Alain de Botton, best-selling author of How Proust can Change Your Life, has set six of the finest minds in the history of philosophy to work on the problems of everyday life. Here then are Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche on some of the things that bother us all; lack of money, the pain of love, inadequacy, anxiety, the fear of failure and the pressure to conform. ‘Singlehandedly, de Botton has taken philosophy back to its simplest and most important purpose: helping us live our lives’ Christine Hardyment, INDEPENDENT‘No doubt about it, philosophy is the new rock and roll and Alain de Botton is its Colonel Ton Parker…A pleasure to read. And good writing, like good philosophy, is always a consolation’ John Banville, IRISH TIMES‘Few discussions on the great philosophers can have been so entertaining…an ingenious, imaginative book’ Humphrey Carpenter, SUNDAY TIMES‘Witty, thoughtful, entertaining…a stylish book, which manages to make philosophy both enjoyable and relevant’ Anthony Clare, LITERARY REVIEW‘Gentle, helpful and humane…De Botton’s instinct is surely right: if we are to bring philosophy to life we should look again at those thinkers who have sought to be not clever or paradoxical, but simply wise’ Roger Scruton, MAIL ON SUNDAY On SenecaAn aeroplane belonging to the Swiss national airline, carrying 229 people, takes off on a scheduled flight from New York to Geneva. Fifty minutes out of Kennedy Airport, as the stewardesses roll their trolleys down the aisles of the McDonald Douglas MD-11, the captain reports smoke in the cockpit. Ten minutes later, the plane disappears off the radar. The gigantic machine, each of its wings 52 metres long, crashes into the placid seas off Halifax, Nova Scotia, killing all on board. Rescue workers speak of the difficulty of identifying what were, only hours before, humans with lives and plans. Briefcases are found floating in the sea.1. If we do not dwell on the risk of sudden disaster and pay a price for our innocence, it is because reality comprises two cruelly confusing characteristics: on the one hand, continuity and reliability lasting across generations; on the other, unheralded cataclysms. We find ourselves divided between a plausible invitation to assume that tomorrow will be much like today and the possibility that we will meet with an appalling event after which nothing will ever be the same again. It is because we have such powerful incentives to neglect the latter that Seneca invoked a goddess.2. She was to be found on the back of many Roman coins, holding a cornucopia in one hand and a rudder in the other. She was beautiful and usually wore a light tunic and a coy smile. Her name was Fortune. She had originated as a fertility goddess, the firstborn of Jupiter, and was honoured with a festival on the 25th of May and with temples throughout Italy, visited by the barren and farmers in search of rain. But gradually her remit had widened, she had become associated with money, advancement, love and health. The cornucopia was symbol of her power to bestow favours, the rudder a symbol of her more sinister power to change destinies. She could scatter gifts, then with terrifying speed shift the rudder's course, maintaining an imperturbable smile as she watched us choke to death on a fishbone or disappear in a landslide.3. Because we are injured most by what we do not expect, and because we must expect everything ('There is nothing which Fortune does not dare'), we must, proposed Seneca, hold the possibility of disaster in mind at all times. No one should undertake a journey by car, or walk down the stairs, or say goodbye to a friend, without an awareness, which Seneca would have wished to be neither gruesome nor unnecessarily dramatic, of fatal possibilities.4. For evidence of how little is needed for all to come to nought, we have only to hold up our wrists and study for a moment the pulses of blood through our fragile, greenish veins:What is man? A vessel that the slightest shaking, the slightest toss will break ... A body weak and fragile, naked, in its natural state defenceless, dependent upon another's help and exposed to all the affronts of Fortune. Extract 2: On Montaigne Consolation for Sexual Inadequacy How problematic to have both a body and a mind; problematic because the former stands in almost monstrous contrast to the latter's dignity and intelligence. Our bodies smell, ache, sag, pulse, throb and age. They force us to fart and burp, and abandon sensible plans in order to wind up in bed with people, sweating, shouting obscene things, and letting out intense sounds reminiscent of hyenas calling out to one other across the barren wastes of the American deserts. These bodies hold our minds hostage to their whims and rhythms. Our whole perspective on life can be altered by the digestion of a heavy lunch. "I feel quite a different person before and after a meal," concurred Montaigne, When good health and a fine sunny day smile at me, I am quite debonair; give me an ingrowing toe-nail, and I am touchy, bad-tempered and unapproachable. Even the greatest philosophers have not been spared bodily humiliation. "Imagine Plato struck down by epilepsy or apoplexy," proposed Montaigne, "then challenge him to get any help from all those noble and splendid faculties of his soul." Or imagine that in the middle of a symposium, Plato had been struck by a need to fart. "That sphincter which serves to discharge our stomachs has dilations and contractions proper to itself, independent of our wishes or even opposed to them." Montaigne heard of a man who knew how to fart at will, and on occasion arranged a sequence of farts to rhyme with poetry, but such mastery did not contravene his observation that our bodies generally have the upper hand over our minds, and that the sphincter is "most indiscreet and disorderly." Montaigne even heard a tragic case of one behind, "so stormy and churlish that it has obliged its master to fart forth wind constantly and unremittingly for forty years and is thus bringing him to his death." No wonder we may be tempted to deny our uncomfortable, insulting coexistence with these vessels. Montaigne met a woman who, acutely aware of how repulsive her digestive organs were, tried to live as though she didn't have any. "[This] lady (amongst the greatest)... shares the opinion that chewing distorts the face, derogating greatly from women's grace and beauty; so when hungry, she avoids appearing in public. And I know a man who cannot tolerate watching people eat nor others watching him do so: he shuns all company even more when he fills his belly than when he empties it." Montaigne knew men so overwhelmed by their sexual longings that they ended their torment through castration. Others tried to suppress their lust by applying snow and vinegar compresses to their over-active testicles. The Emperor Maximilian, conscious of a conflict between being regal and having a body, ordered that no one should ever see him naked, particularly below the waist. He expressly requested in his will that he be buried in a set of linen underpants. "He should have added a codicil," noted Montaigne, "saying that the man who pulled them on ought to be blindfolded." However drawn we may be towards such radical measures, Montaigne's philosophy was one of reconciliation. "The most uncouth of our afflictions is to despise our being". Rather than trying to cut ourselves in two, he urged us to cease waging civil war on our perplexing physical envelopes and learn to accept them as unalterable facts of our condition, neither so terrible nor so humiliating. In the summer of 1993, L. and I travelled to northern Portugal for a holiday. We drove along the villages of the Minho, then spent a few days south of Viana do Costelo. It was here, in a small hotel overlooking the sea on the last night of our holiday, that I realised - quite without warning - that I could no longer make love. It would hardly have been possible to surmount, let alone mention the experience if I had not, a few months before going to Portugal, come across the twenty-first chapter of the first volume of Montaigne's Essays. The author recounted therein that a friend of his had heard a man explain how he had lost his erection just as he prepared to enter a woman. The embarrassment of the detumescence struck Montaigne's friend with such force, that the next time he was in bed with a woman, he could not banish it from his mind, and the fear of the same catastrophe befalling him grew so overwhelming that it prevented his own penis from stiffening. From then on, however much he desired a woman, he could not attain an erection, and the ignoble memory of every misadventure taunted and tyrannised him with increasing force. Montaigne's friend had grown less potent than he was after failing to achieve the unwavering rational command over his penis that he assumed to be an indispensable feature of normal manhood. Montaigne did not blame the penis: "Except for genuine impotence, never again are you incapable if you are capable of doing it once." It was the oppressive notion that we had complete mental control over our bodies, and the horror of departing from this portrait of normality that had left the man unable to perform. The solution was to redraw the portrait; it was by accepting a loss of command over the penis as a harmless possibility in love-making that one could pre-empt its occurence - as the stricken man eventually discovered. In bed with a woman, he learnt to, "admit beforehand that he was subject to this infirmity and spoke openly about it, so relieving the tensions within his soul. By bearing the malady as something to be expected, his sense of constriction grew less and weighed less heavily on him." Montaigne's frankness allowed the tensions in the reader's own soul to be relieved. The penis's abrupt moods were removed from the Cimmerian recesses of wordless shame and reconsidered with the unshockable, worldly eye of a philosopher whom nothing bodily could repulse. A sense of personal culpability was lessened by what Montaigne described as: [The universal] disobedience of this member which thrusts itself forward so inopportunely when we do not want it to, and which so inopportunely lets us down when we most need it. A man who failed with his mistress and was unable to do any more than mumble an apology, could regain his forces and soothe the anxieties of his beloved by accepting that his impotence belonged to a broad realm of sexual mishaps, neither very rare nor very peculiar. Montaigne knew a Gascon nobleman who, after failing to maintain an erection with a woman, fled home, cut off his penis and sent it to the lady "to atone for his offence." Montaigne proposed instead that: "If [couples] are not ready, they should not try to rush things. Rather than fall into perpetual wretchedness by being struck with despair at a first rejection, it is better... to wait for an opportune moment... a man who suffers a rejection should make gentle assays and overtures with various little sallies; he should not stubbornly persist in proving himself inadequate once and for all." It was a new language, unsensational and intimate, with which to articulate the loneliest moments of our sexuality. Cutting a path into the private sorrows of the bedchamber, Montaigne drained them of their ignominy, attempting all the while to reconcile us to our bodily selves. His courage in mentioning what had been secretly lived but rarely heard expanded the range of what we could dare to express to our lovers and to ourselves - a courage founded on Montaigne's conviction that nothing that could happen to man was inhuman, that "every man bears the whole Form of the human condition", a condition which included - we did not need to blush nor hate ourselves for it - the risk of an occasional, rebellious flaccidity in the penis. Montaigne attributed our problems with our bodies in part to an absence of honest discussion about them in polite circles. Representative stories and images do not tend to identify feminine grace with a strong interest in love-making, nor authority with the possession of a sphincter or penis. Pictures of kings and ladies did not encourage one to think of these eminent souls breaking wind or making love. Montaigne filled out the picture in blunt, beautiful French: "Au plus eslevé throne du monde si ne sommes assis que sus nostre cul." "Upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses." "Les Roys et les philosophes fientent, et les dames aussi." "Kings and philosophers shit: and so do ladies." Extract 3: On Schopenhauer A contemporary love story with Schopenhauerian notes A man is attempting to work on a train between Edinburgh and London. It is early in the afternoon on a warm spring day. Papers and a diary are on the table before him, and a book is open on the arm-rest. But the man has been unable to hold a coherent thought since Newcastle, when a woman entered the carriage and seated herself across the aisle. After looking impassively out of the window for a few moments, she turned her attention to a pile of magazines. She has been reading Vogue since Darlington. She reminds the man of a portrait by Christen Købke of Mrs Høegh-Guldberg (though he cannot recall either of these names), which he saw, and felt strangely moved and saddened by, in a museum in Denmark a few years before. But unlike Mrs Høegh-Guldberg, she has short brown hair, and wears jeans, a pair of trainers, and a canary-yellow v-neck sweater over a T-shirt. He notices an incongruously large digital sports watch on her pale, freckle-dotted wrist. He imagines running his hand through her chestnut hair, caressing the back of her neck, sliding his hand inside the sleeve of her pullover, watching her fall asleep beside him, her lips slightly agape. He imagines living with her in a house in south London, in a cherry tree-lined street. He speculates that she may be a cellist or a graphic designer or a doctor specialising in genetic research. His mind turns over strategies for conversation. He considers asking her for the time, for a pencil, for directions to the bathroom, for reflections on the weather, for a look at one of her magazines. He longs for a train crash, in which their carriage would be thrown into one of the vast barley fields through which they are passing. In the chaos, he would guide her safely outside, and repair with her to a nearby tent set up by the ambulance service, where they would be offered luke warm tea and stare into each others' eyes. Years later, they would attract interest by revealing that they had met in the tragic Edinburgh Express collision. But because the train seems disinclined to derail, though he knows it to be louche and absurd, the man cannot help clearing his throat and leaning over to ask the angel if she might have a spare biro. It feels like jumping off the side of a very high bridge. 1. Philosophers have not traditionally been impressed: the tribulations of love have appeared too childish to warrant investigation, the subject better left to poets and hysterics. It is not for philosophers to speculate on hand-holding and scented letters. Schopenhauer was puzzled by the indifference. "We should be surprised that a matter that generally plays such an important part in the life of man has hitherto been almost entirely disregarded by philosophers, and lies before us as raw and untreated material." The neglect seemed the result of a pompous denial of a side of life which violated man's rational self-image. Schopenhauer insisted on the awkward reality. "Love...interrupts at every hour the most serious occupations, and sometimes perplexes for a while even the greatest minds. It does not hesitate...to interfere with the negotiations of statesmen and the investigations of the learned. It knows how to slip its love-notes and ringlets even into ministerial portfolios and philosophical manuscripts... It sometimes demands the sacrifice of...health, sometimes of wealth, position and happiness." 2. Like the Gascon essayist born two hundred and fifty five years before him, Schopenhauer was concerned with what made man - supposedly the most rational of all creatures - less than reasonable. There was a set of Montaigne's works in the library of the apartment at Schšne Aussicht. Schopenhauer had read of how reason could be dethroned by a fart, a big lunch or an ingrowing toe-nail, and concurred with Montaigne's view that our minds were subservient to our bodies, despite our arrogant faith that we could exert complete conscious control over ourselves. 3. But Schopenhauer went further. Rather than alighting on loose examples of the dethronement of reason, he gave a name to a force within us which he felt invariably had precedence over reason, a force powerful enough to distort all of reason's plans and judgements, and which he termed the will-to-life (Wille zum Leben) - defined as an inherent drive within human beings to stay alive and to have children. The will-to-life led even committed depressives to fight for survival when they were threatened by a shipwreck or grave illness. It ensured that the most cerebral, career-minded individuals would be seduced by the sight of gurgling infants, or if they remained unmoved, that they were likely to conceive a child anyway, and love it fiercely on arrival. And it was the will-to-life that drove people to lose their reason over comely passengers encountered across the aisles of long-distance trains. 4. Schopenhauer might have resented the disruption of love; but he refused to conceive of it as either disproportionate or accidental. It was entirely commensurate with love's function. "Why all this noise and fuss? Why all the urgency, uproar, anguish and exertion?... Why should such a trifle play so important a role...? It is no trifle that is here in question; on the contrary, the importance of the matter is perfectly in keeping with the earnestness and ardour of the effort. The ultimate aim of all love-affairs... is actually more important than all other aims in man's life; and therefore it is quite worthy of the profound seriousness with which everyone pursues it." And what is the aim? Neither communion nor sexual release, understanding nor entertainment. The romantic dominates life because "what is decided by it is nothing less than the composition of the next generation....the existence and special constitution of the human race in times to come." It is because love directs us with such force towards the second of the will-to-life's two great commands that Schopenhauer judged it the most inevitable and understandable of our obsessions. 5. The fact that the continuation of the species is seldom in our minds when we ask for a phone number is no objection to the theory. We are, suggested Schopenhauer, split into conscious and unconscious selves, the unconscious governed by the will-to-life, the conscious subservient to it and unable to learn of all its plans. Rather than a sovereign entity, the conscious mind is a partially sighted servant of a dominant, child-obsessed will-to-life. "[The intellect] does not penetrate into the secret workshop of the will's decisions. It is, of course, a confidant of the will, yet a confidant that does not get to know everything." The intellect understands only so much as is necessary to promote reproduction - which may mean understanding very little. "[it] remains...much excluded from the real resolutions and secret decisions of its own will" An exclusion which explains how we may consciously feel nothing more than an intense desire to see someone again, while unconsciously being driven by a force aiming at the reproduction of the next generation. Why should such deception even be necessary? Because, for Schopenhauer, we would not reliably assent to reproduce unless we first had lost our minds. 6. The analysis surely violates a rational self-image, but at least it counters suggestions that romantic love is an avoidable escapade from more serious tasks, that it is forgiveable for youngsters with too much time on their hands to swoon by moonlight and sob beneath bedclothes, but that it is unnecessary and demented for their seniors to neglect their work because they have glimpsed a face on a train. By conceiving of love as biologically inevitable, key to the continuation of the species, Schopenhauer's theory of the will invited us to adopt a more forgiving stance towards the eccentric behaviour to which we are so often subject. Extract 4: On Nietzsche Having difficulties is sadly, of course, not enough. All lives are difficult; what makes some of them fulfilled as well is the manner in which pains have been met. Every pain is an indistinct signal that something is wrong, which may engender either a good or bad result depending on the sagacity and strength of mind of the sufferer. Anxiety may precipitate panic, or an accurate analysis of what is amiss. A sense of injustice may lead to murder, or to a ground-breaking work of economic theory. Envy may lead to bitterness, or to a decision to compete with a rival and the production of a masterpiece. As Nietzsche's beloved Montaigne had explained in the final chapter of the Essays, the art of living lies in finding uses for our adversities. "We must learn to suffer whatever we cannot avoid. Our life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of discords as well as of different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud. If a musician liked only some of them, what could he sing? He has got to know how to use all of them and blend them together. So too must we with good and ill, which are of one substance with our life." And some two hundred years later, Nietzsche returned the thought: "If only we were fruitful fields, we would at bottom let nothing perish unused and see in every event, thing and man welcome manure." How then to be fruitful? 13. Born in Urbino in 1483, Raphael from an early age displayed such an interest in drawing that his father took the boy to Perugia to work as an apprentice to the renowned Pietro Perugino. He was soon executing works of his own and by his late teens had painted several portraits of members of the court of Urbino, and altarpieces for churches in Cittˆ di Castello, a day's ride from Urbino across the mountains on the road to Perugia. But Raphael, one of Nietzsche's favourite painters, knew he was not a great artist, for he had seen the works of two men, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Leonardo da Vinci. They had shown him that he was unable to paint figures in motion, and despite an aptitude for pictorial geometry, that he had no grasp of linear perspective. The envy could have grown monstrous. Raphael turned it into manure instead. In 1504, at the age of twenty-one, he left Urbino for Florence in order to study the work of his two masters. He examined their cartoons in the Hall of the Great Council where Leonardo had worked on the Battle of Anghiari and Michelangelo on the Battle of Cascina. He imbibed the lessons of Leonardo and Michelangelo's anatomical drawings and followed their example of dissecting and drawing corpses. He learned from Leonardo's Adoration of the Magi and his cartoons of the Virgin and Child, and looked closely at an unusual portrait Leonardo had been asked to execute for a nobleman, Francesco del Giocondo, who had wanted a likeness of his wife, a young beauty with a somewhat enigmatic smile. The results of Raphael's exertions were soon apparent. We can compare a Portrait of a Young Woman which Raphael had drawn before moving to Florence in 1505 with Portrait of a Woman completed a few years after. Mona had given Raphael the idea of a half-length seated pose in which the arms provided the base of a pyramidal composition. She had taught him how to use contrasting axes for the head, shoulder and hands in order to lend volume to a figure. Whereas the woman drawn in Urbino had looked awkwardly constricted in her clothes, her arms unnaturally cut off, the woman from Florence was mobile and at ease. Raphael had not spontaneously come into possession of his talents; he had become great by responding intelligently to a sense of inferiority that would have led lesser men to despair. The career path offered a Nietzschean lesson in the benefits of wisely-interpreted pain. "Don't talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name all kinds of great men who were not very gifted. They acquired greatness, became 'geniuses' (as we put it) through qualities about whose lack no man aware of them likes to speak: all of them had that diligent seriousness of a craftsman, learning first to construct the parts properly before daring to make a great whole. They allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole." Raphael had been able - to use Nietzsche's terms - to sublimate (sublimieren), spiritualise (vergeistigen) and raise (aufheben) to fruitfulness the difficulties in his path. 14. The philosopher had a practical as well as a metaphorical interest in horticulture. On resigning from Basel University in 1879, Nietzsche had set his heart on becoming a professional gardener. "You know that my preference is for a simple, natural way of life," he informed his surprised mother, "and I am becoming increasingly eager for it. There is no other cure for my health. I need real work, which takes time and induces tiredness without mental strain." He remembered an old tower in Naumburg near his mother's house, which he planned to rent while looking after the adjoining garden. The gardening life began with enthusiasm in September 1879 - but there were soon problems. Nietzsche's poor eyesight prevented him from seeing what he was trimming, he had difficulty bending his back, there were too many leaves (it was autumn) and after three weeks, he felt he had no alternative but to give up. Yet traces of his horticultural enthusiasm survived in his philosophy, for in certain passages, he proposed that we should look at our difficulties like gardeners. At their roots, plants can be odd and unpleasant, but a person with knowledge and faith in their potential will lead them to bear beautiful flowers and fruit - just as, in life, at root level, there may be difficult emotions and situations which can nevertheless result, through careful cultivation, in the greatest achievements and happiness. "One can dispose of one's drives like a gardener and, though few know it, cultivate the shoots of anger, pity, curiosity, vanity as productively and profitably as a beautiful fruit tree on a trellis." But most of us fail to recognise the debt we owe to these shoots of difficulty. We are liable to think that anxiety or envy have nothing legitimate to teach us and so remove them like emotional weeds when they emerge. We believe, as Nietzsche put it, that "the higher is not allowed to grow out of the lower, is not allowed to have grown at all... everything first-rate must be causa sui [the cause of itself]" Yet "good and honoured things" are, Nietzsche stressed, "artfully related, knotted and crocheted to...wicked, apparently antithetical things." "Love and hate, gratitude and revenge, good nature and anger... belong together," which does not mean that they have to be expressed together, but that a positive may often be the result of a negative successfully gardened. Therefore, "the emotions of hatred, envy, covetousness and lust for domination [are] life-conditioning emotions,... which must fundamentally and essentially be present in the total economy of life." To cut out every negative root would simultaneously mean choking off positive elements that might arise from it further down the stem of the plant. We should not feel embarrassed by our difficulties, only by our failure to grow anything beautiful from them.