Status Anxiety: Reviews
Robert Yates in Esquire, March 2004
“Loser, loser…” As insults go, few are more likely to sting. Think about it: maybe you’d prefer to be tagged a fraud or a shit, since these imply you’ve at least had some effect on the world. Status anxiety is all about concern for the place we occupy. ”Every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories,” argues Alain de Botton. The first, the search for sexual love, we know all about. The second, however, “the story of our quest for love from the world is a more secret and shameful tale”. We don’t like to talk about it – it might make us seem common or betray weakness.
Status is made for de Botton’s skills. He likes to combine thoughts on everyday concerns with insights on the grand themes taken from great minds. His last-but-one book, The Consolations Of Philosophy, enlisted the likes of Schopenhauer or Epicurus to help sort out a broken heart or a reduced bank account. If the term “self-help book” had not fallen into disrepute, it would suit de Botton perfectly. He’s taken some stick for simplifying philosophers, but this is to miss the point. Think of him instead as a purveyor of serious but playful manuals for living: so he takes issues and asks what are the best ways of thinking them through.
Status Anxiety – to be accompanied by a Channel 4 series, presented by de Botton – concentrates on modern social hierarchies in the West. He explains: “It comes from living in societies which are very turbulent economically, and yet which are also very unsympathetic to the idea of failure. Hence the worry,” In earlier times, things were simpler, you were born rich or poor and you ended up, more or less, where you started. Lack of progress did not lose you “status points”; there was a natural order, and the peasants could enjoy the consoling dignity of labour or some such. Now we cleave to meritocracy, and failure to get on might suggest inferiority. “To the injury of poverty,” de Botton writes, a meritocratic system adds “the insult of shame”.
The book’s first half, detailing the causes of status anxiety, is followed by a second half proposing possible solutions. There’s Christianity with its hierarchy of virtue; while art – a Jane Austen novel, say – can tease out the differences between status and “true” merit. Or why not try philosophical detachment – why worry what the world thinks if (he world is full of fools? Here he reaches for a lovely Schopenhauer quote; “Would a musician feel flattered by the applause of his audience if it were known to him that it consisted entirely of deaf people?” You could also become bohemian. But even this brings its own status anxieties: is my garret really as wretched as next door’s?
Throughout de Botton pulls off a fine balancing act. He suggests how absurd it can be to worry too much about what others think, but knows that we’re trapped. We can recognise the random, contingent nature of status and still want it. And why not? Status anxiety, he notes, produces competition, self-realisation and excellence… Still, it makes you fret. The author admits that in him it takes the form of suffering from “the nasty things that people write about my books”. He needn’t worry too much about that one.