Book notes: The Consolations of Philosophy

What do Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche have in common?

Book notes: The Consolations of Philosophy

What are the main ideas?

  • Philosophy offers us consolations for being human and suffering its conditions, and a good place to look for solid consolations of philosophy are the lives and teachings of Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, who collectively cover philosophical thoughts for the last 2000+ years.
  • We should judge the philosophy of a person alongside the way they conducted their lives because that gives us some reason to accept or deny parts or the whole. "The responsibility of authors in the humanities is not to quasi-scientific accuracy, but to happiness and health."

If I implemented one idea from this book right now, which one would it be?

There are a few really good ideas from this book (as one would expect) but if I were to pick one idea to implement, it would be to break the association in my mind between what is legitimate and what has been written about, as Montaigne suggests (see detailed note "Montaigne on the perils of reading too much" later), so that I don't grow dismissive of my experiences.

This is a pattern that I've noticed myself repeating often, and so Montaigne's opinion on this isn't the first time I've considered this to be an anti-pattern. Nevertheless, knowledge is just the first step to change. The change -- the thing I'd implement -- is already in place and I just need to continue doing it: writing this newsletter! This newsletter is my practice of balancing reading with writing, the latter being the medium through which I legitimise my experiences and thoughts, no matter how plebeian or ludicrous they are.

A second idea I am implementing right away is to stop consuming alcohol. I don't drink much to begin with, not even a beer a week at this point, but [[@-Friedrich Nietzsche]]'s argument for abstaining (because it's a form of worship of the hollow religion of comfortableness) feels strong enough for me to want to stamp it out of my life with few exceptions.

How would I describe the book to a friend?

It's a tour through the works of six well-known philosophers from the last 2000 years as designed by [[@-Alain de Botton]] to give us a taste of what philosophy can do to help us soothe some of the general ailments in our lives.

Detailed annotations

Socrates on examining popular opinion with logic

We diminish our own will to doubt popular opinion because we have an "internal sense that societal conventions must have a sound basis" and that "it seems implausible that our society could be gravely mistaken in its belief and at the same time that we would be alone in noticing the fact."

... related to the Socratic method for thinking is to apply logic to understanding the validity of a statement, and a valid statement is a correct view of the world. "A correct statement is one incapable of being rationally contradicted. A statement is true if it cannot be disproved. If it can, however many believe it, however grand they may be, it must be false and we are right to doubt it."

We should not let the unpopularity of our opinion make us change our minds about it. Instead, we ought to apply the Socratic method and examine how good their reasons are for doing so. The difficult part may be remembering to "divert our attention away from the presence of unpopularity to the explanations for it."

Socrates on the lousy association of quality thought with confident delivery

Unwise words cloaked in confident delivery are unfortunately very hard to distinguish from wise words simply delivered. The author compares wordcraft with pottery and shows this difference plainly:

(This is why I'm allergic to overly confident and showy people. I feel an immediate sense that they are trying to gaslight me.)

Socrates recommends once again to dwell not on their conclusions but on the logic they used to reach them.

Epicurus on the point of philosophy

This quote by [[@-Epicurus]] can stand on its own:

Just as medicine confers no benefit if it does not drive away physical illness, so philosophy is useless if it does not drive away the suffering of the mind.

I find it interesting to juxtapose this conviction against what [[@-Friedrich Nietzsche]] says about embracing unhappiness as the bounded opposite of happiness (covered later). Nietzsche is not running contradicting Epicurus here but complementing him, because the inability to embrace unhappiness (by dissociating it from happiness) is one of the causes of suffering of the mind.

Seneca on frustration and the Stoic response

If we are frustrated, it is always because we had a wish that has come to collide with an unyielding reality.

If we are angry, it's because we have allowed ourselves to be "dangerously optimistic ... about what the world and other people are like." This is the belief at the heart of [[Stoicism]].

... and the solution, proposed [[@-Seneca]], is to learn to recognise the "adamantine wall of reality" as it stands and prepare ourselves for the softest landing possible.

Adding to our susceptibility to missing the wall of reality is our "dangerous innocence in the expectation of a future formed on the basis of probability." [[@-Seneca]] recommends that we prepare to face any accident that any human has been subjected to, however rare, however distant in time they may be. To do this, he does meditation in advance every morning that includes the verses:

[...] We live in the middle of things which have all been destined to die. Mortal have you been born, to mortals have you given birth. Reckon on everything, expect everything.


Seneca on wisdom to know and abide by the nature of the world

In response to the wish and the wall of unyielding reality, wisdom then "lies in correctly discerning where we are free to mould reality according to our wishes and where we must accept the unalterable with tranquillity."

(This reminds me of a more punchy version developed later, apparently as a prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." A quick look on the internet tells me this goes by the name of the Serenity Prayer.)

[[@-Seneca]] employs the image of an animal on a leash to illustrate what wise behaviour looks like. While an animal will want to go where it pleases, if it cannot, then it is better for it to be trotting behind rather than dragged and strangled by it. So it should be for us, because we, too, are never without a leash around our neck. "The one alleviation for overwhelming evils is to endure and bow to necessity." [[@-Alain de Botton]] helps us picture this:

Not very fun fact covered as a detail in the book: Seneca was later asked to take his own life by the emperor of Rome. He knew he couldn't escape from the emperor and so he took his own life by downing a potion of poison hemlock. I find a philosopher who embodies his philosophy the most trustworthy kind. Earlier, Socrates met the same fate, though not by the emperor but by a sleepy, unqualified jury.

When [[@-Seneca]] knew about the murderous emperor who may be wanting his life, he started to write books about nature. [[@-Alain de Botton]] wonders why, and attributes this to the "immense relief from the spectacle of nature" that Seneca may have gotten, for "nature reminds of all that we are powerless to change, of all that we must accept."

(I believe that this is the reason why many people in [[Singapore]] are so unhappy. They are never reminded of the immense relief from the spectacle of nature and are instead used to the notion that nature is subject to humanity's engineering prowess. I've written a few things about why access to nature is important to me, why I love the seasons, and how part it's part of the reason, and how nature has altered my sense of place in the world.)


Seneca on possessing material wealth and friends

Contrary to lay perception, the accumulation and enjoyment of material wealth are not discouraged by [[Stoicism]]. It does not "recommend poverty; it recommends that we neither fear nor despise it." The important distinction is in how they would respond to sudden poverty. According to [[@-Alain de Botton]] interpreting [[@-Seneca]], "they would walk away from the house and the servants without rage or despair."

In a similar vein, on [[Stoicism]] and [[Friendship]], [[@-Seneca]] reckons that "the wise man is self-sufficient in that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them."


Montaigne on fellowship through publishing

[[@-Michel de Montaigne]], when he lost his best friend and soul mate, discovered authorship as a "finest form of compensation" because it infused him with the hope that someone elsewhere would understand him for who he is. (I find this to be a touching testimony to the cathartic power of publishing one's writing.)


Montaigne on the perils of reading too much

Reading books for knowledge and wisdom is fine, but the habit can come at a great cost if we're not careful. We could grow dismissive of our experiences which nobody has written about, or of which great books by authors we respect are silent.

[[@-Michel de Montaigne]] recounts the story of a meeting in Italy that tells how problematic this can be:

In Pisa I met a decent man who is such an Aristotelian that the most basic of his doctrines is that the touchstone and the measuring-scale of all sound ideas and of each and every truth must lie in conformity with the teachings of Aristotle, outside of which all is inane and chimerical: Aristotle has seen everything, done everything.

(I wrote on the margins of this page: "This is why I read but I continue to write and publish along the way all the time: to practice thinking for myself without reaching for the imperfect crutches of others' writing.")


Nietzsche on alcohol and the hollow religion of comfortableness

[[@-Friedrich Nietzsche]] is strongly against alcohol as a convincing matter of principle:

I cannot advise all more spiritual natures too seriously to abstain from alcohol absolutely. Water suffices.

If you refuse to let your own suffering lie upon you even for an hour and if you constantly try to prevent and forestall all possible distress way ahead of time ... then it is clear that [you harbour in your heart] ... the religion of comfortableness. How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable ... people, for happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together or, as in your case, remain small together.

The point he makes about happiness is the point that Tom Cruise makes in Vanilla Sky at the end, when he says, "The sweet is never as sweet without the sour." Happiness and unhappiness are twins that grow together. One must toil to accomplish anything worthwhile. One must know that they will eventually die so that they will live each day with some appreciation. (I happen to think that smokers smoke because, deep down, they believe that each puff makes their life shorter, and therefore they ought to work and love a little harder while they're still breathing.)

[[@-Friedrich Nietzsche]] sums up this line of thinking: "What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other..." To this, [[@-Alain de Botton]] adds a flourish and presents this image of a plant that I think will stick with me for a while...

In case you’re wondering why there are square brackets ( [[…]] ) strewn all over the post, they are artifacts from my note-making app that enable internal note links. I didn’t remove them because it takes extra time and I thought leaving them in might provide a hint at the kinds of things that I personally link in my personal knowledge base (PKM), which may turn out to be informative to some.

Thanks to Karthik, a colleague and also a paying reader of this newsletter, for telling me about this book!

All photos are copyrighted by Alain de Botton and his publisher.

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