It’s no surprise that one of Alain de Botton’s favoured sources, in a text well-sprigged with neat citations, should be Matthew Arnold: sweetness and enlightenment are their common contributions to a culture in which anarchy is the liveliest art form. What can Arnold have been complaining about in Victorian England, as compared with what we applaud in multicultural, populist Tony Blairville? Public loutishness is echoed in the decline of grammar and of civility, the collapse of common reference points, and hence of wit and allusion. Literature is bestsellers and sport is watching Becks bend it.
De Botton is a cut, and occasional thrust, above the usual social diagnostics. David Dimbleby introduces him on Question Time as a ‘philosopher’. You what? He has indeed written on grand topics, Proust and Boethius among them, but never grandly: he epitomises culture and — key term! — accessorises it. If irony is his stock-in-trade, it is administered without malice or condescension: today’s dandy wears his learning, which is wide, as lightly as a cartoonist’s balloon. De Botton is a hip physician whose patients can rely on cheerful news: what’s wrong can be remedied without an invasive cut in your quality of life. All you have to do is swallow Doc de B’s prescription.
Status Anxiety is, of course, the sorry symptom of a society in which money’n’celebrity determine fame, but class has been abolished. Our longest- running soap opera is Coronation Street (which celebrates a ‘community’ of the kind which, in practice, becomes ‘close-knit’ only when someone gets murdered and everyone knows who did it, but won’t tell the police), but our most hilarious is Downing Street, in which two evangelical egalitarians live side by side, in secluded command of the country, and the man who is number two is eaten out with envy of number one.
Which reminds me of Alan Clark, with whom Robin Day and I once shared a limo on the way to a publisher’s sales conference. Rumours were current that John Major, preached almost to death by wild Europhobes, was threatening resignation. What — Robin the Question Mark wanted to know — would happen if he did? Clark did his dad’s shut-eyed clairvoyant act and said, ‘Oh for Christ’s sake, two senior members of the Conservative party would take him by the elbows into a quiet room and say to him, “Don’t be so fucking stupid. Where else are you going to get a job with a car and a driver?” ’ Street cred is where you park your motor.
De Botton is a personal trainer who sincerely wishes to tone up our moral musculature. His secular sermons are as unaggressively aerated with felicities as eau de Badoit with burp-free bubbles. He eases into his topic by announcing that status is ‘derived from the Latin statum or standing (past participle of the verb stare, to stand)’. So keen was my deference that I had to check in Lewis and Short to confirm that status is, in fact, a perfectly substantial — what else? — Latin noun meaning, well, status, i.e., among other similar things, ‘Condition in regard to public rights, political or civil status.’ If it matters, statum is indeed the accusative case (masculine and neuter) of the past participle of sto, though why that case should be chosen as etymological base-camp, who knows?
And who cares? I was about to say as much myself, but there is a modern tendency — of which A. de B. would be the ideally punctual analyst — to flourish unearned erudition in order to match the academic nobs (who are busy coming down the hill on their high horses and John Carey-ing on about the equivalence of Jane Austen and Jilly Cooper, who gives you more bonks for your buck). Isn’t it in Ben Jonson’s Epicene that a fake priest is detected because ‘when he spoke Latin, every word was a mistake’? Sit satis supperque.
After all but bowling himself for a duck, de Botton goes on to hit attractive shots all round the ground. He does not quite match the straightfaced elegance of Thorstein Veblen, whose The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) he recruits with things-are-what-they-used-to-be effect: ‘Those members of the community who fall short of [a relatively high standard of wealth] will suffer in the esteem of their fellow men; and consequently … also in their own esteem.’ As George Walden pointed out in The New Elites, it has become pretentious not to be a hypocrite: Our Betters trumpet the NHS as the Envy of the World while making their own secret arrangements to get better, private treatment (don’t we all, if we can?). Oxbridge graduates applaud the breakthrough arrival of students who can’t spell in our great universities, whose class-ridden fault is still wanting to curriculumise courses teaching scholarship, respect for truth, love of learning for its own sake and up-themselves crap like that.
Among today’s fat cats, de Botton is an advocate of moral slimming. Himself full of beans, who can fail to enjoy his tasty diet? Never monotonous, the menu ranges through Artaud, Bierstadt (a painter, I confess, new to me) and Peter-Panic bohemians (who equate freedom with eternal immaturity), Gustave (boo to the bourgeoise) Flaubert and Joseph Gandy (beats out old Mahatma), hierarchy (had to be there!) and Hoover vacuum cleaners, Kant, Marx, Montaigne, Proust (re-bonjour, Marcel), Pullars of Perth (dry cleaners), St Teresa of Avila, Thoreau (natch), Tristan Tzara (vieux jeu qui, à mon avis, doit aller se faire foutre) to Xerxes (who wept as he surveyed the great army about to invade Greece and realised that, win or lose, they’d all be dead in 100 years) and Zurich (where trams are so smooth and reliable the city’s congestion knows no Ken).
Behind the pat phrases, de Botton’s message is memento mori (with The Death of Chatterton to illustrate the point). The recommendation to travel light — who ever needs as much luggage as we tend to pack? — reminds me of my favourite cartoon: watching a richly wreathed hearse, followed by three Brinks Matt trucks, one spectator says to another, ‘He’s taking it with him.’
De Botton knows that our lease is short and that it is folly to imagine that money can shore us against our ruin (even if the rich do live longer). He propounds something close to Heidegger’s Living-Towards-Death, with the lineaments of Christianity flung lightly round its shoulders. Here he and Jeremy Taylor (uncited author of Holy Dying) preach from the same text. What sour tongue will dare to whisper that, in a society where giving your word is only the most plausible form of perjury and Mel Gibson is the archbishop of cant, they are — as learned friends say — farting against thunder?
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 27, 2004