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The Consolations of Philosophy [Hardcover]

Alain De Botton
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (79 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 25 2000
From the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, a delightful, truly consoling work that proves that philosophy can be a supreme source of help for our most painful everyday problems.

Perhaps only Alain de Botton could uncover practical wisdom in the writings of some of the greatest thinkers of all time. But uncover he does, and the result is an unexpected book of both solace and humor. Dividing his work into six sections -- each highlighting a different psychic ailment and the appropriate philosopher -- de Botton offers consolation for unpopularity from Socrates, for not having enough money from Epicurus, for frustration from Seneca, for inadequacy from Montaigne, and for a broken heart from Schopenhauer (the darkest of thinkers and yet, paradoxically, the most cheering). Consolation for envy -- and, of course, the final word on consolation -- comes from Nietzsche: "Not everything which makes us feel better is good for us."

This wonderfully engaging book will, however, make us feel better in a good way, with equal measures of wit and wisdom.

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"It is common," Alain de Botton writes in The Consolations of Philosophy, "to assume that we are dealing with a highly intelligent book when we cease to understand it. Profound ideas cannot, after all, be explained in the language of children." While his easygoing exploration of philosophers from Socrates to Nietzsche isn't exactly written for the Blue's Clues set, few readers will cease to understand it. Furthermore, it's a joy to read. De Botton's 1997 How Proust Can Change Your Life forged a new kind of lit crit: an exploration of Remembrance of Things Past, delivered in the sweet-gummed envelope of an advice book. He returns to the self-help format here, this time plundering the great thinkers to puzzle out the way we ought to live.

What was stunning about the Proust book was de Botton's brazen annexing of a hallowed novelist to address lite emotional problems. That format is less arresting when applied to the philosophers, since which earnest philosophy major has not, from time to time, tried to apply the alpine heights of thought to his own humble worries? Usually, sophomoric attempts to turn to, say, Kant for advice on love tend to be unmitigated disasters. In de Botton's case, however, he is able to find consolation for a broken heart in Schopenhauer, consolation for inadequacy in Montaigne. Epicurus, usually associated with a love of luxury, is a solace for those of us without much money--and de Botton learns from him that "objects mimic in a material dimension what we require in a psychological one. We need to rearrange our minds but are lured towards new shelves. We buy a cashmere cardigan as a substitute for the counsel of friends."

Lest the reader become burdened by all this philosophizing, the book is peppered with illustrations--the section on Nietzsche of course includes a DC Comics drawing of Superman. And it's further leavened by the author's personal anecdotes and winning confessional tone. Early on, for instance, he admits his own gnawing need for popularity: "A desire to please led me to laugh at modest jokes like a parent on the opening night of a school play." Before he became a medicine man for the soul, de Botton was a first-rate novelist, and it shows in his writing. --Claire Dederer

From Publishers Weekly

Three years ago, de Botton offered a delightful encounter with a writer many find unapproachable, in his bestselling How Proust Can Change Your Life. Now he attempts a similar undertaking--not wholly successful--with the great philosophers. In clear, witty prose, de Botton (who directs the graduate philosophy program at London University) sets some of their ideas to the mundane task of helping readers with their personal problems. Consolation for those feeling unpopular is found in the trial and death of Socrates; for those lacking money, in Epicurus' vision of what is essential for happiness. Senecan stoicism assists us in enduring frustration; Schopenhauer, of all people, mends broken hearts (by showing that "happiness was never part of the plan"); and Nietzsche encourages us to embrace difficulties. Black-and-white illustrations cleverly (sometimes too cleverly) accent the text: a "Bacardi and friends" ad, for example, illustrates the Epicurean doctrine of confused needs. Self-deprecating confessions pepper the book, a succinct account of an episode of impotence being the most daring. The quietly ironic style and eclectic approach will gratify many postmodern readers. But since the philosophers' opinions often cancel each other out (Montaigne undermines Seneca's trust in rational self-mastery, and Nietzsche repudiates "virtually all" that Schopenhauer taught), readers will need to pick and choose whose cogitations to take to heart. At his best (e.g., on Socrates), de Botton offers lucid popularization--an enjoyable read with "a few consoling and practical things" to say. (Apr.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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A few years ago, during a bitter New York winter, with an afternoon to spare before catching a flight to London, I found myself in a deserted gallery on the upper level of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
I can't really say whether this book will help or console those going through the troubles the book deals with, mainly about the pain of unpopularity and lack of money and so on. But I read this book on a whim when I was going through a very harsh and prolonged sickness, and it lifted my spirits and took my mind off my body. What consoled me was learning about how others - famous deep thinkers of the past - dealt with their own pains and sorrows. I was going through a very real physical problem, but it's not necessarily the physical part of the body that needs consoling, but how the mind DEALS with the physical malady. A lot as has been said about how the mindset can affect the body. I won't delve into that, since this is a review of a book. But at least for those going through harsh times, this book will enlighten you. If not that, it will serve as a very entertaining escapism. In my case, it was both enlightenment and escapism.
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3.0 out of 5 stars de Botton's only genius is in marketing Feb. 3 2004
Let's start with the bad news: de Botton's book is not going to reveal much to anyone who has read very much philosophy, and will even annoy many philosophers and would be philosophers because it does not deal with "serious" philosophy. The good news is that, despite de Botton's sometimes very superficial rendering of the work of some of the great thinkers he discusses in Consolations, no one owns philosophy. (Philosophers: think that over before proceeding!)
There is no one kind of philosophy, no single "best" use to put it to, and no one right way of going about philosophizing.
De Botton has come under a fair amount of ridicule from philosophers for focusing on the problems of life we all face, instead of so-called "serious" philosophical problems. But this book wasn't written for philosophers, so those detractors should keep quiet. De Botton is clearly writing here for the non-philosopher, for the average person who had a more romantic vision of what modern philosophy was.
It is true that very few notable thinkers in the history of Western philosophy have written about such subjects as how to be happy, how to deal with grief or a broken heart, which are the aim of de Botton's efforts here. But some have. Among the six presented in the book, Seneca, Epicurus and Montaigne are examples. In the case of Socrates, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, De Botton uses the lives of these philosophers -- but not their philosophy - in order to pursue his self-help discussions. By doing so, he does not address the actual work of these thinkers, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he doesn't understand their real significance, nor is it a sign of his "betrayal" of these men or of philosophy.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining wisdom in a small book. Sept. 4 2003
This book was a great read. Alain de Botton shows what some of the greater thinkers had to say about everyday pains which all of us endure at some time in our lives:
Socrates on ridicule from the masses.
Epicurus on the pleasures of life.
Seneca on frustration which leads to temporary anger and being at peace with things you cannot control.
Montaigne on inadequacy (the title of the chapter), but really the value of a simple life, and the frustrations that lead to denying a picture of the whole individual which includes the rational and the physical such as farting, and sex.
Schopenhauer on the illusion of love and the causes of rejection.
Nietzche on the obstacles between us and our goals, and living a full and invigorating life.
Each chapter presents a theme, e.g. love lost, and a philosopher. What that philosopher had to say about the subject and the life of the philosopher and how that philosopher met with that difficulty. Scattered throughout are some nice photos and illustrations that help to emphasize the point and keep the book light.
I would say nearly every page had a nice juicy quote worthy of remembering that was written either by the philosopher or by Alain de Botton.
I particularly like the first 2-3 chapters where Botton summarizes in bullet form the guidelines to 'think rationally' according to Socrates, or Epicurus steps to discover if you believe that a desire is necessary for happiness.
The biggest surprises for me was the chapter on Epicurus and his recipe for happiness. I have been told by all my teachers that Epicurus was a 'party animal'. And that is all that was said about Epicurus. On the contrary, this chapter presents Epicurus as probably the first scientist for happiness; happy-ology.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Philosophy to make us feel better Dec 11 2002
The Consolations of Philosophy - Alain de Botton offers consolations for several everyday problems through a simplified voices of great philosopher. Those are:
1. Socrates - Unpopularity
Socrates, a man popular for being unpopular, says that popularity has nothin to do with truth or error, instead we should be concern with reasoning instead of major opinions.
2. Epicurus - Not having enough money
Not having enough money doesn't mean that we're not happy. Money only buys a safety net for it. Happiness is friendship, freedom, and thought.
3. Seneca - Frustration
That frustration leads to nowhere. Instead we better of endure and accept frustration
4. Montaigne - Inadequacy
No need to discourage and instead do something about it.
5. Schopenhauer - A broken heart
By telling the life story of Schopenhauer, who grief most of love.
6. Nietzsche - Difficulties
Nietzsche says that only through difficulties one can reach fulfilment
It's a light reading of philosophy to makes us feel better.
The language is simple and thus great as an introduction to philosophy.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Good Advice
Absolutely amazing. I love philosophy and I fing this book a great help to anyone going through difficulties or facing challenges. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Egyptology Post-grad
4.0 out of 5 stars Helpful ideas
A nice "bite sized" introduction to some of the major themes in philosophy, with hints of how they apply still to modern life.
Published 19 months ago by edward allen
2.0 out of 5 stars disappointed
I first saw this guy on video and liked his style. There seemed to be a push on his work (in the recommedations for you on Amazon) so I bought the book. Read more
Published on Dec 27 2011 by Brother Bill
5.0 out of 5 stars Wow
Plato, Socrates, Epicurus, Montaigne, Shopenhauer..."all" these philosophers lives and philosophies are vividly described by the author. Read more
Published on June 24 2004 by Kosovar
5.0 out of 5 stars consolotation for taking the time to read a book
Wondering what it's all about? Bothered by big questions, such as, why am I here, why have I no friends, why didn't I get a promotion ? Read more
Published on May 15 2004 by 2cleverbyhalf
4.0 out of 5 stars Completely Cute
I had purchased How Proust Can Change Your Life some time ago and thought that it was wonderful. I was in the bathroom at Powell's and saw a poster for this book and went and... Read more
Published on Feb. 9 2004 by John Smeltzer
3.0 out of 5 stars Cliff Notes for Philosophy
As with all things, this book has both positive and negative points. Alain De Botton writes in such a manner, that philosophy becomes available to the masses. Read more
Published on Jan. 22 2004 by M. W. Wheatley
4.0 out of 5 stars Delightful
Not to be mistaken for an introduction to philosophy, this little book is instead an entertaining primer on how to take a philosophical approach to life. Read more
Published on Dec 13 2003 by Anne
4.0 out of 5 stars A neat intro to ethics and moral phylosophy
What a treat! Everyone who enjoys independent thinking and has a self-depreciative sense of humor will enjoy this read. Read more
Published on May 12 2003 by NP
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book.
Alain de Botton is one of those people who has learned true wisdom from philosophy, successfully steering a middle course between technical trivia and sappy mysticism. Read more
Published on April 10 2003 by Mark I. Vuletic
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