#CaseStudy Status Anxiety and the Question “What Do You Do?”

When you meet someone at a party, you should think twice before asking “what do you do?”–at least that is the message of a short video Alain de Botton did for The School of Life called Status Anxiety. His short video was a condensed version of his TED talk, A kinder, gentler philosophy of success, which was based on his book Status Anxiety, about which a three-part documentary has been made featuring Botton.

According to Botton, when you ask someone “what do you do?”, they may suffer from status anxiety. In the short video, Botton says, “we’re anxious because we live in a world of snobs–people who take one tiny part of us, our professional identities, and use these to come to a complete verdict about how valuable we are as humans.”

Of course, we could note Botton’s melodrama and object on the basis that if someone doesn’t want to spend time with you they haven’t necessarily, or likely, “come to a complete verdict about how valuable [you are as a human].” But, we’ll grant him that license since he has a different point to make.

Botton says that this is a condition that is peculiar to the “modern world.” He says, “Our societies are to a large extent deemed to be fair. Back in the olden days, you knew the system was totally rigged–it wasn’t your fault if you were a peasant, and not to your credit if you were the lord. But now we’re told that our societies are meritocracies, places where the rewards go to those who really merit them–the hard-working, clever, among us. It sounds lovely, but there is a nasty sting in the tale. If you really believe in a society where those at the top deserve to get there, that has to mean that those at the bottom deserve to be there too. Meritocracies make poverty seem not just unpleasant, but also somehow deserved.”

In the documentary, he describes it in terms of equality: “The modern world is based around the idea that we are all, essentially, equal. Not necessarily financially equal, but equal in terms of rights and opportunities. It’s a lovely idea which brings with it one nasty side effect: in a world in which you could believe that those at the top belonged to an inherently superior caste, you didn’t need to feel humiliated by anything you didn’t have. You might detest those who had more than you, but you didn’t need to feel ashamed or anxious. But in a world in which everyone is supposed to be equal, but where there is still a lot of inequality around, it’s hard not to take the achievements of others as an implicit reproach for everything you don’t have and haven’t done.” He says that “[t]he best place to go to understand all this, is the country where the idea of equality first took hold some 200 years ago: America.”

In the short video, he offers his first solution: “How can we cope? Well, first off, by refusing to believe that society ever can be meritocratic. Luck or accident continue to determine a critical share of where people end up in the hierarchy. Treat no one, not least yourself as though they entirely deserve to be where they are.”

Earlier, he had noted that “[w]e scarcely believe in luck nowadays anymore, as something that can explain where we end up. No one will believe you if you say you were fired because of bad luck. Your professional position has become the central verdict on your character. No wonder suicide rates rise exponentially the moment a society joins the so-called modern world.”

Machiavelli and the Lowering of Standards

At this point, we should note that there is a philosophical explanation for much of this that Botton has neglected. Niccolo Machiavelli, one of the first Renaissance philosophers, had a practical political goal that he wanted to see accomplished during his lifetime—he wanted the several countries then in Italy to be united by the Medici family and wrote his famous work The Prince exhorting them to accomplish just that. In it, he says, “since my intention is to write something useful for anyone who understands it, it seemed more suitable to me to search after the effectual truth of the matter rather than its imagined one. And many writers have imagined for themselves republics and principalities that have never been seen nor known to exist in reality; for there is such a gap between how one lives and how one ought to live that anyone who abandons what is done for what ought to be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation.”1

Leo Strauss says of him that “[t]here are two utterances of Machiavelli which indicate his broad intention with the greatest clarity. The first is to this effect: Machiavelli is in profound disagreement with the view of others regarding how a prince should conduct himself toward his subjects or friends; the reason for this disagreement is that he is concerned with the factual, practical truth and not with fancies… Machiavelli opposes to the idealism of traditional political philosophy a realistic approach to political things. But this is only half of the truth (or in other words his realism is of a peculiar kind). The other half is stated by Machiavelli in these terms: fortuna is a woman who can be controlled by the use of force. To understand the bearing of these two utterances, one must remind oneself of the fact that classical political philosophy was a quest for the best political order, or the best regime as a regime most conducive to the practice of virtue or of how men should live, and that according to classical political philosophy the establishment of the best regime depends necessarily on uncontrollable, elusive fortuna or chance. According to Plato’s Republic, e.g., the coming into being of the best regime depends on the coincidence, the unlikely coming together, of philosophy and political power. The so-called realist Aristotle agrees with Plato in these two most important respects: the best regime is the order most conducive to the practice of virtue, and the actualization of the best regime depends on chance. For according to Aristotle the best regime cannot be established if the proper matter is not available, i.e., if the nature of the available territory and of the available people is not fit for the best regime; whether or not that matter is available depends in no way on the art of the founder, but on chance. Machiavelli seems to agree with Aristotle by saying that one cannot establish the desirable political order if the matter is corrupt, i.e., if the people is corrupt; but what for Aristotle is an impossibility is for Machiavelli only a very great difficulty: the difficulty can be overcome by an outstanding man who uses extraordinary means in order to transform a corrupt matter into a good matter; that obstacle to the establishment of the best regime which is man as matter, the human material, can be overcome because that matter can be transformed.”2

Strauss describes Machiavelli’s solution as “lowering the ought, by conceiving of the ought as not making too high demands on men, or as being in agreement with man’s most powerful and most common passion.”3 Strauss’s view is that, through Hobbes, Machiavelli’s break from Classical philosophy became typical of Modern political thought. In Modern thought, it is believed that an ideal society can actually exist, whereas in Classical thought, an ideal society was a goal that was considered as a reference for what actually happens. For a nice illustration, I had a great piano teacher that was very picky about how well I played scales. After some time of strict criticism, she let me in on a secret: no one can ever play a “perfect scale.” The point is to have perfection in mind so that you can accurately judge what actually exists, even if perfection is unachievable.

This lowering of standards is one idea that should be considered the Noble Lie that enabled the fantastic development of modernity. It contributed to the philosophical justification for property rights and to bourgeois revolutions based on the notion of human equality, and, which, once generally achieved, led to the popular notion that society considers itself to be fair, which Botton says causes status anxiety.

Can People Create Their Own Values?

Now that we have provided an explanation for why luck, or ‘fate’ as it is often called in philosophy, is thought about so poorly in modernity, we will see how well Botton does discussing it.

In the short video, Botton suggests a second way that people can cope with status anxiety. He says, “make up your own definition of success instead of uncritically leaning on society’s. There are so many ways to succeed and so many of them have nothing to do with status as it is currently defined in the value system of industrial capitalism.”

To this end, Botton has a segment on Bohemianism late in the three-part documentary. He says, “Bohemians don’t necessarily set out to abolish status altogether, merely to insist that it be distributed according to their own rules.” Also, “Bohemians pose an important question for us. Who are we going to get to judge us? Whose opinions should we give weight to? We can learn from the Bohemians that status is available from a variety of sources. Above all, from our friends. Our choice of audience can be our own.” Finally, “[b]eing a Bohemian isn’t about having a certain kind of job, income or even house. It’s about a way of looking at the world. In the words of the children’s writer, Arthur Ransome, ‘Bohemia isn’t a place, it’s a state of mind.’ And what that state of mind boils down to is a spirit of independence and freedom, a commitment to live by your own values.”

But, Botton doesn’t acknowledge the role that fate has played in the development of these people’s lives. They didn’t dispassionately choose their values from among all of the possible choices. It is quite likely that an analysis of their lives would show that their having the values that they “chose” was a quite likely result of their experiences, many of which they had little or no control over. Myself, for instance, I say in the Mission Statement for this Abraham Lincoln website that it is my boho dance. But, crediting me with having my own rules is more than I deserve—it is clear to me that I am the product of my experiences. If I had lived in another country, or 20 years earlier, or another century, or changed any other among countless variables, I would be very different, especially with regard to particulars like what I value from other people.

It is because of considerations like this that, in the debut writing for this website, Classical Philosophy > Classical Liberalism, I rejected Locke’s characterization that “a Swiss and an Indian in the woods of [17th century America]” are in a state of nature. They are nevertheless members of a political society since they are, after all, a Swiss and an Indian. They show up with the experience of being from very different environments. It is not clear why this should be different for a Bohemian. This is all because man is, as Aristotle says, a political animal. This is considered at some length in the aforementioned debut writing. Suffice it to say here that man is distinguished from other animals by his ability to speak. But, since other animals can express what is pleasant or painful, speaking about those things isn’t what distinguishes man. Rather, man is distinguished by his ability to discuss how to live well. I often put it that man is characterized by speech but a man can’t create his own first language and is necessarily assimilated into some sort of group in the process. Strauss says of the Classical conception of justice as the common good par excellence that “Aristotle goes to the end of this road by asserting that the political association is by nature and that man is by nature political because he is the being characterized by speech or reason and thus capable of the most perfect, the most intimate union with his fellows which is possible: the union in pure thought.”4

One of the people that Botton interviews about Bohemianism is Virginia Nicholson, the granddaughter of Virginia Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell. She says about Woolf’s Bohemian clique, “I think the core values were about living for art and rejecting materialism. Rejecting the bourgeoisie. Rejecting everything that they saw the bourgeoisie as standing for. They believed in truth… These ideas of true living, true loving and a great questioning of everything: Why can’t we do things differently? Why can’t we have different kinds of sexual relationships? Why can’t we paint our houses in different colours? Why can’t we dress differently? So, it is about breaking rules and giving themselves a sense of validation, in a way, by doing that.” Never is it mentioned that such anti-bourgeois cliques in the beginning of the 20th century resulted from a broad cultural impulse.

He also interviews Penny Rimbaud and Gee Vaucher, members of an anarchopunk music and art collective. Botton asks Vaucher, “So you really have, in a way, managed to completely uncouple yourself from concerns about status?” Gee says, “I don’t even understand…. I mean, when I say: ‘I don’t understand the meaning of the word,’ I mean I understand in the ‘dictionary’ sense… [but] I can’t comprehend it.” And yet, the segment with these two began with both of them criticizing how most people live their lives. Vaucher had said, “The whole idea of ownership is just so utterly vulgar. Why would one want to own anything? This is my car. Big deal! It looks much like someone else’s my car. Everyone’s got a my and what does it reflect? Nothing, except, you know, what Volvo said you ought to have.” Rimbaud had said, “They buy the lie. They do buy the lie, of the new car every year, of the house that you have to own. I really feel that people have been robbed of life, I really do feel they have been robbed of the freedom of choice, the freedom of understanding and enjoying the world that we live in in its infinite, and infinite beauty. People have been robbed and they have been sold this lie hook, line and sinker.” His values certainly call to mind the earlier account of Virginia Woolf’s clique, and it is easy to imagine such people having standards at a party that would make some people uncomfortable.

One of the important ways to read Plato’s Republic is to consider that the work is meant to pose the questions that are inevitably addressed by society—even if haphazardly and by fate. For instance, he emphasizes the impact of stories told to children because stories are told to children and people are very affected by the messages of these stories. This should remind us of Aristotle’s political animal. Bohemians necessarily tell their children stories, and they themselves were necessarily told stories when they were children. It seems as though another question that society will necessarily address is, “what should you ask people when you meet them at parties?” It seems as though society will necessarily consider some ways of life to be preferable to others and will necessarily make some people uncomfortable at parties.

Conclusion

Botton’s third suggestion in his short video for coping with status anxiety is either meaningless or redundant, so we won’t deal with it. But, do we have any suggestions for coping? Mainly, that luck doesn’t really rule out greatness. People having their opportunities because of luck doesn’t rule out the possibility of meritocracy. The notion otherwise is essentially the notion of checking privilege instead of imitating privilege. The idea of equal opportunity is in a conflict with the idea that people should provide the best opportunities that they can for their children. I didn’t look exhaustively, but apparently, in the US, approximately 60 percent of children living in single-mother homes live in poverty, compared with 11 percent in two parent households. People should be told that it may be that the best that you will do if you work hard and live well is provide better opportunities for your children.

With regard to parties, Dennis Prager has a great line that people should date for friends just like they date for spouses. If you are not successful, you are not successful along with a lot of other people and you can spend time with them. Conversely, if you want to spend time with more successful people, you just have to be interesting. Dennis Prager also has a line that, when his children were young and told him they were bored, he would say “no, you’re not bored, you’re boring.” He notes that it is very strange to live in modern society and be bored, although I’m sure he would admit that it is common.

F O O T N O T E S

1. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince XV, translated by Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa

2. Leo Strauss, Political Philosophy: Six Essays by Leo Strauss, “The Three Waves of Modernity”

3. ibid

4. Leo Strauss, The City and Man, p16-17

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