I’ve somehow missed reading any of the numerous books of philosophical reflections authored by Alain de Botton. They have often given me an impression of being written in a clever way for a literate audience, but without the heft of a Rawls or a Ricoeur. Now, with a copy of Status Anxiety to listen to through my Audible subscription, I’ve changed my mind. This book is very interesting, thought-provoking, and philosophically engaging.
The central topic is self-evaluation and its obverse — status anxiety. What do people live for? Is a person’s worth defined by her own internal standards and self-expectations? Or is she defined by the judgments of others? The perfectly self-defined person could not suffer from status anxiety, because he or she would set goals and assess his or her excellence by one’s own standards. The phenomenon of status anxiety can only arise when people define their worth in terms of the valuations that others place upon them. “If our position on the ladder is a matter of such concern, it is because our self-conception is so dependent upon what others make of us. Rare individuals aside (Socrates, Jesus), we rely on signs of respect from the world to feel tolerable to ourselves” (9). Botton’s special contribution here is his ability to consider the historical and social reality of “self-evaluation” and status envy through a wide knowledge of literature, economics, paintings, and philosophy.
Along the way Botton lays the basis for some very critical thinking about consumerism, materialism, and lives structured around competition for the economic and social spoils of one’s environment. “Across the United States, new longings were created by the development of shopping malls, which enabled citizens to browse at all hours in climate-controlled environments. When the Southdale Mall opened in Minnesota in 1950, its advertising promised that “every day will be a perfect shopping day at Southdale” (28). This isn’t exactly a new insight; but Botton succeeds in making it poignant and existentially important. How much is enough? Can we live like Diogenes or Socrates? Is there a difference between our needs and our wants? Does the 2021 Porsche 911 Turbo S at $273,000 do a better job of moving its passengers from point A to point B than the humble 2021 Chevrolet Spark at $14,400? Is the Porsche 20 times better? And where, in the mindspace of the person who might purchase the Porsche, is there room for consideration of the needs of others, the future of the planet, or the nature of true contentment, compassion, and mortality?
Botton distills two triptychs of stories about the poor and the wealthy.
- The poor are not responsible for their condition and are the most useful in society
- Low status has no moral connotation
- The rich are sinful and corrupt and owe their wealth to their robbery of the poor
And the rich:
- The rich are the useful ones, not the poor
- Status does have moral connotations
- The poor are sinful and corrupt and owe their poverty to their own stupidity
If one is poor, it matters very much which story one accepts. And if one is rich, a lot rides on bringing one of the last three stories to the top of mind of the public. The first batch of stories favors the dignity of the poor and derives often from the texts of humble Christianity, while the second favors the superiority of the rich and derives from the texts of eighteenth-century political economy and social darwinism. Botton draws out the ideological importance of the second batch of stories:
Such doctrines found a receptive audience among the self-made plutocrats who dominated American business and the American media. Social Darwinism provided them with an apparently unassailable scientific argument with which to rebut entities and isms that many of them were already suspicious of, not to mention threatened by on the economic level: trade unions, Marxism and socialism. On a triumphant tour of America in 1882, Spencer was cheered by gatherings of business leaders, who were flattered at being compared to the alpha beasts of the human jungle and relieved to be absolved of any need to feel guilty about or charitable towards their weaker brethren. (80)
There are a great many interesting factlets embedded in the book. Did you ever wonder what a “snob” is? Botton has the answer: “The word ‘snobbery’ came into use for the first time in England during the 1820s. It was said to have derived from the habit of many Oxford and Cambridge colleges of writing sine nobilitate (without nobility), or ‘s.nob,’ next to the names of ordinary students on examination lists in order to distinguish them from their aristocratic peers” (84). Or what, exactly, defined the literary genius of Jane Austen, whom Botton admires? It is because Austen looks behind the status-obsessed judgments of the aristocratic class, to the forms of human virtue and kindness that are rendered invisible by the categories of class, dress, and status. “The novel’s author takes a little longer than Mrs. Norris to make up her mind as to who is deficient, and in what capacity. For a decade or more, Austen follows Fanny patiently down the corridors and into the reception rooms of Mansfield Park; listens to her mutterings in her bedroom and on her walks around the gardens; reads her letters; eavesdrops on her observations about her adoptive family; watches the movements of her eyes and mouth; and peers into her soul. In the process, she picks up on a rare, quiet virtue of her heroine’s” (133). Austen sees the human being in Fanny, not the dress. And Botton notices a similar “seeing” in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and the apparent invisibility of the Bangladeshi waiter Samad in London. And if only the customers could see his inner thoughts: “I AM NOT A WAITER. I HAVE BEEN A STUDENT, A SCIENTIST, A SOLDIER, MY WIFE IS CALLED ALSANA, WE LIVE IN EAST LONDON BUT WE WOULD LIKE TO MOVE NORTH. I AM A MUSLIM BUT ALLAH HAS FORSAKEN ME OR I HAVE FORSAKEN ALLAH, I’M NOT SURE. I HAVE A FRIEND—ARCHIE—AND OTHERS. I AM FORTY-NINE BUT WOMEN STILL TURN IN THE STREET. SOMETIMES” (139). Again — the human being, not the apron.
What does it all amount to, this lifelong struggle for recognition and “status”? Botton addresses this question through the final arbiter — death. In particular, he gives a fine reading of Tolstoy’s story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan Ilyich, it turns out, lived for status, rank, and recognition — and it brought him nothing that could sustain him when his final illness and decline to extinction finally came.
For his part, Ivan, with only a few weeks left to him, recognises that he has wasted his time on earth by leading an outwardly respectable but inwardly barren life. He scrolls back through his upbringing, education and career and finds that everything he has ever done has been motivated by the desire to appear important in the eyes of others, with his own interests and sensitivities always being sacrificed for the sake of impressing people who, he only now sees, do not care a jot for him. One night, as he lies awake in the early hours, racked by pain, “it occurred to him that those scarcely perceptible impulses of his to protest at what people of high status considered good, vague impulses which he had always suppressed, might have been precisely what mattered, and all the rest had not been the real thing. His official duties, his manner of life, his family, the values adhered to by people in society and in his profession—all these might not have been the real thing.” (227)
So what about Status Anxiety? Is this philosophy? Is it cultural commentary? Is it an interpretation of the human condition through a historical sampling of art, literature, economic tracts, and shopping malls? It’s a little bit of all of these things. But what appeals, most fundamentally, is that it raises the question, from many points of view, of what a valuable and well-lived human life really amounts to.
Compare for a moment this book with the personal-reflective book of philosophy written in 1989 by the forever-young star of analytic philosophy, Robert Nozick, in The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations. Nozick wrote unflinchingly of illness and death in The Examined Life, and sadly died of cancer in 2002 at the age of 64. Here are the opening lines of Nozick’s book:
I want to think about living and what is important in life, to clarify my thinking — and also my life. Mostly we tend — I do too — to live on automatic pilot, following through the views of ourselves and the aims we acquired early, with only minor adjustments. No doubt there is some benefit–a gain in ambition or efficiency–in somewhat unthinkingly pursuing early aims in their relatively unmodified form, but there is a loss, too, when we are directed through life by the not fully mature picture of the world we formed in adolescence or young adulthood. (11)
Nozick’s book is striking for its honesty and occasionally for its insights. And the same can be said of Botton’s book. What is an “authentic” human life? Is “performance of a role” a dehumanizing act? These are questions that philosophers from Socrates and Aristotle to Sartre and Camus have found to be tremendously important and difficult, and Botton’s book stimulates fresh thinking from start to finish.
The publisher’s blurb for Status Anxiety seems designed to evoke exactly that initial impression that I have had in flipping through other titles by Botton — flip, clever, superficial: “Whether it’s assessing the class-consciousness of Christianity or the convulsions of consumer capitalism, dueling or home-furnishing, Status Anxiety is infallibly entertaining. And when it examines the virtues of informed misanthropy, art appreciation, or walking a lobster on a leash, it is not only wise but helpful.” Entertaining, amusing, and believe it or not — wise and helpful! What could be more of a turnoff for a person looking for some serious philosophical insights into something that matters! Lobsters on a leash, indeed!