The consolations of philosophy

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9780141035192: The consolations of philosophy

Alain de Botton has performed a stunning feat: he has transformed arcane philosophy into something accessible and entertaining, useful and kind. Drawing on the work of six of the world’s most brilliant thinkers, de Botton has arranged a panoply of wisdom to guide us through our most common problems. From the frustration of misplacing your keys to the sadness of losing a loved one, the writings of Seneca can offer consolation. For the particular agony of not having enough money, Epicurus has a solution that everyone can afford. And if your life is beset by difficulty after difficulty, wise advice may be found in the words of Nietzsche, the brilliant philosopher whose own life was riddled with poverty, bad health, and excruciating loneliness. The Consolations of Philosophy is smart, lucid, and pleasing, a rare sort of book that wonderfully fulfills the promise of its title.

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Review:

"It is common," Alain de Botton writes in The Consolations of Philosophy, "to assume that we are dealing with a highly intelligent book when we cease to understand it. Profound ideas cannot, after all, be explained in the language of children." While his easygoing exploration of philosophers from Socrates to Nietzsche isn't exactly written for the Blue's Clues set, few readers will cease to understand it. Furthermore, it's a joy to read. De Botton's 1997 How Proust Can Change Your Life forged a new kind of lit crit: an exploration of Remembrance of Things Past, delivered in the sweet-gummed envelope of an advice book. He returns to the self-help format here, this time plundering the great thinkers to puzzle out the way we ought to live.

What was stunning about the Proust book was de Botton's brazen annexing of a hallowed novelist to address lite emotional problems. That format is less arresting when applied to the philosophers, since which earnest philosophy major has not, from time to time, tried to apply the alpine heights of thought to his own humble worries? Usually, sophomoric attempts to turn to, say, Kant for advice on love tend to be unmitigated disasters. In de Botton's case, however, he is able to find consolation for a broken heart in Schopenhauer, consolation for inadequacy in Montaigne. Epicurus, usually associated with a love of luxury, is a solace for those of us without much money--and de Botton learns from him that "objects mimic in a material dimension what we require in a psychological one. We need to rearrange our minds but are lured towards new shelves. We buy a cashmere cardigan as a substitute for the counsel of friends."

Lest the reader become burdened by all this philosophizing, the book is peppered with illustrations--the section on Nietzsche of course includes a DC Comics drawing of Superman. And it's further leavened by the author's personal anecdotes and winning confessional tone. Early on, for instance, he admits his own gnawing need for popularity: "A desire to please led me to laugh at modest jokes like a parent on the opening night of a school play." Before he became a medicine man for the soul, de Botton was a first-rate novelist, and it shows in his writing. --Claire Dederer

From the Publisher:

"An enjoyable read... In clear, witty prose, de Botton...sets some of [the philosophers'] ideas to the mundane task of helping readers with their personal problems.... The quietly ironic style and eclectic approach will gratify many postmodern readers."
-- Publishers Weekly

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Alain de Botton
Published by Penguin Books Ltd (2007)
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Alain DE BOTTON
Published by Penguin (2007)
ISBN 10: 0141035196 ISBN 13: 9780141035192
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