By Alain de Botton
Pantheon, 293 pp., $24
hether you count yourself a "somebody" or a "nobody," a winner in the sweepstakes for high status or a loser of the big, fat variety, what you think doesn't count. What others think of you does. And it's public opinion that can make your life a living hell, if you let it.
So: Worried where you stand in the universal pecking order? You're not alone. It's human nature. Welcome to the club. For company, see Status Anxiety, a love story. "Love" because, as essayist Alain de Botton points out, it's attention (and its by-product, status) that all of us crave and not enough of us get. But right now, we're in a real mess. Anxiety levels are at an all-time high. Competitiveness, envy, despair: ditto. It wasn't always so.
Time was, people knew their place, and what a relief. In ancient Greece, you could be born a royal or prove yourself a warrior, both of which beat being a slave with rights to nothing, and there wasn't much you could do about it. Time was, in medieval Europe, you could be born a nobleman or prove yourself a knight and earn all due respect, or you could settle for being a peasant, which was, despite the nonstop labor, no bar to the kingdom of heaven. But time was, beginning in the 18th-century, you could take advantage of the new democratic spirit, and the race was on: Men (white men; not women) were born free, and so too the idea of a meritocracy based on intelligence, talent, and hard work. Marry any absence of those qualities to the great goal of money-making, and you've got yourself a prescription for instant anguish, because: You're not keeping up with the Joneses? You are a failure. Or you can think of sainthood as a solution, or, according to de Botton, any number of secular answers to the problem, among them:
1) Philosophy. Screw the movers and shakers. Become a Cynic. Diogenes said scram to Alexander the Great. Or become an enlightened misanthrope and take your cue from the logic of Voltaire: "The earth swarms with people who are not worth talking to."
2) Art. Relieve your pain through Greek tragedy. Take comfort in Chardin's subversive genre paintings. Join Matthew Arnold in his protest against the status quo. Read Jane Austen as an antidote to snobbery. For laughs, scan The New Yorker for cartoons.
3) Politics. Forget about becoming a contemporary version of the warrior, the knight, or the aristocratic gentleman. And above all, unlink the connection between happiness and money. See, for example, the writings of John Ruskin, who, according to de Botton, "wished to be wealthy in kindness, curiosity, sensitivity, humility, godliness and intelligence." Nevermind that Ruskin was once labeled a "mad governess" and his theory of the good life nothing but "windy hysterics," "absolute nonsense," and "intolerable twaddle."
4) Religion. Consider the death of Ivan Ilyich, the ruins of civilizations past, your own and everybody's puniness in the face of awe-inspiring nature. Try turning the Earthly City into an approximation of the City of God. It beats everlasting torment in the afterlife, plus you and everyone else benefit in the here and now.
5) Bohemia. Wage war on bourgeois values by going against the grain. Suffer for your art, as the poet Thomas Chatterton did. (But don't kill yourself, as Chatterton also did.) Adopt a lobster and take it for walks, as the poet Gérard de Nerval did. (But don't kill yourself, as Nerval also did.) Or do as Thoreau, Courbet, and Flaubert did and live, trouble-makers all. Figures strictly from the past? Not necessarily. "To the role-models of the lawyer, the entrepreneur and the scientist," de Botton concludes, "bohemia has added those of the poet, the traveller and the essayist. It has proposed that these characters, too, whatever their personal oddities and material shortfalls, may be worthy of an elevated status of their own." Tell that to the Joneses.
Which brings us to Alain de Botton, who's yet to produce a book of poetry but who has given us The Consolations of Philosophy, How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Art of Travel, and now Status Anxiety: a how-to, reader-friendly book on the topic of the well-lived life. It's user-friendly too: a compact balance of text and design to balance that nagging suspicion, admit it, you're not up to snuff.