Book Review: Status Anxiety
Status Anxiety is touted as a book to aid us in our quest to placate our societal anxieties. I quote from the description given on amazon.com:
Anyone who’s ever lost sleep over an unreturned phone call or the neighbor’s Lexus had better read Alain de Botton’s irresistibly clear-headed new book, immediately. For in its pages, a master explicator of our civilization and its discontents turns his attention to the insatiable quest for status, a quest that has less to do with material comfort than with love. To demonstrate his thesis, de Botton ranges through Western history and thought from St. Augustine to Andrew Carnegie and Machiavelli to Anthony Robbins.
First and foremost, this book is erudite, so be forewarned. This book is aimed more towards the thinker trying to grapple with confines or frustrations of his present day societal anxieties. For those looking for self-help, or a hand in figuring out how not to lose sleep over an “unreturned phone call”, they might be better served else where. There are no exercises in this book, nor step by step instructions on how to “get over” our anxieties, but instead a fairly clear dissection of Western society over the ages in regards to status.
Alain carries us through the beginning of the book in examining what status means and what status is. He accurately pegs down that anxiety over our perceived status in society is not necessarily new, but is novel in terms of how it is experienced in modern times. We start with the view that places in society were once thought to be permanent and unmalleable, as set forth by a divine plan. If you were a slave, you allegedly spent no effort or distress in contemplating life not as a slave, or a peasant, or a serf. In fact you were ‘granted’ the peace of mind that you didn’t have to worry about such things.
Fortunately, Alain points out this truth without unnecessary romanticizing. Whereas many would spend many words decrying our present state and ‘wishing’ for a return to such a primitive, Alain points out that life wasn’t necessarily any better simply because you knew you were a slave.
In Alain’s view ‘status’ as seen by us is the idea that we can discern who and what are ‘good’ and who and what are ‘bad’, meaning who or what ‘deserves’ our respect. In those more ancient times the large majority of people that made the world tick were respected for precisely their contribution, at least they had a few poems made about them. You might consider it the nobility of the serf. However, as he develops his thesis, Alain points out the factors that have contributed to the source of our anxiety: the meritocracy, or at least the illusion of a meritocracy.
He spends countless pages illustrating how capitalism, or at least the idea of capitalism, has put in our heads the natural idea or notion that people’s wealth is an indicator of their virtue. I am simplifying here, Alain puts it much more precisely. The idea is that, if we are able to be in control of our destinies, that is, we are not slaves, then what we end up reaping for ourselves is what we deserve. If we are poor, it is our fault, and it is must be because of a lack of virtue that we must suffer our condition.
I find this idea intriguing. As a student of Objectivism for a long time, I eventually found myself at an emotional crossroads about what it meant to be virtuous. Society’s standard of altruism as a fill in for virtue had already been set aside, and I was left with the fact that if I wasn’t accomplishing something, if I wasn’t earning income, if I wasn’t influencing progress, I was nothing.
I believed this for a long time, and in some respects still do. This is no fault of Objectivism, but more a misunderstanding of virtue. I spent two and a half years in a deep deep depression because I had convinced myself that I was nothing, and had nothing to offer anyone or any enterprise. I was malformed and destined to be inferior to those who who could, and would, do. Those who earned more money, those who did what they wanted without care, were more ‘powerful’ than me, and deserved their rewards.
But like those in Alain’s book, such as the philosophers, the artists, and eventually the bohemians, I realized that my worth was not in the hands of others. That I may be graded with a low IQ, or labeled with a mal-adaptive personality disorder, or found to be ethically unsound for lack of faith, had absolutely nothing to do with my ‘worth’. Alain posits that our ‘worth’ is based on sympathy, empathy and love, and uses such currency in his book as an antidote to the cold harshness of utilitarianism.
I was a ‘beta-male’, to sarcastically quote Molyneaux, because I believed I was a beta-male. In fact, believing I was a beta-male was an excuse to not do what I could actually do. If somebody did better than me, it was because they were alpha and I was beta. The reality of it is that wealth, as lucidly illustrated in countless ways in this book, is but one facet of an existence.
Alain shows how the development of Christianity, and the developments of the ‘bohemian’, turned the idea that wealth equals virtue, or status, on its head. Now, we could show that someone was worthy in character despite outward circumstance. If they were godly, or if they were sensitive, it could very well measure more ‘in their favor’ than material wealth.
But more than that, by the end of the book the astute reader will realize the artificiality of status, whether that was the intention or not. The book plays into the hands of status in its subtle arguments, offering refutations that I suppose should make us feel better. But in reality, through the examination of status it more correctly shows that status, or virtue, or wealth, or what have you, are more artificial than natural. That they are constructs of a society, and not necessarily of nature.
In retrospect, I had forgotten the virtue of independence so touted in Objectivist literature and teachings. I was basing all my value judgments of myself on at once faith and others. Faith in that I believed I was destined to fail, that I was an inferior product. But I could only be inferior in comparison to something, and that was others. When you compare yourself to others in an effort to ascertain your worth, you are dependent on them. You are dependent on their successes, their world views, and their prejudices. Independence and pride result from relying on yourself and your own being to figure out what you’re all about.
In the book the rich industrialist is made to be the object of affection just as much as a saint or spartan. When we allow others to dictate to us who is worthy and who is not, we suffer from status anxiety.
This book doesn’t necessarily offer any particularly clear arguments as to what place status or status anxiety should take in our lives, but it does offer an examination of status that hopefully dismantles the idea of any natural order of things. It intelligently shows us that status, and our anxiety about it in-so-far as it hinders our enjoyment of life, is an artificial construct.
This is part of a list of Books Asher’s Read
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