The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton was recommended to me by one of my professors at university. She taught Marketing Theory and I was fascinated by the examples she used, often relating marketing and psychological ideas to philosophers and centuries-old thinkers. Below is a snippet of her email response regarding the book:
My view is that all students (and people in general) should read some philosophy as a great guide to thinking. So, I’d recommend starting with an interesting and easily digestible philosopher Alain de Botton – The Consolations of Philosophy.
The Consolations of Philosophy is indeed an interesting and easily digestible piece of literature. de Botton tracks the stories of the most reputable philosophers throughout time, spending one chapter with each and perfectly summarising and presenting their lessons for a modern audience. He touches on Socrates’ examinations of common sense, Seneca’s processes for dealing with frustration, Montaigne’s thoughts on inadequacy and several other notable works.
Maintaining the structure of the book, my notes are presented in philosopher-order, starting with Socrates. Some of the quotes are from the philosophers themselves and others are de Botton’s words. As always, hold on to what interests you, discard what does not.
Without further ado, here are the lessons and ideas that stuck with me most from The Consolations of Philosophy.
Socrates on Common Sense
On examining common sense: “Pottery looks as difficult as it is. Unfortunately, arriving at good ethical ideas doesn’t, belonging instead to a troublesome class of superficially simple but inherently complex activities.” (Pg 23)
- It’s much harder than it appears to arrive at common sense that is actually sensical. Much of what we experience as common sense may just be years and years of assumptions.
On right and wrong: “Errors in our thought and way of life can at no point and in no way ever be proven by the fact that we have run into opposition.” (Pg 29)
On selective listening: “True respectability stems not from the will of the majority but from proper reasoning. When we are making vases we should listen to the advice of those who know about turning glaze into Fe3O4 [a necessary material for making vases] at 800OC… Not everyone is worth listening to.” (Pg 33)
Epicurus on Happiness
On happiness: “The wise man chooses not the greatest quantity of food but the most pleasant.” – Epicurus. (Pg 58)
- Can also be thought of as the wise choosing the most rewarding, profitable or fulfilling option relative to the amount of effort required to achieve it. Very similar to Pareto’s Principle, also known as the 80/20 Rule.
On meeting basic needs: “As for eating meat, it relieves neither any of our nature’s stresses nor a desire whose non-satisfaction would give rise to pain… what it contributes to is not life’s maintenance but variation of pleasures… like drinking exotic wines, all of which our nature is quite capable of doing without” – Epicurus. (Pg 62)
- This quote stood out to me initially as it accurately describe my feelings towards meat consumption. My girlfriend and I actively try to reduce the amount of meat that we eat in a given day. It only dawned on me later that the enjoyment of simple pleasures that this quote preaches can also be taken as a salve for longing, envy and desire; emotions that often costs us happiness.
Seneca on Frustration
Side Note: I’m a huge fan of Tim Ferriss. Ferriss is constantly seeking ways to optimise his life and is a major advocate of the teachings of Seneca. As I was writing this section of my notes I received an email with a link to Ferriss’ latest TED Talk. This talk relates spectacularly to Seneca’s philosophy and is definitely worth a watch (and a follow of Tim Ferriss afterwards if it piques your interest).
On dealing with frustration: “… we best endure those frustrations which we have prepared ourselves for and understand and are hurt most by those we least expected and cannot fathom.” (Pg 81)
- This may seem relatively obvious, but I’ve been mulling this over since reading it. I began to noticed that anytime I become frustrated it is due to my assumptions about the world differing to those of reality.
On injustice: “Not everything which happens to us occurs with reference to something about us.” (Pg 93)
- This is true for apparent bad luck, the weather and feelings of being mocked or punished, among others. Bad things happen but not necessarily due to a flaw in our character.
On anxiety: “Seneca more wisely asks us to consider that bad things probably will occur, but adds that they are unlikely ever to be as bad as we fear.” (Pg 96)
On poverty and wealth: “Stoicism does not recommend poverty; it recommends that we neither fear nor despise it. It considers wealth to be, in technical formulation, a productum, a preferred thing – neither an essential one nor a crime.” (Pg 98)
- This passage describes the ability to cope. The following quote also sums it up well; “The wise man is self-sufficient in that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them.”
Montaigne on Inadequacy
On feeling inadequate: “What is the use of those high philosophical peaks on which no human being can settle and those rules which exceed our practice and our power? It is not very clever of [man] to tailor his obligations to the standards of a different kind of being.” (Pg 130)
- This is perhaps one of the most interesting passages within the book. It seems initially contrary to the purpose of the book itself to have this included, but I believe it is more effectively taken as a consolation for failing to achieve great heights. It does not dismiss philosophy or striving for great peaks, instead it reassures us that we are human and failure is a part of the journey towards those peaks.
On empathy: “Every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to; we have no other criterion of truth or right-reason than the example and form of the opinions and custom of our own country.” – Montaigne. (Pg 142)
- In a more modern context, no truth or reason outside of the circle of which we are a part of, whether geographically, demographically or online.
On intellectual inadequacy: “If man were wise, he would gauge the worth of anything by its usefulness and appropriateness to his life.” – Montaigne. (Pg 152)
- It is a mistake to feel inadequate when comparing ourselves to others who are quite unlike us.
On complexity: “Wisdom does not require a specialized vocabulary or syntax, nor does an audience benefit from being wearied.” (Pg 158)
- Difficulty does not always suggest value or correctness.
On creating: “Yet it is understandable to prefer to quote and write commentaries rather than speak and think for ourselves… commentators may be criticized for failing to do justice to the ideas of great thinkers; they cannot be held responsible for the ideas themselves.” (Pg 163)
- Why it is sometimes so difficult to put ourselves out there and create things ourselves, as opposed to synthesising the lessons of others. Possibly a little bit of irony here.
Schopenhauer on Heartbreak
On heartbreak: “We should not feel confused by the enormity of the upset that can ensue from only a few days of hope… Love could not induce us to take on the burden of propagating the species without promising us the greatest happiness we could imagine.” (Pg 195)
Nietzsche on Difficulties and Challenge
On difficulty: “What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other… you have the choice; either as little displeasure as possible, painlessness in brief… or as much displeasure as possible as the price for the growth of an abundance of subtle pleasures and joys that have rarely been realised yet?” – Nietzsche. (Pg 215)
The Consolations of Philosophy is a brilliant introduction to philosophy. If you found any worth in the above quotes and passages, pick up a copy of the book from Book Depository (the best and cheapest online book retailer I’ve found so far).