Comforting, but meaningless. In seeking to popularise philosophy, Alain de Botton has merely trivialised it, smoothing the discipline into a series of silly sound bites. By Edward Skidelsky
The Consolations of Philosophy
Alain de Botton Hamish Hamilton, 320pp, £14.99
I don't want to be accused of intellectual snobbery when I say that The Consolations of Philosophy is a very bad book. It is bad not because it makes unsupported generalisations, fails to define its terms, or any of the other conventional academic failings. All these are perfectly legitimate in a work of popular philosophy. It is bad because the conception of philosophy that it promotes is a decadent one, and can only mislead readers as to the true nature of the discipline.
This is all the more dangerous because the decadent notion of philosophy as "consolation" is actually very close to the true conception of philosophy. Philosophy - and to this extent Alain de Botton is correct - is not something that can be separated from life itself. It is not something that you do between nine o'clock and five o'clock, after which point "life" - dinner parties and flirtation - resumes. Life is continually thrusting philosophical questions upon us, and our answers to those questions make demands upon life. What carries on in universities under the name of philosophy has only an accidental relation to philosophy itself, just as what carries on in church has only an accidental relation to religion.
Socrates is commonly revered as someone who took philosophy seriously, who lived and died according to its demands. He is to philosophy what Christ is to Christianity. Like Christ, Socrates was completely misunderstood by his contemporaries. They viewed his endless questions about the nature of justice and beauty as a kind of childish game, unconnected to the serious business of life. (This is how most people still see philosophy.) The truth, as Socrates said again and again, is precisely the opposite. These are the most serious and practical questions that anyone can ask; compared to them, the "serious business of life" is a childish game. Christ made a similar point when he described the Pharisees as men who "strain at a gnat and swallow a camel". The things that most people take seriously are in fact ludicrously trivial. In moments of lucidity or remorse, they perceive this but find it hard to keep the perception in mind. Hardest of all is to live according to this sense of what really matters, as the biographies of Socrates and Christ demonstrate.
This austere conception of philosophy is inverted by de Botton. For Socrates, philosophy makes demands on life; for de Botton, life makes demands on philosophy. Philosophical theories are no more than ointments that we apply to soothe our various ailments. A remark by Epicurus, on the back cover of the book, sums it up: "Any philosopher's argument which does not therapeutically treat human suffering is worthless, for just as there is no profit in medicine when it does not expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy when it does not expel the diseases of the mind."
Not only is this conception of philosophy decadent in the popular sense of being effete, but it is also decadent in the precise sense of belonging to a period of cultural decline. The Epicurean view of philosophy as therapy was shared by all the main schools of late antiquity. This was a period in which the material and spiritual resources of classical civilisation were running dry. Barbarians harassed the frontiers, while a swollen administration stifled civic life. Unemployed mobs congregated in the imperial capitals, and were pacified with bread and circuses. Creative literature gave way to rhetoric and pastiche, and the official religion declined into an empty cult. Frustrated and dispirited, the educated retired to their libraries and found consolation in philosophy.
If you rewrite the above description, substituting "welfare and football" for "bread and circuses", and "psychotherapy" for "philosophy", you gain an approximate portrait of the modern west. The idea of philosophy as therapy appeals today for the same reason it appealed in late antiquity: it promises respite from insoluble problems. Even within "serious" philosophy, the therapeutic paradigm has proved seductive. Wittgenstein saw an analogy between his method, in which philosophical problems are "dissolved" into linguistic misunderstandings, and Freudian psychoanalysis. And relativism is often commended on the grounds that it encourages a tolerant, chilled-out attitude to life - an argument that can be traced back to ancient scepticism.
This conception of philosophy is not only distasteful; it falsifies its object. The first virtue of a philosophical theory is truth, just as the first virtue of a law is justice. Truth and justice cannot be traded for anything less. If a philosophical theory is false, it must be rejected, no matter how many therapeutic benefits derive from believing it. If a law is unjust, it should be re- pealed, however salutary its political or economic consequences.
De Botton ignores this obvious truth. He recommends Schopenhauer's misanthropic theory of sexual love - the theory, in brief, that all sexual love is a delusion created by the biological imperative of reproduction - for no better reason than that it can help cheer you up after a failed seduction attempt. It is true that misanthropy can be cheering - Schopenhauer himself was essentially a cheerful person - but that is not a reason to espouse it. The function of philosophy is not to pander to wounded vanity.
De Botton attributes his therapeutic conception of philosophy to thinkers who would themselves have rejected it. Apart from Schopenhauer, he deals with Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne and Nietzsche. Of these six, only Epicurus and Seneca would have endorsed the notion that philosophy is therapy. Socrates would never have suggested philosophy as a "consolation for unpopularity", because he did not think of unpopularity as something for which one needed to be consoled. Philosophy does not console one for popularity: it makes one indifferent to it. Similarly, Nietzsche's philosophy is not a "consolation for difficulties"; it is, rather, an injunction to seek out and triumph over difficulties. In both cases, de Botton is using philosophical ideas in ways for which they were never originally intended.
But it is Montaigne who suffers the greatest indignity at the hands of de Botton. Montaigne's remark, "If man were wise, he would gauge the true worth of anything by its usefulness and appropriateness in his life", is glossed as "Only that which makes us feel better may be worth understanding". Not only is this a miserable conception of intellectual endeavour, it is quite clearly a misinterpretation of Montaigne. Something may be useful or appropriate in your life without necessarily making you feel better. Once again, philosophy has been surreptitiously corrupted into flattery.
The medical analogy is misleading in another way. Different medicines may be incompatible in their effects, but they cannot strictly be said to contradict one another. This is because medicine refers to nothing outside itself. Philosophical theories, on the other hand, make claims about the world, and these claims can come into conflict. By treating philosophical theories as medicines, you abolish any sense of conflict between them. A little Epicurus for your money worries goes quite nicely with a bit of Seneca for your frustrations; that Epicurus and Seneca disagree with one another hardly matters. Ultimately, you lose the sense that philosophy refers to anything beyond the human psyche and its needs. It is transformed into a series of sound bites, all equally comforting and equally meaningless.
Perhaps some readers will find de Botton endearing, with his cocoa, holiday snaps and sexual hang-ups. But I failed to be charmed by these autobiographical touches, because they seemed like a calculated attempt at ingratiation. Philosophy has clearly not helped de Botton overcome the "indiscriminate desire for affection" he admits to in the opening chapter. But perhaps it has provided consolation for it.
Edward Skidelsky's reviews appear monthly in the "NS"