146 of 149 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Salve for the Status Conscious
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...
Published on August 9, 2004 by Christopher Hefele
91 of 104 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Literary Tour
Turn on the tv or pick up a magazine, and chances are you'll experience a well crafted exercise in status envy, the stock-in-trade of our highly inventive advertising industry. Commercials are designed to create a need where none exists, and in many instances, where none should exist. It's this latter that is really the subject of de Botton's book. The text amounts to a...
Published on April 11, 2006 by Douglas Doepke
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146 of 149 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Salve for the Status Conscious,
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.
44 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars On the Unalienable Right to the pursuit of Happiness,
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.
91 of 104 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Literary Tour,
This review is from: Status Anxiety (Paperback)Turn on the tv or pick up a magazine, and chances are you'll experience a well crafted exercise in status envy, the stock-in-trade of our highly inventive advertising industry. Commercials are designed to create a need where none exists, and in many instances, where none should exist. It's this latter that is really the subject of de Botton's book. The text amounts to a learned yet oddly remote treatment of how we judge others and ourselves through the prism of status, a very serious and messy subject.
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.
31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What About Me?,
This review is from: Status Anxiety (Paperback)The craving for approval and recognition, the fear of being seen as a Loser or a Nobody, are all summed up in a condition that Alain de Botton calls "status anxiety". Anyone who has seen the British comedy series "Keeping Up Appearances" will probably agree that Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced "bouquet") is a chronic sufferer of this condition. Status anxiety also encompasses envy, social climbing and comparisons to our peers, something more commonly known as "keeping up with the Jones's". It's not enough to be happy with what we've got.
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.
31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Book of Popular Philosophy Well Worth Reading,
This review is from: Status Anxiety (Paperback)My hat goes off to anyone who can write best sellers in the realms of philosophy, and Alain de Botton has clearly figured out the knack. Professional philosophers may scoff at the lack of rigor in his work, and even I (a non-PhD) would scoff at the self-help feel of much of this book. Still, these are quibbles when compared to all that de Botton has accomplished in figuring out how to lead a wide audience on a lively expedition of a serious philosophical topic.
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.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Read with a skeptical but open mind..,
This review is from: Status Anxiety (Paperback)I'm serious when I say this book changed my life, not in a major epiphany way, but in a compelling and clear restatement of how I was already feeling. It helped me make peace and I've finally been able to shrug off the poisonous hierarchy-based value system I'd been told was important. I'm just in it for me, my family and happiness now.
31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not wholly satisfying,
De Botton quite rightly points out that due to the egalitarianism of modern capitalist society it is supposed that success (measured in financial terms) is within the grasp of everyone and is the direct result of an individuals actions and no other forces. Hence those who do not prosper in such circumstances are branded 'losers' and it is assumed that their shortcomings are the result of a poor work ethic or other personal flaw. This is the main gist of the first half of the book which centres on the causes of status anxiety.
He rightly points out that when a class system was firmly in place in pre 20th century Europe those whose lowly place in society were caste in stone never had the burden of expectation of themselves and from those around them as there lot was secured from birth until death, so in that sense the status anxiety we know today is very much shared with the freedom that we enjoy.
One of the problems with this book is that most of De Botton's examples are drawn from the pre-industrial age, although they are factually interesting in their own right it is harder to apply them in a modern philosophical sense as the world has become so complex De Botton's examples and wording are if anything too straightforward (rare for a philosopher).
At times I wasn't really sure where De Botton was trying to go with this book as he never really focuses on one particular issue, instead in his pursuit of find an answer to the problem of status anxiety he delves into the history of Art, Religion and Politics and more often than not the book feels more like a history lesson than a philosophical guide.
For example art is pointed out as an area of salvation from status anxiety, a fair point but in shedding light on this De Botton describes at length how a painter, Thomas Jones's, landscape of supposedly banal house rooves in an Italian town (with a picture reference) destroys notions of what is important and what is not in art - this is simply an art history lesson however De Botton wants us to read it as a way of stepping outside of the status quo. While the appreciation of art is important it is still very much enmeshed in modern day status, what greater status symbol is there now than to possess a work of fine art or to attend a gallery opening etc - nothing wrong with this but these are not alternatives to status anxiety. I could go on ad naseum with further examples such as the aforementioned.
The most interesting part I found in this book was the chapter on Bohemia which truly was a 'way out' if you like from the mainstream status quo. Another very interesting revelation was that around the beginning of the 20th C there was a cult moevement in the US borne of a book (authors name escapes me) that showed in practical terms how to literally live off the land by starting a small vegetable patch etc, this flirtation with a simple life, however, lasted briefly and the move toward modernisation continued on. That is probably the only genuine alternative I can think of that the book pointed out to me otherwise De Botton, to me, is just pointing out the better aspects of our modern society and using them as examples of how to live outside the social hierarchical sphere so it's somewhat contradictory in that sense.
I enjoyed reading this book for the most part but it wasn't quite revelatory anough and fell below my expectations. I think there is more room for exploration on this subject matter.
19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Formative and Entertaining,
This review is from: Status Anxiety (Paperback)De Botton makes the case that what makes bad anxiety is wants placed upon us that are really not our own but stem from other sources wishing to command us like commercialism and the message the ruling class wants out there, as to what success is; the ruling class always possesses the keys to what is most publicly aired and accepted as the standard. De Botton asks his readers to get in touch with their own feelings as to what is the essence of a good life, and to hold those feelings as being important. He also gives some clues on how getting in touch with our true feelings about life has been obfuscated or hijacked by others with ulterior motives who are none other then liars and crooks, often parading themselves as legitimate model citizens, and thought of as such. De Botton then gives some examples of ulterior ways of looking at the world.
The first fourth of the book was tight and well thought out and strict to what the title claimed to cover. In the latter part De Botton seemed to wonder a bit in an ambiguous opinionate way; but in a Ruskin/organic sort of way that recognizes that some things can not be spoken of in absolutes: namely how to best steer an economy. De Botton also seemed to want to wrest Christianity back from the hands of the American plutocrats and express that societies lose a lot when they are not more egalitarian; or rather that societies lose something when its peoples feel that they can not use the same public transportation.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book for pleasure and engagement,
This review is from: Status Anxiety (Paperback)I absolutely adored this book. Philosophy, most would agree, isn't read for entertainment, but edification of some sort. It enlightens, it provokes, it challenges, but it feels, at times, like eating spinach - delicious for its nutrients rather than its unadulterated taste. Alain de Botton, however, manages to make philosophy relevant and readable. No, I take that back...his philosophizing is positively delightful!
Status Anxiety is an examination of the incessant concern of one's standing in the world. De Botton suggests that we desire two kinds of love; the love of our close friends and family and the love of the world at large. This need to be adored by humanity is a subject that the sophisticated and well mannered among us are loath to admit or discuss. It may be crass to speak of, but people tend to value themselves and their accomplishments only as much as other people do. We assign ourselves the value we see in the mirror of other people's approval.
The frequent externalizing of our self-worth, the author argues, is the cause of enormous human anxiety.
Without doing Alain de Botton the disservice of butchering his well-organized tour through human status anxiety and the possible solutions offered by philosophy, art, and culture, I will merely commend this wonderful book to all.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Speaking of status, de Botton is almost in a class by himself,
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This review is from: Status Anxiety (Paperback)I wish I had discovered Alain de Botton sooner, but better late than never. His erudition is remarkable, his perception is acute, and his writing is marvelously phenomenologically rich yet lucid. Best of all, in this book he tackles a fundamentally important topic, namely our need for social status and our anxiety over our status falling short.
This is a book which must be read attentively in its entirety, and I indeed found it hard to put down, but perhaps I can still highlight some key points to give a feel for the subject matter:
- Because we judge ourselves according to how others judge us, one of our basic needs is the love of the world. This is despite the fact that the judgments of others are frequently shallow and misguided, and the criteria for judgment have varied across cultures and history.
- We take our social status as an indicator of how much we're loved, or can expect to be loved, by others.
- We determine our status by comparison with a reference group of other people, not in absolute terms. That means that progress of our reference group doesn't necessarily improve our individual status, and may even diminish it.
- Unlike the days when status was largely inherited, the meritocratic notion that anyone can achieve anything, and the related assumption of social mobility, gives hope to those who wish to rise in status, but it also results in self-blame when we fail. This is despite the fact that achievement is greatly influenced by factors outside our control (ie, luck).
- Our self-esteem is also affected by our achievement relative to our own expectations. This implies that, if we can't achieve more, it may make sense to lower our expectations (however outlandish that may sound). Likewise, if we're inspired by the success stories of others, but we fail, those stories may worsen our self-esteem. And of course the mass media exacerbates these problems by constantly encouraging us to "aim high" and throwing rags-to-riches success stories in our faces.
- The poor were once honored as an integral and productive part of society, or at least they weren't viewed negatively. This changed with the rise of meritocracy, with material wealth becoming the primary measure of merit/status, and with the poor thus being considered deserving of low status and snobbish derision. Social Darwinism took this attitude further with the view that the poor deserve to be weeded out of society.
- We're often uncertain or mistaken about what will make us happy. For example, the pleasure provided by material acquisitions is usually fleeting, whereas we expected it to be sustained or even permanent. Likewise, in envisioning careers, we often make the mistake of focusing on the positives while downplaying the negatives.
- We can at least partly control status anxiety by learning to become our own judges, being attentive to how art subverts prevailing status norms, seeing our fallible shared humanity through art which depicts tragedy, using comedy to underminine pretensions, remaining aware of our individual and collective mortality, focusing on collective rather than individual success, and orienting ourselves towards nonmaterialistic values which lead to richer and more balanced lives. These are generally difficult things to do, and only partly effective even in combination, but better to make the effort rather than just muddle along with the herd.
I very highly recommend this book, especially to people who detect a tradeoff in their lives between seeking/maintaining status versus being generally fulfilled, and are troubled by that predicament. This book provides an elegantly multifaceted exploration of this terrain, and it's especially rewarding to readers who are themselves erudite enough to be familiar with the diverse spectrum of examples from social and intellectual history which de Botton references. As some reviewers have noted, de Botton could have expanded the book, such as by drawing more on non-Western perspectives, but it makes more sense to attend to what the book offers rather than lament about what it leaves out -- and it offers plenty.
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Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton (Paperback - May 10, 2005)