2005, 314 p.
What’s not to like about a book that reassures you that your malevolent feelings are basically unfounded and then goes on to give you a string of ways to get over it? At a very boiled-down level, this is what Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton does.
The book is divided into two halves: causes and solutions. What a sane, philosophical way of looking at the world! We feel anxious, belittled, despondent and envious of others because the snobbery and superiority of others undercuts our self-image and sense of being loved. Comparing ourselves with those around us will only make us unhappy, our expectations are closely related to our level of happiness, and our insecurity is tied up with our dependence on an impersonal economy. So why on earth do we buy into it, and how do we break free?
There wasn’t really much here that I hadn’t heard before- it’s all become rather ho-hum and in my mind becomes mixed in with Clive Hamilton, Affluenza, Bhutan, Gross National Happiness etc. as explored by weekend magazine articles.
The stronger part of this book is the second section: solutions. He gives us five to choose from: philosophy, art, politics, Christianity and bohemia. The Philosophy chapter reminds us that we can, through reason, choose to acquiesce in status anxiety and it dusts off all the old philosophers- Aristotle, Epictetus- to reassure us that the power rests with us. We can even cultivate a Schopenhauerian misanthropy and shrug that most people are stupid and ignorant, and their good opinion isn’t worth having anyway. In fact, that’s what my mother always told me.
I enjoyed his Art chapter, liberally interspersed with landscapes, ruins and towering masonry. The Christianity chapter reminds us of Jesus’ softer teachings while choosing to overlook that the Church has been just as, if not more strenuous in ensuring its own wealth (and hence status) than family dynasties and entrepreneurs have been. The Politics chapter points out that the criteria by which status is judged alter over time, can be contested and overthrown. The Bohemia chapter was interesting, but I suspect that many of his poets, artists and bright young things could only choose to reject wealth, work and responsibility because in the background there was a family who would save them in extremis if they would let them.
The book is lavishly interleaved with art work throughout and presented as a mindset that you can choose to adopt or reject. It is written in a beguiling, reassuring conversational tone far removed from the aggressive, egotistical point-scoring that struts as ‘philosophical discussion’.