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The Consolations of Philosophy (Alain de Botton)


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After centuries of neglect, at times hostility, after being scattered and burnt and surviving only in partial forms in the vaults and libraries of monasteries, the wisdom of ancient Greece and Rome returned triumphantly to favour in the sixteenth century. Among the intellectual elites of Europe, a consensus emerged that the finest thinking the world had yet known had occurred in the minds of a handful of geniuses in the city states of Greece and the Italian peninsula between the construction of the Parthenon and the sack of Rome--and that there was no greater imperative for the educated than to familiarize themselves with the richness of these works. Major new editions were prepared of, among others, Plato, Lucretius, Seneca, Aristotle, Catullus, Longinus and Cicero, and selections from the classics--Erasmus's Apophthegmata and Adages, Stobeus's Sententiae, Antonio de Guevara's Golden Epistles and Petrus Crinitus's Honorable Learning--spread into libraries across Europe.

In south-western France, on the summit of a wooded hill 30 miles east of Bordeaux, sat a handsome castle made of yellow stone with dark-red roofs.

It was home to a middle-aged nobleman, his wife Françoise, his daughter Léonor, their staff and their animals (chickens, goats, dogs and horses). Michel de Montaigne's grandfather had bought the property in 1477 from the proceeds of the family salt-fish business, his father had added some wings and extended the land under cultivation, and the son had been looking after it since the age of thirty-five, though he had little interest in household management and knew almost nothing about farming ('I can scarcely tell my cabbages from my lettuces').

He preferred to pass his time in a circular library on the third floor of a tower at one corner of the castle: 'I spend most days of my life there, and most hours of each day.'

The library had three windows (with what Montaigne described as 'splendid and unhampered views'), a desk, a chair and, arranged on five tiers of shelves in a semicircle, about a thousand volumes of philosophy, history, poetry and religion. It was here that Montaigne read Socrates' ('the wisest man that ever was') steadfast address to the impatient jurors of Athens in a Latin edition of Plato translated by Marsilio Ficino; here that he read Epicurus's vision of happiness in Diogenes Laertius's Lives and Lucretius's De Rerum Natura, edited by Denys Lambin in 1563; and here that he read and re-read Seneca (an author 'strikingly suited to my humour') in a new set of his works printed in Basle in 1557.

He had been initiated in the classics at an early age. He had been taught Latin as a first language. By seven or eight, he had read Ovid's Metamorphoses. Before he was sixteen, he had bought a set of Virgil and knew intimately the Aeneid, as well as Terence, Plautus and the Commentaries of Caesar. And such was his devotion to books that, after working as a counsellor in the Parlement of Bordeaux for thirteen years, he retired with the idea of devoting himself entirely to them. Reading was the solace of his life:

It consoles me in my retreat; it relieves me of the weight of distressing idleness and, at any time, can rid me of boring company. It blunts the stabs of pain whenever pain is not too overpowering and extreme. To distract me from morose thoughts, I simply need to have recourse to books.

But the library shelves, with their implication of an unbounded admiration for the life of the mind, did not tell the full story. One had to look more closely around the library, stand in the middle of the room and tilt one's head to the ceiling: in the mid-1570s Montaigne had a set of fifty-seven short inscriptions culled from the Bible and the classics painted across the wooden beams, and these suggested some profound reservations about the benefits of having a mind:

The happiest life is to be without thought.--Sophocles

Have you seen a man who thinks he is wise? You have more to hope for from a madman than from him.--Proverbs

There is nothing certain but uncertainty, nothing more miserable and more proud than man.--Pliny

Everything is too complicated for men to be able to understand.--Ecclesiastes

Ancient philosophers had believed that our powers of reason could afford us a happiness and greatness denied to other creatures. Reason allowed us to control our passions and to correct the false notions prompted by our instincts. Reason tempered the wild demands of our bodies and led us to a balanced relationship with our appetites for food and sex. Reason was a sophisticated, almost divine, tool offering us mastery over the world and ourselves.

In the Tusculan Disputations, of which there was a copy in the round library, Cicero had heaped praise upon the benefits of intellectual work:

There is no occupation so sweet as scholarship; scholarship is the means of making known to us, while still in this world, the infinity of matter, the immense grandeur of Nature, the heavens, the lands and the seas. Scholarship has taught us piety, moderation, greatness of heart; it snatches our souls from darkness and shows them all things, the high and the low, the first, the last and everything in between; scholarship furnishes us with the means of living well and happily; it teaches us how to spend our lives without discontent and without vexation.

Though he owned a thousand books and had benefited from a fine classical education, this laudation so infuriated Montaigne, it ran so contrary to the spirit of the library beams, that he expressed his indignation with uncharacteristic ferocity:

Man is a wretched creature... just listen to him bragging... Is this fellow describing the properties of almighty and everlasting God! In practice, thousands of little women in their villages have lived more gentle, more equable and more constant lives than [Cicero].

The Roman philosopher had overlooked how violently unhappy most scholars were; he had arrogantly disregarded the appalling troubles for which human beings, alone among all other creatures, had been singled out--troubles which might in dark moments leave us regretting that we had not been born ants or tortoises.

Or goats. I found her in the yard of a farm a few kilometres from Montaigne's chateau, in the hamlet of Les Gauchers.

She had never read the Tusculan Disputations nor Cicero's On the Laws. And yet she seemed content, nibbling at stray pieces of lettuce, occasionally shaking her head like an elderly woman expressing quiet disagreement. It was not an unenviable existence.

Montaigne was himself struck by, and elaborated upon the advantages of living as an animal rather than as a reasoning human with a large library. Animals knew instinctively how to help themselves when they were sick: goats could pick out dittany from a thousand other plants if they were wounded, tortoises automatically looked for origanum when they were bitten by vipers, and storks could give themselves salt-water enemas. By contrast, humans were forced to rely on expensive, misguided doctors (medicine chests were filled with absurd prescriptions: 'the urine of a lizard, the droppings of an elephant, the liver of a mole, blood drawn from under the right wing of a white pigeon, and for those of us with colic paroxysms, triturated rat shit').

Animals also instinctively understood complex ideas without suffering long periods of study. Tunny-fish were spontaneous experts in astrology. 'Wherever they may be when they are surprised by the winter solstice, there they remain until the following equinox,' reported Montaigne. They understood geometry and arithmetic, too, for they swam together in groups in the shape of a perfect cube: 'If you count one line of them you have the count of the whole school, since the same figure applies to their depth, breadth and length.' Dogs had an innate grasp of dialectical logic. Montaigne mentioned one who, looking for his master, came upon a three-pronged fork in the road. He first looked down one road, then another, and then ran down the third after concluding that his master must have chosen it:

Here was pure dialectic: the dog made use of disjunctive and copulative propositions and adequately enumerated the parts. Does it matter whether he learned all this from himself or from the Dialectica of George of Trebizond?

Animals frequently had the upper hand in love as well. Montaigne read enviously of an elephant who had fallen in love with a flowerseller in Alexandria. When being led through the market, he knew how to slip his wrinkled trunk through her neckband and would massage her breasts with a dexterity no human could match.

And without trying, the humblest farm animal could exceed the philosophical detachment of the wisest sages of antiquity. The Greek philosopher Pyrrho once travelled on a ship which ran into a fierce storm. All around him passengers began to panic, afraid that the mutinous waves would shatter their fragile craft. But one passenger did not lose his composure and sat quietly in a corner, wearing a tranquil expression. He was a pig:

Dare we conclude that the benefit of reason (which we praise so highly and on account of which we esteem ourselves to be lords and masters of all creation) was placed in us for our torment? What use is knowledge if, for its sake, we lose the calm and repose which we should enjoy without it and if it makes our condition worse than that of Pyrrho's pig?

It was questionable whether the mind gave us anything to be grateful for:

We have been allotted inconstancy, hesitation, doubt, pain, superstition, worries about what will happen (even after we are dead), ambition, greed, jealousy, envy, unruly, insane and untameable appetites, war, lies, disloyalty, backbiting and curiosity. We take pride in our fair, discursive reason and our capacity to judge and to know, but we have bought them at a price which is strangely excessive.

If offered a choice, Montaigne would in the end perhaps not have opted to live as a goat--but only just. Cicero had presented the benevolent picture of reason. Sixteen centuries later, it was for Montaigne to introduce the adverse:

To learn that we have said or done a stupid thing is nothing, we must learn a more ample and important lesson: that we are but blockheads.

--the biggest blockheads of all being philosophers like Cicero who had never suspected they might even be such things. Misplaced confidence in reason was the well-spring of idiocy--and, indirectly, also of inadequacy.

Beneath his painted beams, Montaigne had outlined a new kind of philosophy, one which acknowledged how far we were from the rational, serene creatures whom most of the ancient thinkers had taken us to be. We were for the most part hysterical and demented, gross and agitated souls beside whom animals were in many respects paragons of health and virtue--an unfortunate reality which philosophy was obliged to reflect, but rarely did:

Our life consists partly in madness, partly in wisdom: whoever writes about it merely respectfully and by rule leaves more than half of it behind.

And yet if we accepted our frailties, and ceased claiming a mastery we did not have, we stood to find--in Montaigne's generous, redemptive philosophy--that we were ultimately still adequate in our own distinctive half-wise, half-blockheadish way.

 
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Excerpted from The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton. Copyright © 2000 by Alain de Botton. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.