Does philosophy offer consolation?

image: Martin Buber

Alain de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy poses a bit of a puzzle. Why “consolations”? And why philosophy? How does philosophy come into the picture? For many professional philosophers from the past seventy-five years, the answer would be: not at all. Philosophy, in the analytic tradition anyway, is not concerned with the individual person’s subjective wellbeing, or the way she or he thinks about life’s challenges, disappointments, and tragedies, or the human predicament from the inside. So “consolation” isn’t part of the job at all. It’s hard to imagine Quine or Carnap thinking much about the topic, or even taking it seriously. And likewise, it’s hard to see Berkeley, Hume, or Kant engaging in this strand of conversation. But it isn’t hard to imagine a rich conversation on this general range of topics with with philosophers from other traditions and times — for example, Plato, Seneca, Montaigne, Ricoeur, Buber, or Levinas. We might think most broadly of a divide between the “underlaborers of science” view of philosophy (Locke) and the “interpreters of the human condition” view of philosophy (Socrates).

In fact, we need to recognize from the start that philosophy is not one unified thing. Carnap on the foundations of empirical knowledge is as intellectually distant from Martin Buber on the I-thou relationship as zoology is from organic chemistry. Philosophy is not defined by its etymology; philosophy is not “the discipline embodying the love of wisdom”. “Love of wisdom” does not define a unified discipline at all. The tradition of philosophy that derived most strongly from issues about the nature of empirical knowledge, and that eventually became philosophy of science and mathematics and the school of analytic philosophy, is profoundly different from the tradition woven around the moral realities of a human life — the examined life — from the ancients to Montaigne. Locke and Socrates are indeed miles apart — as are Ryle and Buber. Most categorically, we might say that they have nothing in common but the name.

Is there a term that could be used to encompass the approach to the kinds of reflections associated with Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, and Lucretius more adequately than simply “philosophy”? Perhaps there is — a term that also derives from ancient philosophy and plays a key role in Aristotle’s ethics. This is the concept of phronesis, or practical wisdom. In contrast to two other kinds of human knowledge identified by Aristotle (episteme and techne), phronesis has to do with “wisdom in the conduct of action”. Contemporary philosophy seems to be best understood as the lineal descendent of the study of episteme. This kind of philosophy already has a name; it is “epistemology”. If we understand the challenge of acting wisely as including the pursuit of a clear and justified understanding of one’s guiding values and purposes, then the study of phronesis would encompass the kind of self-reflection and deliberation characteristic of Socrates and Epicurus. So we might call it “phronesiology,” in analogy with “epistemology”. (Oddly enough, this word is already in use; look it up on Google!) This distinction permits a reconsideration of the branches of philosophy. The kind of examination of the genuine value of a human life well lived that is the central purpose of Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy and Status Envy has a very natural home in the family tree of philosophy; it is a developed theory of phronesis.

Consider this discussion of phronesis (practical wisdom) in Nicomachean Ethics, Book VI, sect. 5:

Regarding practical wisdom we shall get at the truth by considering who are the persons we credit with it. Now it is thought to be the mark of a man of practical wisdom to be able to deliberate well about what is good and expedient for himself, not in some particular respect, e.g. about what sorts of thing conduce to health or to strength, but about what sorts of thing conduce to the good life in general. This is shown by the fact that we credit men with practical wisdom in some particular respect when they have calculated well with a view to some good end which is one of those that are not the object of any art. It follows that in the general sense also the man who is capable of deliberating has practical wisdom.

Here is a more specific passage in which Aristotle offers a specific analysis of the goods a person pursues (NE Book 1, sect. 1). Notice that it has much the same character as the reflections in which Botton, Epicurus, and Montaigne are engaged:

Further, men seem to pursue honour in order that they may be assured of their goodness; at least it is by men of practical wisdom that they seek to be honoured, and among those who know them, and on the ground of their virtue; clearly, then, according to them, at any rate, virtue is better. And perhaps one might even suppose this to be, rather than honour, the end of the political life. But even this appears somewhat incomplete; for possession of virtue seems actually compatible with being asleep, or with lifelong inactivity, and, further, with the greatest sufferings and misfortunes; but a man who was living so no one would call happy, unless he were maintaining a thesis at all costs. (Book 1, sect. 1)

Here Aristotle asks some fundamental questions: What do men pursue, what are the authentic goods towards which they should aim, and what are the merely instrumental goods? Further, Aristotle postulates that we can answer these kinds of questions through abstract, reasoned analysis and deliberation — or in common terms, “philosophy”.

Now we can understand better what Botton means by “philosophy”. Botton’s underlying premise is that there is an ancient tradition of reflective thinking focused on the human condition, from the individual subjective person’s point of view. This kind of philosophy raises questions of self-definition, self-awareness, an understanding of one’s position in the world, and the nature of the situations in the world that influence one’s aspirations, happiness, and satisfaction. For Botton, philosophy is about the human condition, in celebrations and moments of happiness, and in illness, disappointments, and death. And the philosophers whom Botton admires most are those who spent their lives taking seriously the question, what is it to be a human being? How should I live? This is the branch of philosophy that cares about reflection, self-definition, and critical assessment of one’s own life and the lives of others. Or using the term just introduced, it is “philosophy as phronesiology”. 

So what about “consolations”? What is it to be consoled? What is it to need consolation? Here is one interpretation: Consolation is part of a complex relationship between a person, his or her expectations of life, and a severe disappointment. It may be the tragic loss of a loved one, or being fired from one’s job, or having a really bad book review for a book one spent years writing. It is a shocking divergence between what one wants and what one unexpectedly gets. To be consoled is to be reconciled with a circumstance that seems horrible, unhappy, and impossible to accept. Reconciliation does not imply erasure of the bad event; rather, it implies coming to see that the event can somehow be incorporated within a broader understanding of the context. One’s phronesis can be broadened. And this seems to require something like a reorientation towards one’s expectations of life and the world. For example: We’ve arrived at the exotic luxury restaurant for a long-anticipated meal with a valued group of friends; but the restaurant is unexpectedly closed. We are deeply, profoundly disappointed. Consolation comes when we reflect on the source of our disappointment — the anticipation we had experienced of unforgettable conversation with special friends in the context of a unique gastronomic experience. We then readjust our thinking — the friends and conversation are still available to us, the gastronomy is a brief and fundamentally unimportant pleasure, and we can have our “dinner with Andre” at the Wendy’s down the road. As Botton demonstrates in the sad story of Marcia, mother of Metilius who died young, consolation may take the form of recognition that fate is haphazard and cruel; there is no meaning to a tragic death of a young person; and yet one’s grief must come to an end and one must live again (8).

So, once again, why philosophy? In what sense can “philosophy as phronesiology” lead to consolation? Botton suggests that there is a tradition of thought, encompassing Socrates, Diogenes, Epicurus, the Stoics, and others that provides something like an answer. If one has thought deeply and extensively about the human condition, the things one really values, the randomness of “luck”, the brevity of life — that is, if one has thought in the ways that Epicurus or Seneca reflected — then bad fortune, betrayal, the collapse of a business enterprise, and the loss of a loved one all have a place in one’s map of the nature of life. It is no more than magical thinking to wish that bad luck had not happened to me; it is in the nature of bad luck to strike without warning. Best prepared is the person who has recognized the possibility of bad luck, who has sorted out the goods that are genuinely important, and who has acted persistently with one’s talents and creativity to bring those goods to fruition during the time one is allotted. This person can be consoled by philosophy, or through philosophy.

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