The Boston Book Review, May 2000
The things that wisdom provides
The Consolations of Philosophy
Alain de Botton
288 pp. $22.95
our tour in an upper gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where our
guide has grown bored with the Impressionists and is looking for signs of
a cafeteria, hoping to buy a carton of chocolate milk. His eye is caught by
Jacques-Louis David's "The Death of Socrates," depicting the father
of philosophy making a final point before his weeping disciples, reaching
back almost negligently for his cup of hemlock. What arrests our tour guide's
attention is this vision of a man who was willing to die for his beliefs.
His own priority in life, he humorously explains, is "to be liked."
Consequently, author Alain De Botton resolves to "become wise through
philosophy," and to the effort he gathers a team of philosophers "bound
by a common interest in saying a few consoling and practical things about
the causes of our greatest griefs."
Such a poignant transitionwe begin by wanting to be wise, and
end in need of consolation. Clearly we are in for more of the self-help that
de Botton patented in his last book, "How Proust Can Change Your Life"
(1997), with the same proviso attached. Just as Proust could teach nothing
to those who hadn't read Proust, so too is Socrates unlikely to console fans
of Maeve Binchy, much less admirers of Jesse Helms. What we have then, is
self-help for the intellectual, and poignancy attaches to the project because,
despite six skillfully written consolations on griefs ranging from Unpopularity
to A Broken Heart (supplemented by a forthcoming six-part BBC series, also
hosted by the author), we finish the tour only to realize
well, no point
in hurrying there, trust me.
Socrates is the first to offer a tissue, inviting us to weep for our unpopularity.
Whether Socrates' example provides comfort or not is a fair question, but
in telling his story de Botton provides a superb introduction to Socratic
principles, a bit of Athenian history, and a deft cameo of the philosopher
himself. Next up is Epicurus, speaking on the difficulty of not having enough
money. Should de Botton ever find himself with more money than he knows what
to do with, he tells us he would begin by buying a neoclassical mansion in
London. His library would contain a large desk, a fireplace and a view of
a garden. As Epicurean as all this might seem, Epicurus himself would disagree.
The first need in life, the philosopher advises us, is friendship. "Of
all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one's entire life in
happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship." He himself
lived with a large group of friends in what we would call a commune, growing
their own food so as to maximize their independence. "Nothing satisfies
the man who is not satisfied with a little."
From Greece we travel to Rome, still ancient, just as Seneca is being sentenced
to death. The lesson here is Frustration. If in addition to a BBC series de
Botton should produce a line of tea bags, Seneca's philosophy would pose no
problems for compression: "It can always be worse." But a tea bag
would deny us the pleasures of de Botton's own prose. He writes with conversational
ease. His habit of providing frequent illustrations, sometimes two or three
per page, enhances the impression that we are on a gallery tour, which I found
pleasant. His French name, English prose and American address lend his books
something at once mysterious and familiar. Developing the idea that life is
surely as hard to understand as how to make pottery, de Botton provides a
step-by-step guide to how pottery was made in ancient Greece, the demonstration
as interesting as the idea it develops. If at times his perspective seems
foreshortened by his relative youth, this is very much the exception to an
exceptionally graceful and erudite style.
By now even the tardiest among us will have arrived at some understanding
of what de Botton means by consolation. Clearly this is going to have nothing
to do with silver linings, and any hope of silk purses being made of sow's
ears is clearly misplaced. To return to tea bags, if de Botton were in fact
producing a line of them he would have been forced by law to label his contents
more accurately, and to that end I suggest "Initiations," with perhaps
a cover blurb from Robert Bly: "Iron John for the faint of heart. I loved
every word of it!" Masterful as de Botton is in his Alistair Cooke mode,
just as often he plays the struggling son, and it seems no accident that he
offers his readers the same consolation he himself seems to be seeking, namely
the company of men. He listens to their tales of woe, and in turn tells them
his stories of impotence on an English holiday, romantic rejection by a woman
more athletic than him, and ridicule by a burly hotel porter. A self-help
book cannot function without its share of case studies, and de Botton is the
case we study here, continuing the autobiography begun in "Proust,"
where we met his girlfriend Kate. In "Consolations " he seems single
again, and it requires no Olympic gold to leap to the conclusion that "The
Death of Socrates" was not the new book's first inspiration. What is
riveting, and poignant, is that, while providing a young scholar with a graceful
introduction to the Classics, he simultaneously offers the scholar a view
of himself further down his troubled road. Dead Socrates, dead Seneca, sexless
Schopenhauer, syphylitic and unsexed Nietzsche. I dare any grieving friend
to phone de Botton in a vulnerable hour, seeking comfort. But perhaps that
was the point.
Or perhaps not. There is consolation to be found here, not isolated into
its own category but mixed in with all the others, and it is the consolation
of friendship. De Botton returns to this theme frequently, and it draws from
him fragments of the lyrical prose that enlivened all of his "Proust."
In support of Epicurus he writes:
We don't exist unless there is someone who can see us existing, what we
say has no meaning until someone can understand, while to be surrounded
by friends is constantly to have our identity confirmed; their knowledge
and care for us have the power to pull us from our numbness. In small comments,
many of them teasing, they reveal they know our foibles and accept them
and so, in turn, that we have a place in the world.
It is this "place in the world" that proves to be the real subject.
Like Amish villagers each of the philosophers here has been called to the
task of its construction. Though we may have sensed throughout that de Botton
has a grand design in mind (one suspects that the demands of the BBC kept
him from realizing it), it isn't until the final consolation, Nietzsche on
Difficulties, that we gain some clue as to what it might be. We are helped
in this by that fact that de Botton provides Nietzsche with what he denies
his other philosophers, a worthy antagonist in the New Testament. The consolation
of philosophy turns out to be that it isn't faith. Philosophy is personal
and immediate. It is weeping disciples, and the poetry of friendship. If it
isn't explicitly homosexual, it surely isn't heterosexual. (It doesn't seem
to be sexual at all.) Above all, it is here and now, not in the sky, not in
the future. And all the grief we have been asked to prepare for (I neglected
to mention Schopenhauer, consoling us for A Broken Heart by telling us that
we were never meant to be happy, merely fertile) is meant to toughen us, so
that we can better enjoy what life truly offers.
Regrettably, we've spent so much time discovering how much worse everything
can get that we've lost heart, as survivors sometimes do. I couldn't help
but notice that my parents would have agreed with much of what de Botton has
to say, despite my mother's fondness for Maeve Binchy and my father's for
Jesse Helms. Strange bedfellows are apparently not limited to politics.
Humorously, it must be admitted that de Botton's own life offers support
for his theories. "How Proust Can Change Your Life" changed his
life in that it made him famous. And the consolation of "Philosophy"
seems to be that it provides one with something to say for six nights on the
BBC. It is the intellectual I remain worried about, lonely, poor, sexless,
the odds being that he will die prematurely or mad. First he is told that
everything can always get worse, next that he should only be so lucky. It
might have been kinder to have left him where we found him, wandering the
upper galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking for carton of chocolate
milk that he never finds.