Accessible musings on the philosophy of the downturn


GERALD FLYNNreviews The Consolations of Philosophy: Reflections in an Economic DownturnEdited by Paul O’Grady Columba Press, Dublin €14.99

THE RECESSION-depression of the past three years has brought forth some examples of fortitude, not least the affable Bernard McNamara.

The high-flying builder and developer lost his core business last year in a sea of mounting debts. He bravely explained his position in broadcast interviews, saying he had started with little and the prospect of moving from his €12 million Ballsbridge mansion to a caravan beside the sea at Doolin in west Clare was not the worst possible fate.

Likewise, the energetic new TD Mick Wallace has shown a remarkable openness and candour about his financial setbacks and is an inspiration to others that money and property assets are not the be-all and end-all of life.

Not all of us find it easy to cope with misfortune, financial loss and lower living standards. The trick is to shift from the arrogant hubris of the boom years to a more reflective and inquiring approach as to how we structure our political economy, while also easing up on the worship of the Prada, BMW and Rolex tin gods of consumer exhibitionism.

Wallace had the advantage of having studied philosophy at UCD, while McNamara grew up near the open expanse of the Burren, which has bequeathed a deeper sense of awareness and introspection among the people of north Clare than most of us enjoy. Both men are stoical and reflective.

For those not so blessed, this book may well be their impetus towards personal recovery and survival following our spectacular asset-bubble burst.

The essays by nine philosophers pose thoughtful questions on how we cope with an economic downturn, which for some has meant a dramatic drop in earnings, redundancy or the threatened repossession of their home.

The Consolations of Philosophytitle harks back to the great Roman philosopher and administrator Boethius. His book of that title, written in AD 524 as the western part of the Roman empire was crumbling, became a “bestseller” of the high medieval period and the Renaissance.

Awaiting execution, Boethius felt inspired by “Lady Philosophy” and tried to link philosophic inquiry with his Christian belief in God.

Despite his good cheer, Boethius met a sticky end. There is some dispute as to whether he was clubbed to death or had a rope tightened around his head until his eyes bulged out of their sockets and his cranium cracked – the sort of thing we might wish on a few leading financial chiefs and policymakers of the past decade.

But this is the point of this book: do we want revenge or are we seeking a judicial deity in an after life to settle scores on our behalf? Should we take the setbacks on the chin and retain a stiff upper lip or mend our ways and seek emancipation from the slavery of consumerism? Or, perhaps, it is a waste of time to adopt philosophical attitudes in a downturn when we should have been much more questioning as the bubble inflated.

There is a lot of talk now about reformed corporate governance and new business ethics. In my experience what passes for ethics in postgraduate business courses is little more than compliance and keeping out of jail in those few economies that actually enforce their business rules and regulations.

This is a book for the thinking businessperson or manager. Unfortunately, they are not likely to come across it hidden on the philosophy or religion shelves of the few bookshops which have copies. The Columba Press publishers could do with pushing some copies alongside the many management and self-fulfilment guides that attract business readers, especially at airports.

The nine contributors, herded together by editor Paul O’Grady, are not the types you’d meet at a chamber of commerce or Ibec networking evening. They are untroubled by management-speak and may never even have flicked through an issue of the Harvard Business Review.That is their strength. They are part of the teaching and research staff at TCD’s philosophy department, and they road-tested their essays in a series of extramural lectures 18 months ago.

For the great majority who have little knowledge of philosophy, this short book is a good introduction to the subject. It is like a jump-start for serious thinking and speculation about where we stand economically, ethically and personally.

It includes some suggested further reading on the topics covered, which include atheism, consumerism, thoughts from Plato and Kant, pragmatism, Buddhism and, of course, stoicism. And for those new to the queen of the sciences, there is a useful glossary of philosophic terms.