Sunday, July 02, 2006

Not getting to De Botton of things

Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy is a chatty collection of six essays on selected thinkers from Socrates to Nietsche. Unfortunately, de Botton favors cartoons over examinations of text. His Socrates is reduced to simply a man who bucks conventional wisdom -- a kind of Athenian whistleblower. We could picture him arguing in the city council about heavy metals in the local water supply, whereas in reality he was much more radical. The actual ideas that he championed (e.g., the Good) languish unexamined. Similarly, Nietzsche becomes a kind of drill instructor or personal trainer, doggedly barking motivational truisms like "No pain, no gain."

De Botton's choices of philosophers (the others are Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, and Schopenhauer) indicates a preference for pessimism and materialism, a kind of flinty cynicism that sees itself as practical. Don't read this expecting even modest rigor or reflection. There's no dialectic here. His breezy style and penchant for cute illustration (yes, the chapter on Nietzsche does include an illustration of DC Comics's Superman) keep things moving, but at the end there's not much meat on these bones. De Botton is an affable, diverting, but ultimately unsatisfying conversationalist.
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