The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Botton Book Review

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This is a very thin book, it’s only a 256 pages and yet it attempts to cover the works and the lives of major philosophers from Socrates, Lucretius, Seneca Shopenhaur etc… often coming out as a string of wikipedia articles with little connection to each other. Almost everypage is full of an exerpt from the philosopher in question and one section is just short biography with key dates in the philosophers life. The book is divided into six different sections: Consolations for unpopularity, for not having enough money, for frustration, inadequacy, a broken heart, difficulties.

Honestly it felt like the author was trying to write a common self-help book but needed to include the names of a few philosophers he liked to lend his words some authority. This is ironic because on one occasion the author bemoans the fact that most modern philosophers comment on the words of other ancient philosophers instead of writing in their own words.

Some of the suggestions in this book, like in any self-help book, are scientifically illiterate. For example in the section ‘cosolations for a broken heart’ he claims that our sexual desireability is determined through a ‘theory of neutralization’ to keep our features average, for example he claims ‘tall men will fall in love with short women, but rarely tall men with tall women (their unconsciousness fearing the production of giants)’ when in truth there are certain features that are favoured in each gender(and some for both) regardless of whether this will produce an average offspring in those features. I.e. Tall women do not favour short men. Opposites do not attract each other in general. It is just a trope in fiction because of how unusual it is.

The reading experience itself was taxing to my nerves. Alain de Botton has got a tendency of speaking down to the reader which I find particularly annoying. For example in one passage where he compares philosophy to pottery and that we shouldn’t be taking the ‘obvious and ‘natural” view of things for granted but that instead we should train ourselves like the potters in athens, which is a fine enough point, but instead of leaving it at that he goes on to describe the process of pottery in athens (the temperatures, materials, locations) and he even has two pages with pictures(there are waay too many pictures in this book) showing hands moulding the clay correctly and incorrectly as if I as the reader could not possibly understand that I could not make pots without any training. On other hand he abandons any attempt at providing any empirical detail when it is necessary, for example, in the section on consolations for not having enough money he presents two graphs called ‘relation of happiness to money for someone with friends, freedom, etc.’ and ‘relation of happiness to money for someone without friends, freedom, etc.’ and claims that after a certain point the amount of money spent stops affecting the amount of happiness produced, a plausible proposition, except that he doesn’t give any figures or scientific sources!

The fact that De Botton uses different contradictory philosophies to give consolation to different personal failures in itself I think is the biggest mistake of this book because it makes the consolations of philosophy and philosophy itself sound like a load of sophistry told by a few sad men to make themselves feel better about themselves instead of having anything to do with the search for any truth.

I give this book 1/10.