How can we benefit and enrich our lives from the ideas of great thinkers in history? Can their writings from eons past in any way be relevant to our lives today? As you probably guessed, I am going to suggest that, yes, indeed they can. Let me suggest a book called “The Consolations of Philosophy” by Alain de Botton. In this lovely and accessible book, de Botton explores the thoughts of such philosophers as Socrates, Seneca, Epicurus, Schopenhaur, Nietzche, De Montaigne and others in search of methods to soothe and ameliorate some of the most basic and common maladies of our spirit, mood and thought.
Socrates Seneca De Montaigne
Epicurus Nietzche Schopenhauer
Consolation for Unpopularity, Consolation for not having Enough Money, Consolation for Frustration, Consolation for Inadequacy, Consolation for a Broken Heart, Consolation for Difficulties are considered in various chapters. We are reminded by these men that there is a difference between information, data, and knowledge, of which we live in an an age of unprecedented access, and actual wisdom which remains as elusive, rare and precious as ever. When we seek to fill an unnamed emptiness inside us with diversion, purchases or the internet we put distance between ourselves and our pain, but it doesn’t nourish us or train our mind or spirit in a lasting way as these thinkers would wish for us.
It is interesting how the assumptions of our society have misinterpreted some of these ideas. Both in their own day as well as in our own. In de Botton’s section “Happiness, an acquisition list”” he explores the writings of Epicurus, born in 341 BC in the Greek empire. Epicurus was an unabashed proponent of the pursuit of pleasure, believing that the experience of a pleasurable lifestyle was a central goal and an unmitigated good for humans to seek. His ideas were popular and spread widely. He “set up a philosophical establishment to promote happiness. The school admitted both men and women and encouraged them to live and study pleasure together. The idea of what was going on inside the school appeared at once titillating and morally reprehensible” (de Botton, page 51)…..The titillation and curiosity about perceived extravagances and luxuries followed for eons…..”Browsing in a news agent in London 2,340 years later I came upon copies of ‘Epicurean Life’, a quarterly magazine with articles on hotels, yachts and restaurants printed on paper with a sheen of a well polished apple” (de Botton, page 52)
While it is true that pleasure is central to the thinking of Epicurus and that he held no animus towards a life that included luxuries, neither did he hold luxuries in any particular high regard and certainly in no way saw them as central to the attainment of the deep and meaningful pleasure. In fact, the three central arenas of the most profound pleasure for Epicurus were to be found in Friendship, Freedom and Thought. Epicurus maintained that there was nothing that better held promise for lifelong happiness than in the possession of friendship. In terms of freedom, he believed that it was well worth it to make due with less materially in order to pursue rewarding life’s work. Finally, Epicurus took great solace in the life of the mind to address fundamental human anxieties such as money, illness and death. Of death he wrote, “There is nothing dreadful in life for the man who truly comprehended that there is nothing terrible in not living……..what is no trouble when it arrives is an idle worry in anticipation. (Epicurus, de Botton p. 59)
Although we are generally aware of the value of simple pleasures and the importance of gratitude and mindfulness, we do not encounter many regular reminders in our consumer society which tends to foster at least a mild anxiety about acquisition. It is worth it to revisit these great thinkers and take time to hear their ancient wisdom and to contemplate its timelessness.