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Reasons to be cheerful
Part 1: Philosophy

Peter Kenny


There's a refrain in song by Smokey Robinson where he sings "into each life some rain must fall".  As you'd expect from Smokey, it is a sweet and life-affirming expression about how life is shit.

Having recently been rained on somewhat, I decided to conduct an investigation into what might help. Naturally, my first impulse was to consider philosophy.

But the first problem you encounter with philosophy is philosophers. They are fantastically annoying, and chiefly this is because they are good at arguing.

Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, for example, wandered about town bamboozling people just so that he could prove them wrong. Eventually he so galled his fellow citizens that they forced him to drink a fatal dose of hemlock for "corrupting the youth of Athens". Proof that never letting anyone else get a word in edgeways is soon going to hack everyone off. 

Personally I dislike arguments, which why I find most philosophy appalling. It requires you in the first instance to have opinions. And frankly I distrust people with opinions. I rarely care about anything strongly enough to form an opinion about it. And you can bet that as soon as a philosopher has an opinion he wants to have a furious argument.

Of course, philosophers will argue that they use logic in their arguments. But this is entirely false.

Take American philosopher Karl Popper, who got into a row with Wittgenstein one day at Cambridge about whether philosophical problems actually existed. Irritatingly, Popper had been impressing everyone by propounding some flashy yank arguments.  Popper found his position elegantly refuted by an enraged Wittgenstein, however, who attempted to brand him with a red hot poker.

Once you've arrived at an opinion, say for example, the Fido "Fido" theory of truth where you assert that the name "Fido" corresponds to the actual dog Fido (and you get a taste here perhaps of the unspeakable nature of most Philosophical debates) you must be prepared to argue about it with people who's only joy and purpose in life is to prove you wrong.

Somewhat to my own amazement, only a few years after Socrates gulped down his final bad beer, I managed to bluff my way through a degree in philosophy. And being philosophical swiftly came in handy when I was unable to get a job having just gained a philosophy degree.

But surely the benchmark of philosophy's potential for being cheering must be a book called the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. (Don't confuse this with the recently published book of the TV series called The Consolations of Philosophy -- where its author Alain De Botton manages not to mention Boethius once).

Boethius probably wrote The Consolation in 524 AD, the year of his death. He was a top civil servant and major toady to the Emperor Theodric. Being a devotee of Plato, Boethius also harboured secret fantasies about being a Philosopher King. Inevitably he fell out of favour and was banished to Pavia --somewhere at the frayed edge of empire-- to be imprisoned and tortured.

It is said that he wrote the consolation in two weeks in between spells of being badly interfered with. He is mainly remembered for his discussion of "the wheel of fortune". That your life is like a turning mill wheel, sometimes you're on top, and sometimes you are down in the sludge.

The chief philosophical insight he gained during  daily torture was that you couldn't rely on luck.

No shit.

Eventually, his captors terminated his philosophical career with a damned good clubbing.

Call me strange but I do find this all quite cheering. The real consolation of the Consolation of Philosophy is that you are not the person being tortured - with only a hallucination which he called "Lady Philosophy" to talk to.

This imaginary visitor was little use.  Instead of bringing him a cake with a sturdy file baked into it, Lady Philosophy instead banged on about Plato and Aristotle and interspersed these conversations with some indifferent poetry. However bad it gets, you are unlikely to be in a worse scrape than Boethius.

So now you know.  Philosophy can cheer you up.


(c) Peter Kenny 2001



The Wheel of Fortune, by Edward Burne-Jones
The Wheel of Fortune, by Edward Burne-Jones

This picture shows Fortune turning her wheel to which the figures of a slave, a king and a poet are bound.