Status Anxiety: Reviews

Lloyd Evans in the Daily Mail, 12 March 2004

This book opens with a strange proposition. Alain de Botton invites us to consider the living conditions of a medieval peasant and to ask if we’re happier than he was.

For the peasant, things were pretty basic. He had a few acres of farmland rented from his feudal lord. He owned practically nothing, apart from his squalid rags, a donkey and perhaps a handful of chickens clucking merrily around his potato patch.

Yet, spiritually, he was at peace, He accepted his lowly status implicitly. It was all part of the natural order. God had ordained that he should till the soil while his lord and master up at the castle stuffed his face with honey-roast pheasant and helped himself to the nest local wenches.

The very narrowness of his expectations made the peasant content in a way that modern man can never be. It didn’t occur to him to cast aside his plough, throw off his mud-caked smock and open a sushi bar or become a DJ.

Those opportunities didn’t exist and when the feudal order had been swept away and replaced by freedom and democracy, the new system brought as many disadvantages as benefits.

In a world of universal opportunity, the individual succeeds according to his talents. That sounds great on paper, but the majority of us are destined not to achieve as much as we might have hoped for. Our dreams outpace our ability to realise them.

Nor can we console ourselves with the peasant’s get-out clause, that life’s disappointments are down to the Almighty. For most of us, God has gone. We must shoulder the blame ourselves.

Our failure is the outcome of our personal faults. We have less because we don’t deserve more. When you look at it like that, you start hankering for the donkey, the chickens and the filthy smock.

De Botton analyses modern society with great charm, learning and humour. There are some philosophical purists out there who consider his fondue metaphysics a little trivial for their tastes.

These critics are misguided and even self-contradictory. One of the hallmarks of a great thinker is an ability to present arguments in terse and readily intelligible utterances.

Simplicity is a sign that the philosopher is getting it right, not wrong. And it’s clear that de Botton’s purpose is serious and highly sophisticated. He reaches to the heart of a troubling paradox.

Why is it that we who enjoy lives of unparalleled prosperity are still capable of feeling miserable?

His remedies come as a welcome relief at a time when most books offering solutions to the stresses of life recommend the lotus position, chanting, oily candles and organic waffles.

A simple solution is to disregard your earthly status altogether and focus your mind on the cold tomb towards which we are all speeding.

This was the practice among ancient Egyptians. At dinner parties, just as the festivities were reaching a climax, servants would be commanded to walk among the guests carrying stretchers loaded with rotting skeletons. Nice idea, but it probably won’t catch on. Most people prefer an After Eight.

De Botton reminds us of Diogenes the Cynic who lived in Corinth at the time of Alexander the Great. Diogenes, the world most famous layabout, dressed in rags and lived off scraps of discarded food.

Tradition has it that his home was ‘a barrel’ but this is probably an error. The Greeks didn’t have barrels; they stored their fluids in large earthenware pots.

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