"Status Anxiety" is a uniquely sparkly book that, for the most part, I enjoyed immensely. However, like other readers, I have some problems with it.
First of all, a gentle reminder to everyone who
approaches a "philosophical" book like this one: all this rationalizing
of reality can be helpful sometimes, but it is often overestimated,
especially by academics. Even though it should be obvious, people tend
to forget that reality stays exactly the same, with or without
philosophical analysis. The immense respect that our society gives to
the rich and "officially successful" doesn't change an inch. Philosophy
therefore achieves little more than providing perspective, or what could
be described in ancient Greek as "shooting the shit". We need to keep that in mind.
can be summarized as follows: we are all anxious about our sense of
status in the world. Today's problem is our egalitarianism. We no longer
believe that people who are worse off are “unfortunates”, as that was
the old term for them. Instead, they are now “losers”. It is their
fault. So we fear failure more than ever, because it is our fault. This
is the flip side of meritocracy, which we consider a good thing, but
which is really a tyranny of expectations. Also, we envy everybody who
does better, at least in our eyes.
De Botton sets out five
causes of status anxiety (lovelessness, snobbery, expectation,
meritocracy, dependence) and provides what he believes are five cures
for the ailment (philosophy, art, politics, religion and bohemia).
the start, this set up my hopes quite high, because other books on
sociological topics (i.e. Zygmunt Bauman's books on consumerism) do not
do anything more than analyzing a problem, which leads everybody sane to
the ultimate question: "So what?". At least, I said to myself,
De Botton made the effort to offer some solutions to the problem he
presented. Yeah, well... while that is true, I will explain why his
solutions are really not satisfactory, and why this is overall a
rationalistic and therefore unrewarding kind of book.
let me complete the positive part of my review: some reviewers blame the author for being "pop", for lowering the fine
abstractions of philosophy to the level of corny self-help manuals. They
are wrong. De Botton is a deep and erudite thinker, certainly
more than capable of writing a brick-heavy dissertation on any
philosopher, but he also wants to reach out to many readers, who cares
whether that is for a high concept of sharing wisdom with the masses, or
for a desire to sell as many books as possible, or for both reasons?
As for his presented solutions, the book concludes
by recommending that we simply spread our risks and take advantage of
the vast variety of ways in which success and failure can be defined. If
we are depressed by our uselessness, then we should simply change our
reference points. I found this stance a little too weak, unsatisfactory and commonsensical.
But what I found annoying is the
transparency of the author's personal preferences, hidden behind an
appearance of total objectivity and utter absence of any opinion. And
this is a very typical problem with philosophy in general.
me explain: De Botton chose an academic career path in a world (our Western world)
where they will often tell you "he who can, does; he who can't,
teaches". Where, in fact, academic success is considered nowhere near
the highest graces of success in business, and, in particular, success
in making tons of money in general. So it's not such a wild guess to say
that, as a very competitive individual, De Botton has probably always
been bothered by rich businessmen, lawyers and bankers who often get
more respect and love from society than philosophers and professors. And
if he hasn't, at least he does a lot in the book to build a huge damn
case against these rich lawyers and bankers, they who achieved the
success commonly recognized as success. Can he be totally objective
Another problem: in the chapter "religion", he treats
faith as "just another way to cope with anxiety", absolutely
interchangeable with "philosophy" or with politics or with being a Punk.
I guess De Botton likes too much his own atheist or non-religious
perspective, to be able to speak about religion with any type of real
understanding. He keeps referring to Christianity and Christian values
without ever giving the slightest hint of whether he thinks it's all
great or it is all a load of crap. I find this type of fake detachment
to be slightly cowardly: you are not talking about minerals and rocks.
You chose to talk about the most important topics of human existence, of
which you, Alain De Botton, are fully a part, therefore posing with
such a detached attitude is equivalent to position yourself on a higher
ground. It comes across as arrogant and, at times, frustrating ("so
what?"). It gives the impression of a very cold scientist who is looking
at his experiment or his study, not because he cares about any of the
people involved in the study, but purely because he enjoys the study
itself. Where is his heart, in all this beautiful philosophical talk?
Aside from his love for art and literature, no other emotion transpires.
Nada. And while this "forcing the emotions out" might be the very
distinctive sign of the philosopher's "profession", I find it useless,
dehumanizing and unrewarding.
The chapter on religion is not
even about religion. It is about the concept of death, and, in one
single sentence at the end, De Botton gives an imprecise interpretation
of the concept of God. So is it fair to present it as a solution at all,
when you provide such a limited and biased perspective on it?
chapter on Bohemians is the one where De Botton's "objective
detachment" most clearly fails, because he LOVES this solution so much,
and it shows. After a great eulogy of Henry Thoreau, he goes on to say
that the delightful punks across all the Earth, the haters of the
bourgeoisie, have actually understood the secret of life, or something
along those lines.
Then again, why "Bohemians"?? Why choose this
peculiar definition to end a list of very general and wide categories,
like philosophy, politics, religion? I am confused. It's like saying:
"here's what I'm going to talk about: sport, food, wheather, and
cheerleaders' choreography". What about the hundreds of other similar
movements, like Grunge, Punk, whatever else? Why not "vegetarianism",
then, why leave that one out? Anyway, in this chapter, he aptly and
perhaps unconsciously offers the most valid proof of the fact that
nobody is immune from our basic instinct of trying to climb on top of
each other's heads like monkeys. Because the very best man is, at the
end of the day, the one who reads and thinks and loves art and writes
all the time. And, oh! guess what De Botton does all day long?
please, I really don't want to be unfair. I truly
enjoyed the book, very much. At times, De Botton's deep passion for
history, literature and art jumps at you in such a genuine form, that is
inspiring and almost moving. His love for quoting famous
works of the past and the present, the delight he takes in doing that, how he chooses really interesting "pearls", anecdots and quotes, is
not something I see much as a trick, but rather as a sign of his true
deep love for literature and art. Like the love of a dedicated collector.
There lies, in my opinion, the real beauty of this book.
And this is ultimately why I would recommend it and why I enjoyed reading it!
I have to say that I listened to the audiobook. I think the reader is a
very good one (I heard his voice before, in some books about Pacific
Ocean travel) but he should have toned down his own sense of humor,
because at times he gives a sense of arrogant sarcasm to De Botton's
voice that does not make it look good at all, and you are left wondering
if it was really intended to sound like that.