Like a masterful driver on the racetrack, Alain de Botton cruises from chapter to chapter in his new work, Status Anxiety, making sure that he keeps you on the edge of your seat. De Botton is the author of the much celebrated How Proust Can Change Your Life. Other books include The Art of Travel, The Consolations of Philosophy and Kiss and Tell.
In Status Anxiety, de Botton perfects a writing style that has made him famous and, like a consummate professional, makes it look easy and intuitive. A philosopher with a proclivity for the often overlooked yet insidious malaises, De Botton focuses his attention this time on what could be a universal cause for discontentment; a circumstance he refers to as "status anxiety". According to his thesis, "status anxiety" appears to be an inevitable consequence of a world with few easily distinguishable parameters for differentiation and a society headed towards a bland uniformity of minimum plenty.
Status Anxiety points to an anxiety that makes us fear that we are currently occupying too modest a rung or about to fall to a lower one (Definitions, Status Anxiety, page viii), the fundamental cause for this worry being our dependence on others' perception of our virtues and abilities. This hunger for higher status affects all of us, transcending cultures and societies. After defining the problem thus, de Botton systematically moves by dividing his attention on possible causes and solutions. Among causes he lists lovelessness, expectation, meritocracy, snobbery and dependence, giving a fairly accurate and complete picture of this often ignored, silent and pernicious anxiety. As solutions he examines philosophy, art, politics, religion and bohemia. The chapters on meritocracy and philosophy are especially well researched and articulated.
De Botton is the tempered version of a spiritual teacher — carefully deconstructing our societal problems and then, armed with that understanding, suggesting ways to help us get the better of them. His chief strength lies in being able to articulate, just as he showed us in The Art of Travel, insights many of us stumble into, but never quite concatenate to make a complete circle of thoughts.
His style is a generous blend of the personal and the dispassionate – even as he talks about the universal and the impersonal, the warmth in his tone suggests that there is something personal that the author can empathize with. It is this lack of condescension that makes him such a marvelous storyteller and philosopher rolled into one.
Yet too much analysis can often cause paralysis; while the subject is masterfully treated with the meticulous approach reminiscent of a thesis written for the purpose of public consumption, de Botton’s promise of transcendence (of this anxiety) remains just that. The closure is brief and abrupt, with a minuscule portion of his labors devoted to possible day-to-day solutions to this vaporous problem. This wouldn’t have been such a letdown had de Botton not done such a magnificent job of uncovering evidence after evidence with the finesse of social investigator. Perhaps de Botton realizes that issues like these propel us towards a greater study of human nature but, in the final analysis, seem to have rather straightforward solutions; nevertheless solutions which are not particularly easy to implement.
But read him, because the first step towards self-recovery is self-awareness, and De Botton does an admirable job of nudging us into that mode of introspection.