Alain de Botton (AdB) has written another book in his trademark witty, erudite style, kind of like a Woody Allen with a classical education. This time, his topic is the quest for social status. He probes the causes, and explores various prescriptions taken from philosophy, art, politics, religion, and bohemia to sooth our fears. He uses historical examples, from Tocqueville to Tony Robbins, to help us keep perspective and to sooth our anxieties.
I thought this was enjoyable summer reading, though not profound or complete by any means - although it was not meant to be. Also, some of AdB's other books are slightly better, so if this is the first book by AdB you want to read, I'd recommend "How Proust can Change your Life" first. But if the topic intrigues you, as it did me, then by all means give this book a try.
A summary of the topics covered is below:
First, AdB begins by claiming that it's human nature that we want to be a "somebody" rather than a "nobody," and to rise rather than fall or remain at too modest a rung on the social latter. This hunger for status can indeed drive us to achieve - but it also leads to a kind of restlessness characteristic of free, meritocratic societies. In contrast, there was no such anxiety in the Medieval caste system, because ones social status was fixed for life.
One root cause of our anxiety, AdB claims, is that our egos are forever leaky balloons forever requiring helium of recognition and love, but always vulnerable to pinpricks. The prescription: Don't take others evaluation too seriously - after all, "does an emerald become worse if it isn't praised?" Also, remember that the views of the masses are often perforated with confusion and error, relying on intuition, emotion, and custom rather than rationality. As Voltaire says, "the earth swarms with people who are not worth talking to"
Also, one must realize that the determinants of high status continually shift. For example, Spartans prized aggressive warriors; the Cubeo tribe in the Amazon prized those who killed jaguars. In contrast, peaceful saints were idolized in Medieval Europe, as were "gentlemen" in industrial England. Today, commercial success is our measuring stick - money signals success. But that definition also ties us to some new and unpredictable forces, such as our employer's success, flux in the global economy, and. technological change.
By using money as today's yardstick, we have sorely forgotten that cash and material goods are not the sole measure of a person's worth. In contrast, Bohemians, who devoted themselves to art and the intellect rather than material success, thought that those who achieved material success in society were those who pandered most effectively to the flawed values of their audiences. AdB also quotes Montaigne to remind us that we must evaluate people through a different lens: "A man may have a great suite of attendants, a beautiful palace, great influence, and a large income. All that may surround him, but it is not *in* him...What sort of soul does he have?"
Another cause of our status anxiety is our own high expectations. Wealth is relative to desire, and in an age of seemingly limitless expectations and material goods, we are weighed down by the limits of economics and reality, which yields permanent distress. We are also quietly influenced by our peers, advertising, and other outside forces that shape our desires rather than listening to our own souls. We also "mis-want" - that is, we think new products will make us happier than they actually will. The prescription is that if we must continue to long for things, we must take care to long for the right things, and tune into our own true desires.
Finally, envy can be cured by realizing that anyone's achievements seem insignificant in the context of the millennia and the expansive wonders of nature. Also, we should always keep in mind that at the end of one's days, the value of love, true friends, and charity will outweigh the quest for power, wealth, status and glory.