he happened to see a picture of Socrates, but it seems to be going a bit far to emphasize the point with a photograph of a carton of Nesquik. Having said that, I think that the majority of the pictures and personal anecdotes add to the cozy intimacy of the book.

The book is undoubtedly philosophical. But is it consoling? The "Consolation for Unpopularity" presents the story of Socrates, who was killed because he and his views were unpopular. In the "Consolation for a Broken Heart" we read, "Arthur Schopenhauer is born in Danzig. In later years, he looks back on the event with regret." (p171). Nietzsche, whose life is discussed in the "Consolation for Difficulties", was an unsuccessful author in his lifetime, and lived in poverty and ill health. He suffered a breakdown and spent the last years of his life in an asylum. The lives of the great philosophers may be inspiring and memorable to us, but certainly were not, on the whole, comfortable.

And yet, I did find the book consoling. Perhaps the perspective gained by looking back through years of history helps to diminish the impact of present day problems. The fact that the writings of the philosophers featured in the book are still considered to be worth studying today adds weight to their advice, and the book contains many examples of people being able to meet their troubles with equanimity. The use of thoughts and teachings from so many years ago in order to help people with present day problems is cleverly done – and I found it almost eerily convincing.

Natalie Simpson is a mathematics graduate of Oxford University, England, and holds a diploma in hypnotherapy. She developed an interest in psychology, psychotherapy and hypnosis after experiencing hypnotherapy herself. Her specific concerns include the assessment of the effectiveness and risks of psychotherapy, and the difficulties of obtaining informed consent of clients.


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