The Consolations of Philosophy – Alain de Botton

People say not to judge a book by it’s cover. In this case, the cover was too pretty to deny.

But more than that, I thoroughly enjoyed branching out into a philosophical read. De Botton puts his ideas into plain language so I was able to know what the heck was going on, while still feeling pretentious and elite because I was reading about philosophy. It was a win-win really.

The Consolation of Philosophy takes us on a journey back to Ancient Rome, tracking the thoughts and theories of several famous philosophers up to the twentieth century: Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. An analysis of their works are meant to act as a ‘consolation’ to us, as people long before us have faced the same life struggles that we still do today.

There are some lovely little gems of wisdom in here, original to de Botton himself. Take this:

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.

I love how he acknowledges how our bodies let us down in the act of trying to enjoy life. Hehe! I had always known this, but had never put the thoughts together.

How problematic to have both a body and a mind, for the former stands in almost monstrous contrast to the latter’s dignity and intelligence. Our bodies smell, ache, sag, pulse, throb and age. They force us to fart and burp, and to abandon sensible plans in order to lie in bed with people, sweating and letting out intense sounds reminiscent of coyotes calling out to one another across the barren wastes of the American deserts. Our bodies hold our minds hostage to their whims and rhythms. Our whole perspective on life can be altered by the digestion of a heavy lunch.

De Botton also covers a subject that baffles my mind while making sense simultaneously: the atrocities of settlement:

The Spanish had butchered the Indians with a clean conscience because they were confident that they knew what a normal human being was. Their reason told them it was someone who wore breeches, had one wife, didn’t eat spiders and slept in a bed.

De Botton is eloquent, organised, and injects just enough of his own narrative to keep us hooked. He’s a good writer and thinker. This felt like reading an essay, but it was interesting enough to keep going. I also chuckled a little over, but appreciated, the little snippets of photographs included in the book to help illustrate what he was saying. Terrible little pictures that look like they were copied and pasted from Google Images and placed their using Microsoft Paint. But they were a useful addition.

Overall, I enjoyed this read and hope to read more of Mr. de Botton.

I’ll leave it on a great excerpt from the book, originally articulated by Nietzsche:

The recipe for becoming a good novelist… is easy to give, but to carry it out presupposes qualities one is accustomed to overlook when one says ‘I do not have enough talent.’ One has only to make a hundred or so sketches for novels, none longer than two pages but of such distinctness that every word in them is necessary; one should write down anecdotes every day until one has learnt how to give them the most pregnant and effective form; one should be tireless in collecting and describing human types and characters; one should above all relate things to others and listen to others relate, keeping one’s eyes and ears open for the effect produced on those present, one should travel like a landscape painter or costume designer… one should, finally, reflect on the motives of human actions, disdain no signpost for instruction about them and be a collector of these things by day and night.

Some excellent writing advice 🙂 i.e. Just go for it, practise and work at it.


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