Philosophy's proper function

Steven Poole (Letters, 3 April) claims that in my review of Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy I over-emphasise the distinctiveness of the Hellenistic conception of philosophy as therapy. Other philosophers, including Socrates, have aimed to "cure diseases of the mind that are brought on by false belief". This is true, but it matters whether one lays the accent of emphasis on the "diseases of the mind" or the "false belief". Socrates aimed to cure his interlocutors of false beliefs, not as a means to mental tranquillity, but as something desirable in itself. (He also thought that mental tranquillity would result from the rejection of false beliefs, but that is another matter.) But the later Hellenistic philosophers - and, following them, Alain de Botton - set out with the specific goal of easing mental suffering. I still maintain that this is not the proper function of philosophy.

Edward Skidelsky
London SW8

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The long war against democracy