Author: Alain de Botton
De Botton’s somewhat unsettling premise for Status Anxiety is that we are all driven by the need for status more than we might like to think. De Botton elevates status to a primary basic human need, asserting that even public disavowal of materialism and society’s normal ‘status symbols’ can itself be status driven.
In the book, he examines how values which confer status on individuals are not as perennial as we might think. In ancient Sparta, for example, male status depended on him being aggressive, muscular, bisexual, uninterested in his family and children and distasteful of conversation, luxuries, hairdressers and entertainment. His status could be damaged if he even knew how to count or if he was seen in the market place.
In Western Europe during the ‘middle ages’ individuals who modeled their lives on Jesus, shunned material wealth and lived simple solitary lives were accorded high status. After the crusades it was the knights who were most admired. In England during the 17th and 18th century ‘landed gentry’ - that is people who inherited wealth - were to be admired. Now in our ‘meritocracy’ it is people who amass wealth and possessions for themselves who attain status.
De Botton looks at the role of art and literature in turning upside-down our conditioned conceptions of status. Great novels by the likes of Dickens and Tolstoy consider the outwardly ‘lower’ individuals morally better than some high status characters. He argues that encouraging us to look beyond outward show and status is a primary function of art - something he feels is particularly relevant to modern society with our obsession with the cult of celebrity.
Status Anxiety is one of those books that makes you examine your own assumptions ‘from the outside’. It brings into stark relief the limitations of being driven mainly by the need for status. According to de Botton, a richer and less superficial life can only be attained once conscious and unconscious drives for the attainment of status are checked and contained.Review by Mark Tyrrell