Evasive Erudition

Alex lent me the book Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton. Botton exudes erudition, overflowing with fancy words and prestigious literary examples. But he also illustrates a common problem with such erudition: Botton hardly has any analysis.

This at least makes Botton easy to summarize. First, he says it can be very stressful to worry about status. Second, he says the situation is worse today because before folks weren’t so overtly compared to people close to them, while today most folks work in large heavily-ranked organizations. When anyone can grow up to be President, the fact that you didn’t can make you feel worse.

Third and finally, Bottom takes great comfort from the fact we have several competing status hierarchies, some of which “question” others. Instead of trying to be rich, you can instead try to be a great artist, comedian, saint, or bohemian:

Standing witness to hidden lives, novels may act as conceptual counterweights to dominant hierarchical realities. They can reveal that the maid now busying herself with lunch is a creatures of rare sensitivity and moral greatness, while the baron who laughs raucously and owns a silver mind has a heart both withered and acrid. …

A mature solution to status anxiety may be said to begin with the recognition that status is available from, and awarded by, a variety of different audiences – industrialists, bohemians, families, philosophers – and that our choice among them may be free and willed. However unpleasant anxiety over status must be, it is difficult to image a good life entirely free of them, for the fear of failing and disgracing oneself in the eyes of others is an inevitable consequences of harboring ambitions. … Status anxiety may be defined as problematic only insofar as it is inspired by values that we uphold because we are terrified and preternaturally obedient, … because we have grown too imaginably timid to conceive of alternatives.

Philosophy, art, politics, religion, and bohemia … institute new kinds of hierarchies based on sets of values unrecognized by, and critical of, those of the majority. … They have helped to lend legitimacy to those who, in every generation, may be unable to unwilling to comply dutifully with the dominant notions of high status.

But what exactly is the advantage of being in the top 4% for one of five key rankings, instead of the top 20% for a single common ranking.  Botton doesn’t even consider this question.  Tyler suggests we prefer to fool ourselves by overemphasizing the importance of the rankings where we excel. But why is this better than just fooling yourself about your common ranking, or how much ranking matters?

I suspect what is really going on here is that Botton was anxious when he rated only moderately well on the “majority” ranking, but was then relieved to see he ranked fantastically high on certain “non-majority” rankings. “Whew,” said Botton, “This makes my implicit overall ranking much better.”  Alas such comfort isn’t available to most folk.

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  • Marcus

    Such comfort *is* available to most folk…all folk. It’s the corporate body that is the forced one and is only really wonderful for douches and alphas. Did you write not so long ago about gangs and tribalism? My ex-wife is from National City California near Tijuana, now there’s a wealth of subcultures full of many subtle social cul de sacs for comfort.

  • Marcus

    Or did you mean financial & academic comfort only 😉

  • I have a post on how the common currencies between hierarchies
    here. In it I take Will Wilkinson to task for one of the worst examples ever used to make a point.

  • Social hierarchy morality plays are what the modern world is about, so excelling in a sub tribe gives some people hope and purpose whereas being mediocre in the greater tribe of nation or even all humanity is not enough to do so.

    Others understand that as a species we generally muddle our way towards the greater good by accident of those conflicting tribes rather than by reason and purpose. At best even those who are wholly rational individuals can only hope to influence these groups towards better ends, so my time is spent observing tribes and trying to influence at the right moments rather than towards climbing hierarchies. I’m happy with my personal mediocrity but will do what I can to influence others to do better.

  • Philo

    De Botton writes: “Standing witness to hidden lives, novels may act as conceptual counterweights to dominant hierarchical realities.” Well, how much “witness” do we need? I know, by introspection, about *my* “hidden life,” and of course other people have comparable “hidden lives.” Novels may remind us of this, but it was already obvious.

    And what do I learn from a novel, in de Botton’s example? That a poor person (ranked low in the wealth hierarchy) may be good (ranked high in the virtue hierarchy) and a rich person may be bad. Again, stunningly obvious.

    Of course, no one takes wealth to be the dominant, “all-in” hierarchy; there are so many other desirable or admirable personal characteristics besides being rich that I won’t even begin to list them. I do not know how these should be combined into a single overall measure of personal value (comprising both intrinsic features and circumstantial ones), which is the only hierarchy about one’s place in which he *should be* concerned.

    If I notice that I rank low in this “all-in” hierarchy, perhaps I should be spurred to try to improve my rank. But then shouldn’t I be making similar efforts even if I believe I rank high? Why ever be satisfied, if there is room for improvement?

  • Coincidentally, I was just reading in “The Horse, the Wheel and Language” about an example of the appeal of being the client of a higher-status person in a relatively hierarchical society relative to being a nobody in a wealthier and relatively egalitarian one.

  • Vladimir M.

    One problem with arguments such as de Botton’s is the fact that these “alternative” status hierarchies ultimately depend on the conventional hierarchies of money and power to achieve their recognition. You get to be a high-status artist not because you’re recognized as such by your fellow artists, but because other high-status people are inclined to admire (and buy) your art. Without that, your high status among artists would matter about as much as the status of the most dominant member of a group of homeless folks standing around a barrel fire.

    Groups with a truly autonomous and independent internal status hierarchy will likely be seen by the outside world as nerdy, weird, and at worst dangerous and threatening. Having high status in some such group is likely to be a net negative for your life prospects by conventional measures, unless you somehow manage to translate it into a regular status gain (e.g. by profiting from it financially).

    • Vladimir M.

      That said, I should add that historically, there have been societies in which true parallel hierarchies of status existed, and some remnants of them still exist in the contemporary West. However, they are definitely not of the sort that modern intellectual types like and admire. What I have in mind are insular religious communities such as the Amish or Orthodox Jews. Among those, one can truly have a status rank genuinely independent of the mainstream society, without it being some nerdy pursuit that nobody important cares about or some odd cultish thing. Also, in many places, increasing non-Western immigration in more recent times has given rise to additional communities of this sort.

      Similar parallel hierarchies used to exist within the larger religious and ethnic groups and their churches and social organizations, but the size and importance of those have greatly diminished in recent decades.

      • Jehu

        The key thing about the alternate status hierarchies you mention is that they have their own organic supplies of mates who recognize the hierarchy. Being an uber-Amish means that all the Amish girls want to be your wife…and I don’t believe they’ve any shortage of Amish girls (Amish romances are really huge for some reason right now in both Christian and regular romance fiction circles). If your circle has a pretty balanced gender ratio it can have a meaningful totally independent status hierarchy from society as a whole.

  • Status is about value.

  • Roger

    The 5 factors he chose are irrelevant to me (and I assume most other commenters). The point is that they are valuable to him. It is not delusional to value status in areas that are important to you, even if that is being the top hobo at the barrel fire.

    I will grant that part of what we find value in is tied in to a feedback loop of what we have tended to do well at. But that isn’t delusional, it is enjoying finding success in challenging and rewarding ways.

    I do not believe there is anything like a single “all in” or “common” hierarchy. If someone could discover a “majority” ranking or hierarchy, who cares? Each of us has our own values and it certainly doesn’t “ultimately depend on the conventional hierarchies of money and power to achieve their recognition.” And I certainly don’t know how we are going to determine the objective and “regular” net value of of “life prospects by conventional measures.”

    I thought we were trying to “Overcome Bias.”

  • noematic

    Perhaps we not only prefer to fool ourselves by overemphasizing the importance of the rankings in which we excel but overestimate the degree to which we believe others will rank the hierarchies in the same order. In this way, the preferred hierarchy and the common hierarchy are conflated (resulting in the belief of a higher position in the common hierarchy than would actually be the case).

  • Vladimir M.


    What you say is accurate, but it’s not limited to just women. For example, as far as I understand, among Orthodox Jews, a prominent rabbi has status and influence of the sort wielded in the mainstream society by Harvard professors, high court judges, and New York Times columnists — his authority will be called upon to decide serious disputes, his pronunciations will greatly influence what gets to be considered as respectable opinion on all sorts of topics, serious and successful people will look up to him as a source of wisdom and inspiration, and so on. And this status is entirely independent of the aforementioned mainstream status hierarchies, and limited to this particular community.

    In contrast, the supposedly parallel status hierarchies discussed in the above excerpt from de Botton offer nothing of this sort.

  • Translation: “I’m a nerd interested in status, and I resent that a non-nerd like de Botton is getting all this attention by using status-markers like erudition rather than the kind of status-markers people like me tend to use, like peppering my “analysis” with made-up numbers.”

    Or put it another way: de Botton is a humanist which means he’s writing for and about humans; Hanson is an econo-nerd who views himself and his audience as abstract utility optimizing engines who want to know how their algorithms work. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the latter approach (as long as you don’t mistake your models for reality), but you can’t complain (well, you can, but you shouldn’t be surprised) if most humans don’t find it particularly interesting and thus not as deserving of high status.

  • Robert Speirs

    Gee, I wish I had a silver mind.