Hands down, Alain de Botton is my favorite self-help author, whether on Twitter or in print. The Consolations of Philosophy, published in 2000, examines the lives and writings of six philosophers — Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzche — to unearth insights that help us reduce our anxieties and live a happier, fuller life.
From Socrates we learn to stick to our individual authenticity in the face of unpopularity. Like de Botton, my immediate instinct is to strive to please others rather than ground my behavior in my own values and philosophy. We are hardwired to seek the approval of others, but in doing so there is a danger that we stunt our own development, our own authenticity. In their book, Connected, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler demonstrate that much of what we consider to be our individualism is, in fact, our assimilation of social norms. While I believe this to be true, I appreciate de Botton’s observation that there are degrees to which we assert and defer our own values and beliefs as we seek both popularity and authenticity. (A version of this chapter was produced for TV and is available on YouTube. )
From Epicurus, whose philosophical brand has ironically been hijacked by luxury brands like the Epicurean Hotel and Epicurean Kitchen Tools, we learn the joys of simplicity. In an age of abundance and distraction, Epicureanism is poised for a comeback. We don’t need the latest iPhone, a new spring wardrobe, a new car, Epicurus would tell us were he alive today. True happiness depends on three conditions: friendship, freedom, and thought. This is why so much advertising attempts to link what we deeply desire — communion, freedom, nature — with what we don’t need: say, new jeans.
We are foolish enough to believe that overpriced denim will help us achieve our deepest desires. Instead, we find ourselves trapped in artificially lit shopping plazas feeling anxious about our credit card debt. For Epicurus, the recipe for happiness is as simple as: shelter, friends, freedom (from superiors, patronization, infighting, politics), and reflection. Once you filter out the noise, you begin to appreciate the simple pleasures of freshly ground sea salt on a perfectly fried egg, or reggae on a Sunday morning.
From Seneca we learn to manage our frustrations, which arise when our expectations go unmet. We expect to arrive to our destination in 10 minutes, but it takes 20. We expect our costly dinner to satisfy our palate’s desires, but the chicken is dry. We expect to arrive from San Francisco to Mexico City in five hours, but it takes seven. We are enraged when we are stuck for 20 minutes at a stoplight, but we read of 20 fatalities from a bus accident and think nothing of it.
Seneca’s prescription is as simple and logical as it is difficult to achieve: lower our expectations. Or, as CK Louis rightly points out: “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy.”
From Montaigne we learn to cope with our feelings of inadequacy. Montaigne, isolated from intellectual companionship in rural France, was the first philosopher to deal directly with our most intimate insecurities: our sexuality, our aspirations of normalcy, and our intellectual self-doubting. In the summer of 1580 Montaigne took a trip from France to Rome via Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. He experienced firsthand how assumptions of normalcy shift from town to town. Most expats (including Americans here in Mexico City) stick together because they are unable to adapt to new behavioral norms. In his diary, Montaigne wondered why a Frenchman would travel to Italy if only to constantly surround himself with other French travelers.
I read this chapter while taking a short break from the constant dancing, conversing, exploring, and hugging that is Burning Man.
Burning Man is so far outside the cultural norms of my quasi-corporate profession that my colleagues are unable to ask me serious questions about the experience. They resort to cracking jokes and poking fun because the norms at Burning Man (inclusion, giving, immediacy) are so different from the norms of the workplace (deference, competition, ambition).
Having read Bartolomeo Las Casas’ Brevissima Relación de la Dustrucción de las Indias, Montaigne realized that we tend to classify behavior outside of our own cultural norms as inferior. Spanish and Portuguese colonists spoke of native Americans as inhuman beasts to justify their inhumane treatment. By classifying someone as “abnormal,” we feel justified in treating them badly, or ignoring them all together. Unlike the Spanish conquistadores, Montaigne dealt with his feelings of inadequacy by actually dealing with them — constantly questioning his anxieties and insecurities. His lesson for us: We would do well to examine our own feelings of inadequacy rather than project our insecurities onto others by excluding them from the closed circle of alleged “normalcy.”
The least convincing chapter summarizes Schopenhauer’s consolations for a broken heart. The cranky old philosopher — who never found true love despite a number of embarrassing attempts — advises his readers to see love objectively as a social phenomenon that has pulled us from reason throughout the ages, rather than as a subjective crisis. Only a man who has never been in love — the most subjective of experiences — could offer such advice.
Nietzche, whose many difficulties concluded with suicide, offers some encouragement to get through difficult times. As a 21-year-old student at Leipzig University, Nietzche came across a copy of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation. He was immediately sold on the book’s Buddha-like worldview: life is suffering, all we can do is attempt to reduce it. Perhaps he just needed a little sunshine; the guest of a wealthy patron of the arts in coastal Italy, Nietzche began to change his philosophical position. There was pleasure to be found in life, he concluded.
His prescription isn’t that we should travel to Naples to drink martinis on the beach. Rather, having studied the lives of so-called Übermenschen, Nietzche concluded the that greatest sense of contentment comes from having suffered to attain one’s goals. The beauty of the views from the Swiss Alps are rooted as much in the difficulty of the hike up as they are the glimmering blue of the glacial lakes below. When we suffer, we must explore how we can transform our suffering into something beautiful and noble, rather than obsess over what went wrong. Greatness comes from a great deal of suffering. As Nietzche writes:
Don’t talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name all kinds of great men who were not very gifted. They acquired greatness, became ‘geniuses’ (as we put it) through qualities about whose lack no man aware of them likes to speak: all of them had that diligent seriousness of a craftsman, learning first to construct the parts properly before daring to make a great whole. They allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in effect of a dazzling whole.
The six philosopher’s lessons are simple enough:
- Pursue authenticity more than popularity.
- Focus on our basic needs. Enjoy the pleasure of simplicity. Be mindful of manipulative advertising.
- Lower our expectations.
- Explore our own inadequacies to become comfortable with them. We should not project our insecurities on others.
- Others’ stories of love can help console a broken heart.
- Greatness and contentment come from hard work and suffering.
But keeping these lessons in mind does not guarantee that we will put them into practice. Our desire to please others and our knee-jerk response to slick advertising are strong and subconscious. To overcome our instinctive responses we need to develop what Chip Heath calls “triggers,” automatic reminders to change how we respond. We need disciplined mindfulness to remember that we would prefer to go camping with friends instead of purchasing new jeans, or to lower our expectations when feel the rising blood pressure of frustration.
There are few people who think as much about the application of philosophy to improve our lives as Alain de Botton. In 2008, having realized that “more and more people are influenced not just by the books they read,” de Botton established the School of Life to “challenge traditional universities and reorganize knowledge, directing it towards life, and away from knowledge for its own sake.” Inevitably, de Botton must balance the school’s mission of directing knowledge toward life with the need to make it sustainable. But Epicurus would probably poke fun at the its online store, which sells colorful notebooks and pencils. If we are unable to apply knowledge to life, at least we can purchase some aphorism postcards to convince ourselves that we are trying.