Status Anxiety: Reviews

John McMurtrie in the San Francisco Chronicle, 13 June 2004

Read at the San Francisco Chronicle website

“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

– Henry David Thoreau, “Walden” (1854)

“Greed is good.”

– Gordon Gecko, “Wall Street” (1987).

If we are what we drive, the SUV has a lot to say about us. A dangerous behemoth that is a far greater threat to the environment than other automobiles, it’s also a four-wheeled middle finger to those around it, a rolling fortress that boasts of its gleaming enormousness and begs for our jaws to drop in awe.

That such an object can be a symbol of our times is a reflection of Americans’ growing wealth. (Unlike the Model T — a genuine workhorse of its day — the SUV, in relative terms, costs a lot more money.) It’s also the result of the increasing importance of status in our society.

And we are more worried about what we’re seen driving precisely because we are all better off.

This paradox is spelled out concisely and convincingly in Alain de Botton’s “Status Anxiety,” a readable, edifying exploration of our fears of where we stand in society and how we can best mitigate our concerns. The author of “How Proust Can Change Your Life” and “The Art of Travel,” de Botton, who lives in London, steers clear of an angry polemic that simply accuses people of being full of envy. Instead, he has written a generous and humane book that offers up thought-provoking solutions to status anxiety, a worry he says is “so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives.”

As he defines it, status anxiety is a relatively modern phenomenon: “For most of history … [v]ery few among the masses had ever aspired to wealth or fulfillment; the rest knew well enough that they were condemned to exploitation and resignation.”

It was the great movements toward democracy, especially the American Revolution, that “altered forever the basis upon which status was accorded.” This, in turn, helped fuel people’s desire to be like the Joneses — or better. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed as early as 1835, “In America, I never met a citizen too poor to cast a glance of hope and envy toward the pleasures of the rich.”

Meanwhile, anxiety over one’s place in society didn’t improve when belief in an afterlife (and its attendant glory) grew dimmer for many. Add to that the Social Darwinist philosophy, arguably still alive for some, that the wealthy are rich because they deserve to be. Conversely, this thinking goes, the poor deserve to be poor and therefore should not be valued. De Botton reminds readers that even Andrew Carnegie, the celebrated philanthropist, had limits to his generosity. As the industrialist wrote, “Every drunken vagabond or lazy idler supported by alms is a source of moral infection to a neighbourhood.”

It turns out that snobbery also has its own history. According to de Botton, the word itself was born in England in the 1820s, with its apparent roots in “s.nob,” short for sine nobilitate, or “without nobility.” Ironically, its meaning somehow shifted over time.

Today, making money in and of itself is, of course, still held in high esteem. As de Botton writes, “The ability to accumulate wealth is prized as proof of the presence of at least four cardinal virtues: creativity, courage, intelligence and stamina. … Financial failures are judged to be similarly merited, with unemployment’s bearing some of the shame that physical cowardice earned in warrior eras.”

So, what’s a poor boy — and a status-hungry society — to do? De Botton’s answers, buttressed by a wealth of insightful quotes and wonderful artwork, are as compelling as they are crisply laid out, emphasizing faith in one’s self while retaining one’s humility.

First, he suggests taking comfort in philosophers’ wisdom. One healthy outlook, from Epictetus, is more than 2,000 years old: “It is not my place in society that makes me well off, but my judgements, and these I can carry with me.” And, more cynically, from Chamfort, in the 18th century: “Public opinion is the worst of all opinions.”

De Botton also urges us to celebrate art, “filled with challenges — ironic, angry, lyrical, sad or amusing — to the status system.” In a spirited rebuke of “crass moralism” propagated by tabloid journalism (“with its lexicon of perverts and weirdos, failures and losers”), he praises the art of tragedy, which can inspire sympathy. Satire, too, can be powerful in correcting abuses.

Politically, de Botton maintains that only good can come from people seeing through pomp. “A man may have a great suite of attendants, a beautiful palace …” he quotes the 16th philosopher Michel de Montaigne as saying. “Measure his height with his stilts off. … What sort of soul does he have?”

And it never hurts to keep death in mind. No one can argue with what the 17th century author Sir Thomas Browne wrote of dead nobility: “Who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried?”

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