The Roots Of Philosophy: Alain de Botton’s Pragmatic Advice

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“Philosophy is dead,” wrote Stephen Hawking in The Grand Design. While Hawking was pointing to philosophy’s value in the sciences, his declaration signals a general dismissal of the study and the humanities as a whole. But Hawking’s quote is exaggerated. The philosopher isn’t exclusive to armchair sentinels searching for the meaning of life, but available to “anyone with a curious and well-ordered mind who seeks to evaluate a common-sense belief…” In The Consolations of Philosophy Alain de Botton highlights great philosophers to answer quotidian questions as to how to live, bringing philosophy back to its roots. Unveiling the ostensibly magnificent shroud that belies philosophy as the pursuit of meaningless questions, de Botton offers advice from enduring unpopularity to the value of heartbreak, answering everyday trials through the words of perspicuous thinkers.

Unpopular opinions are bashed by pugnacious commentators. And managing virulent critics against your own words can be a dispiriting undertaking. Each comment stacks atop a person’s back until they can no longer shrug, and collapse. “It seems implausible that our society could be gravely mistaken in its beliefs and at the same time that we would be alone in noticing the fact.” General non acceptance of a belief brings it into question and renders intuition unreliable.

“Social life is beset with disparities between others’ perceptions of us and our reality. We are accused of stupidity when we are being cautious. Our shyness is taken for arrogance and our desire to please for sycophany. We struggle to clear up a misunderstanding, but our throat goes dry and the words found are not the ones meant. Bitter enemies are appointed to positions of powers over us, and denounce us to others. In the hatred unfairly directed towards an innocent philosopher we recognize an echo of the hurt we ourselves encounter at the hands of those who are either unable or unwilling to do us justice.”

To negotiate adversity de Botton cites Socrates’ unrelenting allegiance to his unpopular philosophy. Revered in modernity, the inquisitive street scholar was eschewed by many of his fellow Athenians. Ultimately Socrates was forced to take his life by drinking hemlock, a task he undertook with uncompromising dignity. “We forget that time may be needed for prejudices to fall away and envy to recede.” But outcast beliefs are not a sign of truth. What validates an idea is not widespread agreement but its alignment with reason.

“It would be as naïve to hold that unpopularity is synonymous with truth as to believe that it is synonymous with error. The validity of an idea or action is determined not by whether it is widely believed or widely reviled but by whether it obeys the rules of logic. It is not because an argument is denounced by a majority that it is wrong nor, for those drawn to heroic defiance, that it is right.”

Reading works heralded as genius, such as Aristotle or Spinoza, can inspire new chains of reasoning but can also breed self-inadequacy. Treacherous mountains block the path to intellectual greatness. “It is common to assume that we are dealing with a highly intelligent book when we cease to understand it.” But understanding Emil Cioran’s rhapsody to the absurd does not indicate wisdom. Through the Essays of Michel de Montaigne de Botton offers consolations for intellectual inadequacy.

Montaigne forsook the cultural orthodoxy of what and intellectual ought to know, and dissected knowledge into its basic ingredients. Reciting Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics may impress a professor but it is not sagacity. A sharp contrast exists between learning and wisdom.

“In the category of learning he placed, among other subjects, logic, etymology, grammar, Latin and Greek. And in the category of wisdom, he placed a far broader, more elusive and more valuable kind of knowledge, everything that could help a person to live well, by which Montaigne meant, help them to live happily and morally.”

Knowing Latin and Sophocles’ tragedies may be conducive to a party conversation but it doesn’t necessitate a virtuous life. And if a work’s prose is convoluted it doesn’t follow that some great message is hidden between its cadence. Montaigne dismisses such authors. “Writing with simplicity requires courage, for there is a danger that one will be overlooked, dismissed as simpleminded by those with a tenacious belief that impassable prose is a hallmark of intelligence.”

“Yet in Montaigne’s schema of intelligence, what matters in a book is usefulness and appropriateness to life; it is less valuable to convey with precision what Plato wrote or Epicurus meant than to judge whether what they have said is interesting and could in the early hours help us over anxiety or loneliness. The responsibility of authors in the humanities is not to quasi-scientific accuracy, but to happiness and health.”

Aspiring to a meaningful life, brimming with wisdom, is inevitably woven with difficulties and plateaus that seem to stretch into infinity. Life is a struggle. Friedrich Nietzsche recognized suffering as natural, even necessary, to living completely within the world. Like yin and yang each achievement needs its opposite as a catalyst.

“Because no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish to one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfillment.”

No genius epitomizes greatness upon being born. What separates geniuses from others is a willingness to cultivate suffering like an ugly root. “We should not feel embarrassed by our difficulties, only by our failure to grow anything beautiful from them… Fulfillment is reached by responding wisely to difficulties that tear one apart.” Accept suffering and till its fields until a rope is fashioned to climb peaks and reach fulfillment. “[Nietzsche] had judged difficulties to be a critical prerequisite of fulfillment, and hence knew saccharine consolations to be ultimately more cruel than helpful… Not everything which makes us feel better is good for us. Not everything which hurts may be bad.”

The Consolations of Philosophy is the perfect introduction to philosophy, offering practical advice for universal difficulties. It is an accessible work that can be turned to in times of difficulty. Alain de Botton also co-founded The School of Life, an organization exploring the merits of the humanities, and narrates YouTube videos on a wide range of thought-provoking questions.