Philosophy

14th April 2000 at 01:00
THE CONSOLATIONS OF PHILOSOPHY. By Alain de Botton. Penguin pound;14.99

There's no pleasing philosophers. Most of the time everybody ignores them, but when they get their 15 minutes of fame they grumble that they're being misrepresented. So it was with Sophie's World, the book by Jostein Gaarder that the public adored and the philosophers sniffed at, and so it will certainly be with Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy.

It's easy to see why the book and the accompanying TV series will be hits. De Botton is a terrific writer. He communicates ideas with facility, enthusiasm and a literary flourish. What's more, this book gives people what they want from philosophy: advice and help on how to live. De Botton has selected six philosophers whose thought, he believes, can help us to be happier and more at peace. This is philosophy as therapy without a hint of the jargon and technical complexity of much academic philosophy.

So why is de Botton almost certainly right when he predicts many academics are going to be outraged? There are just too many reasons to mention them all. But first, de Botton seems to be endorsing Epicurus' view, which sits alone on the back cover, that "any philosopher's argument which does not therapeutically treat human suffering is worthless". In doing so he consigns the vast majority of Western philosophy to the dustbin. Questions such as "what is the difference between knowledge and belief?" and "do objects have an immutable essence?" have been central concerns of philosophers from all ages, and they just aren't questions about what makes us happy.

What's more, de Botton's pick-and-mix approach results in serious misrepresentation. Socrates, for example, argues that our main goal in philosophy should be to find the truth, not happiness. He didn't believe we would have to choose between the two, bt it is important to realise which he saw as most important. Nietzsche abhorred the idea of adopting philosophical ideas as palliatives, yet de Botton finds no problem in taking a piece of him to console us with.

The pearls of wisdom de Botton selects for us are also rather commonplace: if we expect the worst, we will be less upset when bad things happen; reason, not popular opinion, is what makes a belief right or wrong; there is a difference between wisdom and learning; happiness depends more on a minimum level of comfort, friendship, freedom and thought than on being rich. If this is the culmination of more than two millennia of philosophical enquiry, then perhaps we really should be doing something else.

And yet, as the criticisms pile up, I am reminded of Forrest Gump, the 1994 film about the simpleton whose down-home wisdom touched the hearts of everyone he met. Some found it delightful, others were appalled at its celebration of dumbness. But others thought both had missed the point: the film was a satire.

I would not like to suggest that de Botton's insights match the banality of Gumpisms such as "life is like a box of chocolates - you never know what you're going to get". De Botton has drawn from a well of genuine timeless truths. Nor can this book really be seen as a satire.

Yet I wonder if de Botton has his tongue firmly in his cheek. Are the sneerers missing the point that his book is nothing more than a playful and clever attempt to stick an enquiring finger into the philosophical pie and pull out a juicy plum or two? Perhaps there is a clue in the book's title, borrowed from Boethius. This should not be seen as a book about philosophy, but as one about some of its consolations.

The real prizes lie elsewhere.

Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers' Magazine (www.philosophers.co.uk)


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