Synopses & Reviews
Has inquiry into the meaning of life become outmoded in a universe where the other-worldiness of religion no longer speaks to us as it once did, or, as Nietzsche proposed, where we are now the creators of our own value? Has the ancient question of the "good life" disappeared, another victim of the technological world? For Luc Ferry, the answer to both is a resounding no.
In What Is the Good Life? Ferry argues that the question of the meaning of life, on which much philosophical debate throughout the centuries rested, has not vanished, but rather is posed differently today. Ferry points out the pressures in our secularized world that tend to reduce the idea of a successful life or "good life" to one of wealth, career satisfaction, and prestige. Without deserting the secular presuppositions of our world, he shows that we can give ourselves this richer sense of life's possibilities. The "good life" consists of harmonizing life's different forces in a way that enables one to achieve a sense of personal satisfaction in the realization of one's creative abilities.
Beautifully and engagingly written, What Is the Good Life? provides new insight and wisdom into one of life's most enduring philosophical questions. A major publishing event upon its publication in France, this elegant translation will reignite passionate dialogue about the meaning of life among readers in English as well.
"This sophisticated gazebo of a book is the latest dispatch from the Swiss-born, London-based author of the influential handbook How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel (1997). Promising to teach us how to duck the 'brutal epithet of 'loser' or 'nobody,' ' de Botton notes that status has often been conflated with honor and that the number of men slain while dueling has amounted, over the centuries, to the hundreds of thousands. That conflation is a trap from which de Botton suggests a number of escape routes. We could try philosophy, the 'intelligent misanthropy' of Schopenhauer, for who cares what others think if they're all a pack of ninnies anyhow? Art, too, has its consolations, as Marcel found out in Remembrance of Things Past. A novelist such as Jane Austen, with her little painted squares of ivory, can reimagine the world we live in so that we see fully how virtue is actually 'distributed without regard to material wealth.' De Botton also discusses bohemia, the reaction to status and the attack on bourgeois values, wisely linking this movement to dadaism, whose founder, Tristan Tzara, called for the 'idiotic.' The phenomenon known as 'keeping up with the Joneses' is nothing new, and not much has changed in the 45 years since the late Vance Packard, in The Status Seekers, wrote the definitive analysis of consumer culture and its discontents. But even at the peak of his influence, Packard was never half as suave as de Botton. (A three-part TV documentary, to be shown in the U.K. and in Australia, and hosted by de Botton, has been commissioned to promote the book.) Lively and provocative, de Botton proves once again that originality isn't necessary when one has that continental flair we call 'style.' Agent, Nicole Aragi. (June 1)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A novelist...cleverly deconstructs and demystifies that sinking feeling of material inferiority....An intelligent breath of fresh air, sans the usual ax-grinding." Kirkus Reviews
"Luc Ferry's most recent book continues his quest of exploring the metaphysical and religious traditions of the past to see what we can still learn from them about self-transcendence and life's meaning, despite no longer being able to accept their postulates about the divine or about the harmony of the cosmos. Ferry develops some quite innovative ideas about the inner, 'human' significance of Greek, Christian, and Nietzschean conceptions of the good life. This is a courageous and insightful book by one of the ablest philosophers today."
"Luc Ferry has written a truly thought-provoking piece of work developed over a number of years, which one should read attentively and carefully. . . . The issue at stake is important, namely to develop a concept for wisdom for today . . . . Luc Ferry is a member of the contemporary movement that is rethinking the existential and practical role of philosophy. Abandoning a purely theoretical approach, one that is concerned only with knowledge for knowledge's sake, he resumes and revitalizes an ancient line of questioning, one with a long history behind it, which has only slightly faded out in recent times: 'what does the good life consist of?'. . . . What is striking. . . above all is the honesty of [the author's] reflections and the true openness of his thinking."
"For anyone who wants to know why French philosophy after Foucault and Derrida continues to be of global importance, Luc Ferry's What Is the Good Life? is a must. In his latest book, Ferry offers the clearest and most deeply personal exposition of his post-metaphysical humanism. To those unfamiliar with the work of Luc Ferry, What Is the Good Life? is an ideal introduction to the thought of one of the leading intellectuals of today's France."
"Ferry boldly attempts to bring the intellectual traditions of humanism, religion, and materialism into dialogue with one another. At a time when most academic philosophy is technical and trivial, this volume stands apart."
"Ferry is one of those rare philosophers . . . who writes in a non-academic style that immediately draws you in. And yet this book is much more than a simple entertainment. It's a banquet for a hungry mind, serving rich philosophy trimmed with sociology, anthropology, theology, psychology, and history. . . . What makes this book a terrific read is not the 'punch line' found in the last chapter, the ultimate answer to the question of what makes the good life; it's Ferry's illumination of the human journey through history that has brought us to this answer."
"A stunningly written, bravely conceived, and profoundly important book that quite simply needs to be read."
"As an extended 'friendly debate,' as Ferry puts it, with materialism and religion, and with the ancient world and contemporary deconstruction, the book succeeds admirably. Moreover, it would be ungenerous not to recognize Ferry as the wonderfully aware, marvelously learned, sensible, good philosophical company that he is. He writes so clearly that whatever disagreements one has are . . . also his gift."
There are few more powerful wishes than to be seen as a success, a figure worthy of dignity and respect, and few deeper fears than to be dismissed as a failure. We long for status and dread its opposite. Alain de Botton with characteristic originality, lucidity, and elan addresses the anxieties that seem inextricably embedded in our pursuit of status and explores what, if anything, we can do about them.
Dipping into history, psychology, politics, and economics, de Botton considers a wide range of causes for status anxiety and an equally wide range of methods by which people have coped with their fears: through philosophy, art, religion, and bohemia. In his hallmark style, the author shows us how status instruction and solace can be found in some unusual places: in everything from fruit baskets to etiquette books, magazine recipe pages to office politics, comics to the communal experience of inspirational music.
Thought-provoking, wise, and eminently entertaining, Status Anxiety highlights de Botton's genius for finding the most unusual approach to the most unexpected but universal of subjects.
About the Author
Alain de Botton is the author of three previous works of fiction and three of nonfiction, including The Art of Travel, The Consolations of Philosophy, and How Proust Can Change Your Life (all available in paperback from Vintage Books). He lives in London.
Table of Contents
Prologue - Our Daydreams: Success, Ennui, and Envy
Part I - Creating the Good Life: Metamorphoses of the Ideal
1. Beyond Morality, After Religion
The New Age of the Question
2. The Meaning of the Question and the Slow Humanization of the Responses
Part II - The Nietzschean Moment: The Good Life as the Most Intense Life
3. On Transcendence as Supreme Illusion
The Twilight of the Idols, or How to Philosophize with a Hammer: The End of the World, the Death of God, and the Death of Man
4. The Foundations and Arguments of Nietzschean Materialism
5. The Wisdom of Nietzsche, or The Three Criteria of the Good Life
Truth in Art, Intensity in the Grand Style, Eternity in the Instant
6. After Nietzsche
Four Versions of Life after the Death of God: Daily Life, the Bohemian Life, the Life of Enterprise, or Life Freed from Alienation
Part III - The Wisdom of the Ancients: Life in Harmony with the Cosmic Order
7. Greek Wisdom, or The First Image of a Lay Spirituality
The Secularization of Salvation
8. The "Cosmologico-Ethical"
Power and the Charms of Moralities Inscribed in the Cosmos
9. An Ideal-Type of Ancient Wisdom
The Case of Stoicism
Part IV - The Here and Now Enchanted by the Beyond
10. Death Finally Conquered by Immortality
Philosophy Replaced by Religion
11. The Renascence of Lay Philosophy and the Humanization of the Good Life
Part V - A Humanism of the Man-God: The Good Life as a Life in Harmony with the Human Condition
12. Materialism, Religion, and Humanism
13. A New Approach to the Question of Happiness
A Conversation with Alain de Botton
What is status anxiety?
Status anxiety is a worry about our standing in the world, whether we’re going up or down, whether we’re winners or losers. We care about our status for a simple reason: because most people tend to be nice to us according to the amount of status we have – if they hear we’ve been promoted, there’ll be a little more energy in their smile, if we are sacked, they’ll pretend not to have seen us. Ultimately, we worry about having no status because we’re not good at remaining confident about ourselves if other people don’t seem to like or respect us very much. Our ‘ego’ or self-conception could be pictured as a leaking balloon, forever requiring external love to remain inflated and vulnerable to the smallest pinpricks of neglect: we rely on signs of respect from the world to feel acceptable to ourselves.
When does status anxiety kick in – presumably basic sustenance needs have to be fulfilled first?
While it would be unusual to be status anxious in a famine, history shows that as soon as societies go any way beyond basic subsistence, status anxieties quickly kick in. In the modern world, status anxiety starts when we compare our achievements with those of other people we consider to be our equals. We might worry about our status when we come across an enthusiastic newspaper profile of an acquaintance (it can destroy the morning), when a close friend reveals a piece of what they naively – or plain sadistically – call ‘good’ news (they have been promoted, they are getting married, they have reached the bestseller list) or when we are asked what we ‘do’ at a party by someone with a firm handshake who has recently floated their own start-up company.
Is status anxiety at its height in the early 21st century – and why is that?
Status anxiety is certainly worse than ever, because the possibilities for achievement (sexual, financial, professional) seem to be greater than ever. There are so many more things we expect if we’re not to judge ourselves ‘losers.’ We are constantly surrounded by stories of people who have made it. For most of history, an opposite assumption held sway: low expectations were viewed as both normal and wise. Only a very few ever aspired to wealth and fulfilment. The majority knew well enough that they were condemned to exploitation and resignation. Of course, it remains highly unlikely that we will today ever reach the pinnacle of society. It is perhaps as unlikely that we could rival the success of Bill Gates as that we could in the seventeenth century have become as powerful as Louis XIV. Unfortunately though, it no longer feels unlikely – depending on the magazines one reads, it can in fact seem absurd that one hasn’t already managed to have it all.
Could David Beckham, for example, suffer from status anxiety?
Of course he does – because he compares himself to his own peer group. We all do this, and that’s why we end up feeling we lack things even though we’re so much better off than people ever were in the past. It’s not that we’re especially ungrateful, it’s just we don’t judge ourselves in relation to people far away. We cannot be cheered for long by how prosperous we are in historical or geographical terms. We will only take ourselves to be fortunate when we have as much as, or more than, the people we grow up with, work alongside, have as friends and identify with in the public realm. That’s why the best way to feel successful is to choose friends who are just that little bit less successful than you…
What solutions are there to get us to stop worrying so much about status?
Think about death. It’s the best way to stop worrying so much about what others make of you. To discover whose friendship you should really care about, ask yourself who – among your acquaintances – would make it to your hospital bedside. If need be, look at a skeleton: what others think about you will soon start to lose its intimidating power.
From the Hardcover edition.
Review A Day
"For de Botton, the reason for engaging in philosophy is not to know more but to live better to gain a sense of proportion about life's little ironies and acquire thereby a certain immunity from the rage and passion that dance attendance on them. This is philosophy in the manner of Montaigne or Thomas Browne rather than Descartes or John Locke: a gentle stoicism reminding us that when things do not pan out as we would like, it may be better to amend our desires than to try changing the world." Jonathan Rée, The Times Literary Supplement
(read the entire Times Literary Supplement review
"In his new book, Alain de Botton does a fine thing: He harnesses his erudite take on self-help to the problem of fear and sorrow aroused in modern people by their relative position in society. He takes a seemingly unwieldy concept, gives it a name ('Status Anxiety'), treats it with a smattering of classic philosophy and art, and produces a book which is meant to enlighten as well as improve its readers." Anna Godbersen, Esquire
(read the entire Esquire review