The Consolation of Philosophy, written by the sixth-century Roman politician Boethius while he awaited execution for treason, was the subject of Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time on New Year's Day. Suggesting that this book is better than any self-help manual you're likely to find cluttering up your local bookstore at this time of year, this Radio 4 programme drew a line from Plato and Aristotle via Boethius to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and, finally, Camus in an attempt to show how a rational, philosophical approach to the pain of existence could be at the least consoling and at best exhilarating.
This immediately brought to mind Jeff VanderMeer, who has been immersing himself in some of the great philosophical works of all time, served up in bite-sized chunks in Penguin's three Great Ideas series. He has set himself the task of reading and writing about one book each day for sixty days. He has just finished the first series and has taken a short three-day break to re-charge his intellectual batteries before embarking on phase two. Some might say that far from finding consolation in reading these works back to back, Jeff is actually creating for himself a world of pain, if not a world at the very least riddled with doubt and confusion. But that is to underestimate Jeff: a writer exhilarated by good writing.
Regardless of Jeff's state of mind, his readers, judging by their comments, have found this endeavour both entertaining and instructive (though Jeff, borrowing from Schopenhauer, has taken to calling these same readers his 'fellow sufferers'). The process itself is simple: Jeff posts every day about the book he read the night before, quoting a striking line, providing a brief summary, posing a question for his blog readers, and providing a long commentary on his experience of reading it.
And it is intriguing to see not only how these thinkers and philosophers speak to Jeff but also to each other through this experiment. Jeff has said that he often recognises the ghosts of ancestral writers in the words of those who came after them. While sometimes he wonders how different certain tracts might have been had others, yet to be written, come before. Would the Communist Manifesto, for example, have been any different, had Darwin's On the Origin of Species, which unreservedly placed humankind in the red-in-tooth-and-claw jungle of the animal kingdom, been published first?
His comparisons are also fascinating. I'd never have expected to see Swift and Ruskin directly compared to one another, but Jeff's delight in their use and mastery of the extended metaphor shows the keen eye of a fantasy writer at work. I also enjoyed this playful description of Orwell's writing: 'good prose is a window pane, but sometimes the pane is dirty or cracked, and sometimes it has the reflective qualities of a mirror, or even a hint of soft green fungus growing in the gutter between glass and wood.'
Perhaps most interesting of all is that Jeff finds many of the texts not only highly relevant today but also he suggests that often we have failed to heed the ideas or lessons contained within them. Anyone dispirited by the misadventures of the American government of George W Bush over the last eight years will find that Rousseau's The Social Contract still has a lot to teach, he tells us. While his assessment of Paine's Common Sense ends with this question: Has the United States “in the flesh” lived up to Paine’s faith in it as an idea?
This is the history of thought as dialogue, which underlines the title of this series of books and provides proof, if any were still required, that what Jeff is doing here is far from frivolous.
Here are links to the first series of Great Ideas as read by Jeff:
#1 - Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life
#2 - Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations
#3 - St Augustine’s Confessions of a Sinner
#4 - Thomas à Kempis’ The Inner Life
#5 - Machiavelli’s The Prince
#6 - Montaigne’s On Friendship
#7 - Swift’s A Tale of a Tub
#8 - Rousseau’s The Social Contract
#9 - Edward Gibbon’s The Christians and the Fall of Rome
#10 - Thomas Paine’s Common Sense
#11 - Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women
#12 - William Hazlitt’s On the Pleasure of Hating
#13 - Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto
#14 - Arthur Schopenhauer’s On the Suffering of the World
#15 - John Ruskin’s On Art and Life
#16 - Charles Darwin’s On Natural Selection
#17 - Friedrich Nietzsche’s Why I am So Wise
#18 - Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own
#19 - Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents
#20 - George Orwell’s Why I Write
It's balm for an unhappy world.