Book summary: Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton
Status Anxiety
by Alain de Botton. Source: Goodreads.

Of lovelessness, the author said that the rich still accrue money well beyond what they can spend in several lifetimes because it gives them high status and thus love. Money, fame, and influence are tools to get love. Difference between sexual love and status love is that the latter has no sexual component, people just want to be taken care of and get noticed. Low status brings physical discomfort but the main penalty is to not get love. People don’t like to feel non-existent in society.

Of expectation, the author talked about material rise in America, people are becoming more rich with the invention of many technologies. But this increase in material wealth has increase the fear of deprivation. People keep feeling what they have is not enough. This is because with the rise of material wealth, your neighbors are getting richer too. Humans are weird because they don’t measure in absolute terms but rather in relative terms, even though we are far better than ever, but the fact that your neighbor is better sets the happiness back.

Paradoxically, the author seems to say that fall of religion and monarchy which treats inequality as normal causes status anxiety. This is because in the new ideal, everyone is equal, the poor has no reason to complain, as they are already given the chances. Previously, John of Salisbury (1159) gave the analogy that society is like the human body, the monarch is the head, the parliament is the heart, the people is the feet, each accorded with a body part. Looking from the perspective of the poor, they feel less anxiety because they think this is what God has intended, and everyone has a role to play, they don’t feel bad for being poor.

Of meritocracy, the author thinks that meritocracy causes anxiety. Meritocracy is the thinking that what you achieve in life is based on your skills and wit, and not your heredity. In the past, it was thought that “The Poor Are Not Responsible for Their Condition, and Are the Most Useful in Society”, “Low Status Has No Moral Connotation”, and “The Rich Are Sinful and Corrupt, and Owe Their Wealth to Their Robbery of the Poor”. But now we think that “The Rich Are the Useful Ones, Not the Poor”, “Status Does Have Moral Connotations”, and “The Poor Are Sinful and Corrupt and Owe Their Poverty to Their Own Stupidity”. Being poor in the modern era is more shameful and emotionally wrecking than in the past, of Jesus time.

Of snobbery, the author thinks that snobs generates status anxiety in other people. Snobs are people who look down on you if you have low status, and pamper you if you have high status. Snobs are born from lower status families. Since young, their parents who are also snobs, drill into them the thinking that having low status is not acceptable. Why does snobs cause anxiety in other people? Because people want to gain acceptance from people who shun them. When a snobs shun you, you want his/her attention, so the snobs became so important in our eyes.

Of dependence, the modern worker is very dependent on outside factors for their status, so they constantly feel at threat. Contrast with the past where your status remains quite constant (lords are always lords, peasants are always peasant), to the modern era, when your status can be lost in an instant. The dependence of our status to talent, luck, employer, employer’s profitability, and global economy causes great anxiety.

Now to the solution, of philosophy, the author talked about such philosophy as “What other people think of you can be accepted or rejected through reason”, “Public opinion is the worst of all opinions”, “Just peer through other’s real character, and you will realize most are brutish and stupid”, etc. These help alleviate anxiety.

Of art, the author said that art has its uses. It is a solution to our anxieties. Art through humor, drama, novels, criticizes life and gives us a way to look into life more correctly, remove of anxieties. Art also used to counter snobbery as in Jane Austen’s criticism of the emptiness of life of the rich. What people value highly in life such as richness is not important in novels, what people value lowly in life such as morals are celebrated in novels. Novels also give voice to the minority and unfortunate by letting us peer into the humanity of which we are often neglecting. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000) tells the story of a middle-aged Bangladeshi waiter in London, Jean-Baptiste Chardin’s Meal for a Convalescent (1738) paints a woman peeling egg for a sick person, Thomas Jones paints Rooftops, Naples, and Buildings in Naples (1776 – 1783), Christen KØbke’s The Roof of Frederiksborg Castle (1834-1835). More forms of art such as Tragedy gives us empathy as it relates how common it is to fall from grace. Comedy is used to correct social behavior without making people hurt.

Of politics, the author thinks that status is created through politics. Politics or power gives the people with power to decide what constitutes high status and what constitutes low status. People in power at different era has chosen different people to held them to high status. So, you can see it is a constant changing of who has high status, a cause for great anxiety. However, politics can change that, nothing is set in stone, ideals are not absolute but relative.

Of religion, the author thinks that the thought of death alleviates anxiety. Death allows us to see what is really important in life and what concert of status is fickle. Death also tells us that everything is temporary, nothing is eternal, including people with high status, the kings and pharaohs of the past.

Of Bohemia, the author talks about a movement of a group of “Bohemians”. Bohemians don’t held worldly achievements in high esteem. They dislikes the capitalist and bourgeoise.

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