Flushed with the success of How Proust Can Change Your Life
, philosophical agony uncle Alain de Botton once more matches his precocious talents to addressing the anxieties of modern life with Consolations of Philosophy
. Dubbed the "Naked Philosopher", de Botton's cherubic charms match his grey matter, and this book, which has already inspired a Channel 4 series, sees him continue his one-man mission to sugar the pill of learning with his brilliant mixture of wit, wisdom and whimsy. So humans have six gurus and six concerns: Socrates on unpopularity, Epicurus on lack of money, Seneca on frustrations, Montaigne on inadequacy, Schopenhauer on a broken heart and Nietzsche on the necessity of difficulties. And then there is a seventh: de Botton himself, artfully infusing others' palliative musings with souffléd epigrams of his own, and marshalling his arguments with an insouciance that belies considerable skill. De Botton was already appealing to the likes of Wittgenstein, Aristotle and Montaigne for romantic guidance in his novels, Kiss and Tell
, Essays in Love
and The Romantic Movement
, and with How Proust Can Change Your Life
, he finally dropped the pretence of plot and concentrated on the digressions, albeit with a slightly eager charm. Where that book was dazzling, the glow of Consolations of Philosophy
burns more deeply, displaying a more sober and polished application of his undoubted mental prowess, without losing his distinctive playfulness. He brings to the essay form something of what Milan Kundera brings to the novel and, like him, while still respecting the boundaries he oversteps, he hopscotches genres with spring heels. It is Montaigne whom de Botton most admires and, indeed, most resembles in style--he says of the 16th-century Frenchman: "in Montaigne's scheme of intelligence, what matters in a book is usefulness and appropriateness to life" and it's a recipe he himself assiduously and rewardingly follows. Jamie Oliver take note, dry crusts have rarely been made so appetising and digestible. --David Vincent
Alain de Botton's (henceforth, 'Alain') opus minimus
has achieved three remarkable things. It has made philosophy popular, it has made philosophy fashionable, and, most remarkable of all, it is not completely awful. The book, as everyone by now must know (after the TV series, which evidently precedes and creates the book), is a series of vignettes - 'episodes' - in which Alain ponders how a select few, fairly ancient, philosophers, might address a few key personal problems. Being unpopular, being poor, being unloved, and so on.
Not on the face of it, a particularly clever idea. But then, no one else seems to have thought of doing it, so Alain must have what in Internet terms is called 'first mover' advantage. His book may not be all that good, and doubtless will spawn a batch of hopping, croaking competitors, but it is unlikely to be overshadowed.
And actually, at least by the standards of philosophy books, it is very readable. The usual deathless philosowaffle that characterises ango-american philosophy has been ruthlessly pared to a minimum, making room for the an eclectic and, it must be said, frequently irritatingly banal, series of pictures of chocolate milk and old-paintings-with-a-philosophical-flavour. But, at least the book has 'narrative flow'. Indeed, it has some style.
How good is the philosophy? I read the chapter on Nietzsche with interest. Alain deals with the suggestion that Nietzsche was in fact a very nasty bit of work (he wanted most people to suffer and die so that they could contribute to the amusement of an elite - which would consist only of men, women being an inferior species) is swiftly disposed of by attributing all the nasty bits in Nietzsche's writings to (implausibly) his sister. A picture of whom, greeting a Mr Hitler is interposed in to the text to underline the point.
Socrates is portrayed as a noble creature misunderstood by his contemporaries, and piquantly made to drink hemlock. The moral, Alain explains, is not that it is important to be popular, but it is important to be right. In fact, Alain suggests, to be logical.
Now this is overstating the logic of Socrates' own approach. Aristotle maybe, would have appreciated this epitaph. But Socrates is above all, a romantic, who believes in 'the power of the Good'. Happily, Alain comes back to this question later in the book, and redresses the balance. Indeed, frequently, the philosophers are produced, made to put forward a firm position, only for the contrary assumptions to reappear in later chapters.
But then, the attention span of a TV viewer is only ten minutes, and that is the origin of this particular work. it may be weak, platitudinous and intellectually pompous, but it is also a very good read. -- Martin Cohen in 'The Philosopher', Online edition, April 2000