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DE BOTTON, Alain



The Consolations of Philosophy

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Christianity had, in Nietzsche’s account, emerged from the minds of timid slaves in the Roman Empire who had lacked the stomach to climb to the tops of mountains, and so had built themselves a philosophy claiming that their bases were delightful. Christians had wished to enjoy the real ingredients of fulfilment (a position in the world, sex, intellectual mastery, creativity) but did not have the courage to endure the difficulties these goods demanded. They had therefore fashioned a hypocritical creed denouncing what they wanted but were too weak to fight for while praising what they did not want but happened to have. Powerlessness became ‘goodness’, baseness ‘humility’, submission to people one hated ‘obedience’ and, in Nietzsche’s phrase, ‘not-being-able-to-take-revenge’ turned into ‘forgiveness’. Every feeling of weakness was overlaid with a sanctifying name, and made to seem ‘a voluntary achievement, something wanted, chosen, a deed, an accomplishment’. Addicted to ‘the religion of comfortableness’, Christians, in their value system, had given precedence to what was easy, not what was desirable, and so had drained life of its potential.
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… creature on earth seemed to Schopenhauer to be equally committed to an equally meaningless existence: Contemplate the restless industry of wretched little ants … the life of most insects is nothing but a restless labour for preparing nourishment and dwelling for the future offspring that will come from their eggs. After the offspring have consumed the nourishment and have turned into the chrysalis stage, they enter into life merely to begin the same task again from the beginning … we cannot help but ask what comes of all of this … there is nothing to show but the satisfaction of hunger and sexual passion, and … a little momentary gratification … now and then, between … endless needs and exertions. … The philosopher did not have to spell out the parallels. We pursue love affairs, chat in cafés with prospective partners and have children, with as much choice in the matter as moles and ants – and are rarely any happier.

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In February 62, Seneca came up against an unalterable reality. Nero ceased to listen to his old tutor, he shunned his company, encouraged slander of him at court and appointed a bloodthirsty praetorian prefect, Ofonius Tigellinus, to assist him in indulging his taste for random murder and sexual cruelty. Virgins were taken off the streets of Rome and brought to the emperor’s chambers. Senators’ wives were forced to participate in orgies, and saw their husbands killed in front of them. Nero roamed the city at night disguised as an ordinary citizen and slashed the throats of passers-by in back alleys. He fell in love with a young boy who he wished could have been a girl, and so he castrated him and went through a mock wedding ceremony. Romans wryly joked that their lives would have been more tolerable if Nero’s father Domitius had married that sort of a woman. Knowing he was in extreme danger, Seneca attempted to withdraw from court and remain quietly in his villa outside Rome. Twice he offered his resignation; twice Nero refused, embracing him tightly and swearing that he would rather die than harm his beloved tutor. Nothing in Seneca’s experience could allow him to believe such promises.

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The most fulfilling human projects appeared inseparable from a degree of torment, the sources of our greatest joys lying awkwardly close to those of our greatest pains…

Why? Because no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfillment.

Nietzsche was striving to correct the belief that fulfillment must come easily or not at all, a belief ruinous in its effects, for it leads us to withdraw prematurely from challenges that might have been overcome if only we had been prepared for the savagery legitimately demanded by almost everything valuable.

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The Art of Travel

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Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts new places. Introspective reflections which are liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape. The mind may be reluctant to think properly when thinking is all it is supposed to do.

At the end of hours of train-dreaming, we may feel we have been returned to ourselves - that is, brought back into contact with emotions and ideas of importance to us. It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, but who may not be who we essentially are.

If we find poetry in the service station and motel, if we are drawn to the airport or train carriage, it is perhaps because, in spite of their architectural compromises and discomforts, in spite of their garish colours and harsh lighting, we implicitly feel that these isolated places offer us a material setting for an alternative to the selfish ease, the habits and confinement of the ordinary, rooted world.

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