Book club: The Consolations of Philosophy

9780141038377

Never before has a book struck a chord with me quite like The consolations of Philosophy. It is the pinnacle of my literary life thus far.

Author, Alain de Botton, one of the greatest thinkers of our time, has trawled through history and compiled various philosophies from other great thinkers of the past – Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

On where clever people should get their ideas from:

“From people even cleverer than they are. They should spend their time quoting and producing commentaries about great authorities who occupy the upper rings of the tree of knowledge,” (page 161).

De Botton wrote this page with reference to Montaigne who owed much to the idea. Montaigne felt the likes of Plato and Cicero had captured points more elegantly and more acutely than he was able to. De Botton concurs, and speaks of the temptation to quote authors when they express our very own thoughts but with a clarity and psychological accuracy we cannot match. With this in mind, I turn to quotes and passages from the book to summarise the greatness it encapsulates.

On art:

“What we encounter in works of art and philosophy are objective versions of our own pains and struggles, evoked and defined in sound, language or image. Artists and philosophers not only show us what they have felt, they present our experiences more poignantly and intelligently than we have been able to; they give shape to aspects of our lives that we recognise as our own, yet could never have understood so clearly on our own. They explain our condition to us, and thereby help us to be less lonely with, and confused by it,” (page 199).

“Why? Because no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfilment.”

On difficulty: 

“We are liable to think that anxiety and envy have nothing legitimate to teach us and so remove them like emotional weeds. We believe, as Nietzsche put it, that ‘the higher is not allowed to grow out of the lower, is not allowed to have grown at all…everything first-rate must be causa sui [the cause of itself].’ Yet ‘good and honoured things’ were, Nietzsche stressed, ‘art-fully related, knotted and chrocheted to…wicked, apparently antithetical things.’ ‘Love and hate, gratitude and revenge, good nature and anger…belong together,’ which does not mean that they have to be expressed together, but that a positive may be the result of a negative successfully gardened…To cut out every negative root would simultaneously mean choking off positive elements that might arise from it further up the stem of the plant. We should not feel embarrassed by our difficulties, only by our failure to grow anything beautiful from them,” (page 228).

“Not everything which makes us feel better is good for us. Not everything which hurts may be bad,” (page 244).

On the body versus the mind:

“Our bodies have the upper hand over our minds,” (page 122).

“Montaigne’s philosophy is one of reconciliation: ‘The most uncouth of our afflictions is to despise our being.’ Rather than trying to cut ourselves in two, we should cease waging civil war on our perplexing physical envelopes and learn to accept them as unalterable facts of our condition, neither so terrible nor so humiliating,” (page 123).

“That nothing can happen to man is inhuman, that ‘every man bears the whole Form of the human condition,'” (page 125).

“If we accord importance to the kind of portraits which surround us, it is because we fashion our loves according to their example, accepting aspects of ourselves if they concur with what others mention of themselves. What we see evidence for in others, we will attend to within, what others are silent about, we may stay blind to or experience only in shame,” (page 129).

“Epicurean and Stoic philosophies had suggested that we could achieve mastery over our bodies, and never be swept away by our physical and passionate selves. It is noble advice that taps into our highest aspirations. It is also impossible, and therefore counter productive: ‘What is the use of those high philosophical peaks on which no human being can settle and those rules which exceed our practise and our power? It is not very clever of [man] to tailor his obligations to the standards of a different kind of being,'” (page 130).

“Schopenhauer…concurred with Montaigne’s view that our minds were subservient to our bodies, despite our arrogant faith in the contrary,” (page 185).

On love:

“Philosophers have not traditionally been impressed: the tribulations of love have appeared too childish to warrant investigation, the subject better left to poets and hysterics…Schopenhauer was puzzled by the indifference: ‘We should be surprised that a matter that generally plays such an important part in the life of man has hitherto been almost entirely disregarded by philosophers, and lies before us as raw and untreated material.’ The neglect seemed the result of a pompous denial of a side of life which violated man’s rational self-image. Schopenhauer insisted on the awkward reality: ‘Love…interrupts at every hour the most serious occupations and sometimes perplexes for a while even the greatest minds…It does no hesitate to interfere…It sometimes demands the sacrifice of…health, sometimes of wealth, position and happiness,'” (page 185).

On joy:

“What if pleasure and pain were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other…you have the choice: either as little displeasure as possible, painlessness in brief, or as much displeasure as possible as the price for the growth of an abundance of subtle pleasures and joys that have rarely been realised yet? If you decide for the former and desire to diminish and lower the level of human pain, you also have to diminish and lower the level of their capacity for joy,” (page 214).

As per the title, this book confronts and consoles the inadequacies people face in life. My general philosophy is all the more enriched from reading it; I urge everyone to do the same.

“‘Oh, why did you have to be born with this intense spirit, this uncontrollable passion for everything you are close to! I implore you,’ she went on, taking his hand, ‘be calmer. Think of the many joys your spirit, knowledge and your gifts afford you!” (page 200).

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