One day in my early twenties, I found myself - not for the first time - standing beside a section marked philosophy in my local bookshop. Had the assistant walked over and asked if she could help me to find anything, I would have had trouble answering, beyond saying, in the most naive and embarrassing way, that I was looking for answers - or simply, for consolation.

One day in my early twenties, I found myself - not for the first time - standing beside a section marked philosophy in my local bookshop. Had the assistant walked over and asked if she could help me to find anything, I would have had trouble answering, beyond saying, in the most naive and embarrassing way, that I was looking for answers - or simply, for consolation.

For years, philosophy had seemed to me like an ultimate authority on life's great questions, a natural place to seek answers to the riddles of human unhappiness. It promised something at once completely naive and deeply profound; a way to change one's life for the better, to become a somewhat less disturbed, paranoid, inadequate, lovesick and panicked individual.

Philosophy was of course a vast subject, many of its practitioners were entirely unconcerned with making one feel happier, but it nevertheless seemed possible to discern a small group of men, separated by centuries, who shared a loose allegiance to a single vision of philosophy suggested by the Greek etymology of the word - philo: love; sophia: wisdom - a group of philosophers with a common interest in saying a few consoling and practical things about the causes of our greatest griefs.

Shortly before being sentenced to death by the people of Athens, the philosopher Socrates expressed his passionate belief that an unexamined life was not worth living.

What did he mean by "unexamined"? When philosophy began in Ancient Greece, it did so in opposition to the then leading source of explanation about the world, popular religion. Whereas religion told people what to believe, it did not give them logically founded reasons for doing so. Philosophy marked itself out by suggesting that we should never hold any belief which we haven't first weighed up logically.

A consequence of rejecting received wisdom is a sense of knowing far less than one had previously imagined - which is the beginning of philosophical wisdom according to Socrates. Socrates spent his life asking himself the sort of basic questions which most of his fellow Athenians blithely thought they knew all about already, questions like, "What is virtue?", "How should one live?" and "What is wisdom?"

But he didn't only ask, he was also concerned to define ways in which to reach sound answers. If people's thinking was generally so muddled, it was, Socrates believed, because they lacked a logical method for thinking. Philosophical thinking aimed to build up arguments only from the most solid foundations, and looked to geometry for inspiration.

The Hellenistic schools of Greece and Rome - the Epicureans, Sceptics and Stoics - all believed that philosophy should address the most painful problems of human life, particularly death, love, sexuality and anger. Epicurus argued that: "Any philosopher's argument which does not therapeutically treat human suffering is worthless. For just as there is no profit in medicine if it does not expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy either if it does not expel the suffering of the mind."

Confronted with someone who was worried about death, an Epicurean would typically break the problem into components, arguing that the only things we should fear were those that caused us pain. When dead, we would feel neither pain nor pleasure. Therefore, there could be no logical reason to fear death. "The man who has truly comprehended that there is nothing terrible in ceasing to live, has nothing terrible to fear in life," concluded Epicurus. "Thus a man speaks foolishly when he says he fears death. It will not pain him when it comes. It pains only in prospect."

Almost all philosophies present a vision of the good life and a diagnosis of human ills, though it says something about the complexity of this ambition that no two philosophers have ever quite agreed on how to attain it.

Alain de Botton is the author of 'Status Anxiety' and 'The Consolations of Philosophy'

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