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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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First Sentence
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
5.0 out of 5 stars Good Advice May 8 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Absolutely amazing. I love philosophy and I fing this book a great help to anyone going through difficulties or facing challenges. Botton manages to offer advice in a tangent way that doesn't change your circumstances but helps you change your perspective on how you feel about it.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Helpful ideas March 25 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A nice "bite sized" introduction to some of the major themes in philosophy, with hints of how they apply still to modern life.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Clear, Concise, and Helpful Aug. 2 2002
Stay ten feet away from this book if you think philosophy is a sacrosanct subject that can't be joked about. De Botton brilliantly juxtaposes serious text with photographs and diagrams that, by their very simplicity and obviousness, lighten the mood. I snorted when I reached the example of the "inebriated amateur potter" on pages 30-31. The humor is definitely quirky and you have to be willing to accept it for what it is.
There is not a single sentence of this book written in jargon; any reader can appreciate its clarity and wit. It features entertaining biographies and a few philosophical lessons from six philosophers: Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. The second, third, and fourth were my favorites. Epicurus valued material pleasures but nevertheless counseled that, as long as we have food and shelter enough to survive, we should be contented. Seneca observed that we cannot control our own destinies and that life does not distribute pleasures and pains fairly, and warned us not to be surprised or outraged when disaster strikes. Montaigne pointed out that our minds are not in total control of our bodies, so, for example, if your sexual performance is not as vigorous as desired, you do not have to be ashamed but rather can openly admit that your body is being noncompliant with your desires.
These are all useful gems of wisdom. And from "The Consolations of Philosophy" we indirectly learn that humor is a kind of consolation, too.
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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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2.0 out of 5 stars disappointed Dec 27 2011
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. I'm no scholar but I sure expected more in the written format and from a man with his credentials. As with most descriptions and reviews, this was presented as much more than it turned out to be. There are flashes of his wit and knowledge but overall I found it quite disappointing. It seems that this was more of an outline for a book rather than a finished product from a scholar. The illustrations are fillers to increase the size of the book and to add the illusion that it is an in-depth work. I bought it on-line, had I looked at it in a store I would not have purchased it. Seems to me that it's another example of publishers cashing-in on popularity and reputation to make a quick buck at the expense of the readers. I may give this guy one more chance before I stop reading his material.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Wow June 24 2004
By Kosovar
Plato, Socrates, Epicurus, Montaigne, Shopenhauer..."all" these philosophers lives and philosophies are vividly described by the author.
You'd absolutely love this book.
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5.0 out of 5 stars consolotation for taking the time to read a book May 15 2004
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 ? The answers, my friend, are blowing in the wind. But if you've double glazing and can't stand the idea of religion or codology, then you should read this book. It'll give you the vague idea that you're nothing special, everybody hurts (sometime) and you should probably pull your socks up.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Completely Cute Feb. 9 2004
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 picked up a copy right away. I really like the fact that he doesn't pick typical philsophers (Descartes, Kant, Wittgenstein). This was really my first exposure to Montaigne, Seneca, and Epicurus. His commentary was great as was the style and format of the book. Lots of pictures keep the spirit of it light and airy. This book felt actually helpful with the problems it dealt with, and I'm inspired to check into these philosophers that I didn't know so much about prior to this. I'd suggest this to anyone interested in philosophy, or I think it would make an excellent gift.
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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars de Botton's only genius is in marketing
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... Read more
Published on Feb. 3 2004 by Richard Peel
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
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining wisdom in a small book.
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... Read more
Published on Sept. 4 2003 by Godfrey T. Degamo
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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