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A Book to Get You Started With Philosophy: Alain de Botton's "The Consolations of Philosophy"

Updated on July 27, 2017
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Avid learner, writer, musician, and poet. When he's not making up songs or stories, TJ talks about books and such.

Seneca, ancient Roman stoic philosopher.
Seneca, ancient Roman stoic philosopher. | Source

One of the very first things a reader will come across in Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy is an account of the great thinker Socrates, who, according to history, roamed the streets of Athens barefooted whilst fellowshipping with every Theophilos, Diocles, and Helios he meets. The philosopher made a habit of asking the most mundane questions about a particular person's life, profession, and beliefs in an attempt to examine his mindset. Socrates, unlike his contemporaries, looked past material wealth and social status and looked instead to a person's ability to reason. In a sense, he related with everyone because he believed that reason is available to all people. That is to say that with the proper thinking mechanics, anyone can ask questions and eventually arrive at the truth.

In many ways, The Consolations feels as if Socrates himself had been resurrected from the dead, only in book form. The books speaks to the reader as if in a warm conversation with a slightly extroverted old man who one would mistake for a beggar rather than a philosopher—which is arguably a good thing. Without any attempt to make the ideas enclosed in its pages sound more impressive than they actually are, Alain de Botton through his skillful yet democratic use of language introduces the reader to a host of philosophical ideas one can practically use as immediately as the next turn of a page.

Nietzsche's mountains, Schopenhauer's hopelessly unromantic lovelife, De Montaigne's analysis of human flatulence, Seneca's unshakable stoicism, and Epicurus' happy vegetables: all these luminaries' thoughts, lives, triumphs, and misfortunes are casually given without the obtuse terminology only a learned few might understand. The author even makes it a point that the reader is able to down the pill of knowledge with a wash of clean, deadpan humor. And be not mistaken, for all this is not for the sake of merely knowing, but for wisdom one can refer to in one's professional, academic, or personal life.

For instance, one of the best moments in the book for me personally is how de Botton carefully laid down the thoughts of the stoic Seneca who embodied a lifestyle of expecting the unexpected. Seneca's teachings on learning to foresee and accept the difficulties of everyday life is coupled with examples on how an individual can control his temper towards seemingly insufferable objects, both animate and inanimate. Seneca's thoughts are timely especially in world where people's identities are all too dependent on their careers, possessions, and relationships. But the sage teaches us that all these things could one day come to nought, and yet it is possible to prepare for that day, and if we do, we can simply choose to walk away.

Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy is definitely recommended for the casual reader out to test the waters of thought. It feeds both the mind and the soul and teaches how philosophy could be of great use to anyone willing to listen. Relatable and unaffected—just as Socrates had been.

© 2017 TJ de Ocampo

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