Philosophy for a night out at the Dog and Duck

The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99)
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The Independent Culture

Alain De Botton used to write a column in The Independent on Sunday, "A Good Idea from...", in which he boiled down the works of a great mind to extract a single simple truth. So, for instance, Karl Marx might have got it wrong about historical inevitability, but he did spot that for most people, work is a curse.

If you had to extract A Good Idea from Alain de Botton, it would be that literature and philosophy can offer ordinary people a richer, more complete understanding of their own experience. This has not been a fashionable line for a long time, which helps to account for the freshness of How Proust Can Change Your Life, in which De Botton demonstrated that down-to-earth truths can be found in the most seemingly rarefied sensibility.

Half in jest, half in earnest, the book used the form of a self-help manual as the structure for a digestible introduction to Proust's life and work. In keeping with this democratic thrust, it was plainly (though elegantly) written, enlivened by self-deflating autobiographical anecdotes and jokily irrelevant diagrams. It was self-indulgent, but with the charm to get away with it.

The Consolations of Philosophy progresses along much the same lines: six essays on great philosophers, each functioning as a Beginner's Guide but pegged to some everyday misery. Socrates, condemned to death by his fellow citizens, consoles us for Unpopularity; Epicurus for Not Having Enough Money; Seneca for Frustration; Montaigne for Inadequacy; Schopenhauer for A Broken Heart; and Nietzsche for Difficulties.

The book is accompanied by a Channel 4 series, in which the author visits the philosophers' homes and tries to apply their ideas to the lives of attractive young women with jobs in the publishing industry. This is a consolation for a broken heart that Schopenhauer never thought of. As it happens, the Schopenhauer episode, broadcast last night, ended with De Botton being impelled by his "will-to-life" to ask a spurned young lovely out for dinner. They are now, reportedly, an item.

De Botton on TV appears to confirm his democratising credentials, but he seems to be in conflict about this. In interviews, he has disparaged the series as a dumbing-down of the book. And while the book contains passages underlining his ordinariness, they are at odds with an almost neurasthenic refinement elsewhere. The chapter on Epicurus is prefaced with an "acquisition list", intended to typify our materialist fantasies, in contrast with Epicurus's simple conception of the good life. But De Botton's fantasies of Louis XVI commodes and Max Mara-clad Bellini Madonnas are of such lavish particularity that the argument is short-circuited.

In fact, the book tends towards the condition of television: personality-led, packed with images which break up the words. The suspicion is that the television version merely makes explicit a dumbness inherent in the whole project.

The complex ideas tackled here won't slot into the pigeon-holes prepared for them. Socrates, for instance, offers dubious consolation for unpopularity. Few people feel unpopular purely because they challenge conventional ideas; looks, manner, bodily odours, all contribute. Reduced to epigrams, these philosophers slip into unresolvable contradictions. How do you reconcile Epicurus's belief that happiness is freedom from pain with Nietzsche's that suffering is the route to achievement?

Early on, a paragraph speculates about how these philosophers might react if they met at a cocktail party; but the philosophising here is more Saturday night at the Dog and Duck. Schopenhauer is a seedy old man telling you, "Take it from me, mate, she weren't right for you"; Epicurus is boiled down to "So long as you got your health..."; Nietzsche to "No pain, no gain" and Seneca a shrugging "Shit happens". As philosophy, this is poor stuff. As a collection of biographical sketches, though, it has style and some wit. Perhaps Alain de Botton will find that some consolation.

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