Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton is another of the author’s thoughtful examinations of a subject by writing around it in an elliptical manner. The author, who is a non-fiction virtuoso, writes about how much of human activity is about status and how we react to a great need to feel status in society.
The book is divided into two parts, the first describes causes, the second solutions. In causes there are sections on Lovelessness, Snobbery, Expectation, Meritocracy and Dependence. In Solutions we have sections on Philosophy, Art, Politics, Christianity and Bohemia.
de Botton quickly describes how we have a need to love or respect, not just from those near to us but from the society in which we live. There is undoubtedly truth to this. In Snobbery de Botton describes how people make up largely fictitious groups in order to somehow put themselves above others. In Expectation de Botton describes how we live to expect greater material progress and to have at least as much as our peers. In Meritocracy he writes about how in a society where how well people do is more a product of their talents the fate of people is linked, in a way, to their ‘worth’. In Dependence he points out that most people have become dependent on their employers, countries and whatnot to retain their status.
In the Solutions section de Botton describes how we can avoid status anxiety and how people console themselves. He looks as how philosophy is used to point out that material success is not ‘higher’ success and how understanding can console us. In the Art section we are given a view of how art can console us by providing a view of beauty. In the Politics section political solutions to the problem are examined. In Christianity the role of religion is making us see we are part of a larger whole is described and finally in Bohemia the rise of ‘alternative values’ is outlined.
The book is enjoyable and thoughtful, as are most of de Botton’s works. However, I didn’t find the book nearly as interesting or entertaining as de Botton’s Pleasures and Sorrows of Work . Status Anxiety is undoubtedly a real problem and some people do get hung up on it but it is not that central to most people most of the time. We want things that make our lives more comfortable and more amusing. We also want to propagate ourselves, which is particularly tied to status with males. But if we have those things we worry less or not much about status. I have to say this myself, if I had the material things I wanted I’d be largely unworried by status. Human relations matter more and are affected by status, but it is the human relations we seek, not the status. Even with our vast riches compared to earlier ages we still live in a age of scarcity. Most of us still need to work for most of our lives.
The book takes something that is worth an essay and stretches it too far. Alternative status structures are also left unexamined which is disappointing. In particular the chapter on Bohemia misses the amusing alternative status ideas that people erect after rejecting conventional ones. Being more green, more pious, more organic, more politically correct and more authentic are examples of people rejecting a status hierarchy only to construct their own one rapidly. Some of these are touched on, but not enough.
We are social animals, we care about status and it does make us do silly things. But it can also be overstated and over emphasized as well and trying to tie too much to it doesn’t work.