A novelist (Kiss and Tell, 1996, etc.) with a flair for gleaning self-help from across the ages (The Consolations of Philosophy, 2000) cleverly deconstructs and demystifies that sinking feeling of material inferiority.
First of all, the author insists, this is not all our fault. For almost two millennia society actually celebrated the poor who were—fortunately for society—locked down in place on the agrarian, feudal landscape doing its dirtiest and most essential jobs. Comes industry, capitalism, and upward mobility, and suddenly it’s the rich who dominate the “meritocracy” they rigged in the first place based on the constant that society is more likely to reward the appearance of merit than merit itself. While defining the toll taken on the human psyche by constant uncertainty of where one stands or is trending, de Botton amusingly stresses that the real problem is the presumed need to find external reflections of one’s own self-worth. In a historic breakout, he notes, hundreds of thousands of Europeans died in duels attempting to either retain or regain sense of self as affirmed in the opinions of others: “In Paris in 1678, for example, one man killed another who had said his apartment was tasteless; in Florence in 1702 a literary man took the life of a cousin who had accused him of not understanding Dante.” The problem posed, the author commences potential solutions with the idea of settling into a stance of “intelligent misanthropy” as adopted by some of the greatest philosophers in the Western tradition, which is free of both defensiveness and pride. (A key adjunct: public opinion, as such, is rarely rational, therefore hardly worth a damn.) He waxes more eloquent, however, in proposing that art—novels, paintings, songs, films—has the capacity, through both laughter and tears, to “rebalance one’s moral perspective,” while citing (monochrome illustrations throughout) a number of thought-provoking examples.
An intelligent breath of fresh air, sans the usual ax-grinding.