Status Anxiety: Reviews

Andrew Martin in Daily Express, 12 March 2004

Alain de Botton first came to my attention when I was working on a magazine, the middle-aged female editor of which seemed to have fallen in love with him. His first book, Essays In Love (1993), was just out. I didn’t read it but I got the idea that de Botton was a sensitive young man who applied a precocious wisdom to intellectual] yet warm and humane discussion of matters of the heart. Accordingly, I avoided him like the plague for 10 years.

But it became increasingly difficult to ignore his books, especially the bestsellers. The Consolations Of Philosophy (2000) and The Art Of Travel (2002). He had moved on from affairs of the heart to showing how the writings of intellectuals applied to all manner of present day difficulties. I remained sceptical, however, thinking: all de Botton books are The Little Book Of Calm, only not so little and more intellectual. But Status Anxiety has turned me into a fan, for its range, insight, wit, and, oddly enough, its sheer usefulness.

In the book, de Botton looks at a very modern complaint: our anxiety about where we stand in society and identifies the horrible force in “004 of the accusation, “loser”. The root of the modem neurosis is, for de Botton, the American Revolution of 1776, which marked the beginning of the transition from rigid, hierarchical societies to open, financially competitive ones. In other words, everyone became locked into a competitive race and the handy excuse that you were a pleb and therefore couldn’t be expected to achieve anything was removed.

Alain de Botton describes how we came to this position using neat historical examples, diagrams, photographs and all sorts of tricks to keep the reader engaged.

He has a taste for poignantly amusing digressions and I was particularly beguiled by his story of a successful American book of 1907, called Three Acres And Liberty, which described in detail how to become self-sufficient on a small farm and thereby escape the stresses of a career. Meanwhile, the rat race was being run at an ever faster pace: in 1800, 20 per cent of the American workforce was employed by another person; by 2000, the figure was 90 per cent.

Most of Status Anxiety is devoted to how we might escape the resulting pressures – in our heads, at least – and the answers put forward include developing a proper appreciation of philosophy (de Botton commends an attitude of “intelligent misanthropy”, which might be summed up as a willingness to see society as idiotic) or of literature (he draws a chart to show how many of the great heroes of fiction had a lowly social status). He’s also very good on the notion of “dropping out” to live a bohemian life devoted to writing poetry in a garret, or similar. He notes how, throughout history, poets have tended to steer clear of talking to merchant bankers, because it would only depress them. A subliminal message of this book; in fact, is that if you know someone whose relatively high status annoys you, it might be best to avoid them.

However, the main message of Status Anxiety seemed to me to be that the best safeguard against feeling like a loser is religion and Christianity emerges unfashionably well from this book, partly on account of its pessimistic attitude towards the perfectibility of mere humans. If this pessimism brings comfort, notes de Botton, “it may be because something instinctively recognises how closely our miseries are bound up with the grandiosity of our ambitions”.

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