The Consolations of Philosophy

April 22, 2010

Philosophy can be practical and philosophers can be badasses.

Alain de Botton is passionate about philosophy’s relevance to everyday life. He’s given a TED talk on the subject, had a television show where he used the wisdom of philosophers to make real people’s lives better, and even operates a “School of Life” (a kind of walk-in philosophy parlor) in London. The Consolations of Philosophy is written in this very Socratic tradition. But in place of the old arguments for philosophy’s relevance that it inoculates us against being wrong, de Botton offers up six philosophers whose lives and works might prevent us from being, well, discouraged. To be sure, in trying to popularize and humanize these philosophers, de Botton runs the risk of trivializing them (as I certainly do in the summaries below.) But The Consolations of Philosophy isn’t intended as a rigorous philosophical work. Rather, it’s a delightful set of six biographies-of-ideas, each a mash-up of anecdote, philosophical argument, and practical advice.

The philosophers featured are mostly tragic figures who rose above their given circumstances, at times heroically, and their middle fingers have remained raised to fate for centuries. This book has little in common with Badass, but its subjects do mostly share the same core values: a dogged determination to be true to oneself, and a nigh-sociopathic disregard for anyone who stands in their way.

Socrates didn't give a fuck

Socrates: Consolation for Unpopularity

De Botton starts at the beginning with Socrates, perhaps the poster child for philosophy itself and a reasonable patron saint of the unpopular. While Aristophanes famously portrayed Socrates with his head in the clouds, we should respect Socrates for doing guerilla philosophy in the streets. It takes guts to approach random people and tell them why their comfortable assumptions about life are wrong, and old Socrates made a career of it. Of course, this pissed off a particularly sensitive faction of Athenians enough to have him sentenced to death, but Socrates accepted his fate without ever recanting his philosophy. Like Greg House in a toga, he was right and that’s all that mattered, even if he was clueless enough to defend himself with long, substantial arguments in a court system that valued rhetorical showmanship and sound bytes over logic (sound familiar?) But take heart you misunderstood, noble souls in the fact that Socrates still matters two millennia after his death and all anyone remembers about the rest of Athens is a penchant for sodomy.

Yet keep in mind that even if he was right old Socrates was still kind of an asshole. His method consisted of asking people to define things like truth, justice, and courage–things people find solace believing in–and finding exceptions to their definitions. (Happiness is material success, you say? What if a materially successful guy has his balls chewed off by a coyote? He’s not so happy then, is he? Try again.) Ultimate truths, he believed, were statements for which no exceptions could be found. Problem is, there will always be smartasses to find exceptions to every rule. And this, I think, is really why they killed Socrates: he exposed the blasphemous fact that all of our definitions and values are impossible to justify rationally. The douche.

Epicurus would not have owned a rolex

Epicurus: Consolation for Not Being Rich

Epicurus was much more laid back than Socrates. While his name gets attached to fancy food establishments and orgy-related entertainment, this reputation for excess is somewhat undue. Epicurus was a man of relatively humble means, and yet he was legendarily content because of an important realization. The things most people think are essential to happiness–money, power, brandy-infused Rolexes, etc.–are really only the falsely perceived means to what makes us truly happy: friendship, freedom and reflection. We think we need lots of money to be happy, but only because of the dubious (and possibly unrealized) assumption that money will make us friends–friendship being the real goal. Likewise with power and influence, which we think we need in order to be truly free, when in fact the pursuit of power often binds you in a strangling web of obligations, as any politician of note well knows.

Aside from the bare essentials like nourishment, shelter and not being eaten by lions, Epicurus tells us we don’t need much to be happy: just friendship and the ability to think about our lives and steer them in the direction we see fit. Of course, there is much money to be made in deceiving the masses about this. If you’re a guy, Unilever would have you believe their Axe body spray is the most potent means to, shall we say, “companionship.” But as Epicurus might tell us, why not just skip the middleman, be an outgoing gentleman, and get that companionship yourself? We have direct access to what we need to be happy (again: friends, freedom, and reflection), so ignore the marketing and societal messages trying to convince you that you need (or even deserve) to pay for some intermediary.

Seneca says don't worry, be happy

Seneca: Consolation for Frustration

Seneca was a teacher and adviser to Rome’s famously insane emperor Nero.1 Seneca saw that Nero was batshit, but whenever he asked to be exiled, Nero vowed that he would never let any harm come to his beloved teacher. Seneca was, tragically, smarter than that, but he lived out the rest of his life writing philosophy until the day Nero had him killed out of paranoia. Seneca’s wisdom? Frustration and anxiety stem from our having unrealistically optimistic assumptions about how the world works. He rightly saw that we’re pretty good at getting through frustrations that we’re prepared for. What really messes us up are frustrations that catch us off guard: things that go wrong that we blockheadedly assume were going to go swimmingly. Caught this way, we often respond by gnashing our teeth and beating our fists against walls instead of coolly analyzing the situation and getting beyond it. Seneca’s advice was to avoid being caught unprepared by taking stock of everything that might go wrong in a situation. Not only will we realize that most of what can go wrong isn’t catastrophic, but we’ll be able to plan ahead for these contingencies. Instead of assuming that traffic will part for us (stupid, but who among us hasn’t felt righteously indignant the moment the road starts clogging up?), just plan on there being traffic and leave a little early. It sounds simple, but how few people think this way!

He had specific advice for overcoming some particular unhealthy emotions. Anger he saw as a kind of madness, the result of unrealistically assuming that the universe will conspire to fulfill our every wish. Keep your expectations in check, and you will never be blinded by rage. Against shock, he would advise we think of Pompeii and Vesuvius and nothing should dumbfound us.2 If fortune can level entire cities in a day, what makes us think we should be spared? On indignation, Seneca thinks that while we may demand justice from our peers, only the fool expects it, and nobody may expect justice from an indifferent universe. Working for justice where we can is a lot more productive than whining about injustice. His consolation for anxiety is to expect that bad things will happen and assuage your anxiety by thinking of contingency plans. For those deep in sorrow, Seneca reveals the wisdom of a man who spent the final years of his life waiting for the executioner’s sword. As he told his friend Marcia upon the death of her son, “What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.”

Montaigne wrote about his bowel movements

Montaigne: Consolation for Inadequacy

Like Seneca, Michel de Montaigne warns against having unrealistic expectations. But in Montaigne’s case, it’s expectations we have of ourselves. Human beings are ridiculous creatures, he might say, so if you feel ridiculous, you’re simply more attuned to the truth than most. And we really are a strange bunch of primates, aren’t we? Think of the crazy things members of our species build, collect, wear and believe. Try to take someone seriously while imagining them on the toilet, having sex, or eating with their hands. Are these things taboo because they prevent us from taking ourselves too seriously? In his Essais, Montaigne wrote publicly and at length about the unsavory functions of his body, which was pretty revolutionary in his day when you consider the dominant Cartesian model, which favored the immortal, rational soul over the hunk of meat it calls home. So the next time the popular girl dejects you, or you feel like you’ll never attain the superhuman status of your heroes, remember the words of Montaigne immortally canonized in a children’s book: everybody poops.

An intellectual himself, Montaigne offered special consolation for intellectual insecurities. “If man were wise, he would gauge the true worth of anything by its usefulness and appropriateness to his life.” In other words, it’s not how much you know, but how well-tailored your knowledge is to your life. For Montaigne, the most practical knowledge to have is regarding everyday matters: what use is a synthetic a priori when you can’t balance your checkbook? Furthermore, people who sound smarter are often just using their big words and complex grammatical constructions to hide the unclarity of their ideas.

One of his most interesting realizations is that the educational system in his day (and ours) privileges the citing of existing, authoritative sources over expressing our own ideas. This contributes to a creativity-stifling impression that the best answers are all out there instead of here in your head. Google, as you might imagine, only makes this situation worse. Of course a student needs to grasp the wisdom of those who came first, but should do so always with an eye to criticizing and moving outward from it.

Schopenhauer was kind of emo

Schopenhauer: Consolation for Heartbreak

If you’ve just been dumped, you may be crazy enough to find some solace in old Schopenhauer’s ridiculous ideas about love. He held the very Darwinian view that romantic attraction is the expression of the will-to-life, a biological drive toward survival and reproduction. I’ll oversimplify the idea by calling it DNA, though Schopenhauer wouldn’t understand the term. It follows that perhaps love is merely the chemical carrot our DNA evolved to dangle before us in order to drive us to keep stirring up the gene pool. I believed this through most of high school and college, and like Schopenhauer, I was very lonely. And like me, Nietzsche found this view very attractive, because Nietzsche was also romantically inept. This was before Nietzsche became a (still romantically challenged) badass, but more on that later.

An extension of Schopenhauer’s view is that we don’t fall in love with the people most compatible with our personalities, but instead the people whom our DNA thinks will produce the fittest offspring with us. (Hence, tall guys go for short girls so as not to produce ridiculously tall people who will die from repeatedly bumping their heads on trees.3) So when you’re burnt out from having that same fight (the sixth time!) with your “special someone”, take comfort in the fact, Schopenhauer would say, that your DNA didn’t pick this person for their emotional compatibility. The point of love isn’t your happiness, it’s the propagation of your genes. And if you’re thinking that Schopenhauer’s is an untenable view and that nobody would want to cuddle with him, take comfort in the fact that you are right.

Nietzsche's animal avatar had huge balls

Nietzsche: Consolation for Difficulties

As you should deduce from his views on love, Schopenhauer was a pessimist. He writes that the best life is a short one, and that one should avoid suffering at all costs. He deserves some credit for bringing eastern views into the western philosophical conversation; however, he seems to adopt the Buddhist goal of eliminating suffering but without the Buddhist habit of smiling. While Nietzsche was head-over-heels for Schopenhauer in his youth (what teenager isn’t?), he soon came to see things differently. What if, he suggests, the degree of joy one may experience is directly proportional to the degree of suffering one is willing to endure? Kind of changes how you view hardship and difficulty, right? In an aphorism popularly translated as “what does not kill you makes you stronger”, he suggests that the burdens you whine about are in fact turning you into a metaphorical ninja grizzly bear with nunchuks4 improvised from its own testicles5. Do you not feel better already? Nietzsche’s was a life of suffering both physical and emotional, but what I love about this frail, awkward man is how heroically badass he is in his writing. He asked a woman to marry him days after meeting her (she declined), and then he went home to write a controlled demolition of western morality.6

Now, it’s important not to misunderstand Nietzsche, as a lot of sociopaths have done (cf. Leopold and Loeb, Hitler). The point isn’t to seek out or cause suffering for the sake of self-improvement. Overcoming those weaker than you just makes you a dumb bully. True growth and lasting strength come from overcoming yourself. Find and test your limits, and then show them who’s the boss. This is how I make sense of Nietzsche’s seemingly paradoxical counsel to “become who you are.” Who you are is a fine steak, but until you trim off all the fat, you’re just like any old chunk of meat. And when you come up against adversity–or what De Botton brilliantly calls “the savagery legitimately demanded by almost everything valuable”–Nietzsche offers the wisdom of the cow pasture: “If only we were fruitful fields, we would at bottom let nothing perish unused and see in every event, thing and man welcome manure.” Welcome manure! Let all the shit in the world not discourage but fertilize you! That’s the spirit.

  1. For example, Nero fancied this boy, but didn’t want to be called a homo in the forum, so Nero had the boy castrated and made him dress as a woman the rest of his life so he could marry him. 

  2. Nietzsche: “Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius!” 

  3. I don’t find this view compelling. After all, freakishly large (and/or bearded) babies could punch predators in the face, which evolution would find quite fit indeed. 

  4. also metaphorical 

  5. These are real. 

  6. Actually, he wrote On The Genealogy of Morals eleven years after proposing to the young lady, Mathilde Trampedach. Bonus points: he wrote his proposal in a letter, which he cluelessly gave to her boyfriend to deliver.