Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton (Penguin), 306 pages, $36 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
In this clever survey, British philosopher Alain de Botton traces the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the meritocracy in the West. His aim is to demonstrate a fascinating social paradox: in a supposedly egalitarian society, our anxiety over status has increased dramatically.
De Botton's previous books (The Art Of Travel, for example) are peppered with anecdotes that act as springboards for musings on painting and philosophy. Here, he's toned down the self-indulgence considerably.
In Causes, the first of two sections, de Botton goes back to Adam Smith, de Tocqueville, Marx, Ruskin and Schopenhauer to support his argument that before the toppling of the aristocratic set, the lower classes suffered no anxiety over their social condition.
They might have been sick and hungry all the time, but they didn't beat themselves up about it. It was just God's plan.
Today, however, the poor are meant to feel that in our world of equal opportunity, they harbour some defect that has rendered them useless in the marketplace. All of us are prey to continual anxiety over our tenuous position on the social ladder.
The Solutions section takes the reader on a tour of examples from our past when status anxiety has been assuaged by philosophy (Socrates), art (Balzac), satire (Punch) and religion (Jesus). A short chapter called Bohemia discusses those who, from the Dadaists to the Beats, acted as saboteurs of the economic meritocracy, according to de Botton.
I always enjoy de Botton's work, especially for his reflective, unhurried style and wry sense of humour. There's less of the latter in Status Anxiety, but it's still a pleasurable read.