Status Anxiety: Reviews

Ian Wedde in the New Zealand Listener, 19 June 2004

Read at the New Zealand Listener website

Alain de Botton is wildly successful – seven books and two (coming up three) BBC television programmes (and a new baby expected) by the age of 35. We met in the posh luncheon environs of the Boulcott St Bistro in Wellington. These didn’t offend his modest Epicurean instincts. At the next table, some hard-faced tycoons were sloshing down shiraz and discussing the continental shelf (my Dictaphone may be worth real money); de Botton sipped water and ate a simple lunch of salmon and potatoes.

He had just flown in from Shanghai via Auckland. In Shanghai he’d ridden the new 400kph airport shuttle. In Wellington that would get you to Lyall Bay before you’d had time to put your tongue back in your mouth. De Botton keeps his there and moves it very quickly: his mental bullet-train’s accompanied by a fetching glottal or palatal click as he lubes the words. That ride on the Shanghai bullet got him thinking about the state’s priorities for social well-being. Was there a political history here that wisdom could shake down for clues? The Chinese expected wisdom from philosophers. In the West, “wisdom” had long been relegated to disparaged zones of self-help and “practical philosophy”.

It’s the concept of wisdom that gets to the heart of de Botton’s charm. The impatience he felt as a PhD candidate unlocked a critical perspective on the academic profession of philosophy. Like much professionalised thinking, thought de Botton, university-based -philosophy had locked itself away within a few career-driven topics. De Botton wanted to return philosophy to the task of wisdom: how to think helpfully about the issues that worry people.

These include: unpopularity, penury, frustration, inadequacy, a broken heart and status anxiety – a term de Botton’s hybridised out of the self-help racks of the airport bookshop. It involves many of the above topics. In de Botton’s new book, they’re redeployed as lovelessness, snobbery, expectation, meritocracy and dependence. Solutions are found in philosophy, art, politics, Christianity, and Bohemia.

The crux may be expectations. As babies, says de Botton, we’re valued simply for who we are. Alas, at 35, not everyone’s our uncritical mother (not everyone aged 35 has learnt this). People want to know what we do, how much money we make, what parties we (don’t) get invited to, and what cars we drive. Faddish ideas, the boss’s esteem, and brands trouble the sleep of the insecure. Social equality and demo-cracy lead us to believe anyone can be anything: the chances of failure increase. Meritocracy says we make our own luck and deserve success; by the same token, nobodies deserve their misery. The more equal we become, the greater the dangers of toxic jealousy. The more we’re seduced by status-bestowing commodities, the less long-term satisfaction we derive from them. (The guys at the next table start on another bottle.)

The remedies, thinks de Botton, aren’t provided by optimists, whose cheerful unreality only makes things worse. De Botton prefers pessimism, stoicism, and “intelligent misanthropy”, the latter as an alternative to “public opinion”. To be happy, understand that life is hell, most human opinions are trivial, time’s short, the universe is bigger than you, suffering’s a great aid to disenchanted thought, infirmity aids attention to detail, and friendship’s nice but untrustworthy. The elegantly plain sentences de Botton writes have a soothing effect – philosophy’s not so hard, the big life problems aren’t terrifying once you get them in perspective, and what others think of you isn’t important.

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