Wisdom of the Ages

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A new book says the great philosophers of the past can help us with the travails of modern life

Alain De Botton is at it again. Known as Dr. Love in Britain for his early books concerning affairs of the heart, de Botton has taken the works of the world's great thinkers and mined them for help with the everyday problems that plague common folk. Last time around it was Marcel Proust who got the de Botton treatment in his How Reading Proust Can Save Your Life. Described as part self-help and part literary criticism, it encouraged many, including Tory politician Michael Portillo, to revisit Proust, putting de Botton on best-seller lists in the U.S. and Britain in the process.

Now, with The Consolations of Philosophy (Hamish Hamilton; 265 pages), de Botton has taken the liberty of using the writings and lives of Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche to turn out another self-help tome. This one promises to help us deal with unpopularity, not having enough money, frustration, inadequacy, a broken heart and life's other difficulties. It has also been turned into a six-part television series that debuted in Britain on March 26.

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E.L. Doctorow's enthralling City of God examines religious faith at the end of a bloody centuryPerhaps predictably, critics of de Botton say he does a disservice with this simplification -- that the lives and works of great men shouldn't be boiled down to easily digestible bits. But they are snobs. Not everyone has the time or inclination to tackle Proust's long and sometimes dull novel or to go back to the ancient Greeks. Many -- like Portillo -- may be encouraged to do so after reading de Botton, but if they're not, so what? The Consolations of Philosophy can serve as a fine introduction to the world of philosophy.

At its best, great writing teaches us about ourselves. If we can see a common experience or emotion expressed in a play, a thought, a novel, then it makes us feel less alone in the world. So in Consolations, de Botton shows how the writers helped him in his own experience: how, after reading Montaigne's writings on the human body, he wasn't embarrassed when he found himself unable to make love on a vacation in Portugal. He also shows us how the lives of the philosophers were reflected in their own work.

De Botton takes us through the thinkers chronologically, starting with Socrates on unpopularity. Sentenced to death essentially for annoying the people of ancient Athens with his constant questioning of accepted beliefs -- What is courage? What makes a man virtuous? -- Socrates chose to die rather than to renounce his belief that wisdom comes through reasoning. We must, Socrates said, question common assumptions. If they don't hold up, then we're right to stand apart from the crowd.

Epicurus, now known as one of the great proponents of sensual pleasure, teaches what we need from life to make us happy, and it's not what you think. In the chapter titled Consolation for Not Having Enough Money, de Botton constructs an Epicurean list of what's required for happiness: friends, freedom, an active mind, and enough money so that subsistence-level needs are met. And so on: Seneca teaches us that if we expect less from life we will be less disappointed when things don't go our way. From Nietzsche we learn that only by suffering setbacks can we achieve greatness. Surprisingly for a man called Dr. Love, the book's weakest chapter is Consolation for a Broken Heart. De Botton chose Schopenhauer, a man who preferred the company of poodles to both men and women, to be his guide here. Schopenhauer's argument that our subconscious drive to produce perfect children (called the will-to-life) leads us to fall in love with people we wouldn't be friends with sounds, well, silly:
Love ... casts itself on persons who, apart from the sexual relation, would be hateful, contemptible, and even abhorrent to the lover. It seems as if, in making a marriage, either the individual or the interest of the species must come off badly. Our subconscious will-to-life supposedly drives us toward people we would want nothing to do with if they didn't provide the characteristics that could make our offspring perfect.

Yet Schopenhauer's life is an interesting one, a story worthy of being told. At the end, the only problem with de Botton is not that he's simplifying the works of others, it's that he promises more than he delivers. The ideas garnered from the tales of these great men lack any trace of profundity. Here is what 2,400 years of wisdom bring us: stand up for what you believe in, material goods won't make you happy, lower your expectations to avoid disappointment, through suffering comes strength. It's all sound advice, but it's advice that's all been heard before.