Alain de Botton’s book takes its title from Boethius’ classic of the same name.
In his book, de Botton explores the ideas of different philosophers in order to show that philosophy can offer practical advice about unpopularity (Socrates), poverty (Epicurus), frustration (Seneca), inadequacy (Montaigne), heartbreak (Schopenhauer), and difficulties (Nietzsche).
Socrates was unpopular enough to be put to death but we can take comfort in the fact that he is still remembered, not his accusers. We can also take comfort in knowing that the injustices we face probably pale in comparison to those he endured.
Epicurus taught us that most of the best things in life, like friendship and knowledge, are free while magnificent wealth and power rarely satisfy. As he put it, “when measured by the natural purpose of life, poverty is great wealth; limitless wealth, great poverty” (70)
Seneca taught us that “what makes us angry are dangerously optimistic notions about what the world and other people are like.” Thus “our greatest furies spring from events which violate our sense of the ground rules of existence.” (83) But if we are prepared for the worst we will be less frustrated when bad things happen.
Montaigne taught us not to expect too much from ourselves because we are all ridiculous creatures. We feel inadequate largely because “conventional portraits” of ourselves “leave out so much of what we are.” (128) What is left out is that we are all primates who, despite supposedly noble ideas, spend most of our time caring for our bodies.
Schopenhauer said that the real foundation and purpose of romantic attraction and love is our biological drive to preserve the species. This knowledge helps comfort a broken heart because it shows that only biology has been temporarily thwarted. And it is a gift when pain yields knowledge.
And Nietzsche taught that misfortune is better for us than good fortune; we learn from obstacles and difficulties: “fulfillment is reached by responding wisely to difficulties that could tear [us] apart.” (230) What makes us feel good is not always good for us while what makes us feel bad is not bad for us. Joy may be proportional to the suffering one endures.
In short, even if we are unpopular, poor, frustrated, inadequate, heartbroken, or encounter difficulties, we can still live good lives. I recommend this book. I admire de Botton’s efforts to make philosophy practical and accessible. It is an easy and fun read which reminds us that thinking is a constitutive element of a good life.