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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 9th October 2004

Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton

Hamish Hamilton, £16.99, pp.314

I feel slightly ambivalent about reviewing this book since status anxiety is precisely the feeling that Alain de Botton provokes in me. For one thing, his last book sold a lot more copies than mine. Then there's the fact that he went to Harrow, while I went to a bog-standard comprehensive. Finally, he lives in a much bigger house than me in West London in spite of being five years younger.

Luckily, help is at hand. The second half of Status Anxiety, entitled "Solutions", is devoted to strategies for alleviating this condition. Under various headings--"Philosophy", "Art", "Comedy", "Politics", "Christianity" and "Bohemia"--de Botton helpfully enumerates the various ways in which people at the bottom of the status ladder can comfort themselves. One such solution is to think about death: "Aside from reflecting on our own mortality, it can also be a relief from status anxiety to dwell on the death of other people, in particular on the death of those whose achievements are now apt to leave us feeling most inadequate and envious."

By the time I got to this sentence I'd learnt to recognise it as vintage de Botton. He's in the habit of regurgitating a fairly rudimentary bit of common sense with the air of someone imparting a startlingly original observation. Status Anxiety contains one of these Polonius-like pearls of wisdom on every page. Here he is on the subject of Happiness: "We are led to imagine ourselves scaling the steep sides of the cliff face of happiness to reach a wide, high plateau on which to continue our lives; we are not reminded that soon after reaching the summit we will be called down again into fresh lowlands of anxiety and despair." In other words, money can't buy happiness. (He should know: in 1999 his father sold his asset management company for £456 million.)

What's so odd about de Botton is that he genuinely doesn't seem to be aware that such thoughts might have occurred to other people. His website, which I assume is written by him even though he refers to himself in the third person, contains the following passage towards the end of a potted biography: "In his latest book...de Botton looks at an almost universal anxiety that rarely gets mentioned directly: an anxiety about what others think of us; about whether we're judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser. He defines this, for the first time, as 'status anxiety'..."

Perhaps it's not surprising that de Botton imagines he coined the phrase "status anxiety" since his reading never seems to extend beyond the outbreak of the First World War. He goes on--at length--about what a neglected a subject this is, and constantly pats himself on the back for having discovered it, when, in fact, there's a vast sociological literature on the topic, beginning with Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Even more surprisingly, given his literary bent, he doesn't refer to the famous series of essays on the English class system by Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh.

Instead, we're treated to a cornucopia of quotations from a number of great writers, the majority of them French: Montaigne, Rousseau, La Rochefoucauld, Balzac, Flaubert, Stendhal, Baudelaire, Proust...etc. I can't claim to be familiar with anything like the range of authors de Botton refers to here, but, then, I'm not sure de Botton is either. At one stage I worked as a Teaching Fellow in the Government Department at Harvard, then went on to teach in the Social and Political Sciences Faculty at Cambridge, and whenever de Botton strays on to ground I'm familiar with he gets almost everything wrong. For instance, in the Second Treatise on Government, Locke doesn't say that men agree "to surrender their natural rights in exchange for protection", as de Botton claims. On the contrary, the only reason men agree to enter civil society is because the state is a better guarantor of their natural rights than the alternative.

By the time I reached the end of Status Anxiety I felt rather foolish for ever having envied de Botton. Far from being the erudite renaissance man I imagined--Dr Love, as some newspapers would have it--he's more like one of Craig Brown's satirical creations. What better way to expose the Francophile pretensions of Britain's reading public than to dream up this Swiss-French version of Chauncey Gardener? The thing that makes de Botton such a great comic character is the gap between his own estimation of his abilities and that of anyone with two brain cells to rub together. Status anxiety, it seems, is one of the few shortcomings this multi-millionaire doesn't suffer from.

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