Penguin, 1997  Kindle, £7.99 ASIN: B002RI9DM4

What is philosophy for? Until 1997 I’d considered the subject too esoteric, too abstract for a science-trained bod like me. Then I attended an author reading of The Untouchable, by John Banville. Alain de Botton was second billing. Banville gave a superb reading – and I do recommend The Untouchable: for its wit and wickedly funny commentary on snobbery and social class as well as for its serious and often deeply poignant moments in the story of Victor Maskell, Keeper of the Queen’s paintings, and Cambridge spy. But I digress…  When Alain de Botton stood to read, he seemed diffident, even a little gauche, yet his humorous, self-deprecating style won the audience over in an instant. I bought The Consolations on the strength of it and was charmed by his understated irony, and his honesty. His clear, uncluttered prose sets out the philosophies of Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne and Nietzsche, among others, offering consolations for the unpopular, the poor, the frustrated, the inadequate, and even the broken-hearted from these great thinkers’ lives and teachings – and many philosophers had difficult lives and brutal endings.  Is it perverse to be consoled that even the deepest thinkers don’t have alchemical access to the state of bliss? Perhaps, but there is consolation in de Botton’s accessible, witty, book, and in his conclusion that: ‘A virtuous, ordinary life, striving for wisdom, but never far from folly, is achievement enough.’

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