Monday, May 18, 2009

The Consolations of Philosophy

I first read a book by Alain De Botton several years ago called 'How Proust Can Change Your Life'. It was at once like having a one-to-one Oxbridge tutorial and the company of a great friend. De Botton recommended devoting a year of one's life to reading Proust, savouring it word by word; using it almost as a self-help book. I went off to read Proust and time passed.

After a chance encounter with someone I hadn't seen in years and who I know has little time for me or my family (so I guess she shouldn't have been taken too seriously), I was quite shaken up by an attack by her on our choice to home-educate. My self-confidence collapsing around my ears, despite the evidence of my happy family around me, we nevertheless pottered on into a Waterstones book shop.
There I picked up De Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy. How opportune! I opened the book to read the first chapter heading, 'Consolation for Unpopularity'. De Botton's premise is that society questions whatever differs from the normal without reason, questioning anything that isn't common practice at this particular time in history or place in the world. Alain De Botton points out that what is considered normal for one society can seem outrageous to another.

How then can we judge if we are making the right decisions? We certainly cannot make decisions based on the contemporary values of society. After all the Ancient Greeks were 'sanguine about owning slaves'; there was one slave to every three free people. It is as foolish to accept the common sense of the society one lives in as it is to dismiss it for the sake of it.

De Botton sets out a way for us to test our decisions with Socratic thought:

'1. Locate a statement confidently described as common sense

2. Imagine for a moment that, despite the confidence of the person proposing it, the statement is false. Search for situations or contexts where the statement would not be true.

3. If an exception is found, the definition is false or at least imprecise.

4. The initial statement must be nuanced to take the exception into account.

5.If one subsequently finds exceptions to the improved statements, the process should be repeated. The truth, in so far as a human being is able to attain such a thing, lies in a statement which it seems impossible to disprove. It is by finding out what something is not that one comes closest to understanding what it is.

6. The product of thought is, whatever Aristophanes insinuated, superior to the product of intuition.'

[page 24]

Although it took us several years of researching the pros and cons of home education in relation to our children's needs. Let's, for the sake of those who have only read an article in the paper and have just ten minutes to make a snap judgement, look at two points about home education the quick Socratic way.

1. All children should go to school.

2. But there are exceptions: educated people that have been home-educated: Leonardo Da Vinci, Beatrix Potter, Patrick Moore, C. S. Lewis, Margaret Mead, Michael Faraday, Mary D. Leakey and of course many more, especially born in any century other than the twentieth.

3. The statement is at least imprecise.

4. Some children should go to school.

5. New statement: Perhaps a child should go to school if their parent is unable to offer them an education at home. But are there only the two options? Is the choice between 'school' as defined by contemporary society and home with the child's parents? Are there exceptions? There are certainly other ideas out there: a non-compulsory library style of education; personal tutors; flexi-schooling; apprenticeships etc.

1. Or how about the premise 'There is one correct curriculum that all children should follow. A curriculum that is so correct that we can confidently test all children for their knowledge of it.'

One that is so correct that all our future original thinkers will be detected and rewarded (even though we have, necessarily, not considered what knowledge that child will need in order to attain that original thought).

2. Other countries study their own histories, literature, language and morality. Even science is disputed according to religion or culture, adding to that the fact that we always consider our own childhood curriculum superior. Knowledge which is held to be the undisputed truth for one generation is often disproven and mocked by the next. Schools rarely use textbooks more than ten years old.

Back, then, to some consoling. The problem with the encounter with my critic was that she said something that was contrary to all the evidence I had around me: a happy, content yet highly educated young family. Alain De Botton again:

'We fail to ask ourselves the cardinal and most consoling question: on what basis has this dark censure been made? We treat with equal seriousness the objections of the critic who has thought rigorously and honestly and those of the critic who has acted out of misanthropy and envy.'[Page 30]

When we lived in Denmark I was impressed by the relaxed and attentive attitude to parenting there. Families in restaurant don't tie their children into their pushchairs but sit them with them at the table. Men are seen with their children as often as women. Babies are happily left sleeping in the fresh air in their prams outside shops, restaurants and houses. At the time of our visit a Danish lady was arrested for doing just this in New York. I am sure it never occured to her that what is good parenting in her culture it might be seen as wrong in another. I never saw a child in a pushchair facing away from their mothers. Children have cushions, blankets and toys in their cosy prams (or bicycle carriages) and can chat to their parents as they walk or cycle along. I thought how different and better I would have been as a parent if we had lived in Denmark when our children were younger. I wouldn’t have had sleepless nights over the children not attending nursery at two years old. I would have allowed them more freedom to behave like children in public places.

It surprised me to realise that I had behaved according to the norms of those around me instead of listening to my own children and their needs. I realised that if the culture changed in Britain (which it will surely do) and my grown up children questioned my parenting, it was really no excuse to say that I listened to strangers and convention before I listened to them.

‘we will best be rewarded if we strive instead to listen always to the dictates of reason’

[page 42]

We, as adults, are subject to the criticisms and anxieties of society but we have a responsibility to recognise when these pressures are ill-founded and unworthy to be passed onto the next generation.

'every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to; it is indeed the case that we have no other criterion of truth or right-reason than the example and form of the opinion and customs of our own country' (Michel de Montaigne, Essays, I, 31).


  1. Wow Lorna,

    Excellent post. I checked the book out on Amazon and certainly looks interesting. It always amazes me how other people like to question our choices and make it look like we are in the wrong, because those choices don't fall within popular opinion. Thought provoking book, will definitely have to read it.

  2. Thank you so much for your kind comment Robin. The best books are solace for the soul. I have also read 'Status Anxiety' and 'Essays in Love' and am now onto his 'The Architecture of Happiness'. They are sending me in pursuit of wisdom in several literary directions at once, from Seneca and Montaigne to Flaubert and Stendal. If you enjoy 'The Consolations of Philosophy' I highly recommend 'Status Anxiety' as a follow up.


Thank you for your kind comments.