Book Review: The Consolations of Philosophy

The Consolations of Philosophy
I am a huge fan of Alain de Botton whose books take some quite heavy subjects and make them accessible to the rest of “us plebs”. I bought this particular book as it seemed to take the philosophy of ancients such as Socrates and apply it to modern day questions. The title of de Botton’s book is a reference to an earlier book of the same title by Boethius, a Roman senator, who “turned to philosophy” as consolation for his feelings whilst imprisoned.
Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy

“Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius, commonly called Boethius, was a Roman senator, consul, magister officiorum, and philosopher of the early 6th century. He wrote The Consolation of Philosophy in AD 523 during a one-year imprisonment he served while awaiting trial – and eventual execution – for the alleged crime of treason under the Ostrogothic King, Theodoric the Great. Boethius was at the very heights of power in Rome and was brought down by treachery. This experience inspired the book which reflects on how evil can exist in a world governed by God, and how happiness is still attainable amidst fickle fortune, while also considering the nature of happiness and God. It has been described as “by far the most interesting example of prison literature the world has ever seen.”

De Botton’s book is organised into 6 sections as shown below, each with a “guiding philosopher” and their views quoted extensively in terms of advice in overcoming the specific demise or problem.
  1. Unpopularity (Socrates)
  2. Not having enough money (Epicurus)
  3. Frustration (Seneca)
  4. Inadequacy (Montaigne)
  5. A broken heart (Schopenhauer)
  6. Difficulties (Nietzsche)
The section I enjoyed most was “frustration” with Seneca as my guide to overcome my own personal frustrations. Of course Seneca hadn’t anticipated the problems of an ordinary bloke utterly frustrated with all things concerning Brexit, but despite what 48% of the British population would say, I DO have enough intelligence to apply Seneca’s logic to the current situation!
Let’s start with Seneca’s definition of frustration:

“Though the terrain of frustration may be vast –from a stubbed toe to an untimely death ……… –at the heart of every frustration lies a basic structure: the collision of a wish with an unyielding reality.”


Seneca’s collisions are frustrations arising from Anger, Shock, Injustice, Anxiety and Mockery, quite a list that seems spot-on regarding modern day politics. I don’t want to give too much away about overcoming said frustrations, but this is an excellent book to understand a range of philosophers interpreting a range of human problems in an ancient and modern setting. But to round off with Seneca:

“We may be powerless to alter certain events, but we remain free to choose our attitude towards them, and it is in our spontaneous acceptance of necessity that we find our distinctive freedom.”

It seems to me however that the words “free” and “freedom” and their practical meaning are being rapidly eroded across the western world and that will surely lead to an extreme version of frustration.

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5 replies

  1. Looks like an excellent read, I’ll check it out, and also the Youtube talks (shorter and free)! Funnily it took me til middle age to understand why philosophy would be of interest to anyone… but now is a whole new world opening up to me XD

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  2. I love Alain de Botton! Unfortunately I haven’t read one of his books yet, but I’ve seen his talks on YouTube, which just shows how accessible he, and what he talks about, are. I especially enjoyed his talk on status in modern day society. It seems that freedom is best exercised in contemplative thought. Another one for the reading list! 😉

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  3. Is that for me or yourself?


  4. Better book an anger management course!

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