Who were they?

How can they help?

Born 469 BC. Short, bald and spectacularly ugly, Socrates wandered around Athens barefoot,asking probing questions- notably forcing generals to retreat on their definition of courage and making an aristocrat acknowledge the bankruptcy of equating wealth with virtue. Accused of undermining society, he was instructed to recant his teachings or face death. Socrates calmly downed poisonous hemlock, but his conversations and ideas were immortalised by his star pupil, Plato.
Believe in yourself Socrates refused to be swayed by convention, popular opinion or even the threat of death, and continued backing what he believed. Having such self-belief does not mean you're right, but neither does everyone else thinking you're off-beam make you wrong. No matter how unpopular an idea is, if it cannot be logically disproved then it is true.Not much consolation, though, if, like Socrates, you end up right but dead.
Born 341 BC. A cool head advocating hot hedonism, Epicurus taught that "Pleasure is the beginning and goal of a happy life." Associates claimed that this led him to such over indulgences that he vomited twice a day. But friendship, freedom and plain food and water were what Epicurus considered life's truest pleasures. In a precursor to The Good Life, he and his friends quit the rat race of Athens to set up a commune, growing their own food and bypassing the material world outside.
Get back to basics De Botton gets an unhappy shopaholic to apply Epicurus's principle of sifting what is "natural and necessary" for happiness from what merely appears to be. Wealth, fame, power and designer clothes may seem appealing, but Epicurus argued that the only "happiness essentials" besides basic food and shelter are friends, freedom and an analysed life. Possess them and you will never be unhappy....anything else is an optional extra.
Born 4 BC. Tuberculosis almost killed him in his twenties; (false) accusations of adultery later led to a long exile and the loss of his wealth and status; and having survived tutoring the teenage Nero, he was eventually condemned to death by his former pupil after(again false) charges that he had plotted against the nutty emperor. Even taking his own life went badly: he slit his wrists, but they bled too slowly, swigged hemlock that had no effect, and finally perished in the suffocating fumes of a vapour bath.
Go with the flow Long-suffering Seneca believed: "It better befits a man to laugh at life than lament over it." He saw anger as the worst of vices, stemming from a maladjusted sense of normality. Hold-ups, cock-ups and lost socks are part of the natural (dis)order of things-and by grasping this in Sunday's series opener, De Botton shows White Van Man how to avoid becoming purple Face Man, and the rest of us how to cope with whatever life hurls our way. Don't get mad, get reason.
Born AD 1533. French nobleman who spent much of his life in his castle's circular library and wrote unflinching essays about himself. Included his sexual habits, bowel movements and farts, in order to show the folly of analysing some aspects of our nature while ignoring others. Or, as he bluntly put it, "Kings and philosophers shit, and so do ladies." After travelling to Rome, Montaigne cautioned against assuming one's own notions of normality are superior to those of others.
Be realistic Rather than trumpet our nobility and powers of reasoning, Montaigne maintained that if you take the whole human package - our capacity for doubt, superstition, self delusion, arrogance etc- it leads to one irresistible conclusion: "We are but blockheads." Accept this, he argued, and stop measuring yourself against loftily superhuman standards, and you will better appreciate both your achievements and your failings.
Born AD 1788. German misery guts prone to despair even before his father's apparent suicide. Inheriting a fortune at 17, he chronicled "the misery of life". Shunned most company besides poodles, arguing: "A genius can hardly be sociable, for what dialogues could be so intelligent and entertaining as his own monologues?" Somehow managed a ten-year, on off relationship, but never wed, as "To marry means to do everything possible to become an object of disgust to each other."
It's not your fault De Botton mischievously makes Schopenhauer his agony aunt, twisting his gloomy ruminations into comfort for the lovelorn. Schopenhauer saw attraction not as reflecting how suited people are for life together, but as down to an unconscious sexual urge to produce "balanced" offspring. So rejection is no indication that we are flawed or unloveable, and attraction is no sign that a couple are compatible. ..except as baby-makers.
Born AD 1844. Walrus-moustached self-publicist who-only partly humorously- labelled most philosophers "cabbage heads" and himself "the first decent human being. Declared: "God is dead", and speculated that around AD 2000 he would fill the gap by being declared holy. Hasn't happened yet. His ideas of a world of strong-willed "supermen" later proved popular with Nazis, although during his lifetime Nietzsche made few friends and had a breakdown 11 years before his death in 1900.
No pain, no gain Nietzsche wished for those he knew "suffering, desolation, sickness, ill treatment, indignities". He saw such experiences as character forming, insisting you cannot know real joy without also knowing suffering. Having used this logic to console a bankrupt businessman, De Botton admits that Nietzsche lambasted such "so called consolations", arguing they are often "paid for with a general and profound worsening of the complaint".





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Email:Radio Times   25 - 31 March 2000 File Info: Created 5/8/2000 Updated 14/2/2012 Page Address: