Status Anxiety: Reviews

Zulfikar Abbany in the Sydney Morning Herald, 22 May 2004

Read at the Sydney Morning Herald website

In this age when almost everything is in some way “sexed up”, Alain de Botton makes talk of love seem not crass but essential: “Our need for love remains unwavering, no less steady or insistent than it might have been in infancy; an imbalance between our requirements and the uncertain conditions of the world that contributes a stubborn fifth pillar on which our status anxieties rest.”

De Botton has turned his thoughts to a quest for love as secret and shameful as it is compulsive. Status anxiety is a worry that we may fail “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 may be intrinsically linked to love, but, ultimately, it is a dark, brooding spirit, one well placed in Australia where the wealthy often seem anxious not to stand out.

First he offers basic definitions, then “causes” and “solutions”. He traces a history of snobbery in Western societies, through the demands of consumerism and achieving social stature (always with reference to one’s immediate peers), to political notions of meritocracy and dependence in the workplace.

There is a political bite to Status Anxiety not so detectable in de Botton’s past books. Where Western leaders trumpet a meritocratic world as a way to create fair opportunities, de Botton sees a fallacy. Citing the system’s early development in America and Britain, he writes: “It was no longer possible to argue that worldly position was wholly divorced from inner qualities, as many Christian thinkers had proposed, or to claim that the wealthy and powerful had necessarily attained their positions through corrupt means as Rousseau and Marx had suggested. But it now seemed that wealth might be a sound sign of character. The rich were not only wealthier; they might also be plain better.” Which is, of course, nonsense.

As possible solutions, de Botton offers philosophy, art, politics, Christianity and bohemia. Experiencing vast landscapes, if only on canvas, can remind us there are things greater than ourselves and our peers. Questioning “natural” assumptions will show us that “man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without”.

De Botton is in tune with the times. He is artful in defining the contemporary Western condition, and through careful deliberation places his concepts in everyday, historical and cultural contexts. And he does it with wit: his mock tabloid headline for Oedipus the King is: “Sex with Mum was Blinding”. He does not deserve the frequent criticism of his fragmentary style (which veritably adds to the pleasure), and of watering down philosophy. If philosophy is to be revived as a pertinent inquiry into the nature of being, which is what it is, then why shouldn’t the masses partake in it?

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