Status Anxiety: Reviews

Jonathan Ree in the TLS, 14 May 2004

Alain de Botton is a philosopher. But he is also a professional writer, and with the fabulous sales of works like How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Consolations of Philosophy he has taken philosophy to the kind of readers who might otherwise be overdosing on Bridget Jones, Harry Potter, or Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. The source of his success is his eccentric but ingratiating style: where other media-minded intellectuals offer their readers a diet of know-it-all certitudes garnished with sarcasm and raucous indignation, de Botton is always solicitous, unopinionated and self-deprecating. Like all good philosophers, he keeps well clear of polemic.

The brand is well established by now. A book by de Botton will be illustrated with an engrossing assortment of photos, charts, lists and diagrams, many of them conspicuously odd or amateurish. It will seem less like a magisterial treatise than a child’s holiday scrapbook.

His prose will be attractive, but never mannered or pretentious, and his sporadic attempts to tie things together with formal “theses” and “definitions” need not be taken too seriously.

His detractors may reproach him for lowering the fine abstractions of philosophy to the level of corny self-help manuals. But they get him wrong. He knows a good deal about Renaissance thought, and his work is a sustained attempt to revive the great tradition of neoclassical moral philosophy – of philosophy as a battle not against ignorance but against pride. For de Botton, the reason for engaging in philosophy is not to know more but to live better – to gain a sense of proportion about life’s little ironies and acquire thereby a certain immunity from the rage and passion that dance attendance on them. This is philosophy in the manner of Montaigne or Thomas Browne rather than Descartes or John Locke: a gentle stoicism reminding us that when things do not pan out as we would like, it may be better to amend our desires than to try changing the world.

In his last book. The Art of Travel (2002), de Botton tackled that exquisite source of self-imposed misery, the practice of going away on holiday with those you think you love. From there it is only a short step to the prickly topic of Status Anxiety: the seemingly universal worry about where you stand on the ladder of socially recognized success – your queasy dislike for Top People combined with your earnest desire to be one of them. It is all a matter of love, according to de Botton. “Every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories”, he says: one being the search for personal love, the other the quest for general admiration, for the love of the world. Private love is the stock in trade of literature and the arts, but public love, he thinks, has. till now scarcely dared to speak its name.

The first half of Status Anxiety is an attractive anthology of snippets about the history of snobbery and consumerism and the giddy processes by which the playthings of the rich – motor cars or telephones for instance – become the commodities of the poor, and the luxuries of the older generation become the necessities of the young. It is one of the paradoxes of modernity, nicely picked out by de Botton, that our ideals of democratic equality, far from abolishing status differences, have made them more agonizing than ever. Egalitarianism has sharpened the tooth of social envy, for if we all started off equal, then it seems that your riches and your brilliant career must be due to your talent and hard work, while my misery, redundancy and writer’s block are all my own fault.

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