Her house is bigger, his wife is prettier ...
We don't envy everybody - just our friends
Alain de Botton has created a nice little literary niche for himself, setting up shop as something of a general intellectual authority explaining Proust, dissecting what travel means to the contemporary elite, and now analyzing the travails of anxiety. But this isn't just your average, everyday anxiety about getting to work on time or remembering a birthday - no, that wouldn't be interesting enough for a mind such as de Botton's.
What we're dealing with here, in a typically de Bottonesque romp through centuries of Western literature and philosophy, is a study of a kind of meta-anxiety born of two all-too-human emotions: envy and the need to be loved.
What we're most anxious about, according to his reading of contemporary culture, is being left behind in the mad dash for prestige and possessions. We're obsessed with climbing up the social ladder, and are gripped with feelings of inadequacy as we see those around us upgrade to nicer homes, land more respected jobs, and engage in what we think are happier relationships than we enjoy. "Anxiety is the handmaiden of contemporary ambition," he writes.
But this envy isn't random. It's targeted at what is most familiar to us. "Given the vast inequalities we are daily confronted with, the most notable feature of envy may be that we manage not to envy everyone," de Botton says. "We envy only those whom we feel ourselves to be like - we envy only members of our reference group. There are few successes more unendurable than those of our ostensible equals."
As you'd expect from a man who wrote "The Consolations of Philosophy" (2000), an intellectual walking tour of six great minds in the history of philosophy and how their contributions can help us in our everyday life, "Status Anxiety" is full of great obscure literary and philosophical references.
Breaking the book up into two sections, "Causes" and "Solutions," he mixes a thumbnail sketch of the evolution of individual rights and capitalism in the West with a more prescriptive element drawn from philosophy and the arts.
Along the way, he even manages to pull out some darkly comic lines out of his bag: "Rather than a tale of greed, then, the history of luxury goods may more accurately be read as a record of emotional trauma."
If you laugh at a jab like this, then you're the person de Botton is writing for. But if that line sounds to you like something culled from a midcentury Marxist critique of capitalism, don't fret, that's not necessarily what de Botton is after here.
While capitalism is a big piece of the puzzle, he digs a little deeper (though not much). He puts the onus on the Enlightenment's critique of reason for inventing the concepts of individualism and equality that have forced democratic governments to "justify their existence only by promoting possibilities for prosperity and happiness among all those governed." In other words, reason, free will, equality, and democracy have ganged up on us to unchain human ambition to such an extent that we often blame only ourselves for our failure to succeed.
De Botton sets out five possible cures to scratch the itch of despondency and envy: philosophy, art, politics, Christianity, and bohemia. A pretty heady mix of cures, to be sure. Only a few (those whom George Bush might call "the elite") would ever try to use philosophy, art, or a retreat into bohemia to right the ship of their bruised psyche. And nonChristians, mentioned only in passing, apparently must struggle longer with green seething.
What de Botton fails to admit is that while people may use the rationality of philosophy or the celebration of difference and inner morality found in literature to steel themselves against the baser, more brutal forces of acquisition, it's difficult to live within the comforting worlds of abstraction. That isn't to say the book doesn't succeed in other areas. While de Botton may not have found the cure for anxiety over our place in the world, he has still produced a witty, highly literate account of those slings and arrows that keep us up at night.
• Paul McLeary is a freelance writer in New York.