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.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Consolations of Philosophy

The Consolations of Philosophy

Firstly I am not referring to that great classic Consolatio Philosophiae by Boethius, or Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius as he was known in ancient Rome (480 – 526 A.D.), but rather to The Consolations of Philosophy by the modern guru Alain de Botton.  Obviously Alain stole his title from Boethius, but whereas the ancient scholar used the singular of the first noun, the modern writer used the plural.

What impresses me most about books that appeal to me are the passion and enthusiasm of the writer, his/her commitment to the characters (if it is a novel or work of fiction), his/her passion for the subject, his/her sheer honesty in dealing with the topic.  De Botton delivers in all these necessary areas.  In dealing with that most famous of all the ancient philosophers, Socrates, here is what Alain says with respect to his noble and moving death: “It is hard not to start crying oneself.  Perhaps because Socrates is said to have had a bulbous head and peculiarly wide-spaced eyes, the scene of his death made me think of an afternoon on which I had wept while watching a tape of The Elephant Man.  It seemed that both men had suffered one of the saddest of fates – to be good and yet to be judged evil.”(p 40)

All good literature, like good plays and films have this attribute to my mind, namely that the sheer honesty and humanity of the author engage our sympathies and emotions and we can be made to cry or laugh or be enthused or inspired.  

Alain de Botton's book suggests that consolation for many things can be found in philosophy. Using six philosophers (and their philosophies) as examples he offers consolations for the following perennial human problems: (1) unpopularity, (2) not having enough money, (3) frustration, (4) inadequacy, (5) a broken heart, and (6) difficulties. The book is presented as a cross between a self-help book and an introductory philosophy textbook, divided into short chapters and with many illustrations from both art and contemporary life.

Another thing that I like is the way de Botton engages with the lived experiences of his subjects and then how he relates their beliefs to living our lives in the modern world.  Also I love how he reveals his own feelings to us. De Botton harps on biography -- the lived lives (and lived philosophies) – all of which allows him an anecdotal style beloved of the entertainer and hence to engage our feelings – he even reveals how on one occasion he was unable to rise to the occasion with a lady-friend.

There is much wisdom in this book.  If you are looking for pure philosophy, this is not the book for you.  It is the work of a popularizer, not of a scholar.  Also the provenance of the book is such that it accompanies a TV series and hence this imposes considerable restrictions on the text.  There are many brilliant introductions to philosophy (such as Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, my favourite introduction) that such a person might read besides this little book, this minimum opus, if I may be so rude to call it that!  

This brings me to my own specific interests - how the book can be used in philosophical counselling and/or applied to everyday life. If we are concerned by unpopularity de Botton suggests that we should look to how Socrates ‘maintain[ed] confidence in an intelligent position which has met with illogical opposition’. If you are worried about your lack of wealth then Epicurus can be read for suggestions which don't require a lot of money. Perhaps you are concerned about frustration and anger? In that case he recommends Seneca and the Stoics for the insight that we should lower our expectations; recognize that Fortune can take away the contingent delights of life as easily as she gives them. Consolations for inadequacy can be sought in the wonderful meditations and thoughts of the Renaissance French philosopher Michel de Montaigne,(1533-1592) who hated any form of intellectual arrogance, saw the shortcomings of many contemporary prejudices and who realized that many beliefs were coloured if not formed by customs and weak reasoning.  De Botton succinctly says: “Montaigne had filled his library with books that helped him cross the borders of prejudice.”(p. 144) by following his words of wisdom we will, argues our author, learn to cross the borders of prejudice in our own minds.  He argues that Schopenhauer will provide us with consolation for a broken heart, which I must say I found somewhat lacking in consolation in my own case.  His arguments were lost on me here, as they were in his proposing Nietzsche for the consolation for difficulties.  These two final chapters were the two least satisfying for me as I think de Botton didn’t really write with equal passion, enthusiasm and conviction here as he did with the first four philosophers.

However unsatisfying this book is an introduction to philosophy, it makes up abundantly for this flaw by its surfeit of wise gems that can help us in our lives if we are reflective beings.  One such gem is this, which the ancient philosopher Seneca found in a book he was reading by a philosopher whose name I never ever heard before (Hecato): “What progress, you ask have I made? I have begun to be a friend to myself.”(Quoted p. 103).  If this little book can allow us the slightest possibility to do exactly that, then it is truly a good and worthwhile read.  

The picture I have appended above centre is one I took of the trunk/roots of a dead tree in Newbridge house Summer 2006. For me it represents the mystery of life and life in death.