Alain de Botton: The Consolations of Philosophy and the Art in Everyday Existence

The Consolations of Philosophy (2000)

This is the ultimate self-help book. De Botton picks six ordinary problems: Unpopularity; Not having enough money; Frustration; Inadequacy; A broken heart; and Difficulties, and presents the lives and philosophies of six thinkers as means to achieve solutions.

Rarely does it occur to us that the philosophers of the early ages have anything to say about the conflicts small and large we suffer as we try to maneuver through various aspects of our lives and our careers. Here, de Botton distills the philosophies of Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and presents readers with a virtual guidebook on how to handle stress and difficulties using the lessons from said teachers and intellectuals. What does Schopenhauer say about being alone? Or Socrates about remaining steadfast in your belief even in the face of hostility? Can Epicurus give consolation to someone who doesn’t have enough money? How will Montaigne’s philosophy address and remove feelings of inadequacy?

Ordinarily when we need advice or a patient ear, we turn to friends or relatives we respect; de Botton gives another alternative: consult the philosophers and see what they have to say about your problem. More often than not, the solutions that the philosophers — and de Botton – recommend have to do with making adjustments in our personal behavior and views of others and the world.

For instance, on dealing with frustrations of not having enough money, de Botton offers the Athenian Epicurus.

It’s a common misconception that Epicurean philosophy was all about hedonism — the single-minded pursuit of pleasure for the sake of it. What comes to mind are all-night partying, ostentatious living and scandalous affairs.

The real Epicurus extolled none of that. What he prescribed as a solution to unhappiness and the problems caused by envy of others was simplicity. According to him, life became pleasurable when you succeeded in ridding yourself of unnecessary wants and needs and secured the support and affection of true friends.

Epicurus also went as far as to separate desires into three categories — the natural and necessary (Friends, Freedom, Thought, Food, Shelter and Clothes); the natural but unnecessary (Grand House, Private Baths, banquets, Servants, Fish and Meat); and the neither natural nor necessary (Fame, Power).

Happiness, the philosopher said, was not reliant on the amount of money you earn or the accumulation of various possessions. Having freedom to read and think, to confide in people you trust, and to enjoy food you prepared yourself are enough for any one to be happy.

De Botton synthesizes Epicurean philosophy for the modern society: “Most businesses stimulate unnecessary desires in people who fail to understand their true needs, levels of consumption would be destroyed by greater self-awareness and appreciation of simplicity.” It is in the interests of commercial enterprises to skew the hierarchy of our needs, to promote a material vision of the good and the downplay an unsaleable one.

The many causes of life’s anxieties, Epicurus says, comes as a result of objects and goals that are unnecessary.

The Art of Travel (2002)

Not everyone has the luxury of time or money to go places, but where we are and the things immediately around us can already teach us and bring us farther than our ordinary experience.

In this book, de Botton presents a means to see and perhaps understand the world and humanity through the eyes of artists — poets, novelists, painters — and their work. It’s not only travel in the physical sense that he describes, but how to be a true traveler who sees more than what the eyes can perceive and experiences all that he can absorb with an open mind and heart. As he visits a myriad of places from Madrid to Barbados to London, he uses as tour guides the work and lives of the likes of poet Charles Baudelaire, painter Edward Hopper, the author of Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert, the tortured genius Vincent Van Gogh, and the biblical character Job.

It doesn’t matter if you travel to Egypt or Amsterdam; or if you ride a steamship to get there or a plane; what counts is cultivating the habit of noticing. Our appreciation of what we see around us is heightened by the depth of our awareness and knowledge about the object or phenomenon. The same then can be said of our understanding of society itself and its economic and political workings: the more we learn about it, the more that we can understand about our own circumstances especially if it’s evident that what trials and tribulations we suffer cannot be accrued to our own faults, irresponsibility, laziness, etc. Learning first comes from observation and, from there, understanding can begin. It may be far off in the process, but new knowledge can lead and has often led to positive action.

This is what happened in the cases of the tour guide artists who’s respective work sought to comment on the societies they were born to, its norms and traditions, and the rules of what merits something beautiful or correct. The more we observe and learn, the greater will our drive be to create and to create something daring or insightful. It can be our reaction to what already exists — say, a society where injustice is prevalent — or our aspiration for something to happen, for example, the attainment of true democracy. Artists use their work to express more than themselves, but to denounce or to praise the status quo and its elements.

Finally in the book, de Botton posits that to be a true traveller is to be more than a visitor or a tourist: it means learning. Traveling to places far removed from the places of our origins grants us a set of fresh eyes. We can compare the differences between our current abode and the one we left behind, and acknowledge that there are more than ecological or environmental variances but the discrepancies between societies are more of a man-made, willful and systemic nature. What we do with our realizations is our choice. As we travel the world, we also conduct journeys within.

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  1. "…gain a healthier respect for the working people if we understood better the nature of their work and the difficulties they experience in the conduct of their tasks."

    How true. My atheistic tendencies melted rapidly when I went fishing with Badjaos in Palawan. We went through 2 1/2 storms spawned in the Sulu Sea. The Badjaos slept through it, went about it nonchalantly, or took care of tasks that had to be done, in a manner that was just part of daily life. My tiny book of Rumi barely sustained my enthusiasm for the once in a lifetime experience. Ten days at sea, we bagged 600 kilos of corral fish, all of it shipped to Manila and ritzy Asian cities. What an experience though. I'll never forget the dolphins that welcome us as we entered the fishing zone, as dawn broke out in the Sulu Sea. The peaceful, in the moment moment, lasted long enough, then the sea unleashed its fury. My Badjao brothers were in the cradle of their mother, the sea. It was hell for me at times, my hell, their heaven.

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