Wednesday, November 07, 2007

making fun of philosophy

I can be sort of a hypocrite when it comes to reading. I'm always telling other people what to read, but then someone else recommends a book - like Brad and Denise, my friends here in Calgary who loaned me The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton - and I'm like stubborn old George W. Bush: I'll be the decider! Well, I listened to my friends' advice for once, and I'm so glad I did. This was one of those books that feels like it's been written specifically just for you, even if millions of other readers feel the same way too.

Alain de Botton takes on some of the most-discussed and least-read thinkers in the Western canon: Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Before this all I'd read was a little bit of Nietzsche, which I found totally incomprehensible. It's hardly the fault of the philosophers themselves, though: their translators and publishers seem to like packaging their writing in books which practically seem to glower at you through the cover. If philosophy offers relief from suffering, you wonder, how come reading it causes suffering?

Consolations corrects the problem, with more laughs, anecdotes, and whimsical asides per page than any other philosophical text you're likely to read. And having obtained a copy, you are likely to read it, because it makes these ideas and the people producing them seem so lively and fun. De Botton seems to take a cue from the blogosphere, sticking in a silly picture or diagram whenever things threaten to get dull - yes, it's philosophy with pictures! - but it's hardly philosophy for dummies, and his imaginative, clever writing style insures against any dullness that might approach.

My favorite section of the book was on Montaigne - I actually might go out and find a copy of the Essays, I liked him so much. As de Botton writes:

[Montaigne] was concerned with the whole man, with the creation of an alternative to the portraits which had left out most of what man was. It was why his book came to include discussions of his meals, his penis, his stools, his sexual conquests and his farts - details which had seldom featured in a serious book before, so gravely did they flout man's image of himself as a rational creature.

- page 129
He sounds like a blogger living before his time.

1 comment:

Denise said...

"War, what is it good for" is proving to be a struggle at the moment. If I do manage to finish the last 300 pages, I'll give your Proust suggestions a try. Glad you like the book.