What is philosophy for? For many, philosophy is a lofty subject only meant to be studied by tweed-jacketed professors in the university hall. The word “philosopher” conjures images of men in ancient Greece or Rome who have white beards and wear long, flowy robes. Philosophy isn’t for ordinary people like mailmen and school teachers— it’s reserved for great intellects like Nietzsche and Socrates and Plato. Philosophers are a privileged class who have the time to ponder life’s big questions (who am I?/what am I meant to do?).
However, in his charming The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton argues just the opposite: philosophy is simply the study of how to live well. A delightful little volume organized by afflictions such as “heartbreak,” “unpopularity,” and “not having enough money,” The Consolations of Philosophy rests on the premise that philosophy is a form of medicine. The words of a great thinker can have restorative properties. In this 2000 classic, the irresistibly intelligent Botton sifts through thousands of years of collective wisdom to find the wisest minds’ remedies for our most common problems.
Do you only have $5 in your bank account, but long for luxurious pleasures such as Birkin bags and champagne-soaked meals at Michelin star restaurants? A dose of Epicurus will remind you that happiness isn’t always found in the extravagant excesses of materialism. Have you been driven to the brink of insanity by such tragic events as losing a loved one or such petty frustrations as losing your car keys? Dr. Botton would write you a prescription for the Stoic philosopher Seneca.
Of all the difficulties in the modern world, loneliness is probably our most widespread problem. In a recent national survey of American adults, 36% of respondents reported feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time.” More Americans are spending time alone than ever before.
Why do rates of loneliness run rampant? Some blame our modern alienation on the advent of social media (after all, why bother with complicated, occasionally dull human interaction when TikTok provides dizzying dopamine-fueled hits of cheap entertainment?); others blame the capitalist rat race for money and status. Certainly, our sense of isolation only worsened during the pandemic.
Luckily, there is a cure for our loneliness. If we’re lacking connection in real life, we can find companionship in the fictional worlds of art and books. Books are medicines for our maladies, slings for our spirits, salves for our wounds. To read a book— or observe a painting or contemplate a poem— is to see our own lives reflected back to us. By expressing their particular experience, the artist illuminates an aspect of the greater human experience. Though Tolstoy wrote Family Happiness using his own experience of marriage, the modern woman who finds herself disenchanted with domesticity can still see herself in Masha’s tale. Books remind us other people have felt our feelings and thought our thoughts, even if it was many centuries ago. Referencing the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Botton notes:
“We do have one advantage over moles. We may have to fight for survival and hunt for partners and have children as they do, but we can in addition go to the theatre, the opera and the concert hall, and in bed in the evenings, we can read novels, philosophy and epic poems— and it is in these activities that Schopenhauer located a supreme source of relief from the demands of the will-to-life. What we encounter in works of art and philosophy are objective versions of our own struggles, evoked and defined in sound, language, or image. 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. We may be obliged to continue burrowing underground, but through creative works, we can at least acquire moments of insights into our woes, which spare us feelings of alarm and isolation (even persecution) at being afflicted by them. In their different ways, art and philosophy help us, in Schopenhauer’s words, to turn pain into knowledge.”
Ultimately, art dispels the illusion that we are alone in our struggles. The dispirited can discover hope in the Letters of Vincent Van Gogh; the love sick can find solace in sonnets written by a Renaissance man nearly a half millennia ago. Or as Botton writes, a snubbed suitor can find consolation in Goethe:
“By reading a tragic tale of love, a rejected suitor raises himself above his own situation; he is no longer one man suffering alone, singly and confusedly, he is part of a vast body of human beings who have throughout time fallen in love with other humans in the agonizing drive to propagate the species. [By reading], his suffering loses a little of its sting.”