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.”


The word consolation defines the book’s scope and limitation. It does not attempt to give airtight answers to what often worries us and depending on the reader’s needs and expectations, it can be something that is both good and bad.

In the chapter Consolation for a Broken Heart, for example, we are given Schopenhauer who argued the heart’s reasons are driven by the (unconscious) “will-to-life”—the drive by human beings to stay alive and reproduce. The broken heart (and confused mind) must be mended by the concept that “we are not free to fall in love with everyone because we cannot produce healthy children with everyone.” De Botton is quick to note the gap in logic: “Unfortunately, the theory of attraction led Schopenhauer to a conclusion so bleak, it may be best if readers about to be married left the next few paragraphs unread in order not to have to rethink their plans; namely, that person who is highly suitable for our child is almost never (though we cannot realize it at the time because we have been blindfolded by the will-to-life) very suitable for us.” On a more serious note, he says that Schopenhauer “did not mean to depress us, rather to free us from expectations which inspire bitterness. It is consoling when love has let us down, to hear that happiness was never part of the plan.” As with Montaigne, de Botton points that “there is consolation in realizing that our case is only one of thousands….by reading a tragic tale of love, a rejected suitor raises himself above his own situation; he is no longer one man suffering alone…”

He is right in insinuating that what makes a problem more burdensome is the sense that it is unique to us. The last few quotes may be something we’ve already heard or figured out ourselves, but learning how the great philosophers dealt with and processed the same troubles we have, along with Alain de Botton’s own anecdotes and amiable commentary, we are given that consolation.


The book engages the reader who has an aversion to Philosophy because of its esoteric language. A passage on Intellectual Inadequacy goes: “There are, so Montaigne implied, no legitimate reasons why books in the humanities should be difficult or boring; wisdom does not require a specialized vocabulary or syntax, nor does an audience benefit from being wearied.” Taking Montaigne’s cue, de Botton’s writing is easy to follow. He champions this simplicity and clarity even at the risk of not attracting readers or being taken seriously: “But writing with simplicity requires courage, for there is a danger that one will be overlooked, dismissed as simpleminded by those with a tenacious belief that impassable prose is a hallmark of the intelligent.”

The book also has its ways of teaching us how to read it. In another passage on Intellectually Inadequacy, we are reminded that reading writers that astound us, the way we read these philosophers who had supposedly thought more and better than us, “may lead us to dismiss aspects of our lives of which there is no printed testimony. Far from expanding our horizons, they may unjustly come to mark their limits.” It tells us to not be “[reluctant] to trust our own, extra-literary, experiences.”

Readers who were at first indifferent to or intimidated by Philosophy can warm up to it through this book, though they may also be left wanting more. The consolation the book provides is that of a conversation with a good friend—it affirms what you knew all along by gut and lucidly verbalizes a once nebulous feeling, or to borrow de Botton’s words, it is “intelligent but playful” and “always affectionate.”

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