I have, at this point, written several (admittedly preachy) posts on the value of intellect and specifically philosophy in public life. But what, exactly, is this value? And what is its value in private life, which most of us inhabit? Alain de Botton wrote The Consolations of Philosophy, which became one of the best-selling books on philosophy in recent years. He certainly has a knack for making the field of philosophy practical for everyday use. Along with an accompanying series of videos, de Botton shows us how Schopenhauer can help us with love, Seneca with anger and fear, Montaigne with self-esteem, Epicurus with happiness, and Socrates with self-confidence. I explain some of these below.
Fear is certainly one of the blights of our age, as Mike Davis notes in Ecology of Fear. This is where de Botton points out that, in contrast to the unbridled optimism of the self-help set, there is such as thing as a healthy dose of pessimism. Seneca, an advisor to the cruel, arbitrary and tyrannical Roman emperor Nero, used a calm acceptance to deal with that inevitable experience we spend our live in fear of: death. After years of faithful service, Seneca fell out of favor with the emperor, and thugs were sent, not to kill Seneca, but to order him to kill himself. In his wisdom, Seneca recognized the likelihood of such an outcome (serving a ruler as unpredictable as Nero), and through a healthy realism, calmly faced his own demise, cutting the veins in his arms without protest, grief or fanfare. It is our unrealistic expectations, as much as the unfair conditions we face, which leads to the fear of disappointment and in turn, to anger.
Conversely, happiness is the state we all seek, but which seems unattainable. It is widely understood now that wealth does not bring on a state of happiness, or when it does, it is short-lived. This creates a deep disappointment after so much of our lives are spent in its pursuit. Through a daily scientific series of experiments, trial and error, Epicurus found that the ingredients of happiness were simple and few: friends, and a life of contemplation. This contrasts with the popular view of Epicurus – that of a “lotus eating lifestyle.” This lifestyle, with its binge eating and other debaucheries, was merely the experiment that led to his more Spartan (and Athenian) conclusion.
Thus, through mere thinking through these problems, philosophy can aid us in dealing with our deepest fears (fear itself) and desires (happiness).