Status Anxiety: Reviews

Marc Mohan in the Oregonian, 30 May 2004

The nonfiction works of Swiss-born author Alain de Botton occupy a curious place between stringent academic philosophy and gauzy self-help manuals. Using references from great thinkers and authors of the past, books such as “How Proust Can Change Your Life” and “The Consolations of Philosophy” aim to make their ideas accessible and useful to lay readers in a way that has made them frequent best sellers. His latest effort, “Status Anxiety,” uses the same techniques to address the sources of, and solutions to, that ubiquitous impulse known in the vernacular as “keeping up with the Joneses.” In his continuing quest to assist readers in leading happier, more fulfilling lives, de Botton rightly addresses one of the major sources of modern discontent as “a worry . . . that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we may as a result be stripped of dignity and respect.”

This concern, he posits, has emerged over the past couple of centuries in Western industrial societies as the possibility of social advancement has expanded to larger sections of the populace, and as the levels of material acquisition attainable have increased exponentially. “A sharp decline in actual deprivation may thus, paradoxically, have been accompanied by an ongoing or even escalating sense, or fear, of deprivation.”

We desire riches or power not as ends in and of themselves, according to de Botton, but as a way of seeking the “love” of those around us. Another factor has been secularization: “(W)hen a belief in an afterlife is dismissed as a childish . . . opiate, however, the pressure to succeed and find fulfillment will inevitably be intensified by the awareness that one has only a single and frighteningly fleeting opportunity to do so.” The emergence of capitalism as the planet’s dominant mind-set has also contributed to the use of material or monetary benchmarks of status, and to the sense that those who fail to meet expectations are somehow faulty.

What methods, then, does de Botton prescribe to counter the relentless urge, seemingly bred into us, to judge ourselves by what others think of us? He divides his solutions into five categories — Philosophy, Art, Politics, Religion, and Bohemia — but the simple answer is: Learn to realize that other’s opinions are ultimately insignificant. Easier said than done, to be sure, but worthy advice nonetheless.

Philosophically, de Botton suggests a touch of the “intelligent misanthropy” put forth by Schopenhauer: “The views of the majority of the population on the majority of subjects are perforated with extraordinary amounts of confusion and error.” The “intelligent” side of the equation should be emphasized; total disregard for society’s opinions is, de Botton holds, an equally serious, if less common, problem. Art, from the novels of Jane Austen to the paintings of Thomas Jones, can “challenge society’s normal understanding of who or what ‘matters.’ ” “Oedipus Rex” demonstrates that anyone can be a failure, while The New Yorker cartoons frequently show the opposite.

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