'Advice to a Young Contrarian' by Christopher Hitchens

'Genes, Girls, and Gamov' by James D. Watson

The Boston Globe

'The Book of Revelation' by Rupert Thomson

'Waineright the Poisoner' by Andrew Motion

'The Golden Age' by Gore Vidal

'Martin Baumann' by David Leavitt

'The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde' Edited by Merwin Holland

'In the Shape of a Boar' by Lawrence Norfolk

'Revere Beach Elegy' by Roland Merullo

The Boston Book Review

'Soft!' by Rupert Thomson

'The Young John Muir' by Steven J. Holmes

'We Can Report Them' by Michael Brodsky

'Apologizing to Dogs' by Joe Coomer

'Consolations of Philosophy' by Alain de Botton

'Dreams of Dreams' by Antonio Tabucchi

The Boston Book Review, May 2000

The things that wisdom provides

The Consolations of Philosophy
Alain de Botton
Pantheon
288 pp. $22.95

e begin 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 transition––we 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.