On the Possibility of Happiness: Part 5, The Consolations of Philosophy

I wanted to add one more thought to my posts on happiness. In my prior four posts I stayed close to variables that have some empirical literature behind them, things we know to be predictive of happiness. So I mentioned things like gratitude, mindfulness, and relationships.

But in this post I want to mention something more idiosyncratic, something that I, myself, have found helpful: The Consolations of Philosophy.

I note this as an idiosyncratic coping strategy as I don't think everyone will find this approach helpful. You do have to be a bit bookish. But my hope is to say a few things that can open this approach up a wee bit.

The phrase "consolation of philosophy" comes from a book written by Boethius around 524. From the Wikipedia entry on the book:

Consolation of Philosophy was written during a one-year imprisonment Boethius served while awaiting trial – and eventual horrific execution – for the crime of treason under the Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great. Boethius was at the very heights of power in Rome and was brought down by treachery. This experience inspired the text, which reflects on how evil can exist in a world governed by God (the problem of theodicy), and how happiness can be attainable amidst fickle fortune, while also considering the nature of happiness and God. It has been described as "by far the most interesting example of prison literature the world has ever seen."

Boethius writes the book as a conversation between himself and Lady Philosophy. She consoles Boethius by discussing the transitory nature of fame and wealth ("no man can ever truly be secure until he has been forsaken by Fortune"), and the ultimate superiority of things of the mind, which she calls the "one true good". She contends that happiness comes from within, and that one's virtue is all that one truly has, because it is not imperiled by the vicissitudes of fortune.
I bring up Boethius' book because we all have to face tough times in life. And a part of being happy, in my opinion, is learning how to become, at times, "philosophical" in the face of life. To be sure, this philosophical stance can go too far. As a Christian, I've never felt compelled to achieve the the stoic philosophical ideal of apatheia. Love, the Christian ideal, will suffer in life.

Still, non-attachment is a part of the Christian tradition where it is also linked to reducing anxiety. As Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

"The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."
So even within Christianity there is this sense that we can reduce anxiety by becoming philosophically non-attached to our material fortunes. Similar themes can be found in Ecclesiastes.

But I think the consolations of philosophy can do more than help you maintain your equanimity in the face of misfortune. Because reading the Stoic philosophers therapeutically can, for me at least, become a bit dreary. But I do recommend them to you. You need a good dose of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius in your life. You really do. Read them from time to time.

But here's where I find the consolations of philosophy most helpful on a day to day basis: Philosophy helps me step out of the rat race.

One of the hardest things to do in life, in seeking happiness, is finding your own path. Humans are such social creatures that it is hard for us not to pay attention to what everyone else is doing and what everyone thinks of our choices. So we tend to just give in to the herd mentality. And become miserable for it. And yet, it takes enormous strength of character and vigilance to go your own way in life.

So one of the things I find helpful is to read philosophy that gives me courage when I pursue non-conformity. There is an emotional and social toll when you march to the beat of your different drummer. So you need encouragement. And I often find that encouragement in philosophy.

In short, you need to read things that keep reminding you you're not crazy. And while I find a lot of this encouragement in philosophy, I think you can find consolation of this sort in lots of places. Novels, poetry, music, art, friends.

So where do I find encouragement to stay out of the rat race? I, personally, turn to Thoreau over and over again. Every year or so I read Walden and Life Without Principle. Whenever I start slipping into the American success ethos, worrying about getting ahead, being successful, or comparing myself (favorably or unfavorably) to peers, I find Thoreau to be a wonderful companion. Reading Walden I start to calm down. Thoreau helps me let go of the push-push-push, the go-go-go, the deadline-deadline-deadline, and the busy-busy-busy insanity of modern American life. He helps me consider the lilies.

And go for a walk in the woods.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

4 thoughts on “On the Possibility of Happiness: Part 5, The Consolations of Philosophy”

  1. "In short, you need to read things that keep reminding you you're not crazy. " Like this blog..... Thanks for keeping this going Richard.

  2. I just told someone this morning that my own stability has increased after I released my expectations of Christian faith/Christian people. Humans are all too human to be different, in essence. But, the difference is in kind, which must be understood within a personal framework of values, priorities and commitments, leaving the rest behind....party platforms or doctrinal creeds...

  3. Thanks. I'm always amazed at how therapeutic people find my blog. How people get the message, "No, you're not crazy to think or feel this way."

    Then again, maybe we are crazy. But at least we're not alone.

  4. I haven't even thought about Thoreau or Walden since high school English class! I will certainly take a look. Can you or anyone recommend other, perhaps more modern or Christ-centered, books to read on this topic?

    I've thoroughly enjoyed every post on the impossibility and possibility of happiness. Thanks, Dr. Beck.

Leave a Reply