Status Anxiety Paperback – May 24 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
This sophisticated gazebo of a book is the latest dispatch from the Swiss-born, London-based author of the influential handbook How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel (1997). Promising to teach us how to duck the "brutal epithet of 'loser' or 'nobody,' " de Botton notes that status has often been conflated with honor and that the number of men slain while dueling has amounted, over the centuries, to the hundreds of thousands. That conflation is a trap from which de Botton suggests a number of escape routes. We could try philosophy, the "intelligent misanthropy" of Schopenhauer, for who cares what others think if they're all a pack of ninnies anyhow? Art, too, has its consolations, as Marcel found out in Remembrance of Things Past. A novelist such as Jane Austen, with her little painted squares of ivory, can reimagine the world we live in so that we see fully how virtue is actually "distributed without regard to material wealth." De Botton also discusses bohemia, the reaction to status and the attack on bourgeois values, wisely linking this movement to dadaism, whose founder, Tristan Tzara, called for the "idiotic." The phenomenon known as "keeping up with the Joneses" is nothing new, and not much has changed in the 45 years since the late Vance Packard, in The Status Seekers, wrote the definitive analysis of consumer culture and its discontents. But even at the peak of his influence, Packard was never half as suave as de Botton. (A three-part TV documentary, to be shown in the U.K. and in Australia, and hosted by de Botton, has been commissioned to promote the book.) Lively and provocative, de Botton proves once again that originality isn't necessary when one has that continental flair we call "style."
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
“His richest, funniest, most heartfelt work yet, packed with erudition and brimming with an elegant originality of mind. . . . An informative joy to read.” —The Seattle Times “A smart and amusing inquiry. . . . Thick with social history and as funny as [it is] acute.” — The Boston Globe“A typically de Bottonesque romp. . . . Full of great. . . literary and philosophical references.” —The Christian Science Monitor“His insights float on a kind light irony. . . like pixilated Barthes. . . . The pleasures of his prose come from following the play of his mind, the vast erudition, the succinct paraphrases, and vivid, often lyrical physical descriptions.” — Boston PhoenixSee all Product Description
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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.
De Botton looks back at a time long ago when peasants led a far harsher existence in material terms, but rarely worried that their difficulties were "their own fault." Thus had God made the world, and such were the affairs of men supposed to be. When we could not improve our social rank or material worth, there was no tendency to confuse riches with saintliness.
Starting from that idealized Rousseau-esque time, the author follows changing ideas about personal rights and responsibilities and finds a distinct downside to the whole concept of Western meritocracy. If we can be anything we want to be, our current relative lack of wealth, power, beauty and fame must be our own fault. No longer able to blame God, bad luck or the stars for misfortune, we see the world split into winners (virtuous, hard-working and strong) and losers (evil, lazy and weak). Where we once understood the complexity and frailty of human existence, we now see the world in terms of newspaper headlines: "Oedipus the King: Royal in Incest Shocker."
Finally, "Status Anxiety" looks at some of the ways that modern humans have tried to escape this social trap. It considers both bohemian and Christian philosophies and finds merits in both, if notably fewer in bohemianism. Ultimately, the book concludes, if our current set of values offers true happiness and contentment to only an elite minority, the democratic solution is to change those values. De Botton's contribution to that end is this book.
The book's first half, is informative and helpful, furnishing needed analytic and historical perspective, particularly the chapter on the self-defeating nature of expectation. However, the text would have been stronger and less remote had the author updated his account to current times instead of inexplicably trailing off in the 19th century. He really needs more research on the 20th century, when the problem of status anxiety exploded with the advent of the "level playing field". It's this literary-style approach that limits itself to previous centuries that separates his account from our current climate, and underlies much reader dissatisfaction.
The book's second half is given over to proposed remedies. From a merchandising point of view, this half amounts to an erudite guide for those seeking relief from the problem of is-my-standing-in-society-good-enough. Philosophy, art, and religion-- all share the capacity to reorient life's values away from social status to those transcendant values pointing toward the eternal. Of course, there's nothing like a view from eternity for stripping away petty concerns like status envy-- and everything else, for that matter . The problem with eternity is that the view from there tends to flatten out every value so that we're left with something like the existentialist's "absurdity of existence". Also, it's hard to be any happier with de Botton's alternative of Bohemian self-indulgence, which strikes me as arrogantly parasitic on the very body of producers whom these "free spirits" sneer at. As a class, the bourgeiosie may at times be detestable. But the point is to surmount their preoccupation with status, not to arrogantly sneer at them.
The real problem is that the author's proposed remedies all dwell on how the individual himself can change and not on how the society that is causing the problem can itself be changed. In my book, it's in that messy, frustrating, often unrewarding sphere of politics where the solution to status envy lies-- that is, in creating a more humane environment for us all and not for just an "enlightened few". For in an increasingly globalized world, where we all breathe the same fumes and watch the same water rise from a flood of status symbols, there is no escape into personal solutions. I wish the author had spent more than five ill-focused pages on the grubby but indispensible topic of social change.
On the whole, the book is very well-written and provides some important historical perspective. But, I'm afraid his material is better suited to a seminar in English literature than to a popular discussion of a very real and symptomatic societal disease.
Alain de Botton's book provides the reader with an informed analysis of what drives so many people to worry about what others think of them. Even though we're materially better off than medieval peasants, many of us still feel discontented with our lot in life. Peasants in the Middle Ages were born to be poor and downtrodden, hungry and illiterate; they had no expectations of a better life. The wealthy nobility were born to rule; this was how God had decreed it. But since the Middle Ages this has all changed.
Improvements in health and education, technological advances and greater equality have given birth to the Western concept of "meritocracy". This is the doctrine that proclaims anyone can get ahead in life, no matter who they are, what they are or where they come from. Wealth and success, attained by our own hard work and talent, are seen to be "deserved". Unfortunately there is a flip side to this. If wealth and success are deserved that must mean poverty and failure are also deserved. It can't be put down to bad luck because "we make our own luck." When people don't fulfill their dreams or potential they become disenchanted and bitter. And so we come to the root causes of status anxiety.
Throughout the book Alain de Botton gives us a range of historical perspectives to illustrate the changing standards of status over the ages. In ancient Sparta those at the top of the heap were men of war who had no interest in commerce or family life, children born weak were left to die; in the 21st century we're obsessed with high salaries, and the unemployed are unfairly stigmatized as lazy and unmotivated. As de Botton says, unemployment is perceived as the "modern equivalent of cowardice in warrior eras." We treat film stars like royalty but in Shakespeare's time actors were beneath contempt. Big houses and expensive cars confer prestige. All this makes one wonder what future ages will make of our own time. Maybe they'll be amazed that we had a fetish for those clumsy metal contraptions that killed or maimed thousands of people every year and polluted the environment. Or maybe there will be some other gadget that people feel like they have to have in order to be classed a "success".
In Part Two of the book some solutions to status anxiety are offered. The contemplation of death and ruins can be a comfort. Ruins remind us that nothing is permanent or immutable. Time and nature eventually destroy everything we've built and worked for, fame does not equal immortality. Although we pay close attention to the minutiae of a celebrity's life will people still care in ten billion years? Unlikely. We're all equal in death. Unless people worry about status in the afterlife?
For anyone who is new to philosophy and the human condition "Status Anxiety" is intelligently written and will point you in the direction of other scholars, writers and artists. A great blend of philosophy, history and literature.
Mke no mistake -- status anxiety is a profound force in our society. Marketers know it. Corporate executives know it. Yet for some reason, philosophers tend to neglect it. We are fortunate that de Botton is not among them.
Through delightful prose, de Botton raises in my mind the question of exactly why our society allows itself to be dominated by status if this concept produces so much anxiety and, ultimately, sorrow. Adam Smith would surely point out the tremendous economic benefits to this phenomenon, and many a corporate CEOs would have to agree. But are we as individuals mere servants of an economic machine? Can we not identify social structures that can help alleviate the power of status-seeking in our lives?
Other readers have pointed out how much better a job de Botton has done in diagnosing the disease than in finding a cure. But I don't blame him for that failure, for he has accomplished quite enough already. Now that we understand the importance of status-seeking as the most abundant and yet polluted fuel behind the energy of a capitalist world, could politicians, academicians and others PLEASE come together and help us find a healthful filter? I'm tempted to add "... before it's too late," but I sometimes fear that the bell has already tolled in that regard. Surely, though, if we put our heads together -- rather than butting heads to see who is smarter -- we can figure out a way to put status in its place.