The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Botton


We must, between periods of digging in the dark, endeavour always to transform our tears into knowledge.

This book serves as an introduction to philosophy to those who hold a fear of those tepid waters. A ‘philosophy-for-dummies’ if you will. There’s this stereotype that those who study philosophy must be a bit mad. I would agree and disagree: in a village of mad men, the sane would be considered crazy, for what is madness but a deviation from what is accepted as normal? Paulo Coelho realised this when he said that in this society of the mad, it makes perfect sense to have a colourful piece of string (quite like a noose) tied around your neck all day that serves no practical purpose yet is considered the epitome of fine dressing: the tie, this banal article of clothing, should be one of the indicators of a society unaware of its own insanity.

There is nothing dreadful in life for the man who has truly comprehended that there is nothing terrible in not living. -Epicurus

When I speak about philosophy I’m not referring to the quaint text-book style brand one gets in classrooms dedicated to spitting out conformists. No, true philosophy is Medusa’s head of snakes: wild, untamed and dangerous (at least dangerous to guarded prejudices). Its very allure being that it does not fit into convention. But alas, we have ruined that by serving up piecemeal philosophy aimed at restating whichever ideologies we are looking to package en masse. True philosophy must be rebellious, unrestrained, frantic: a search in the ether for that which has no business being in the ether.

Sometimes I speak to men and women just as a little girl speaks to her doll. She knows, of course, that the doll does not understand her, but she creates for herself the joy of communication through a pleasant and conscious self-deception. -Schopenhauer

Ebriel Afegbua.jpg

Art by Ebriel Afegbua

I stumbled across a quote while shuffling my way through the minefields of literature, ‘a little philosophy will take you away from God, enough will lead you back’. Truth has never been so lyrical. It astounds me to be quite frank, the ease and comfort and even, dare I say, confidence with which our generation extols its ignorance. We have become (I beg nobody’s pardon for this statement) enamoured with stupidity. By stupidity I don’t mean failing tests meant to reaffirm your agreement with somebody else’s truths; by stupidity I mean having access to knowledge but refusing to engage it.  It should be sacrilege to have so much information abounding, yet be perfectly content stumbling in the dark, heads down, fixated on the glare from our phone screens. What, I wonder, has modern man gained from being connected 24 hours to streams of information but for a daunting collection of ‘alternative facts’. Philosophy should be granted the title of the highest of arts. That is not likely to happen seeing as how our age seems to function under the belief that thinking too hard results in spontaneous combustion. But as always, I digress.

If you wish to put off all worry, assume that what you fear may happen is certainly going to happen. -Seneca

Philosophy is where you ought to go to get answers, well not really to get answers but to awaken the answers within yourself. As Plato puts it, all learning is merely a recollecting. One of the greater absurdities that mankind falls prey to is seeking counsel from our contemporaries in ignorance; we have come to believe that the blind can in fact lead the blind and assertions to the contrary were simply wrong. I think what we seek for in these advice-plucking sojourns of ours is not really truth but a mirror for our beliefs. What is that beautiful phrase? When you ask a question, you will get an answer, you will not necessarily get the truth. We ought to do away with this fear we enjoy nurturing of having our opinions contradicted and the foundations of our beliefs shaken; we need to be open to knowledge.

Kamau Lemne

Art by Kamau Lemne

If you put me to death, you will not easily find anyone to take my place. The fact is, if I may put the point in a somewhat comical way, that I have been literally attached by God to our city, as though it were a large thoroughbred horse which because of its great size is inclined to be lazy and needs the stimulation of a gadfly … If you take my advice you will spare my life. I suspect, however, that before long you will awake from your drowsing, and in your annoyance, you will take Anytus’s advice and finish me off with a single slap; and then you will go on sleeping. -Socrates

I was recently asked quite a vexing question: what philosophy I subscribe to. The thought had never crossed my mind that one could (or should) bind themselves to a philosophy (except perhaps if you manage to create one from a mound of clay and a rib then you really can’t escape the responsibility of being bound to it). I am a relativist by choice, so I am not taken by the idea of one path to truth. I do think that is important to read philosophy, any philosophy (we must defeat the demons of stupidity lest they are transferred to the next generation and acquire a malignant form). To be quite honest I don’t understand people who have no outlet for curiosity. These creatures do not read, they don’t travel, they don’t speak to people outside their circle, they apparently only listen to a certain type of music, watch a certain genre of film; really, are these men or beasts? Such an existence is to be confined to a cell of your own making by your own chains.

To learn that we have said or done a stupid thing is nothing, we must learn a more ample and important lesson: that we are but blockheads. -Montaigne

What is the consolation of philosophy? The consolation of philosophy lies in the knowledge that our states are not novel. We are not beating down any new paths through the wilderness; we are not driftwood at sea. Philosophy grants us the answers to questions we thought unanswerable, problems we thought were unsolvable. Philosophy is that straw that drowning men grasp for. The key to salvation is found in the well-worded contemplation of mortals such as ourselves who did not seem to think, as we do, that thinking was an evil to be avoided at all costs.

If you refuse to let your own suffering lie upon you even for an hour and if you constantly try to prevent and forestall all possible distress way ahead of time; if you experience suffering and displeasure as evil, hateful, worthy of annihilation, and as a defect of existence, then it is clear that [you harbour in your heart] … the religion of comfortableness. How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable … people, for happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together or, as in your case, remain small together. -Nietzsche


5 thoughts on “The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Botton

  1. Paulo Coelho realised this when he said that in this society of the mad, it makes perfect sense to have a colourful piece of string (quite like a noose) tied around your neck all day that serves no practical purpose yet is considered the epitome of fine dressing: the tie, this banal article of clothing, should be one of the indicators of a society unaware of its own insanity….
    This right here is the true defination of insanity.
    Great article, made me forget the environment around me for some time.

    Liked by 1 person

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