Notes from Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety (2004). This is the tenth post on this topic; the first is here.
PART II: Solutions
CHAPTER 4 – RELIGION
Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan llyich (1886) is a Christian memento mori. Ivan Ilyich is all about status. When he realises he’s going to die, he recognises he’s wasted his time on Earth by leading an outwardly respectable but inwardly barren life. He always wanted to appear important and to impress people whom, he sees now, don’t care for him at all. Those around him love his status, not his true vulnerable self.
The prospect of death may cause us to do what matters most to us and to pay less attention to the verdicts of others. We see we cannot “afford to defer forever, for the sake of propriety, our underlying commitments to ourselves.”
Ruins! They comfort us, reveal our “punishingly high-minded sense of the gravity of what we are doing,” our own exaggerated self-importance. Our miseries are tied to the grandiosity of our ambitions.
We all have the same vulnerabilities and the same two driving forces: fear, and a desire for love.
The Christian would say that there is no such thing as a stranger, “only an impression of strangeness born of failure to acknowledge that others share both our needs and our weaknesses.”
Christianity attempts to enhance the value we place on community — through ritual (a transcendent intermediary) and through music (great leveller and social alchemist — we see that others respond as we do, which forges connection).
Jesus is the model for Christians’ understanding of status. He has two different sides, as ordinary carpenter and as the holiest of men. We can see the difference between earthly status (determined by occupation, income, others’ opinions) and spiritual status (related to one’s soul and merits in God’s eyes).
The City of God, Augustine, 427 AD: All human action can be interpreted from either the Christian or the Roman (earthly) perspective, which are different. Christian status derives from humility, generosity, recognition of one’s dependence on God, etc.
Divine Comedia, Dante, 1315: Dante’s Hell is home to many who enjoyed high status while they lived.
Christian lore asserts the superiority of spiritual over material success and endows its virtues with “a seductive seriousness and beauty” through music, art, literature, architecture, etc. “Through its command of aesthetic resources, of buildings, paintings and Masses, Christianity created a bulwark against the authority of earthly values and kept its spiritual concerns in the public eye.”
Heydey of cathedrals, 1130-1530.
Christianity never abolished the Earthly City or its values, but that we retain any distinction between wealth and virtue is largely due to the impression left on Western consciousness by Christianity.