In his new book, Status Anxiety, de Botton takes readers on a tour through the history of ideas—economic, sociological, and political— to tackle the problem of "status anxiety," which he characterizes as "a worry, so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives, that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we may as a result be stripped of dignity and respect; a worry that we are currently occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall to a lower one."
This obsession with our place in society, de Botton writes, emerges from several sources: our fear of lovelessness; inflated expectations about what our lives should bring; our faith in meritocracy (which leads us to believe that modern day academic achievement sorts everyone into their rightful place), snobbery; and the fact that we are at the mercy of "fickle talent," luck, our employers, and the global economy. But status anxiety, he argues, can be cured—or at least mitigated—if we draw upon the resources of philosophy, art, politics, religion, and bohemia as tools for putting the issue in perspective. For example, we can curb our urge to grasp after bigger, more impressive things and learn to appreciate our mundane lives, he argues, by exposing ourselves to art and literature that celebrates the beauty and dignity of the ordinary. Likewise, an understanding of the ideals that drive Western religion can help us relinquish our fixation on worldly success. And we could do worse, he suggests, than to heed the observations of astute social critics like the eighteenth-century French commentator Sébastien-Roch Nicolas Chamfort, who warned, "public opinion is the worst of all."
On June 15 I met up with de Botton, in the midst of his book tour, in a New York City hotel. Over breakfast we discussed these issues, along with such questions as how, say, a survivor of status anxiety might respond to mean-spirited book reviews. His overarching message: remain humble and down-to-earth, even if you happen to become a writer of best-selling books that brim with sophisticated references. Philosophy may not be able to influence the most close-minded of the status-obsessed. But for those with the time and inclination to read carefully, it may go a long way toward keeping this sinister ill at bay.
Alain de Botton
You've written books about the thoughts of others (as in Proust and Consolations), as well as books that advance your own ideas on an issue (such as The Art of Travel and your novel Kiss and Tell, which was a send-up of biographies). With Status Anxiety do you feel that you're mainly synthesizing arguments that have been made in the past by other thinkers? Or are you seeking to formulate an original theory of your own?
I consider myself to be combining ideas in original ways—not necessarily wildly original ways, but different. You can probably find every idea I use in the book somewhere else, but that's probably true of any work. It's about combination. Also, I suppose I'm moving away from relying on just one source—like Proust or one set of philosophers—and instead drawing upon a much more diverse range of sources that feed into a particular concept. So I do feel that in a way Status Anxiety is a more original book than some of the others.