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the complete review - philosophy

The Consolations of Philosophy

Alain de Botton

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Title: The Consolations of Philosophy
Author: Alain de Botton
Genre: Philosophy
Written: 2000
Length: 244 pages
Availability: The Consolations of Philosophy - US
The Consolations of Philosophy - UK
The Consolations of Philosophy - Canada
Les Consolations de la philosophie - France
Trost der Philosophie - German

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Our Assessment:

B- : often amusing presentation of philosophy -- but ultimately too simple (and offering few consolations)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age C 28/8/2000 Raimond Gaita
Daily Telegraph B- 31/3/2000 Ann Wroe
The Guardian C 25/3/2000 Stuart Jeffries
The Independent C+ 3/4/2000 Robert Hanks
The LA Times C 30/4/2000 Sylvia Brownrigg
National Review C 14/8/2000 Daniel P. Moloney
Neue Zürcher Zeitung A 31/5/2001 Michael Schefczyk
New Statesman F 27/3/2000 Edward Skidelsky
The NY Times Book Rev. D 14/5/2000 Jonathan Lear
The Observer A 9/4/2000 Peter Conrad
Salon C 24/4/2000 Virginia Vitzthum
San Francisco Chronicle A- 28/5/2000 Daniel Blue
The Spectator B+ 1/4/2000 Paul Ferris
Sunday Times A 26/3/2000 Humphrey Carpenter
Times Ed. Supp. . 14/4/2000 Julian Baggini
TLS F 23/6/2000 Mary M. McCabe
The Washington Post B+ 2/7/2000 Mark Edmundson
Die Zeit . (28/2001) Ludger Lütkehaus

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, a wide split on all aspects of the book, from the philosophy to the style -- and a lot really disliking it.

  From the Reviews:
  • "De Botton writes well -- simply, with considerable charm and with what at first looks like a kind of innocence. No doubt that is partly what endears him to so many readers. If you are looking for philosophy, however, you won't find it in this book. (...) Is consolation to be found in it? Not, I think, in the words of the author. They are stylish, urbane and, as I said, charming, but they lack the power one finds in wise words." - Raimond Gaita, The Age

  • "De Botton does a great service to enter this territory at all: to bring the names of Seneca and Schopenhauer to a wide audience must be a good thing. He also restores to philosophy a long-lost part of its character, the purpose to console. And he proceeds gently. These writers are not difficult, he assures his readers. They can be taken in small doses, like homeopathic medicines." - Ann Wroe, Daily Telegraph

  • "The Consolations of Philosophy purports to be a self-help manual of the annoying but lucrative kind that led de Botton to write How Proust Can Change Your Life. In both cases, he has pulled a glittering skein over his subjects' depths. De Botton's new book consists of obvious, hopeless or contradictory advice culled from great thinkers on how to overcome certain problems of existence." - Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian

  • "(T)he book tends towards the condition of television: personality-led, packed with images which break up the words. The suspicion is that the television version merely makes explicit a dumbness inherent in the whole project. (...) As philosophy, this is poor stuff. As a collection of biographical sketches, though, it has style and some wit." - Robert Hanks, The Independent

  • "(I)f in How Proust the author's wry lovelorn sensibility seemed reasonably matched with his subject (though his cute faux-naif tone threatened to sound precious), here the benign guide simply seems out of his depth." - Sylvia Brownrigg, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Unfortunately, this literary structure, which was just right for tackling the difficult Proust in a short book, doesn't work here. The chapters are too short, the problems too simple, the thinkers too complex for de Botton to pull off the self help conceit." - Daniel P. Moloney, National Review

  • "Bottons Assoziation von Sokrates' Aussehen mit dem des "Elefantenmanns", der ja auf seine Art auch nicht beliebt war, ist nicht nur cheeky, sondern hat einen durchaus anrührenden Effekt. Und genau darum geht es in der Vergegenwärtigung von Lebenslehren -- um Eindringlichkeit, nicht um Neuigkeit." - Michael Schefczyk, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "(A) very bad book. (...) It is bad because the conception of philosophy that it promotes is a decadent one, and can only mislead readers as to the true nature of the discipline. (...) Perhaps some readers will find de Botton endearing, with his cocoa, holiday snaps and sexual hang-ups. But I failed to be charmed by these autobiographical touches, because they seemed like a calculated attempt at ingratiation." - Edward Skidelsky, New Statesman

  • "There is no love of truth in this book (.....) In general, de Botton's consolations are worthy of Polonius." - Jonathan Lear, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(D)e Botton challenges human reason to overcome the miseries of our existence. He manages the feat with perky resourcefulness, and, in the process, multiplies the solace available to Boethius. (...) The book wickedly veers between sagacity and silliness (.....) I won't pretend that The Consolations of Philosophy changed my life, but it did ease me genially through the day I spent reading it; who can ask for anything more ?" - Peter Conrad, The Observer

  • "Alain de Botton's new book represents another, equally useless side of dummymania. His The Consolations of Philosophy is essentially "Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche for Dummies," and one has to ask, Who is this book for ? (...) De Botton is a graceful, amusing writer, and the highlight of each chapter is the thumbnail biography." - Virginia Vitzthum, Salon

  • "De Botton punctuates his text with dozens of illustrations, some incidental, others intrinsic to his point, all funny. He writes with an elegance philosophers might envy and provides the same cheap payback given by historical novels. We're painlessly instructed while we read for fun." - Daniel Blue, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The 'guide to living' side of the book, though, is a bit of a delusion. What we have are old-fashioned Brief Lives, succinct and lucid, with pretentious touches that mar but can be passed over quickly." - Paul Ferris, The Spectator

  • "(A) commentary rather than a work of original thought; but few discussions on the great philosophers can have been so entertaining. De Botton takes us on a brisk, playful tour of the lives and ideas of half-a-dozen of the big names in the history of philosophy (.....) When de Botton sticks to the facts, he always has an excellent story to tell -- and tells it with sparkle. (...) (A)n ingenious, imaginative book." - Humphrey Carpenter, Sunday Times

  • "De Botton fails entirely to see that if reflection is to be thus directed, then, corrupted by the exigencies of practicality, it ceases to have the kind of reflective distance which makes it work. (...) This is not the dumbing down of philosophy, it is a dumbing out. Nothing in this travesty deserves its title; Boethius must be turning in his grave." - Mary Margaret McCabe, Times Literary Supplement

  • "De Botton, genial, accurate, humane guide to the thinkers at hand, has written a rich and useful book. That he turns at least part way against his own premises in the final chapter only testifies to his restless and appealing intelligence." - Mark Edmundson, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Alain de Botton's book suggests that consolation for many things can be found in philosophy. Using six philosophers (and their philosophies) as examples he offers consolations for: unpopularity, not having enough money, frustration, inadequacy, a broken heart, and difficulties. The book is presented as a cross between a self-help book and an introductory philosophy textbook, divided into short chapters and with many illustrations (of typical de Bottonian "cleverness" -- i.e. including pictures of such things as a carton of chocolate milk, Superman, a sleeping baby, a remote control, as well as many art works).
       In an age when philosophy is not taken particularly seriously and when the mere mention of the word "philosophy" is enough to glaze over the eyes of much of the public such a book seems both a brave and laudable undertaking. Philosophy as applied to real life ! Philosophy that can help you too !
       "Philosophy", as de Botton (and practically every writer on any aspect of the subject) reminds us, comes from the Greek, and means a love of wisdom. De Botton emphasizes the idea of wisdom -- it is something to be aspired to, as opposed to mere bookish learning and knowledge. And wisdom also means coming to terms with "the causes of our greatest griefs", something he sees the philosophies of this group of philosophers as being particularly suitable for.
       De Botton begins with Socrates, in the chapter on "unpopularity", focussing on the philosopher's court-imposed sentence of death. Certainly, this is an example of unpopularity. How could one's unpopularity be expressed more strongly than to be sentenced to death by one's fellow citizens ? It is not possible to be more out-cast than Socrates -- cast out not only from Athenian society, but from existence itself.
       So is there a lesson here for the marginalized ? the unpopular kids in high school ? the cranks ... pardon: the visionaries whose ideas are ignored ? De Botton holds that:

We should not look to Socrates for advice on escaping a death sentence; we should look to him as an extreme example of how to maintain confidence in an intelligent position which has met with illogical opposition.
       There is something to this. Socrates is someone we can all look up to. But surely his equanimity is also troubling. And he did wind up dead, which, it would seem to us, is extremely troubling. Of all the objectives one might have in life hanging on to life would seem to be the highest -- by a considerable margin (with only the preservation of other lives coming anywhere close). There is something noble in dying for what one believes in, but nobility is an artificial construct and vastly overrated.
       De Botton writes of Socrates' "intelligent position" -- something apparently worth dying for. One is hard-pressed to argue that the position was not intelligent: Socrates is fairly sacrosanct in this regard -- though, as de Botton himself acknowledges, his positions did not seem particularly intelligent to a significant proportion of the Athenian populace. Still, while most of us have a ridiculous confidence in our positions most of us do not have what could possibly be considered truly "intelligent positions". (Just read some of the reviews at the complete review: brimming with confidence they really don't withstand that much scrutiny. And just read some of the reviews we link to -- or your newspapers' editorial page, or listen to any politician's speech -- for even more confident and less intelligent positions !)
       De Botton lauds Socrates for "maintaining confidence in an intelligent position" in the face of illogical opposition. Well, over the long term that seems to have worked out for Socrates (sort of: he's still dead, last we heard -- though, of course, in the long term we're all dead). Generally, we imagine a bit less confidence and a bit more active disputation with illogical opposition (rather than passive acceptance of a death sentence) is called for. Socrates wound up dead, Athenian democracy went down in flames -- who knows if the democracy might not have been stronger if a more vigorous debate had been fostered by the philosophers. Sure, Socrates was immortalized by Plato and others -- but is that really what was best for him and his fellow Athenians and even for us in the modern world ?
       Marx -- a man not mentioned in de Botton's book -- had something to say about philosophers changing the world (he was for it). But de Botton likes his philosophers not to worry about changing the world. In fact, most of the ones in this book don't seem to want to have much to do with it. Epicurus, who is meant to console us for not having enough money, moved out of town, setting up a latter-day commune for himself. Seneca -- consoling us for frustration -- was actually quite active in politics as an aide to Nero but then did his best to escape that (winding up sentenced to death for his troubles as well). Bookish Montaigne, loveless Schopenhauer, and Alpine tourist Nietzsche are also shown as being outside society. It's the stereotype of philosophers, but a commentator can emphasize it or not -- and de Botton emphasizes it.
       Are there consolations here for readers ? Well, there is some consolation to be found in entertainment, and de Botton does provide a few hours' worth of not-too demanding entertainment. De Botton harps on biography -- the lived lives (and lived philosophies) -- which allows him to use fun anecdotes from these lives. De Botton also familiarly weaves in his own experiences and personal anecdotes -- including one in which he ... could not rise to the occasion while travelling with a lady-friend. (The Viagra-vendors have little to fear from de Botton's cheaper philosophical solution to this particular problem.) It makes for an amusing read, and many of his examples are neatly chosen and well-explained.
       De Botton does Montaigne particularly well (quoting him extensively), harping on the widely-read polyglot genius's implied belief that there is "no legitimate reason why books in the humanities should be difficult or boring; wisdom does not require a specialized vocabulary or syntax". This is, of course, de Botton's creed -- his writing is nothing if not straightforward and clear and readily comprehensible. In this book, however, it veers from the anecdotal and the light to the lite. There are fine thoughts here, but there is more complexity to these subjects than de Botton allows for. Consolation is not found as easily as de Botton suggests, and he does a disservice to his readers in suggesting that it is. Perhaps there is a basis for consolation in the philosophies he presents here, but it is not as simple as he implies.
       De Botton writes that just as we turn to doctors when we are physically unwell "we should turn to philosophers for the same reason when our soul is unwell." While we don't have much faith in the medical profession we do grant that they can generally alleviate most physical ills (through medication or surgical procedures); philosophical treatment is nowhere near as efficacious -- but de Botton wants us to believe that it can be. And unfortunately he does not convince.
       "Only that which makes us feel better may be worth understanding", de Botton also writes -- at least hedging his bets with the "may". In fact, surely, it is also essential to understand that which makes us feel worse (if only so that we may learn to avoid it). Similarly, there is much to be said for the acquisition of knowledge, most of which is bound to be useless, because it can open new horizons that may allow us to enjoy hitherto unknown pleasures of far greater orders of magnitude. De Botton's preference for wisdom over knowledge should be treated with particular care; veneration of what passes for wisdom often has turned out to be a lazy excuse for accepting ignorance. (We admit to a strong bias for knowledge over "wisdom"; certainly de Botton's loose and idealized definition of the latter term make it a preferable concept, but too often it is only a vacuous label, a term applied to something that is undeserving of it.)
       The Consolations of Philosophy is an enjoyable little book, but it is not entirely harmless. It must be read critically if it is to have any value, and in its presentation it does its best to avoid being examined critically. De Botton's idea of bringing philosophy to the masses and presenting it in an unthreatening manner (and showing how it might be useful in anyone's life), is admirable; the way he has gone about it is less so. If you read it, do so with care.

       There is an additional concern that we have with this book, which, curiously, was not raised in any of the reviews we read.
       Alain is the son of Gilbert de Botton, who unfortunately passed away in August, 2000 (after the publication of this book). Gilbert de Botton was one of the founders of Global Asset Management, and its chairman. According to The New York Times, he sold GAM to UBS in 1999 for 600 million US dollars (while remaining as chairman). We have no idea of how Gilbert de Botton's estate was distributed, but it seems safe to assume that Alain is ... more comfortable than pretty much anyone of us can ever imagine being (and that he had a rather privileged childhood).
       Certainly, money does not offer consolation for many of life's travails, especially the loss of one's father (or the inability to satisfy one's girlfriend), but Alain de Botton also has consolations which others can only dream of. De Botton does address the question of lack of money in his chapter on Epicurus, offering "consolations for not having enough money". He does not, however, mention that this issue was never really an issue for him. We do not know about other readers, but we don't really want to hear rich boys explaining why money really isn't such a big deal. Sorry, but it just does not ring true. At the very least, de Botton should have explained where he is coming from.
       One of Dad's projects, according to The New York Times, was "recreating the private library of the French philosopher Montaigne, tracking down and acquiring the books that were dispersed after his death in 1592" (Paul Lewis in The New York Times, August 30, 2000). Which also puts Alain's interest of Montaigne in a different light, and seems like something he might have wanted to mention. It might even have been more interesting and useful than the information he did share with his readers.

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The Consolations of Philosophy: Reviews: Related philosophical material: Alain de Botton: Gilbert de Botton: Other books by Alain de Botton under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Alain de Botton was born in Switzerland in 1969 and educated at Cambridge.

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