© 2004 Alain de Botton
Who said “comparison is the thief of joy”? If they hadn’t, Alain de Botton would, as here he argues that most of our misery comes from the constant comparison of ourselves to others — to their lives, their wealth, their accomplishments. A book addressing that — marshaling philosophy, art, and religion to diagnose and combat the problem — is arrestingly relevant these days, as it’s never been easier to compare ourselves with our friends, our neighbors, and the people who we went to high school with and who are doing so much more with their lives than we are. That said, however, it’s incomplete, treating the human concern for status as something wholly new, something spawned by modern economies and the decline of religious perspectives which once reminded us again and again that we are more than the sum of our parts, that our true valuation lies in something else — like our being created in the image of God, for instance, and possessing inherent dignity. (It should be noted that de Botton is not himself a believer in any creed; he simply appreciates the strengths of religiosity for people and societies, and is presently engaged in creating a secular substitution he calls the School of Life. It sounds a bit like one of those things participants describe, then add “But it’s not a cult.”) My chief gripe here is that I believe concern for status stems not from economy, but from biology, and de Botton never goes near this. If chimpanzees constantly wrestle for status within their tribes, it’s not a farfetched idea to me that humans do something like that as well, and that this instinct has been made a constant obsession by the factors he mentions. That said, I rather liked de Botton’s prescriptions, from Stoic philosophy to an engagement with music, literature, and other art that reminds us of our common frailty. He’s still one of my favorite people to read, with a graceful pen and a thoughtful mind.