by Alain de Botton
On Keeping Up with the Joneses
A review by Anna Godbersen
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. And while he draws, for the most part, on imperious works of the Western Canon, he treads always with a genial, almost facetious, tone, making his book at once a balm and a pleasure. Our desire for status, writes Botton, is "the story of our quest for love from the world." This is especially true in our contemporary society, he goes on, because we live in a meritocracy; in a feudal society, low social class seemed like a given, but today, we are more likely to blame our low status on our selves. In the first half of this book, de Botton details this and other reasons that our culture worships financial wealth and fame, and loathes poverty and obscurity. In the second half, he presents solutions, drawing on the many ways art, religion, and various other schools of thought invert value systems and allow for a more humanist sense of personal worth. He shows, for instance, how novels give nuance and understanding to flawed characters. Understanding, he writes, is "a first step towards an attempt to shift, or tug, at a society's ideals."
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