The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Botton

Consolation for Unpopularity

Socrates was sentenced to death for introducing religious novelties and corrupting the people of Athens. In addition, he failed to worship the Gods. However, in court, he stuck to his beliefs and would not waver at all. Many of the older paintings depicted such a scene, where people mourned over his death. Socrates was treated like a transcendent being. Philosophy gave Socrates the rational mind to fight off disapproval. There were a group of Greeks who were all very keen on the idea of philosophy.

Laws are a form of ‘telling people how to behave’. Some of them are in ethical and practical judgments and ‘common sense’. Some societies even tell you what you can or cannot wear. The Greeks used to slaughter animals for worship and slavery was common. Women had to listen to their husbands and could not led a public life. Most people do not question social conventions as they have practised by generations before us.

Socrates didn’t care about material wealth and taught philosophy for free. His wife was hot tempered. She was Xanthippe. He often asked commoners why they held certain common-sense beliefs. Many people associate what is popular with being right. Common sense must be questioned and warrants enquiry. One day, Socrates came upon Nicias and Laches, both war generals. They believed that to express courage, one had to join an army and fight. Socrates proposed that courage was not limited to warfare and one had to distinguish between good and evil. Meno felt that money and virtue was linked. To Socrates, the issue of justice or piety must be added to the accumulation of money. People, even in important positions, may be wrong. It is important to re-examine beliefs. Self-reflection on life’s goals are the key. The world is more flexible than you think it is. Learn to question more. With strong counter arguments, you can prevent yourself being blown about in the wind.

Anyone with a curious and well-ordered mind who seeks to evaluate a common-sense belief can start a conversation with a friend in a city street and, by following a Socratic method, may arrive at one or two ground-breaking ideas in under half an hour. – Alain De Botton

In Athens, democracy was at work. The majority of the people will decide what the state should do through a voting process. Socrates pursued philosophy because he wanted to improve the lives of others. He refused to relent or give up on the study of philosophy. Question how people come to their conclusions of life. Polus believed that in order to be happy, one should be a dictator. To Socrates, the ability to reason logically was extremely important. Listen to the experts and those with knowledge. Socrates was accused of causing harm to Athens and causing wars to start etc.

All his friends burst into tears when Socrates drank the poison. However, Socrates remained calm throughout. He was a good man, judged to be evil.

The validity of an idea or action is determined not by whether it is widely believed or widely reviled but by whether it obeys the rules of logic. It is not because an argument is denounced by a majority that it is wrong nor, for those drawn to heroic defiance, that it is right. – Alain De Botton

Consolation for Not Having Enough Money

Epicurus was born in Samos. He studied philosophy when young. It is said that he wrote more than 300 books in his lifetime. He believed in pleasure as the goal of a happy life. To him, happiness and philosophy are closely linked. His brand of philosophy was to promote happiness. His teachings were popular at that time. It was like the pursuit of pleasure.

‘What do I need for a happy life?’ To Epicurus, the common man is not well qualified to answer that question. The answer that man produces is likely to be faulty. To him, philosophy needs to drive away the sufferings of the mind to be useful. Philosophy would guide us to superior cures and eventually happiness.

Epicurus drank water and ate bread and vegetables. Friendship was extremely important to him. He discouraged others from eating alone. True friends do not care about our social standing. Freedom is the second most important thing. Epicurus and his friends didn’t like listening to people and became self-employed. They grew their own vegetables. They didn’t want to lead a material or rich life. The third factor was thought. Many of his friends were writers. Money without friends, freedom and a thought-about life wouldn’t be happy. Desires for material wealth are natural but unnecessary. However, a decent amount of salary to have a comfortable level of salary. Our essential non-material needs must be met first. Learn to identify projects for happiness. Ask yourself whether you can do without such a luxury.

Of all the things wisdom provides to help one live one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship. – Epicurus

Before you eat or drink anything, consider carefully who you eat or drink with rather than what you eat or drink: for feeding without a friend is the life of a lion or a wolf. – Epicurus

We don’t exist unless there is someone who can see us existing, what we say has no meaning until someone can understand. – Alain De Botton

There is nothing dreadful in life for the man who has truly comprehended that there is nothing terrible in not living. – Epicurus

Why are we so drawn to expensive items? They can feel like solutions to things we don’t understand. Humans do not understand their needs accurately. Capitalism shifts human needs. We are easily shaped by advertising. Be happy with the simple pleasures of life.

Consolation for Frustration

Seneca died in AD 65. Nero ordered his death as there was a conspiracy to remove him from his throne. There was no evidence to link Seneca with it. Nero destroyed many others who he suspected of wrong-doing as well. Socrates’ experience was known by Seneca as well. Socrates was not changed by external circumstances. He was undisturbed all his life. To Seneca, philosophy was used to overcome conflicts between one’s wishes and reality. Seneca had suffered many personal losses in the past. Years of preparation had thought him how to deal with loss and suffering.

A wish had to collide with reality. We start to realize that the world is not fair and that we can’t get everything we want. The more we understand something, the less we are hurt by it. Anger is the ultimate infantile collision. To many philosophers, anger is one of the worst vices. Anger, to him, results from an error in reasoning. To him, anger was not an involuntary action and can be changed. We often feel entitled to things. Many of Seneca’s peers were rich. However, they were usually quite bad tempered. Is there a need to over-react to stimuli? The trick is to expect everything. We are often ‘injured’ by what we do not expect. If you undertake a journey, you must be prepared for the worst. Always expect the worst to happen. Grief should not be never-ending. Learn to think about death sometimes. It might be useful. Seneca suggested taking a meditation every morning. Metaphors are useful because they help us to remember concepts. Understand that the world is not completely fair and just. Not everything that happens to us is about us. Sometimes, things are the work of God. Anxiety is another problem that humans face. Assume what you fear may happen is certainly going to happen. A man’s peace of mind does not depend on God. Seneca introduced the idea that one could be wealthy in non-material aspects. Having eyes is a productum, something that is preferred to have. When we are hurt, we feel that thing which hurt us intended to do so. This is not right. Do not be bothered by inanimate objects.

How badly we react to frustration is critically determined by what we think of as normal. We may be frustrated that it is raining, but our familiarity with showers mean we are unlikely ever to respond to one with anger. – Seneca

Seneca more wisely asks us to consider that bad things probably will occur, but adds that they are unlikely ever to be as bad as we fear. – Alain De Botton

The wise man can lose nothing. He has everything invested in himself. He is self-sufficient…if he loses a hand through disease or war, or if some accident puts out one or both of his eyes, he will be satisfied with what is left. – Seneca

We must accept the unavoidable with tranquillity. Even if men do not want to follow, some part of their life is pre-destined and they won’t be able to escape. If you try to oppose the cart, you will suffer more. Reason allows humans to choose attitude towards certain events. Nero went crazy and started killing random people. Seneca went to study about the heavens and nature and wrote about it. He postulated why certain how certain natural disasters formed. Since we cannot change the laws of nature, it is best to endure them. Eventually, Seneca slit his wrists willingly.

We are like dogs who have tied to an unpredictable cart. Our leash is long enough to give us a degree of leeway, but not long enough to allow us to wander wherever we please. – Alain De Botton

We may be powerless to alter certain events, but we remain free to choose our attitude towards them, and it is in our spontaneous acceptance of necessity that we find our distinctive freedom. – Alain De Botton

Consolation for Inadequacy

Michel de Montaigne wasn’t interested in farming or taking care of property. He spent many hours cooped up in the library. Reading was his solace in life. He read many books by the renowned Greek philosophers. There were profound benefits associated with reading. To many philosophers, the ability to reason could make us happy. However the fact was that many of the elite were violent and arrogant. To Michel, he thought that being an animal was advantageous over a human as they could know what to do when they were sick without learning anything. Humans had to rely on doctors. Humans had to take a long time to understand complex ideas. Animals were good at love without training as well. To him, reason led to more trouble. Humans were blockheads and inadequate. Our lives were madness personified. We needed to embrace this flaw in humans.

Reading consoles me in my retreat; it relieves me of the weight of distressing idleness and, at any time, can rid me of boring company. It blunts the stabs of pain whenever pain is not too overpowering and extreme. To distract me from morose thoughts, I simply need to have recourse to books. – Michel de Montaigne

Humans are sexually inadequate. Our bodies are not sharp and are prone to illness. To him, our bodies controlled our minds. Humans have to fart and annoy people at inopportune moments. Some men even underwent castration etc. We should despise our being. We needed to accept the human condition for what it is. Humans do not have complete mental control over our bodies. You need to embrace your imperfections so that others will accept you. Men do not need to be ashamed of an occasional rebellious flaccid penis. We do not talk enough about our shortcomings. Michel chose to write about the workings of his mind and body. He described his penis, his stools and his farts etc. The ancient philosophers thought we had full control of our bodies. Humans are still subject to passions and desires.

People are quick to distinguish between the normal and abnormal. Montaigne travelled Europe for over 17 months. Different countries had different traditions. People were very critical of one another’s practises and ideas. The French thought that their heating system was superior to the Germans. Many people were not receptive of others’ cultures. The world was very peculiar indeed. Montaigne was intrigued by some unique practices by the South Americans like eating of insects etc. Every culture was beautiful. The Tupis moved villages every 6 months. They were very hospitable to strangers as well. They were a very caring society indeed. Many Indians committed suicide in the 1500s after being invaded by the Spanish. The Spanish were brutal towards them. To them, the Indians were brutes and savages. People tended to judge and comment if things were not normally what they saw or observed. The unfamiliar is not the inadequate. You can cross borders in your mind by reading about other countries’ cultures. Similar to Epicurus, friendship was the key to happiness.

We pick our friends not only because they are kind and enjoyable company, but also, perhaps more importantly, because they understand us for who we think we are. – Alain De Botton

Booksellers are the most valuable destination for the lonely, given the number of books that were written because authors couldn’t find anyone to talk to. – Alain De Botton

Clever people should be academically inclined. Montaigne did well in school. Learning about the world may be useful. But knowledge needs to be useful and it needs to be applied. There was a difference between learning and wisdom. Wisdom was more of common sense and common knowledge. Institutions of the past failed to provide enough wisdom. Do not neglect what is outstanding at hand. People needed a wiser approach to death. Montaigne set test papers that tested the morality of people. Do not lose patience with reading. People needed to take books seriously. Authors of humanities have a responsible to delivery happiness and wealth. Montaigne often quoted phrases from the Greek philosophers in their teachings. Aristotle was one of the most comprehensive philosophers. No one is genuinely marvellous. People liked to talk about ideas but did not act on them. We are actually richer than what we are.

Consolations for a Broken Heart

For this, Arthur Schopenhauer may be one of the best philosophers around. He was very pessimistic about life. Often, he was always very upset as well. He inherited a lot of money after his father passed away and didn’t have to work. He thought that the Devil was at work and that he took delight in others’ sufferings. He decided to spend the remaining of his days to reflect on life. Goethe thought that he was an interesting guy. Often, he communicated with others and knew that even if others didn’t understand, he could still deceive himself by being happy. He, occasionally engaged in monologues. In University, he offered lectures on the essence of the world and of the mind. He believed in polygamy and not in marriage. To him, life was an illusion and he was kept in motion by want and illusion. Later on in life, he became excited by dogs. He thought the Brahmins were noble people and often isolated himself in the room. He slept a great deal even in his later years. He used to own a few different dogs in his lifetime. To him, human existence was a kind of an error.

If life and existence were an enjoyable state, then everyone would reluctantly approach the unconscious state of sleep and would gladly rise from it again. But the very opposite is the case. For everyone very willingly goes to sleep and unwillingly gets up again. – Arthur Schopenhauer

Philosophers have largely ignored the issue of love. It was a largely irrational activity. Our minds had to serve our bodies to some extent. Humans had the innate drive to stay alive and reproduce. He believed love was important and that its value should not be underestimated. Love was the most inevitable of our obsessions. Love, to him, was irrational. Why do you favour someone over another? He thought it was because we could have healthy children with everyone. Love was about finding someone to carry your offspring. He came up with the theory of neutralization of weaknesses. We are not inherently unlovable. To him, people looked to marriage for the procreation of children. Animals did everything in their power to sustain life for the next generation. Creatures committed themselves to a meaningless existence. A lot of dissatisfaction stems from expectations that life should be happy. This often led to deluded hope and dissatisfaction.

Much would have been gained if through timely advice and instruction young people could have eradicated from their minds the erroneous notion that the world has a great deal to offer them. – Arthur Schopenhauer

Humans can also enjoy life apart of the demands of reproduction. We can read the works of artists and philosophers. We can learn to appreciate and draw insights from creative works. Humans should always seek to transform tears into knowledge.

Consolation for Difficulties

Friedrich Nietzsche pronounced that he was sure people would enjoy his work in the future. He believed that human difficulties should be present as they help develop us.

Humans should not be frightened by appearances. First impressions count. Schopenhauer’s work had a big impact on Nietzsche.

We know that life consists of suffering, that the harder we try to enjoy it, the more enslaved we are by it, and so we (should) discard the goods of life and practise abstinence. – Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche later went to Italy with an enthusiast for the arts and he stayed there for a few months. The scenery was perfect as they were in a villa. It was during this journey that shaped his ideas on philosophy.

He admitted that he did not agree with Schopenhauer now. Fulfilment was not about avoiding pain, but it was an inevitable step to reaching anything good.

Some of the individuals he knew had led fulfilled lives. He didn’t care much about people living. He liked people who had passed on, like Abbe Galiani, Henri Beyle, Montaigne and Goethe. They were all curious and artistically gifted. They were also drawn to everyday pleasures and humor. They all had fallen in love repeatedly. Goethe liked girls even when he was in an advanced stage of life.

They had explored their possibilities, they possessed what Nietzsche called “life”, which suggested courage, ambition, dignity, strength of character, humour and independence. – Alain De Botton

Nietzsche concluded that to attain the above, you needed to feel miserable sometimes. Joy and displeasure were linked. The more you experience of one, the greater the other you will have. Virtue is scarcely possible without displeasure.

To him, we needed to suffer pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. Failure was necessary. A lot of the famous philosophers had works that did not turn out well. To him, to write a good novel, one needed to write down anecdotes every day. One should be tireless to collect human types and characters. One should be a good listener as well. Next, one had to reflect on the motives of human action. One needed to do all of the above in order to be a great novelist. One needed to fulfil toughness and one’s human potential.

Nietzsche was Switzerland’s most famous philosopher. He loved climate and topography. At the mountains, he wrote most of his famous works. He often worked for many hours a day and also took long walks as well. He loved climbing mountains as well. Mediocrity à Pain à Fulfilment. Pains have been met too.

We must learn to suffer whatever we cannot avoid. Our life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of discords as well as of different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud. If a musician liked only some of them, what could he sing? He has got to know how to use all of them and blend them together. So too must we with good and ill, which are of one substance with our life. – Montaigne

Nietzsche didn’t believe much in talents. He believed in studying great work and then effecting them on your own. Raphael had managed to sublimate, spiritualize and raise to fruitfulness the difficulties in his path.

He wanted to be a professional gardener. He likened life to be like that of a plant. The roots were often messy but were necessary to keep the plant stable. Do not remove shoots of anxiety and envy. You can always learn from them.

The emotions of hatred, envy and covetousness and lust for domination are life-conditioning emotions…which must fundamentally and essentially be present in the total economy of life. – Friedrich Nietzsche

He admired the ancient Greeks. Societies which have been through pain tend to emerge stronger. One needs to respond to difficulties that could tear one apart.

He hated people who loved alcohol and found their behaviour very distasteful. He never grew to like the taste of alcohol. The Middle Ages was the alcohol poisoning of Europe. Water sufficed. One didn’t need alcohol to be happy.

He was against moral philosophy or Utilitarianism. John Stuart Mill proposed that to determine whether the action was right or wrong, one needed to measure the amount of pleasure and pain it gave rise to. To Nietzsche, man did not strive for happiness. Utilitarians suggested that happiness was painless. Artistic creation always demands immense suffering. He wanted people to accept the pain of climbing the mountain. He encouraged people to live life dangerously.

He was exposed to Christianity when young. To him, it was indecent to be a Christian. The New Testament treated difficulties as virtues.

Both Christianity and alcohol have the power to convince us that what we previously thought deficient in ourselves and the world does not require attention; both weaken our resolve to garden our problems; both deny us the chance to fulfilment. – Friedrich Nietzsche

To him, Christianity was built from a bunch of timid people and did not dare to endure the difficulties life demanded.

He wanted us to believe in what we always wanted, even when we do not have it, and may never.

Epicurus was one of his favourites. Happiness involved a life among friends. Nietzsche had a few failed relationships and lost confidence. He didn’t sell many books in his lifetime and remained poor. His health was poor too. In his later years, he was bundled and brought into an asylum.

Difficulty was a pre-requisite to fulfilment.


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