Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Consolations of Philosophy
I have a secret. I've been cheating on TBC this month and engaging in some non-required reading. It's nothing serious, and I still have every intention of finishing our "assigned" book, but sometimes a guy just needs to exert some free will and read something that he wasn't ordered to by a group of his peers (ie TBC). Call me old fashioned, but I've always been a one book kind of boy. I've known folks who can juggle 3-4 books at various stages of completion, but that has always felt cheap to me, as though I owe a book my undivided attention. Maybe this is because I can scarcely focus long enough to read more than ten pages in a sitting, but I'll pretend there's a nobler reason. As such, I've been reading "Consolations of Philosophy" by Alain De Botton with a mix of guilt and defiance.
As a scientist with all the mental trappings that come from a life grounded in physical laws and immutable facts, philosophical constructs have always been difficult for me to wrap my head around. Philosophy is not a discipline that a scientific mind can dip into superficially, wading into some heady concepts but getting out when things get too deep. The very fact that one needs to reach their own 'conclusions' (and I use conclusions very loosely when it comes to philosophy) when it comes to the fundamental questions of life is an intimidating proposition when 98% of what I had learned prior was via textbook and classroom. This is the part where I play the philosophical Goldilocks. Diving into the collected works of Friedrich Nietzsche wasn't especially appetizing, but neither was the spiritual hogwash of "The Secret" and its ilk. Was it too much to ask for a dose of philosophy with a side of practical application? Maybe that's the connection I am supposed to make as a attentive reader, but in all honesty, I needed some training wheels.
Consolations of Philosophy has fit this bill admirably. Not only does it offer thorough biographies of its subjects, De Botton weaves the development of their philosophies and his own confessions into something relatable and fresh. While chapters titled "Consolation for Unpopularity" and "Consolation for Frustration" scream self-help book, the content therein is much subtler than that, preferring to delve into the human condition rather than offer commandments of happiness that you can read in Cosmo. For example, the chapter on frustration invokes the philosophy of Seneca, who acknowledged the fundamental feelings of persecution and injustice whenever the ideal is not met. Instead, stoicism is offered as an alternative, challenging humans to chose 'reason' over 'passion', by understanding that unforeseen things happen, but not resigning yourself to this fact. A utopian view of the world sounds nice on paper, but leads to a blind rage when everything that goes wrong is viewed as a personal affront. In the words of De Botton "We will cease to be so angry once we cease to be so hopeful." It may sound like a defeatist strategy, but in practice it is a liberating realization to know that you are guaranteed nothing but what you do yourself. These are the truths I was hoping philosophy could offer me, and I'm happy to report that this is what Consolations of Philosophy offers in every chapter.