The Consolations of Philosophy. Alain De Botton
Hamish Hamilton pounds 14.99
Alain De Botton's previous book How Proust Can Change Your Life is a hard act to follow. Those who attempted the original works but could never get past the 200-page descriptions of Proust's early life were delighted with De Botton's modern-day crib sheet. By reading De Botton you never have to bother with the real thing.
You could call The Consolations of Philosophy an even more ambitious crib sheet. De Botton turns the great minds of history, among them Socrates, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, into self-help gurus with cleverly packaged one-line summations, irreverent use of illustrations and short fictional bursts. Now that we've turned our backs on psychoanalysis we have to look elsewhere for emotional help. Philosophy offers a handkerchief.
The insecure can benefit from Socrates who, writes De Botton, 'sided with what he believed to be true rather than what he knew would be popular', under an illustration of a Nesquick chocolate milk drink. In other words, Socrates stood up to the bullies. Socratic method should be taught in the school yard.
Epicurus offers consolation for the hard-up. 'Pleasure is the beginning and the goal of a happy life,' he writes, continuing that happiness is not about material wealth but about friendship, freedom and thought: 'The possession of the greatest riches does not resolve the agitation of the soul nor give birth to remarkable joy.'
To overcome frustration one should turn to Seneca, who, writes De Botton, teaches us 'not to aggravate the world's obstinacy through our own responses: rage, self-pity, anxiety, bitterness, self-righteousness and paranoia. Rage is caused by an almost comic conviction that a given frustration has not been written into the contract of life.'
Seneca asks: 'What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.' In other words, it is only by accepting the world as an unfair place that we can face disappointment and tragedy with equanimity.
Montaigne offers us some early sex therapy. 'One man's honest, unguarded portrait of himself - in which he mentions impotence and farting ... and explains that he needs quiet when sitting on the toilet - enables us to feel less singular about sides of ourselves that have gone unmentioned in normal company and normal portraits, but which are no less a part of our reality.'
The intellectually inadequate can be assuaged by knowing that 'only that which makes us feel better is worth understanding'.
Arthur Schopenhauer can help with a broken heart. A contemporary love story with Schopenhauerian notes teaches us that just because a woman doesn't return your phone call does not mean you should throw in the towel. Schopenhauer's will to live (Wille zum Leben) is defined by De Botton as 'an inherent drive in human beings to stay alive and to have children'. In other words, the woman who ditched you was probably not meant to be the mother of your children. Short men are attracted to tall women and stupid women to intelligent men: it's all a big hormonal evolutionary race.
Friedrich Nietzsche may be famous for his concept of the Ubermensch (a descriptive term for his literary heroes) but he is really useful for those facing emotional difficulties.
Nietzsche was writing about low frustration tolerance (the new buzzwords in psychology) more than 100 years ago. 'Fulfilment is reached by responding wisely to difficulties that could tear one apart,' explains De Botton. 'Nietzsche urged us to endure.' To regard states of distress in general as an objection and something that must be abolished is stupid, he continues. 'Without frustration one can never achieve greatness.'
His simplistic approach to philosophy may infuriate the academic community, but for those who never bothered with Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics or Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals, this is a welcome, witty respite. It's McDonald's for the mind.