After reading a newspaper profile of someone prominent and successful, do you find that you sometimes react with a preoccupied gaze, a brittle smile?
Or after hearing news of a colleague's achievement, or even of the great success of a friend, do you react with an over-extended pause? Of course you don't . . . But if you do, you are suffering from what writer-philosopher Alain de Botton calls status anxiety, a worry that you are currently occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall to a lower one, "a worry so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives".
Of course, you are unlikely to admit to such a shaming anxiety. At least, you might have been, until you read the book. Alain de Botton has made it acceptable, even fashionable maybe, to admit to this problem with no name.
"Every adult life," he writes, "could be said to be defined by two great love stories. The first - the story of our quest for sexual love - is well known and well charted. The second - the story of our quest for love from the world - is a more secret and shameful tale. And yet, this second love story is no less intense than the first."
When he tells us that "the most profitable way of dealing with the condition may be to attempt to understand and to speak of it", you may think that you are dealing with the common self-help book genre. But you would be wrong. This is an extended, thought-provoking, often funny philosophical reflection on a fascinating aspect of the human condition. Alain de Botton first came to fame with How Proust Can Change Your Life, and subsequently with The Consolations of Philosophy and The Art of Travel. His talent is to take topics that do not fit neatly into any one intellectual category and to apply a kind of hybrid philosophical-cultural analysis to them. But it is his distinctive tone that marks him out from other social commentators - allusive, anecdotal, compassionate, civilised.
His thesis is that status anxiety, while it is a part of our nature and has its uses (to encourage excellence and self- improvement), possesses an exceptional capacity to inspire sorrow. It is a particular affliction in Western societies where to be unseen and ignored is the worst psychological and social torture and to be termed a "loser" the ultimate social disgrace. He analyses the causes of status anxiety: the quest for love (his most lacklustre section); snobbery (a delicious laying bare of "the terror behind haughtiness"); expectation, meritocracy, and dependence. Here he is on more familiar territory - much traversed by economists and sociologists. It all goes back to the American Revolution in 1776, which marked the transition from hierarchical feudal societies - where status was defined at birth and highly unlikely to change thereafter - to the modern ideal of democratic, equal, meritocratic societies.
Such societies have delivered unprecedented prosperity - but at a cost. For in such societies, success is formally and theoretically open to anybody, and so our attitudes to poverty and lack of success have become more punitive. At a psychological level, "low status has become all the harder to endure and all the more worrying to contemplate". And if that were not enough, we are trapped in what political scientist Robert Lane, in his book, The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, calls the hedonic treadmill by relentless social comparison. The more people get, the higher their expectations and aspirations of more - and so on it goes.
De Botton, surprisingly, does not refer to this theory of rising expectations, but he does add insight: the price of living in an equal society is endless envy. He points out that we tend to envy only those that we feel ourselves to be like - that is why there are few successes more unendurable than those of our colleagues.
So, it follows that the more people we take to be our equals and compare ourselves to, the more people there will be to envy.
Having had the illness diagnosed, the reader turns with some anxiety to de Botton's section on Solutions - and, by and large, will not be disappointed. Instead of sermonising and action points, de Botton presents an elegant and reflective account of the great counter-balances to status anxiety: philosophy, art, politics, Christianity and bohemia.
These have acted as counter-balances not by seeking to do away with status hierarchy. Instead, voices as diverse as the ancient Greek philosophers, Jane Austen, John Ruskin, and, of course, Jesus, tried to institute new kinds of hierarchy based on other values - values often unrecognised by and highly critical of the established classes. All retained a firm grip on the distinction between success and failure, good and bad, shameful and honourable - but attempted to remould our idea of status based on values other than material and conventional social success.
De Botton takes particular issue with the modern, almost unquestioned, doctrinaire connection made between making money, being celebrated, being happy and being good. In such societies, those without such status "remain unseen, they are treated brusquely, their complexities are trampled upon and their identities ignored ". But he is not advocating revolution.
Instead, he counsels a kind of intelligent misanthropy, pointing out what philosophers have long known: that when we scrutinise the opinions of other people we stand to discover something "at once saddening and releasing: that the views of the majority of the population on the majority of subjects are permeated with extraordinary confusion and error". That quotation alone, together with an optimistic chapter on politics, should guarantee a place for this book on every besieged politician's bedside table.
Be warned, however, that de Botton's analysis is not a comprehensive or systematic kind of argument. There are surprising omissions: for example, he makes no reference to the growing body of related psychological research on happiness and social comparison. His method is more allusive, layering scholarly insight, historical anecdotes, quotes from his favourite writers, a truly marvellous selection of paintings, photographs, illustrations, cartoons - even management consultant-style diagrams. Sometimes his insights are arresting, sometimes his observations seem naïve. It is, incidentally, a beautifully produced hardback, its heavy creamy pages a pleasure to turn. All the pictures and illustrations are reproduced in faded black-and-white and I found myself returning more than once to some of the advertisements and cityscapes that have an iconic, haunting and almost timeless quality.
This is not a book for cynics. It often hovers close to the "almost unbearable" truths about human nature: the limits of our understanding of self and others, the paradox of being "made to live before we can begin to know how". De Botton has, of course, been the object of some waspish comment from commentators (in whom, perhaps, his celebrity has provoked an acute burst of status anxiety?) of peddling "philosophy lite". But what he has managed to do is remarkable: to return philosophy to its fundamental purpose: to help us to think better so that we may live better lives.
Originally published in The Irish Times.
Posted: 01 May 2004