Without launching into a wikipedic monolog, Alain de Botton is a writer of “essayistic books” – notably Status Anxiety, Essays in Love and An Architecture of Happiness (which was turned into a documentary, he’s on telly too) – a speaker (check out his TED talk) and the founder of The School of Life who facilate through learning some personal answers to life’s important questions. So all bases for cultural discourse covered? Not quite – this week we welcome Alain to our Bookshelf slot…
“Most philosophy books are incredibly boring (who needs sleeping pills when you could read Hegel or Kant) so you have to choose what you read very carefully. Here are the six books which brought me most pleasure, and even more importantly, wisdom.”
The Essays Montaigne
Montaigne likes to point out that philosophers don’t know everything, and that they would be a lot wiser if they laughed at themselves a little more. He also writes in a personal and often very frank way designed to shock the prudish. “Kings and philosophers shit, and so do ladies,” he says, “Even on the highest throne in the world, we are seated still upon our arses.”
Letters from a Stoic: Seneca
Seneca belonged to the Stoic school of philosophy, which is all about teaching you how to respond calmly to disaster. We tend to imagine that cheering people up involves saying happy things. But Seneca says the saddest things and strangely enough, he is very consoling. “What need is there to weep over parts of life?” he asks, “The whole of it calls for tears.”
Essays and Aphorisms Schopenhauer
Arthur Schopenhauer is another great pessimist who makes you feel happier. He makes some brilliant analyses of why love affairs tend to go wrong (he’s perfect to read after a break up). His general drift is that you’d be mad to expect happiness from a relationship.
Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche
A much misunderstood philosopher, seen as barking mad, but actually very wise and sane. He tells us nice things about the need for struggle in life. No pain, no gain, or as he put it; “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.”
Collected Works Epicurus
Epicurus was the first philosopher to say that pleasure was the most important thing in life. People took him to mean sensual pleasure and the word “epicurean” has been linked to gluttony ever since. But read the real Epicurus and you’ll see that his idea of pleasure was quite unmaterial; in fact, it was all about having a group of good friends and reading books together outdoors.
The Last Days of Socrates Plato
Plato recounts the last days of his mentor and teacher Socrates, famously made to drink hemlock by the people of Athens. It’s a tear-jerking account, as the funny and wise Socrates is put to death by his ignorant contemporaries. It’s also a lesson in how to stand up for your beliefs and inspiration for anyone standing up against the will of the majority.
Alain de Botton is the author of The Consolations of Philosophy (Penguin), in which all the above are discussed.