Do you worry about how well you're doing? Are you envious of your friends' success? Are you suffering from status anxiety? We all worry about what others think of us. We all long to succeed and fear failure. We all suffer - to a greater or lesser degree, usually privately and with embarrassment - from status anxiety. For the first time, Alain de Botton gives a name to his universal condition and sets out to investigate both its origins and possible solutions. He looks at history, philosophy, economics, art and politics - and reveals the many ingenious ways that great minds have overcome their worries. The result is a book that is not only entertaining and thought-provoking - but genuinely wise and helpful as well.
Weddings here can be huge and expensive affairs, held in 5-star hotels, while the huge mass of Indonesia lives very poorly and there is much unemployment, undereducation and general preoccupation with personal survival. Yet, the "haves" run must have their Rolex watches, Mercedes Benzs and luxury Singapore condo getaways.
Although most people here claim to be religious, their personal ethics would be more fitting for satan-worshipers.
But this is probably true of most large cities, where the competition for material goods sucks people into the rat race and qualities of greater intrinsic value: such as kindness, true friendship and humility are cast-away as obstacles to greater status.
De Botton seems to be incredibly well read and mentions several novels which have sent me packing to Gutenberg to download and read or reread.
Reading this book can save you a lot of money and perhaps help to reduce the stress of living as one understands the futility of pursuing the acquisition of luxuries.
First of all, a gentle reminder to everyone who approaches a "philosophical" book like this one: all this rationalizing of reality can be helpful sometimes, but it is often overestimated, especially by academics. Even though it should be obvious, people tend to forget that reality stays exactly the same, with or without philosophical analysis. The immense respect that our society gives to the rich and "officially successful" doesn't change an inch. Philosophy therefore achieves little more than providing perspective, or what could be in other words described as "shooting the shit".
The book can be summarized as follows: we are all anxious about our sense of status in the world. Today's problem is our egalitarianism. We no longer believe that people who are worse off are “unfortunates”, as that was the old term for them. Instead, they are now “losers”. It is their fault. So we fear failure more than ever, because it is our fault. This is the flip side of meritocracy, which we consider a good thing, but which is really a tyranny of expectations. Also, we envy everybody who does better, at least in our eyes.
De Botton sets out five causes of status anxiety (lovelessness, snobbery, expectation, meritocracy, dependence) and provides what he believes are five cures for the ailment (philosophy, art, politics, religion and bohemia).
From the start, this set up my hopes quite high, because other books on sociological topics (i.e. Zygmunt Bauman's books on consumerism) do not do anything more than analyzing a problem, which leads everybody sane to the ultimate question: "So the heck what?". At least, I said to myself, De Botton made the effort to offer some solutions to the problem he presented. Yeah, well... while that is true, I will explain why his solutions are really not satisfactory, and why this is overall a rationalistic and therefore unrewarding kind of book.
But first, let me complete the positive part of my review: some reviewers arrogantly blame the author for being "pop", for lowering the fine abstractions of philosophy to the level of corny self-help manuals. They are wrong. I think De Botton is a deep and erudite thinker, certainly more than capable of writing a brick-heavy dissertation on any philosopher, but he also wants to reach out to many readers, who cares whether that is for a high concept of sharing wisdom with the masses, or for a desire to sell as many books as possible, or for both reasons?
Now, the problems I have with his presented "solutions": the book concludes by recommending that we simply spread our risks and take advantage of the vast variety of ways in which success and failure can be defined. If we are depressed by our uselessness, then we should simply change our reference points. I found this stance a little too weak, impersonal, commonsensical and melancholic.
But what I found annoying is the transparency of the author's personal preferences, hidden behind an appearance of total objectivity and utter absence of any opinion. And this is a very typical problem with philosophy in general.
Let me explain: De Botton chose an academic career path in a world (ours) where they will often tell you "he who can, does; he who can't, teaches". Where, in fact, academic success is considered nowhere near the highest graces of success in business, and, in particular, success in making tons of money in general. So it's not such a wild guess to say that, as a very competitive individual, De Botton has probably always been bothered by rich businessmen, lawyers and bankers who often get more respect and love from society than philosophers and professors. And if he hasn't, at least he does a lot in the book to build a huge damn case against these rich lawyers and bankers, they who achieved the success "commonly recognized" as success. Can he be totally objective about it?
Another problem: in the chapter "religion", he treats faith as "just another way to cope with anxiety", absolutely interchangeable with "philosophy" or with politics or with being a Punk. I guess De Botton likes too much his own atheist or non-religious perspective, to be able to speak about religion with any type of real understanding. He keeps referring to Christianity and Christian values without ever giving the slightest hint of whether he thinks it's all great or it is all a load of crap. I find this type of fake detachment to be slightly cowardly: you are not talking about minerals and rocks. You chose to talk about the most important topics of human existence, of which you, Alain De Botton, are fully a part, therefore posing with such a detached attitude is equivalent to position yourself on a higher ground. It comes across as arrogant and, at times, frustrating ("so what?"). It gives the impression of a very cold scientist who is looking at his experiment or his study, not because he cares about any of the people involved in the study, but purely because he enjoys the study itself. Where is his heart, in all this beautiful philosophical talk? Aside from his love for art and literature, no other emotion transpires. Nada. And while this "forcing the emotions out" might be the very distinctive sign of the philosopher's "profession", I find it useless, dehumanizing and unrewarding.
The chapter on religion is not even about religion. It is about the concept of death, and, in one single sentence at the end, De Botton gives an imprecise interpretation of the concept of God. So is it fair to present it as a solution at all, when you provide such a limited and biased perspective on it?
The chapter on Bohemians is the one where De Botton's "objective detachment" most clearly fails, because he LOVES this solution so much, and it shows. After a great eulogy of Henry Thoreau, he goes on to say that the delightful punks across all the Earth, the haters of the bourgeoisie, have actually understood the secret of life, or something along those lines.
Then again, why "Bohemians"?? Why choose this peculiar definition to end a list of very general and wide categories, like philosophy, politics, religion? I am confused. It's like saying: "here's what I'm going to talk about: sport, food, wheather, and cheerleaders' choreography". What about the hundreds of other similar movements, like Grunge, Punk, whatever else? Why not "vegetarianism", then, why leave that one out? Anyway, in this chapter, he aptly and perhaps unconsciously offers the most valid proof of the fact that nobody is immune from our basic instinct of trying to climb on top of each other's heads like monkeys. Because the very best man is, at the end of the day, the one who reads and thinks and loves art and writes all the time. And, oh! guess what De Botton does all day long?
But please dont take my rant aI really don't want to be unfair. I truly enjoyed the book, very much. At times, De Botton's deep passion for history, literature and art jumps at you in such a genuine form, that is inspiring and almost moving. Seriously, his love for quoting famous works of the past and the present, the delight he takes in doing that, the way he chooses really interesting "pearls", anecdots and quotes, is not something I see much as a trick, but rather as a sign of his true deep love for these things. Like the love of a dedicated collector. There lies, in my opinion, the real beauty of this book.
And this is ultimately why I would recommend it and why I liked reading it!
Finally, I have to say that I listened to the audiobook. I think the reader is a very good one (I heard his voice before, in some books about Pacific Ocean travel) but he should have toned down his own sense of humor, because at times he gives a sense of arrogant sarcasm to De Botton's voice that does not make it look good at all, and you are left wondering if it was really intended to sound like that.
We're not, of course, and De Botton acknowledges this from the get-go. He identifies five factors that cause status anxiety -- our need for love; the snobbery of others; socially-constructed expectations about what the good life should provide us; the development of meritocracy as a indicator of one's social worth; and the condition of our being that I think would best be termed 'contingency', although De Botton uses the word 'dependence'. His exploration of these comprises the first third or so of the book.
The remainder sets out five proposed cures for status anxiety: the consolations of philosophy, i.e. learning to think ourselves out of our status dilemmas; using art to help us appreciate and be more content with the beauties of our quotidian lives; manipulating politics to liberate ourselves from ideological binds; becoming a Christian, thereby buying into a worldview that has an entirely different hierarchy of what's important; and lastly becoming a left-bank style bohemian.
As elegant and lively as De Botton's writing may be, his arguments are decidedly uneven. His section on Christianity is especially disappointing, as the essence of the gospel seems to escape him. He maunders on about Christian art and polity, but makes no mentions of Jesus' radical declaration that the first shall be last, and the last first. This defangs the dangerous, scandalous side of the Christian message, and undermines the whole section.
The final section on bohemians is also weak. Yes, there are bohos who put on a good show of being egalitarian, and some who do try earnestly to live without status consciousness. But many such communities end up being dominated by charismatic personalities and petty jealousies -- their status anxiety is simply transmuted into alternative forms.
All criticisms aside, however, this is a worthwhile read. I hope De Botton keeps on with this pop philosophy project; it's good fun and genuinely thought-provoking.
At different times and places, an individual’s status in society has been based on many different things, but in the West in the last 200 years or so, high status has become equated to financial success. Status Anxiety is the feeling we get when we feel a failure, unappreciated and not respected by our fellow men. When we feel that we haven’t reached a high enough rung on the status ladder or that we could lose our grasp and slip further down, we feel ashamed and worry that other people despise us.
In the first half of the book Alain de Botton assesses how status anxiety has increased over the centuries, while at the same time the financial and political lot of ordinary people has improved, with status no longer unchangeable and fixed at birth as it was in the Middle Ages. He then turns to the ways that people have devised for ridding themselves of status anxiety, such as the philosophy of the ancient Greek, Christianity or leading a bohemian lifestyle.
I'd wanted to read this book since seeing the author's television series on the subject - Interesting.
There are some interesting points. They will likely give you a different perspective on things. But... without any evidence/proof for any of the statements he makes, it really just comes across as some guy's opinion on stuff (Hey, Dr. Phil).
That, and there are lots of pictures in it but for about 90% of them I couldn't figure out what they had to do with the book/chapter/information being presented. They seem to be rather haphazardly inserted with no actual relation to the book's contents. Oh well, it did increase the page count.
The author starts with this, and quotes Adam Smith on the topic: " What then are the advantages of that great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition?" The ideas developed are the shame produced by lack of accomplishment in a meritocracy, and ways of avoiding the status anxiety, such as religion, art, Bohemianism, and philosophy.
I bought this book during the trip to Oakland for Kaiser, and finished it while flying and sitting in hotels. de Botton is a very good essayist, but this book was a little pasted together and epigrammatic, as though it was put together out of scraps and not completely thought through.
I like the way De Botton mixes up philosophy, sociology, art, literature and history to give insight in a problem, and shed light on its solutions. Also I very much admire the way in which he can explain rather incomprehensible philosophic theories in normal language and finds practical uses for these ideas.
This said, I must admit that I didn't like this as much as the books that I've read before. Partly, because it didn't give me the insights I was looking for. The kind of status he takes as his starting point - the status you get because of money and a splendid career - is not the kind of status that makes me anxious. Also, I missed the humorous twist that I did find in his previous books. And the book ended rather suddenly, without a concluding chapter that brings al the arguments together. I found that a little dissatisfying.
The consolations that de Botton offers are those of philosophy—stoicism or misanthropy—art, politics, religion, and Bohemianism.
The people that de Botton quotes illustrate, as the Guardian reviewer has pointed out, that there is nothing new in these ideas—when de Botton gets the ideas right; he ascribes to Romans and Greeks an attitude toward slaves that is really that held by American slaveholders toward their African captives, for example.
Alain de Botton had an original idea for a book that plays on the self-help genre when he wrote How Proust Can Change Your Life in 1997. Although it was based on a misunderstanding of Proust—de Botton argues we can learn about love from the book, for example, when in fact Swann and the narrator prove and say again and again that one in love learns nothing but keeps making the same mistakes—nevertheless de Botton had read Proust and was ingenious in suggestions about what might be learned from such a reading. This book, however, seems like a joyless parody of the self-help form.
The second half of the book is devoted to five solutions: philosophy, art, politics, religion, and bohemia. I suspect these are imperfect solutions because (except for bohemia and maybe philosophy) they weren't specifically designed to be solutions: they exist for other reasons entirely and sometimes happen to counter status anxiety as well. As I read on, I was hoping that de Botton would offer suggestions on how to "use" them more effectively, either on a personal level or as a society, but I didn't find much of that. Still, he's written a good introduction to the entire issue, and it's a readable and interesting book.
First, he takes on the causes of the unhappiness. It’s harder to find love and friendship when one is of lower status and there are unfulfilled expectations of material wealth and achievement. Since society should be a meritocracy now, anyone who fails does so because of their own inferiority. Working for someone else creates an unhappy dependence on other people and forces outside of anyone’s control. De Botton has several solutions – philosophy (to learn that only some opinions are worth listening to), art (to read about unpleasant high status characters, laugh at them in comedies, see that they are susceptible in tragedies and to be inspired by depictions of ordinary people), politics (to learn other philosophies besides the prevailing wealth=value, possibly bring about change), religion (focusing on life and death instead of status) and bohemia (actively disdain the bourgeoisie and ideas of wealth and respectability, valuing people for reasons besides status). There are some small complaints – some wandering off topics, the religions section is mainly about Christianity – but this is a pleasant and enjoyable book as usual.
If the purpose of philosophy is to help people live better lives, then this book is a masterpiece.