"Status Anxiety" Alain de Botton: Hamish Hamilton 2004
The book is a cultural tour de force describing the consequences of failure in love, in resisting class snobbery, in the need for material goods, for relative status and in our wish for financial independence. Alain de Botton″s thesis is that the status expectation gap is exacerbated by our very existence in a capitalist democracy. Here we are taught we have an equal opportunity, we are encouraged by the media to compete with the most successful. We are a thousand years away from the Confucian belief in a proper established and respected order of things, where everyone can be satisfied by fulfilling their allotted position. We are caught. Unaided, most will fail, most will suffer. So in the West we use a range of means to find a response, or at least a way of placating our apparent failure and being able to turn a blind eye to it.
Philosophers have long preached independent thought. "It″s not my place in society that makes me well–off, but my judgements; and these I carry with me….these alone are my own and cannot be taken away" wrote Epictilus in AD100. Art has been used to shine the light of ironic criticism on the pretension of the haves to the implied smug benefit of us, the have&ndashnots. From Jane Austen″s Mansfield Park (1814), Balzac″s Pére Goriot (1834) or Eliot″s Middlemarch (1872) to the paintings of Vermeer, artists ask us to admire the real world around us, to find eternity in a grain of sand. So too De Botton reviews the role of comedy, tragedy and eventually of political theory and Christianity. However, the efforts to come to terms with never having enough are swamped by the daily tsunami of media attention to celebrities and personalities.
"Status anxiety" is ultimately corrosive with an exceptional capacity to inspire sorrow.