Saturday, September 09, 2006

Status Anxiety

Status Anxiety

Blurbs on books always simplify, go for a catchphrase, something that will instantly strike the prospective buyer’s eye, or praise in a selective terms the author’s brilliance.  After all, the publisher does want you to buy the book.  De Botton’s blurbs are positively effusive and greatly overdone.  We read on the cover of his The Consolations of Philosophy, which I reviewed in the post immediately preceding this one, that “single-handedly, De Botton has taken philosophy back to its simplest and most important purpose: helping us live our lives.” The blurb on the cover of Status Anxiety is not nearly as effusively laudatory and states that the book is “clever, wise.  De Botton’s gift is to prompt us to think about how we live and how we might change things.”  Of course both covers proclaim loudly that they are needless to say “No 1 Bestsellers.”  Over the top – maybe; overdone - definitely yes; too effusive in praise – certainly; popular and “sexy” in appeal – most essentially; but nonetheless both books possess gems of wisdom, are extremely accessible to the ordinary reader, are witty and downright funny in spots, uplifting and amusing by turns and are certainly never boring.

However, you won’t find pure philosophy within their covers, but one can go elsewhere to more learned books for that.  However, you will find a marvellous potpourri of philosophy, philosophers, writers, historians, politicians, industrialists, and books of all genres, art, early and modern advertisements, and extraordinary historical and scientific facts.  All of life’s myriad experiences and artefacts are grist to de Botton’s mill.

It is self-evident that many of us suffer from low self-confidence and that a lot of us suffer from what has been termed the all too ubiquitous “inferiority complex.”  There is nothing new under the sun, is there? Qoheleth or Ecclesiastes of the Old Testament was right in this contention, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” and we all end up dead anyway!  The late Professor Hayes-McCoy of UCG said somewhere, if my memory serves me rightly, that we Irish suffered from a collective inferiority complex in the wake of 500 years of oppression.  Somehow or other that quote sticks in my mind from over twenty years ago. There’s some truth there, but in the wake of the Celtic Tiger we have emerged into a new super-confident State which is now listed as one of the wealthiest in the world!

And a distinct concomitant of this newly found wealth is needless to say “status anxiety,” which de Botton defines as “a worry, so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives” (p 3) quite simply because we are envious and jealous of more successful workmates, because we have not enough money, or style, because we didn’t get promotion, because we haven’t enough money to buy a four-wheel drive or what Americans call an SUV.  The list is endless of course.  We are, in the words of that brilliant comedian, Frank Spenser (Michael Crawford) in “Some Mothers do have ‘em”, failures. “Betty, I’m a failure” was Frank’s catchphrase.  We begin to see ourselves in that horribly reductive American phrase as being losers rather than winners.  While our anxiety may drive us to further achievements, de Botton warns us that “like all appetites, its excesses can also kill.”(p 5)

How does one comfort this angst-ridden modern being?  How does one cure this horrible status anxiety?  His solution is tame enough at one level – discuss it and analyse it and thereby control it.  At another level this is not the task of a lazy person or indeed of a coward.  Think like a philosopher.  Put life in perspective.  Meditate on death.  This latter I love because it is a Buddhist tenet as well as a Christian one.  De Botton completely omits the Buddhist contribution and concentrates solely on the Christian.

In Part 1 of the book de Botton deals with what he calls the causes of this malaise and gives each cause a chapter to itself viz., (i) lovelessness, (ii) snobbery, (iii) expectation, (iv) meritocracy and (v) dependence.  Then in Part 2 he offers the following solutions, which are quite hackneyed really, having being repeated for centuries – nothing new under the sun of Ecclesiastes again – (i) philosophy, (ii) art, (iii) politics, (iv) Christianity and (v) bohemia.

While there is nothing new in this rather eccentric self-help book there are many gems of knowledge and wisdom within its covers.  On page 63 he informs us that “the price we have paid for expecting to be so much more than our ancestors is a perpetual anxiety that we are far from being all we might be.” Also his chapter on meritocracy is brilliant as it traces the history of this concept.  To learn that the great multibillionaire, Andrew Carnegie, despite his well-publicized philanthropy was at heart a “meritocrat,”and actually said the following in his autobiography was revealing and interesting: “The less emotion the better.  Neither the individual nor the race is improved by almsgiving. Those worthy of assistance, except in rare cases, seldom require assistance.  The really valuable men of the race never do” (quoted p 89.)is enlightening, but not surprising. De Botton tells us three anxiety-inducing stories of success.  The first story recounts how the rich are the useful ones in any society, not the poor.  The second tells us that our status does have moral connotations.  The talented are the chosen ones.  It is a modern world of equal opportunity for all – provided that is, you have the gift or the talent.  The third modern story, but much sadder, is the one that recounts how really the poor are sinful and corrupt, and owe their poverty to their stupidity.  So if you were/are a failure then you were/are the cause of your own woe.  Succinctly in de Botton’s words: “To the injury of poverty, a meritocratic system now added the insult of shame."

To all of this, philosophy can offer some consolation.  He turns to philosophers such as Schopenhauer, who offers this advice to anyone who suffers the unwarranted criticism of another: “Every reproach can hurt only to the extent that it hits the mark.  Whoever actually knows that he does not deserve a reproach can and will confidently treat it with contempt.” (Quoted p. 129)

(To be continued) The photo above is one of sun in trees which I took at Newbridge House early June this summer.

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