26 February 2011

Painlessly instructed: Notes on ‘The Consolations of Philosophy’

“Our experiences and beliefs are liable frequently to be dismissed with a quizzical, slightly alarmed, ‘Really? How weird!’, accompanied by a raised eyebrow, amounting in a small way to a denial of our legitimacy and humanity,” writes Alain de Botton in his book, The Consolations of Philosophy. He then, in commiseration, talks about Montaigne, who, by learning the beliefs and behaviors of people from other regions through travelling and reading, “could gain legitimacy for parts of himself of which there was no evidence in the vicinity—the Roman parts, the Greek parts, the sides of himself that were more Mexican and Tupi than Gascon, the parts that would have liked to have six wives or have a shaved back or wash twelve times a day…”

The Consolations of Philosophy essentially does two things: provide the titular consolation and exhibit the practicability of Philosophy. The common problems of man are presented and corresponding philosophers—their lives and views—are considered to discuss each of them. The table of contents will give you the impression that you’re about to read a self-help book. It says Consolations for in the heading and the chapters underneath are Unpopularity, Not Having Enough Money, Frustration, Inadequacy, A Broken Heart and Difficulties. And it is a self-help book.

Common to a number of motivational manuals are clichés and the predictable assurance that you are beautiful, brimming with potential and a vital part of the Universe’s operations. Besides these, one main cause for distaste in these materials is their pedantic tone. The reader can feel how much the books know more than they do. But de Botton offers a wittier and warmer approach. San Francisco Chronicle, in describing de Botton’s book, aptly says, “We’re painlessly instructed while we read for fun.”

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