In the last year of my undergrad I took a number of English courses, and these classes taught me the importance of reading carefully. We read slowly, examining structure, noticing varied sentence length, admiring literary devices, researching the origin of epigraphs and learning the details of plot advancement. As someone who is often impatient to get to the end of a book, it was startling to discover how much is hidden in the art of telling a story. I learnt the words we choose matter, and the more you know about the milieu a book is set in, the challenges and debates it is responding to, the life and history of the author, and the connections that exist between one book and other works, the better your understanding of that particular book will be. The more closely you read, the deeper and more meaningful your encounter with a text.
Like those masterful English professors, Alain de Botton is an author who changes the way you understand the world. He reads closely, and the results of his scrutiny are thought-provoking and meaningful.
Last week I read his book Status Anxiety, a book about modern life’s obsession with status. (Note: the examples and discussions are largely limited to the West). The book is divided into two sections – the cause of status anxiety (with chapters devoted to each suggested cause of snobbery, dependence etc). In this section he suggests a possible origin for status anxiety:
“A sharp decline in the actual deprivation may, paradoxically have been accompanied by an ongoing and even escalating sense or fear of deprivation. Blessed with riches and possibilities far beyond anything imagined by ancestors who tilled the unpredictable soil of medieval Europe, modern populations have nonetheless shown a remarkable capacity to feel that neither who they are nor what they have is quite enough.”(p.25)
The second section is called Solutions and has separate chapters on Philosophy, Art, Politics, and Religion. As a whole, the book is a reminder of how fleeting worldly status is, and through an exploration of classic literature, paintings, satire, western philosophy and tragedy, explains how different philosophers, artists and writers have sought to delink the association between the value of a person and their material worldly position.
It’s a wonderful read, particularly because the examples used are so interesting and familiar, and his insights are thoughtful. He talks about the novel Middlemarch and how although Dorothea Brooke is a ‘failure’ by society’s standards,her soul is rich, and she is of one those ‘unvisited tombs’ who makes life better for those around them. In his discussion of another classic heroine, Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, he describes Jane Austen’s intellectual project in all her books as an attempt to reform society and alter the lenses through which we view people. In Mansfield Park, Austen creates the character of Fanny Price, an obscure and poor individual who lacks worldly importance, and who cannot forgive and/or respect the Bertrams for their materialism, moral depravity and hypocrisy. Their wealth makes them ridiculous, it has no connection to making them subjects of respect. Fanny’s vision is clear and perceptive and when we see the world through her eyes, de Botton argues, we are more likely to view our own world through a clearer lens.
When explaining Greek tragedy, the author describes tragedy as a genre that expands our capacity to emphasize with how ordinary people can fall when confronted with specific circumstances. He notes that tragedies enable use to see people with nuance and complexity – unlike the media headlines that limit what we can learn and know about a person. To illustrate this point, he gives the example of the classic novel Madame Bovary. The novel was based on a newspaper article about a 27 year old French woman who killed herself after leaving her family and feeling stifled by her marriage.
For me, one of the most powerful parts of the books is its analysis of wealth. The author points out that
” Being truly wealthy.. does not require many things; rather it requires having what one longs for. Wealth is not an absolute. It is relative to desire. Every time we yearn for something we cannot afford, we grow poorer, whatever our resources. And everytime we feel satisfied with what we have, we can be counted as rich, whatever little we may actually possess. There are two ways to make a man richer reasoned Rousseau: give him more money or curb his desires.” (p.43)
He furthers this point by saying that we decide whether what we possess is enough by comparing ourselves to a referent group of people who we consider to be our peers. If we feel differences between us and our peers we feel diminished, but if the comparison shows us that we are equivalent or slightly better, then we don’t feel so bad, even though our actual situation in either case may be precisely the same.
More importantly, praise that is not deserved does not change who we are:
“Does what is praised become better? Does an emerald become worse if it isn’t praised? And what of gold, ivory, a flower or a little plant? Marcus aimed to take his bearings from the person he knew himself to be: “Will any man despise me? Let him see to it. But I will see to it that I may not be found doing or saying anything that deserves to be despised.” (p.114)
“Rather than allow every instance of opposition or neglect to wound us, we are invited by the philosophers first to examine the justice of other’s behaviour. Only that which is both damning and true should be permitted to shatter our esteem. We should forever forswear the masochistic process wherein we seek another’s approval before we have even asked ourselves whether that person deserves to be listened to – the process, that is, whereby we seek the love of those for whom, as we discover upon study, their minds we have scant respect.” (p.117).
There is much more to be said as this is a very rich, wonderful text, but in summary, this book made me think about whether we have space to have conversations about anxiety, fear in modern cities. Much of this book is about how anxiety over status and social positioning has increased as modern life has become less hierarchical and more secular, and that arguably, something has been lost in the process. How do we create communities which are healthy for the mind, soul and heart, and where we can see the world in ways that separate material positioning from personal worth? This is perhaps a question de Botton answers in his newest book: Religion for Atheists, but I’m curious to hear the thoughts of others.
The TED Talk about the book: