The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Botton

June 23, 2020

 

I: Consolation for Unpopularity

 

Chapter 2

  • “If common sense is cordoned off from questions, it is because its judgements are deemed plainly too sensible to be the targets of scrutiny.”
  • “it is not only the hostility of others that may prevent us from questioning the status quo. Our will to doubt can be just as powerfully sapped by an internal sense that societal conventions must have a sound basis, even if we are not sure exactly what this may be, because they have been adhered to by a great many people for a long time.”
  • “It is for help in overcoming our meekness that we may turn to the philosopher.”

 

Chapter 3

  • “If we refrain from questioning the status quo, it is… primarily because we associate what is popular with what is right.”
  • “After brief conversations with many Athenians, popular views on how to lead a good life, views described as normal and so beyond question by the majority, revealed surprising inadequacies of which the confident manner of their proponents had given no indication. Contrary to what Aristophanes hoped, it seemed that those Socrates spoke to barely knew what they were talking about.”
  • “To distinguish true courage from delirium, another element would be required. Laches’ companion Nicias, guided by Socrates, proposed that courage would have to involve knowledge, an awareness of good and evil, and could not always be limited to warfare.”
  • “Socrates compared living without thinking systematically to practicing an activity like pottery or shoemaking without following or even knowing of technical procedures. One would never imagine that a good pot or shoe could result from intuition alone; why then assume that the more complex tasks of directing one’s life could be undertaken without any sustained reflection on premises or goals?”
  • “What is declared obvious and ‘natural’ rarely is so. Recognition of this should teach us to think that the world is more flexible than it seems, for the established views have frequently emerged not through a process of faultless reasoning, but through centuries of intellectual muddle. There may be no good reason for things to be the way they are.”
  • “The correctness of a statement cannot, the method suggests, be determined by whether it is held by a majority or has been believed for a long time by important people. A correct statement is one incapable of being rationally contradicted. A statement is true if it cannot be disproved.”
  • “Socrates described a correct belief held without an awareness of how to respond rationally to objections as true opinion, and contrasted in unfavorably with knowledge, which involved understanding not only why something was true, but also why its alternatives were false.”

 

Chapter 4

  • “for there was no point in willfully exerting a bad influence on companions, because one risked being harmed by them in turn.”
  • “if we are prone to burst into tears after only a few harsh words about our character or achievements, it may be because the approval of others forms an essential part of our capacity to believe that we are right.”
  • “errors in our thought and way of life can at no point and in no way ever be proven simply by the fact that we have run into opposition.”
  • “What should worry us is not the number of people who oppose us, but how good their reasons are for doing so. We should therefore divert our attention away from the presence of unpopularity to the explanations for it.”
  • “We should take time to look behind the criticism… the thinking at its basis, though carefully disguised, may be badly awry.”
  • “A bad thought delivered authoritatively, though without evidence of how it was put together, can for a time carry all the weight of a sound one.”
  • “True respectability stems not from the will of the majority but from proper reasoning.”
  • “We should not be intimidated by bad thinking,”
  • “It sounded elitist, and it was. Not everyone is worth listening to.”
  • “The value of criticism will depend on the thought processes of critics, not on their number or rank”

 

Chapter 5

  • “Social life is beset with disparities between others’ perceptions of us and our reality.”
  • “We forget that time may be needed for prejudices to fall away and envy to recede.”
  • “The validity of an idea or action is determined not by whether it is widely believed or widely reviled but by whether it obeys the rules of logic. It is not because an argument is denounced by a majority that it is wrong nor, for those drawn to heroic defiance, that it is right.”
  • “we will best be rewarded if we strive instead to listen always to the dictates or reason.”

 

II: Consolation for Not Having Enough Money

 

Chapter 3

  • “’What do I need for a happy life?’ is far from a challenging question when money is no object.”
  • “Yet ‘What do I need for a healthy life?’ can be more difficult to answer”
  • Someone who has thought rationally and deeply about how the body works is likely to arrive at better ideas about how to be healthy than someone who has followed a hunch.”
  • “At the heart of Epicureanism is the thought that we are as bad at intuitively answering ‘What will make me happy?’ as ‘What will make me healthy?’ The answer which most rapidly comes to mind is liable to be as faulty. Our souls do not spell out their troubles more clearly than our bodies, and our intuitive diagnoses are rarely any more accurate.”
  • “It is because they understand bodily maladies better than we can that we seek doctors. We should turn to philosophers for the same reason when our soul is unwell – and judge then according to a similar criterion”
  • “The task of philosophy was, for Epicurus, to help us interpret our indistinct pulses of distress and desire and thereby save us from mistaken schemes for happiness. We were to cease acting on first impulses, and instead investigate the rationality of our desires according to a method of questioning close to that used by Socrates in evaluating ethical definitions over a hundred years earlier.”

 

Chapter 4

  • “Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.”
  • “We don’t exist unless there is someone who can see us existing, what we say has no meaning until someone can understand, while to be surrounded by friends is constantly to have our identity confirmed; their knowledge and care for us have the power to pull us from our numbness.”
  • “True friends do not evaluate us according to worldly criteria, it is the core self they are interested in”
  • ‘[The wise man] chooses not the greatest quantity of food but the most pleasant.’
  • “There are few better remedies for anxiety than thought. In writing a problem down or airing it in conversation we let its essential aspects emerge. And by knowing its character, we remove, if not the problem itself, then its secondary, aggravating characteristics: confusion, displacement, surprise.”
  • “There is nothing dreadful in life for the man who has truly comprehended that there is nothing terrible in not living.”
  • “Sober analysis calmed the mind”
  • “if we have money without friends, freedom and an analyzed life, we will never be truly happy. And if we have them, but are missing the fortune, we will never be unhappy.”
  • “Epicurus divided our needs into three categories: ‘Of the desires, some are natural and necessary. Others are natural but unnecessary. And there are desires that are neither natural nor necessary.’”
  • Natural and necessary: friends, freedom, thought (about main sources of anxiety: death, illness, poverty, superstition), food, shelter, clothes
  • Natural but unnecessary: grand house, private baths, banquets, servants, fish, meat
  • Neither natural nor necessary: fame, power
  • “We are happy if we are not in active pain. Because we suffer active pain if we lack nutrients and clothes, we must have enough money to buy them.”
  • “To avoid acquiring what we do not need or regretting what we cannot afford, we should ask rigorously the moment we desire an expensive object whether we are right to do so.”
  • “The possession of the greatest riches does not resolve the agitation of the soul nor give birth to remarkable joy.”

 

Chapter 5

  • “expensive objects can feel like plausible solutions to needs we don’t understand. Objects mimic in a material dimension what we require in a psychological one. We need to rearrange our minds but are lured towards new shelves.”
  • “most businesses stimulate unnecessary desires in people who fail to understand their true needs, levels of consumption would be destroyed by greater self-awareness and appreciation of simplicity.”
  • “an increase in the wealth of societies seems not to guarantee an increase in happiness, Epicurus would have suggested that the needs which expensive goods cater to cannot be those on which our happiness depends.”

 

III: Consolation for Frustration

 

Chapter 2

  • “at the heart of every frustration lies a basic structure: the collision of a wish with an unyielding reality.”
  • “in so far as we can ever attain wisdom, it is by learning not to aggravate the worlds obstinacy through our own responses, through spasms of rage, self-pity, anxiety, bitterness, self-righteousness and paranoia.”
  • “we best endure those frustrations which we have prepared ourselves for and understand and are hurt most by those we least expected and cannot fathom.”
  • “anger results not from an uncontrollable eruption of the passions, but from a basic (and correctable) error of reasoning.”
  • “anger does not belong in the category of involuntary physical movement, it can only break out on the back of certain rationally held ideas; if we can only change the ideas, we will change our propensity to anger.”
  • “what makes us angry are dangerously optimistic notions about what the world and other people are like.”
  • “How badly we react to frustration is critically determined by what we think of as normal.”
  • ‘Prosperity fosters bad tempers,’
  • “Rage is caused by a conviction, almost comic in its optimistic origins (however tragic in its effects), that a given frustration has not been written into the contract of life.”
  • “We must reconcile ourselves to the necessary imperfectability of existence”
  • “We will cease to be so angry once we cease to be so hopeful.”
  • “reality comprises two cruelly confusing characteristics: on the one hand, continuity and reliability lasting across generations; on the other, unheralded cataclysms. We find ourselves divided between a plausible invitation to assume that tomorrow will be much like today and the possibility that we will meet with an appalling event after which nothing will ever be the same again.”
  • “Nothing ought to be unexpected by us. Our minds should be sent forward in advance to meet all the problems, and we should consider, not what is wont to happen, but what can happen.”
  • “There is dangerous innocence in the expectation of a future formed on the basis of probability. Any accident to which a human has been subject, however rare, however distant in time, is a possibility we must ready ourselves for.”
  • “We do not know what will happen nest: we must expect something.”
  • “Seneca believed in a different picture of the mind. Arguments are like eels: however logical, they may slip from the minds weak grasp unless fixed there by imagery and style. We need metaphors to derive a sense of what cannot be seen or touched, or else we will forget.”
  • In cases where one acts correctly but still suffers disaster, one is left bewildered and unable to fit the event into a scheme of justice. The world seems absurd.”
  • The continuing belief that the world is fundamentally just is implied in the very complaint that there has been an injustice.”
  • “we cannot always explain our destiny by referring to our moral worth”
  • “Not everything which happens to us occurs with reference to something about us.”
  • “the interventions of Fortune, whether kindly or diabolical, introduced a random element into human destinies.”
  • “The traditional form of comfort is reassurance.”
  • “reassurance can be the cruelest antidote to our anxiety. Our rosy predictions both leave the anxious unprepared for the worst, and unwittingly imply that it would be disastrous if the worst came to pass.”
  • “Seneca wagered that once we look rationally at what will occur if our desires are not fulfilled, we will almost certainly find that the underlying problems are more modest than the anxieties they have bred.”
  • ‘a man’s peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune.”
  • “Stoicism does not recommend poverty; it recommends that we neither fear nor despise it. It considers wealth to be, in the technical formulation, a productum, a preferred thing – neither and essential one nor a crime.”
  • “The wise man can lose nothing. He has everything invested in himself. The wise man is self-sufficient… if he loses a hand through disease or war, or if some accident puts out one or both of his eyes, he will be satisfied with what is left.”
  • “The wise man will not despise himself even if he has the stature of a dwarf, but he nevertheless wishes to be tall. The wise man is self-sufficient in that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them.”
  • “It is tempting, when we are hurt, to believe that the thing that hurt us intended to do so.”
  • “When we suspect that we are appropriate targets for hurt, it does not take much for us to believe that someone or something is out to hurt us”
  • “we must endeavor to surround our initial impressions with a fireguard and refuse to act at once on their precepts. We must ask ourselves if someone who has not answered a letter is necessarily being tardy to annoy us, and if the missing keys have necessarily been stolen: [The wise do] not put a wrong construction upon everything.”
  • “We should not import into scenarios where they don’t belong pessimistic interpretations of other’s motives.”

 

Chapter 3

  • “The motor of our ingenuity is the question ‘Does it have to be like this?’, from which arise political reforms, scientific developments, improved relationships, better books.”
  • “To generate the energy required to spur us to action, we are reminded by jolts of discomfort – anxiety, pain, outrage, offense – that reality is not as we would wish it. Yet these jolts have served no purpose if we cannot subsequently effect improvement,”
  • “The stoics had another image with which to evoke our condition as creatures at times able to effect change yet always subject to external necessities. We are like dogs who have been tied to an unpredictable cart. Our leash is long enough to give us a degree of leeway, but not long enough to allow us to wander wherever we please.”
  • “The wise will learn to identify what is necessary and follow it at once, rather than exhaust themselves in protest. When a wise man is told that his suitcase has been lost in transit, he will resign himself in seconds to the fact.”
  • “It is no less unreasonable to accept something as necessary when it isn’t as to rebel against something when it is. We can as easily go astray by accepting the unnecessary and denying the possible, as by denying the necessary and wishing for the impossible. It is for reason to make the distinction.”
  • “Reason allows us to determine when our wishes are in irrevocable conflict with reality, and then bids us to submit ourselves willingly, rather than angrily or bitterly, to necessities. We may be powerless to alter certain events, but we remain free to choose our attitude towards them,”
  • “That which you cannot reform, it is best to endure.”

 

IV: Consolation for Inadequacy

 

Chapter 1

  • “Ancient philosophers had believed that our powers of reason could afford us a happiness and greatness denied to other creatures. Reason allowed us to control our passions and to correct the false notions prompted by our instincts. Reason tempered the wild demands of our bodies and led us to a balanced relationship with our appetites for food and sex. Reason was a sophisticated, almost divine, tool offering mastery over the world and ourselves.”

 

Chapter 2

  • Epicurean and Stoic philosophers had suggested that we could achieve mastery over our bodies, and never be swept away by our physical and passionate selves. It is noble advice that taps into our highest aspirations. It is also impossible, and therefore counter-productive”

 

Chapter 3

  • “The wisest man that ever was, when asked what he knew, replied that the one thing he did know was that he knew nothing.”
  • “we should remember the degree to which accusations of abnormality are regionally and historically founded. To loosen their hold on us, we need only to expose ourselves to the diversity of customs across time and space. What is considered abnormal in one group at one moment may not and will not always be deemed so.”
  • “we pick our friends not only because they are kind and enjoyable company, but also, perhaps more importantly, because they understand us for who we think we are.”

 

Chapter 4

  • A virtuous, ordinary life, striving for wisdom but never far from folly, is achievement enough.”

 

V: Consolation for a Broken Heart

 

Chapter 2

  • “We are not free to fall in love with everyone because we cannot produce healthy children with everyone. Our will-to-life drives us towards people who will raise our chances of producing beautiful and intelligent offspring and repulses us away from those who lower these same chances. Love is nothing but the conscious manifestation of the will-to-life’s discovery of an ideal co-parent”
  • “The will-to-life must endure that the next generation will by psychologically and physiologically fit enough to survive in a hazardous world.”
  • “Everyone endeavors to eliminate through the other individual his own weaknesses, defects, and deviations from the type, lest they be perpetuated or even grow into complete abnormalities in the child which will be produced.”
  • “The pursuit of personal happiness and the production of healthy children are two radically contrasting projects, which love maliciously confuses us into thinking of as one for a requisite number of years.”
  • “We must never allow our suffering to be compounded by suggestions that there is something odd in suffering so deeply. There would be something amiss if we didn’t.”

 

Chapter 3

  • Artists and philosophers not only show us what we have felt, they present our experiences more poignantly and intelligently than we have been able; they give shape to aspects of our lives that we recognize as our own, yet could never have understood so clearly on our own. They explain our condition to us, and thereby help us to be less lonely with, and confused by it.”
  • ” art and philosophy help us… turn pain into knowledge.”
  • “In the course of his own life and in its misfortunes, he will look less at his own individual lot than at the lot of mankind as a whole, and accordingly will conduct himself… more as a knower than as a sufferer.”

 

VI: Consolation for Difficulties

 

Chapter 4

  • “The prudent man strives for freedom from pain, not pleasure.”
  • “[We should] direct our aim not to what is pleasant and agreeable in life, but to the avoidance, as far as possible, of its numerous evils.”

 

Chapter 6

  • “Because fulfillment is an illusion, the wise must devote themselves to avoiding pain rather than seeking pleasure, living quietly, as Schopenhauer counselled,”
  • “Fulfillment was to be reached not by avoiding pain, but by recognizing its role as a natural, inevitable step on the way to reaching anything good.”

 

Chapter 8

  • “The most fulfilling human projects appeared inseparable from a degree of torment, the sources of our greatest joys lying awkwardly close to those of our greatest pains”

 

Chapter 9

  • “Why? Because no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy, and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfillment.”
  • “The philosophy amounted to a curious mixture of extreme faith in human potential (fulfillment is open to us all, as is the writing of great novels) and extreme toughness (we may need to spend a miserable decade on the first book). It was in order to accustom us to the legitimacy of pain that Nietzsche spent so much time talking about mountains.”

 

Chapter 12

  • “Every pain is an indistinct signal that something is wrong, which may engender either a good or bad result depending on the sagacity and strength of mind of the sufferer.”
  • “We must learn to suffer whatever we cannot avoid. Our life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of discords as well as of different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud. If a musician liked only some of them, what could he sing? He has got to know how to use all of them and blend them together. So too must we with good and ill, which are of one substance with our life.”

 

Chapter 14

  • “he proposed that we should look at our difficulties like gardeners. At their roots, plants can be odd and unpleasant, but a person with knowledge and faith in their potential will lead them to bear beautiful flowers and fruit – just as, in life, at root level, there may be difficult emotions and situations which can nevertheless result, through careful cultivation, in the greatest achievements and joys.”
  • “We should not feel embarrassed by our difficulties, only by our failure to grow anything beautiful from them.”

 

Chapter 15

  • “All passions have a phase when they are merely disastrous, in which they draw their victims down by the weight of stupidity – and a later, very much later one in which they marry the spirit, ‘spiritualize’ themselves.”
  • “Fulfillment is reached by responding wisely to difficulties that could tear one apart.”

 

Chapter 19

  • “Both Christianity and alcohol have the power to convince us that what we previously though deficient in ourselves and the world does not require attention; both weaken our resolve to garden our problems; both deny us the chance of fulfillment.”

 

Chapter 20

  • “Having a ‘Christian’ perspective on difficulty is not limited to members of the Christian church; it is for Nietzsche a permanent psychological possibility. We all become Christians when we profess indifference to what we secretly long for but do not have; when we blithely say that we do not need love or a position in the world, money or success, creativity or health – while the corners of our mouths twitch with bitterness; and we wage silent wars against what we have publicly renounced, firing shots over the parapet, sniping from the trees.”

 

Chapter 23

  • “Not everything which makes us feel better is good for us. Not everything which hurts may be bad.”