Friday, September 12, 2008

book review - The Consolations of Philosophy

For some readers the idea of willingly delving into a book about philosophy and some of the big ideas would not be a pleasurable experience. So perhaps it is in response to that Alain de Botton chooses to use a vast number of illustrations not only to illustrate who and what he is referring to in the text but also to make it a much more appealing read.

There is also something about his confidence in describing some of the greatest names in his field with a familiarity that clearly comes from his knowledge but also helps provide more personality to what could otherwise be overpowering philosophical brands.

So for instance Schopenhauer is described as a goth type character always looking on the dark side or life, Nietzsche someone so determined to prove that suffering leads to greatness he was still arguing that case as his life fell apart. Plus of course the famous Greeks who literally died for their beliefs finding that sharing your views and then standing by them was not universally popular.

The way the book is structured it is almost like a self help guide to using the great thoughts of others to boost your own outlook on life. So for instance Socrates will teach you that being unpopular might not be such a bad thing, particularly if you are right; Epicurus will reveal that friendship and self-sufficiency is real wealth because it creates the freedom to think; and Schopenhauer is happy to point out why love rarely runs smoothly.

One of the big surprises though was the chapter on Nietzsche who was clearly saying a great deal more that religion was nonsense and a super race will control the earth. Although it takes a bit of time the diagram and pictures help get the message through that there is a philosophy around the idea of the benefits of suffering. Rather than give up an accept that life has played you a cruel hand it is possible to learn from the pain of failure and become a better person.

This is the real take-away from the book for me because it sums up a positive philosophy that could genuinely have some impact in your day to day life.

In terms of whether or not this book succeeds in its aims it works well enough. Some critics at the time of publication said philosophy was the new rock and roll but if you stand back objectively from it the need for numerous images hints at the inaccessibility that most people continue to surround this subject with.

Putting it down you have to summarise that you have certainly learnt something but that there is also a great deal left to work out in yourself. Facing the big questions is never a comfortable idea and this is made more comfortable than you might have expected but whether or not it really lingers on in the imagination is harder to predict.

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