Alain De Botton is the Luis Vuitton of philosophy. To the world of Academia, he is a tad vulgar and obvious. But he is something of a celebrity, with a Channel Four series and six previous books to his name, including the intriguingly titled ‘How Proust Can Change Your Life’. Self Help for the High Brow, his USP is his ability to dumb down and disseminate wisdom that runs the gamut from Aristotle to Zen. And he’s cute to boot.
‘Every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories,’ De Botton writes in his latest book ‘Status Anxiety’. ‘The first, the quest for sexual love. The second, the quest for love from the world. The second is a more secret and shameful tale. But it is no less intense a love affair than the first.’
The truth is that we all want to be loved. It is as fundamental to our nature as humans to seek love as it is to seek food and shelter. And in trying to be the most famous, glamorous or rich, what we are really saying to the world is simply ‘Love me, please.’ Money can’t buy you love, neither can fame, beauty or fortune. But that doesn’t stop us hoping that it can. Wishing we could go beyond the velvet rope into the VIP area. And using our credit cards to buy the necessary gear.
Modern advertising, De Botton says, is designed to convince us that if we are not yet lovable, it’s simply because we haven’t got the right body, the right car, the right clothes, the right wrinkle cream. We may sneer at the notion that Manolo Blahniks can make someone fall in love with us, but there is a part of us that believes it to be true.
Being Bill Gates or Madonna doesn’t guarantee true love, but it does guarantee something very valuable. It guarantees respect.
‘Perhaps we could define love as a kind of respect,’ Alain De Botton says, as he shakes my hand at the Shelbourne, and I size him up for status. I see a tall, anonymously dressed (Gap chinos?) chap with impish eyes and a receding hairline which betrays his brainpower and belies his youth (he’s thirty four, but could pass for fortyish.) ‘To be shown love is to feel ourselves the object of concern. Our presence is noted, our name is registered, our views are listened to.’
It doesn’t take a moron to figure out that Madonna’s presence is going to be noticed far more than that of an ordinary shop assistant. And to spot that when Tony Blair comes to visit Ireland, it is to Bono’s house he is whisked, not to the humble hovel of Fergus from Finglas. The VIPs can rely on the rest of us to give them money, laugh at their jokes, fancy them and shower them with free clothes and handbags. Equally, the ‘nobodies’ can depend on society to look down on them and let them stew in their own shame.
‘What has happened,’ says Alain, as we sip tea in our high status hotel, ‘is that we are entering a world of universal envy. And the media has a lot to do with that, by constantly rubbing our noses in it. And writing about the life stories of the rich and famous.’
There was a time, he says, when there wasn’t any shame in being poor. If God made you that way, it wasn’t your fault. And the class system of old was such that no matter how much money you made, you were still stuck with the station you were born into. Once a nob, always a nob, once a peasant, always a peasant. Life was tough at the bottom, but there was less anxiety because you didn’t believe you could do anything about it. Now that we live in a so-called meritocracy, things are very different. And if you don’t rise to the top of the heap, you have nobody to blame but yourself. If Jade Goody can do it, anybody can.
‘Anybody can be anything they want to be,’ that’s what we are being told,’ says Alain. ‘This kind of thing plays havoc with our antennae for envy! In static village societies, those antennae would be relatively calm. But living in big cities, surrounded by the media, our antennae are going haywire.’
In some societies, being ordinary is okay. It’s quite nice, in Norway. There’s not much difference between the standard of living of the rich and the poor. But nowadays, an ordinary Dubliner can’t afford a house. You have to win the lottery, to get one in D4. And you wont have any change.
‘That hugely increases people’s motivation to get high status,’ Alain says. ‘And modern advertising is designed to make us unhappy. Its very cruel.’
We feel ashamed of our low status, but we can never achieve the perfect body, the perfect career, the perfect lifestyle, because it is designed to be just out of reach, in order to keep us spending. The problem is that we have become accustomed to judging ourselves by false standards, and according to research, our rise in income has been accompanied by a rise in status anxiety, which means we are far less happy than we were, when we were poor. But we continually look to celebrities to be our role models for happiness.
‘The ten percent of the population that are happy are the ones you never hear about,’ he says. ‘They never appear in magazines! By it’s very nature, celebrity is an admittance of inadequacy. A need to be admired and adored by the masses betrays a deep rooted insecurity.’
Which brings me right back to where I started, in The Priory. Even though some of us are aware that inward happiness doesn’t come from outward glamour, De Botton says, we don’t yet act on that information and pursue therapy instead of Ferraris and fake tan.
‘We are not given the tools, in our education system to deal with modern life,’ he says. ‘We still learn too much about geology and not about self mastery, self control, self knowledge,’
This is where he comes in.
‘In ancient Greece, that was the task of philosophy. Now it’s self-help books. But the problem is that they are incredibly patronising, very simplistic and badly written. In my view, one of the best ways to cheer people up is to go ‘yeah, life is terrible isn’t it?’ Christianity always said that being human is imperfect, and for me that is a deeply relaxing idea.’
The first Noble Truth is that life is full of suffering, I say.
‘Exactly. If you live by the idea that life has to be perfect, you are permanently gonna feel like you’re at the wrong party.’
The answer that he puts forward to this chronic problem of low self esteem is a very simple one. If you feel poorer than your peers, move to a downscale neighbourhood and make even poorer friends.
‘To take your own self esteem always from the esteem in which you are held in by others is a really dangerous path,’ he says. ‘A recipe for disaster. That’s what happens to celebrities, suddenly they don’t sell any records and they feel worthless and commit suicide!’
We have to judge ourselves by what we think and not by what other people think, he says. And we must look to art and philosophy and spirituality to help us find happiness inside ourselves. We must, as Gandhi said, ‘Be the Change’ and influence the rest of the world.
Alain De Botton has already influenced the world. But he is, himself, a celebrity and therefore not immune to Status Anxiety, he freely admits.
‘If I thought that I was the only person to suffer with this, I wouldn’t have written a book. I would have gone to see a shrink. But I realised that what I feel is similar to what other people feel.’
There are many reasons why writers are prone to status anxiety, he says.
‘First of all, because of ambition. No one starts writing because they want to be a mediocre writer. We compare ourselves to Saul Bellow and Proust! And it is a deeply insecure job, you can have a hit one minute and a failure the next. There is absolutely no guarantee of success at any age.’
It is always easier to command respect with a cut glass accent and De Botton has enunciation to die for.
He’s just wiped the floor with Pat Kenny on the radio without drawing breath.
His sounds neutral, but well bred. He was in born in Switzerland, (the name is Spanish) and his parents emigrated to England when he was twelve. At Cambridge, he studied philosophy. While writing his PHD, it occurred to him that he did not want to grow up to be an academic, closeted from the real world. He wanted to make a difference.
‘What I’ve tried to do with my books is to explore the problems of everyday life, but to point out that a lot of what were feeling now has got roots in the past,’ he says.
The novel ‘Essays in Love’, was a big success in Germany. He followed it with a steady stream of increasingly well received work and did some television and radio. Gradually he has reached a level where he is recognised in the street. He isn’t sure how comfortable he is with this.
‘Celebrity makes you paranoid and it unbalances you,’ he says. ‘The machine just chews people up so it can drop them and move onto the next person. I guess I don’t want to make that happen to me.’
I recognised Alain immediately, even though I don’t remember seeing his TV programme. He has a memorable face. Is he image conscious? I asked.
‘ I don’t place any of my status in relation to clothes or appearance,’ he says. I suspect he’s bluffing.
Does that mean you’ll wear anything? I ask.
‘I always wear Gap trousers, I have ten pairs! I don’t invest myself in my clothes,’ he insists.
But he wouldn’t wear a pink shell suit, if I asked him to, he confesses. And he drives a Golf. That’s a statement in itself, I say. That’s saying ‘I’m not flash, I’m sensible’.
‘It is a statement,’ he agrees. ‘It basically says I’m so special I don’t care what car I have!”
Which beautifully sums up the only real cure for Status Anxiety. Which is to re-write the rules so that the car you drive is the right car to be driving and the party you are invited to is the best place to be seen.