For some readers the idea of willingly delving into a book about philosophy and some of the big ideas would not be a pleasurable experience. So perhaps it is in response to that Alain de Botton chooses to use a vast number of illustrations not only to illustrate who and what he is referring to in the text but also to make it a much more appealing read.
There is also something about his confidence in describing some of the greatest names in his field with a familiarity that clearly comes from his knowledge but also helps provide more personality to what could otherwise be overpowering philosophical brands.
So for instance Schopenhauer is described as a goth type character always looking on the dark side or life, Nietzsche someone so determined to prove that suffering leads to greatness he was still arguing that case as his life fell apart. Plus of course the famous Greeks who literally died for their beliefs finding that sharing your views and then standing by them was not universally popular.
The way the book is structured it is almost like a self help guide to using the great thoughts of others to boost your own outlook on life. So for instance Socrates will teach you that being unpopular might not be such a bad thing, particularly if you are right; Epicurus will reveal that friendship and self-sufficiency is real wealth because it creates the freedom to think; and Schopenhauer is happy to point out why love rarely runs smoothly.
One of the big surprises though was the chapter on Nietzsche who was clearly saying a great deal more that religion was nonsense and a super race will control the earth. Although it takes a bit of time the diagram and pictures help get the message through that there is a philosophy around the idea of the benefits of suffering. Rather than give up an accept that life has played you a cruel hand it is possible to learn from the pain of failure and become a better person.
This is the real take-away from the book for me because it sums up a positive philosophy that could genuinely have some impact in your day to day life.
In terms of whether or not this book succeeds in its aims it works well enough. Some critics at the time of publication said philosophy was the new rock and roll but if you stand back objectively from it the need for numerous images hints at the inaccessibility that most people continue to surround this subject with.
Putting it down you have to summarise that you have certainly learnt something but that there is also a great deal left to work out in yourself. Facing the big questions is never a comfortable idea and this is made more comfortable than you might have expected but whether or not it really lingers on in the imagination is harder to predict.
The great thing about this book is the sympathetic way it is written. Clearly de Botton knows his stuff but wears his learning lightly and takes you into some pretty complex areas without making it seem as if you are sitting through a philosophy lecture.
At the end of the book you are left with not just a clearer understanding of what some of the great names stood for, particularly Nietzsche, but also how great minds have grappled with problems in the past. There are some lessons to be learnt but the main take-away seems to be around the idea that when you look up at the stars and wonder what it is all about you are far from alone in doing so.
From Schopenhauer you learn that love is an odd process that when successful ties together opposites that will create balanced off-spring. For the parents their happiness after that act is not expected or likely.
“The coming generation is provided for at the expense of the present.”
From Nietzsche you learn never to give up and to exploit suffering to reap the rewards further down the line. He criticises anything that encourages you to accept the status quo and give up.
“The emotions of hatred, envy, covetousness and lust for domination [are] life-conditioning emotions…which must fundamentally and essentially be present in the total economy of life.”
A review will follow soon…
Using the atory of Montaigne the idea of inadequacy is covered with the philosopher being one who at first felt intimitaed by the great works that had preceded him but then he chose to write about those inadequacies and the result is a catalogue of normality that we could all refer to.
Dare I say it I particularly liked his thoughts about academic books with Montaigne commenting that most were boring and too difficult to get through.
Things then move to look at love and the introduction to Schopenhauer introduces you to a charater that is surely one of the first Cure fans in existence well before his time. But more on that later….
The great thing about this book is that if you want it the evidence is there to try and help you accept a failed life. I say failed but maybe a better word would be average. Learning that various philosophers faced the big questions and formulated various responses is surprisingly easy to digest and quite uplifting.
So for example Epicurus can help teach you that money and wealth are not the be all and end all and actual wealth comes from friendships, self-reliance and having the space to think.
Follow that up with a guide to dealing with frustration from Seneca and you have already got a collection of self-help modules that should help you control anger and frustration.
I particularly liked the line: We will cease to be angry once we cease to be so hopeful.
That in a nutshell is the problem the hope is still there. I’ll leave you with those thoughts until tomorrow…
Having got through chapter one and learnt from the example of Socrates that just because something is popular and as a result a widely held belief it isn’t necessarily right, Button turns to other issues. Next in line is the question of pleasure and wealth.
Step forward Epicurus who welcomed the seeking of pleasure. Before he gets into describing what the great philosopher thought produced that pleasure he lists off some of his own demands which includes a couple of similar wishes to my own including the following:
A library with a large desk, a fireplace and a view on to a garden. Early editions with the comforting smell of old books, pages yellowed and rough to the touch. On top of shelves, busts of great thinkers and astrological globes. Like the design of the library for a house of William III of Holland.”
Hoping the next few pages won’t burst the bubble that getting that library is something worth aiming for.