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In Hamburg in 1834, a handsome young army officer, Baron von Trautmansdorf, challenged a fellow officer, Baron von Ropp, to a duel over a poem that von Ropp had written and circulated among friends about von Trautmansdorf’s moustache, stating that it was thin and floppy and hinting that this might not be the only part of con Trautmansdorf’s physique imbued with such qualities. . . thw two men met in a field in a Hamburg suburb early on a March morning. Both were carrying swords, both were short of their thirtieth birthdays, both died in the ensuing fight (115).

“Dueling symbolizes,” writes Alain de Botton, in his work of popular philosophy, Status Anxiety, “a radical incapacity to believe that our status might be our business, something we decide and do not revise according to the shifting judgments of our audience. For the dueller, what other people think of him will be the only factor in settling what he may think of himself” (116). I have been meaning to read de Botton’s book since it first appeared in 2004 — and have had even less of an excuse since finding it on the $1 cart at the brookline booksmith this past fall. So this week, as a break from the dense fictional narrative of Anathem and the ethical psychology of Erich Fromm, I finally pulled it off the shelf and read it in an afternoon.

Like de Botton’s other books (such as The Art of Travel and The Consolations of Philosophy), Status Anxiety takes a human experience or feeling and draws on the writings of philosophers, intellectuals, and artists to explore how human beings in diverse times and places have responded. In this case, the topic de Botton tackles it the question of what we make of what other people think of us, and how we measure the success or failure of our lives by the opinions of others.

The first half of the book details the “causes” of status anxiety, the second half it’s “cures,” or antidotes that people in different times and places have found effective in combating the anxiety of not meeting the expectations of others: philosophy (big surprise), art, politics (more below), Christianity (which could be expanded to religious traditions more broadly), and “bohemia.” Although de Botton’s narrative is, per his usual style, more anecdotal than argumentative, he offers a lot of food for thought.

For example: political consciousness, de Botton argues, serves to denaturalize whatever framework a given time and place has decided to use when judging someone’s social status — and ultimately their success and failure as a human being. “What the political perspective seeks above all is an understanding of ideology, to reach a point where ideology is denaturalized and defused through analysis–so that we may exchange a puzzled, depressed response to it for a clear-eyed, genealogical grasp of its sources and effects” (222). What he calls “political consciousness” here I would argue is more accurately historical consciousness: the knowledge that that which appears “normal” in one time and place is, in fact, contextual — and thus, it can be changed.

Likewise, while resistance to status anxiety often turns on our ability to self-determine whether we are a success or failure, the extent to which this resistance works is often related to the strength of alternative communities and friendships with which we have allied ourselves–whether they are religious (Christian), political (feminist) or cultural (bohemian, artistic, etc.). In fact, reading the “solutions” half of Status Anxiety the book reminded me of a paper I wrote in undergrad on pacifism during the American Civil War. I was interested in how men who chose to resist enlistment in the military defended their decision to practice nonviolence — and particularly how they understood themselves in relation to the mainstream concepts of manhood and masculinity, which were so deeply connected to participation in the war. What I discovered was that the men who resisted were most likely to be part of religious sects that practiced nonviolence, and had developed an alternative vision of what manliness entailed — a vision of manhood that actually supported, rather than conflicted with, a pacifist life.

Despite the anecdotal feeling of the book, I found de Botton as charming and thought-provoking as ever. I think it is particularly useful, in a world that is currently so preoccupied with economic concerns, to remember that material worth, though undeniably important for well-being in some respects, is not in any way analogous to moral worth. And that, if we care about having a life worth living, being mindful of what kind of success we actually wish to aspire to, and why, is a deeply relevant line of inquiry.

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