Should We Relinquish Love? An Impassioned “No” From Alain de Botton

“But what does wisdom say about love?” the analytically-minded narrator of Alain de alain de bottonBotton’s debut novel On Love asks after his girlfriend Chloe dumps him, “Is it something that should be given up completely, like coffee or cigarettes, or is it allowed on occasions, like a glass of wine or a bar of chocolate?  Is love directly opposed to everything that wisdom stands for?  Do sages lose their heads or only overgrown children?”

In many ways, love diametrically opposes reason.  After all, how many times have we fallen victim to the manic madness of first love?  of infatuation?  How many times has the desire to love rendered us as deranged and deluded as a mental patient?  How many times have we let the fervid frenzy of passion rob us of our basic common sense?  “Love is blind,” poets and philosophers have always said.  Why?  Because love laughs in the face of logic.  Even when we know on an intellectual level that our marriage is toxic and our partner is abusive, we stay.  “We love him,” we rationalize as if this single emotion undermines the validity of any cogent argument.  Or think of dating.  Even when we know a potential partner isn’t right for us, we can’t suddenly stop being attracted to them.  Even when we tally their pros and cons, even when we calculate the probability of building a lasting relationship with the exactness of an accountant and conclude we’re just too different, our love persists.  Now matter how doggedly we attempt to logically assess a love interest, love cares little for compatibility quotients and left-brained lists. 

In the depths of suicidal despair after the demise of his relationship, Botton’s narrator wonders if love can ever be a soul-sustaining rather than soul-shattering experience.  According to the romantic positivists, the answer is yes.

Who are the romantic positivists?  Romantic positivists are the self-help gurus, therapists and psychoanalysts who believe that with enough rigorous self-examination, we can arrive at the necessary self-knowledge to break the dysfunctional patterns that keep us from forming healthy relationships.  Unlike angsty emo kids and melancholy poets, who are more fascinated with love’s distressing aspects— the torture of unrequited love, say, or the irrecoverable loss of betrayal— the positivists are pragmatists: they concern themselves not with problems but with solutions.  Always find yourself attracted to men who call you names and otherwise belittle you?  The romantic positivist would explain your dating history in terms of your upbringing.  Perhaps you seek partners who are withholding and hyper-critical because your perfectionistic father was impossible to please and spent most of your childhood finding fault with you.  You recreate this childhood dynamic in adulthood because— though dysfunctional— it’s familiar to you.  However, romantic positivism assures us we’re not doomed to repeat these same patterns if we don’t want to.  Through therapy, we can stop reenacting the same scripts with different actors.

While browsing through a London bookstore, our heartbroken narrator finds hope in Dr. Peggy Nearly’s The Bleeding Heart, a bible of romantic positivism:

“It told the unfortunate yet optimistic story of men and women who fell in love with unsuitable partners, those who would treat them cruelly or leave them emotionally unfulfilled, or take to drink and become violent.  These people made an unconscious connection between love and suffering and could not stop hoping that the unsuitable types they had chosen to adore would change and love them properly.  Their lives would be ruined by the delusion that they could reform people who were by nature incapable of answering their emotional needs.  By the third chapter, Dr. Nearly had identified the roots of the problem as lying in deficient parents, who had given these unfortunate romantics a warped understanding of the affective process.  If they never loved people who were nice to them, it was because their earliest emotional attachments had taught them that love should be unreciprocated and cruel.  But by entering therapy and being able to work through their childhood, they might understand the roots of their masochism and learn that their desire to change unsuitable partners was only the relic of a more infantile fantasy to convert their parents into proper care givers.”

“I don’t think there’s a single dumbass thing I’ve done in my adult life that I didn’t know was a dumbass thing to do,” Cheryl Strayed wrote with equal parts humor and wisdom in her heart-expanding advice column Dear Sugar, “Even when I justified it to myself—as I did every damn time—the truest part of me knew I was doing the wrong thing.  Always.”  This illustrates the problem of knowledge vs. action— what Alain de Botton would call the at times unbridgeable gap between wisdom and the wise life.  Though we can know something intellectually, acting on that knowledge is another matter.  Think of a smoker.  He knows cigarettes blacken his lungs and poison his body; he knows a single cigarette can shorten his life by eleven minutes; he knows smoking indisputably causes cancer yet he continues to light his Lucky Strike.  Why?  Because knowledge doesn’t necessarily equate to action, especially when it involves deeply ingrained behaviors like subconscious childhood programming and addiction. 

This is a major limitation of romantic positivist philosophy.  Even if, as Peggy Nearly would argue, we can gain insight into our psyches through therapy, even if we can recognize our tendency to pursue alcoholic/abusive/otherwise emotionally unavailable partners, even if we know someone is unhealthy for us, we don’t always act on that knowledge.  As our narrator so articulately states:

“…there is a great difference between identifying a problem and solving it, between wisdom and the wise life.  We are all more intelligent than we are capable, and awareness of the insanity of love has never saved anyone from the disease.  Perhaps the concept of wise or wholly painless love is as much a contradiction as a bloodless battle— Geneva convention aside, it simply cannot exist.  The confrontation between Madame Bovary and Peggy Nearly is the confrontation between romantic tragedy and romantic positivism.  It is the confrontation between wisdom and wisdom’s opposite, which is not the ignorance of wisdom [that is easy to put right], but the inability to act on the knowledge of what one knows is right.  Knowing the unreality of our affair had proved to be no help to Chloe and me; knowing we might be fools had not turned us into sages.”

vintage romance #1

So if years in a therapist’s office still can’t spare us the sorrow of heartbreak, what are the rejected and lovelorn among us supposed to do?  The only thing left, the narrator decides, is to renounce love altogether, what he terms a kind of stoicism.  Rather than leave himself defenseless and risk getting hurt, he erects an impregnable fortress around his heart, retreating to a cloistered life of study, silence, and solitude.  After Chloe leaves him, he imagines himself a devout monk who relinquishes the agony and disappointment of mortal relationships to dedicate himself to more enlightened pursuits:

“Rendered pessimistic by the intractable pains of love, I decided to turn away from it altogether.  If romantic positivism could be of no help, then the only valid wisdom was the stoic advice never to fall in love again.  I would henceforth retreat into a symbolic monastery, see no one, live frugally, and throw myself into austere study.  I read with admiration stories of men and women who had escaped earthly distractions, made vows of chastity, and spent their lives in monasteries and nunneries.  There were stories of hermits who had endured life in caves in the desert for forty or fifty years, living off only roots and berries, never talking or seeing other human beings.”

But our narrator soon realizes there are limitations to the stoic approach as well.  In some ways, the stoics were correct to be cynical— when we fall in love with someone new, the odds have it ending badly.  Indeed, the chance that our next fling will be the “one” is— statistically speaking— less likely than winning the lottery.  More probable is our next relationship will end much like the one preceding it: in spiteful words, in broken promises, in disappointment.  Chances are the next person we date will not be the one we prance off in the sunset with.  Instead of culminate in undying devotions of love and a white wedding dress, our next affair might reach its climax in a heart-shattering confession of infidelity before exploding into an acrimonious split.  Or it might come to a less dramatic conclusion and simply peter out after years of domestic dissatisfaction and stifled resentment.  But is the solution really to reject romance altogether?  After all, our next lover might break our hearts, but they might not.  If we follow the stoic path and sequester ourselves in the woods of romantic skepticism and spinsterhood, we’ll never get hurt but we’ll never find love either:

“Though love might never be painless and was certainly not wise, neither could it be forgotten.  It was inevitable as it was unreasonable— and its unreason was unfortunately no argument against it.  Was it not absurd to retreat into the Judean hills in order to eat roots and shoots?  If I wanted to be courageous, were there not greater opportunities for heroism in love?  Moreover, for all the sacrifices demanded by the stoic life, was there not something cowardly within it?  At the heart of stoicism lay the desire to disappoint oneself before someone else had the chance to do so.  Stoicism was a crude defense against the dangers of the affections of others, a danger that it would take more endurance than a life in the desert to be able to face.  In calling for a monastic existence free of emotional turmoil, stoicism was simply trying to deny the legitimacy of certain potentially painful yet fundamental human needs.  However brave, the stoic was in the end a coward at the point of perhaps the highest reality, at the moment of love. 

We can always blind ourselves to the complexities of a problem by suggesting solutions that reduce the issue to a lower common denominator.  Both romantic positivism and stoicism were inadequate answers to the problems raised by the agonies of love, because both of them collapsed the pain and irrationality of love into a conclusive argument against it— thereby failing to balance the undoubted trauma of our desires with the intractability of emotional needs.”

In the end, On Love proposes a third, more nuanced approach to love.  Hours of sane self-reflection on a therapist’s couch will never cure us of the insanity of love just as refraining from relationships will never rid us of our fundamental yearning to love and be loved.  So rather than forget the crucial difference between possessing wisdom and behaving wisely (romantic positivism) or sink into a pit of pessimism and despairing despondency (stoicism), de Botton asserts we should learn to “juggle the idiocy of infatuation with its inevitability.” 

Alain de Botton on Love as the Origin of Beauty

Why do we find one person irresistible and not another?  Why does one man prefer brunettes on loveand another blondes?  Why does one woman daydream about the boyish good looks of a scrawny 1990s Leonardo DiCaprio while another only possesses libidinous lust for macho man body builders?  Why do traditionally handsome men with striking jaw lines and chiseled abs attract some but repel others?

Attraction is ultimately an enigma.  “Does beauty give birth to love, or does love give birth to beauty?” Alain De Botton’s nameless narrator asks in his incomparable part-novel, part-philosophical treatise On Love, “Surrounded by an infinite number of people, we may ask [staring at our lover while they talk on the phone or lie opposite us in the bath] why our desire has chosen to settle on this particular face, this particular mouth or nose or ear.”  What constitutes beauty has always puzzled poets and philosophers.  Is beauty universal, a principle shared across all time periods and cultures?  Is it a checklist of a few consistent characteristics, readily identifiable?  Or is beauty more mysterious?  Does it slip through semantic boxes of easily understood definition and depend— as the old saying goes— on the eye of the beholder?

With his philosophical acumen and trademark wit, De Botton outlines two opposing theories of beauty: the Platonic and the Kantian.  Fashion magazines promote a Platonic conception of beauty, the idea that in the realm of aesthetics, there’s only one universal standard.  To both the world’s magazine editors and the ancient Greek philosopher, beauty is a mathematical equation with a single indisputable answer: a glowing complexion; glossy coiffed hair; pouty, perfectly pink lips; a thin, perfectly-proportioned figure.  The fashion model is the consummate Platonic ideal, the embodiment of elegance, as architecturally awe-inspiring and symmetrical as a statue.

If, as Plato argues, there is an objective benchmark of beauty, the non-supermodels among us fall tragically short of the standard.  Our eyes are too far apart.  Our lips are too big.  Our noses are off-center.  In magazines, fur-coated models look effortlessly chic, their gazes subtly seductive as they hold themselves in eternal poses of aloof nonchalance.  In On Love, Chloe, the narrator’s beloved, uses these images as instruments of torture, finding herself repugnant next to the flawless models on the stylish pages of Vogue and Glamour.  When we compare ourselves, real life women, to these manipulated airbrushed Barbie dolls, we have no choice but to view ourselves as monstrously disfigured:

“According to Plato and the editor of Vogue, there exists such a thing as an ideal Form of beauty, made up of a balanced relation between parts, which earthly bodies will resemble to a greater or lesser degree.  Everything we consider beautiful, said Plato, partakes in the essential Form of beauty and must hence exhibit universal characteristics.  Take a beautiful woman and you will see there is a mathematical basis for this beauty, an inherent balance that is no less precise than that found in the construction of a classical temple…Plato had said that only when elements match is there a proper balance that gives an object a dynamic stillness and self-completeness… If Plato had said that only ‘the qualities of measure (metron) and proportion (symmetron) invariably constitute beauty and excellence,’ then Chloe’s face must have been lacking in both beauty and excellence.”

Though Chloe deviates from conventional notions of beauty, our narrator still finds her hopelessly attractive.  How, he wonders, can he be enticed by a lover who possesses so many perceived imperfections, so many unforgivable cracks when he could have a classical statue?  After all, she has a gap between her two front teeth and freckles.  The mainstream conception of winsomeness is as simple as arithmetic in elementary school: straight white teeth + freckle-less face = beautiful.  So how can he remain so mesmerized with Chloe when so many others would dismiss her as ugly, or worse, forgettable?

The answer, Botton asserts, is that beauty is subjective rather than objective, irrational rather logical.  Just as it’s impossible for art historians to unanimously agree on what constitutes a “good” painting (is it originality of composition?  sharpness of lines?  playfulness of color?), it’s impossible to decide on a singular basis for beauty.  While one man might be drawn to the classic Audrey Hepburn aesthetics of a slim frame and pale skin, another might lust after a Marilyn Monroe bombshell with big hair and a voluptuous figure.  Though we all have physical “types,” one kind of woman or man isn’t objectively better than another: no matter how we try to justify our preferences or defend our tastes with reason, something about beauty always defies description:

“But clearly Plato…must have neglected to include something in his aesthetic theory, for I found Chloe devastatingly beautiful.  I hesitate to describe what exactly it was that I found so attractive.  Did I like her green eyes, her dark hair, her full mouth?  I stumble in answering because of the difficulty of ever explaining in words why one person is attractive and another is not.  I could talk of the freckles on her nose or the curve of her neck, but what would it do to convince someone who did not find her attractive?  Beauty is, after all, not something that one can ever convince someone else about.  It is not like a mathematical formula, through which one may lead someone and arrive at an incontestable conclusion.  Debates over the attractiveness of men and women are like the debates between art historians attempting to justify why one painting is superior to another.  A Van Gogh or Gauguin?  The only way to make a case for one or the other would be by an attempted re-description of the work in language [“The lyrical intelligence of Gauguin’s South skies…” next to the “Wagnerian depth of Van Gogh’s blues…”] or else by an elucidation of technique or materials [“The Expressionist feel of Van Gogh’s later years…”  “Gauguin’s Cezanne-like linearity…”].  But what distance would this go toward actually explaining why one painting works, affects us, grips us by the collar with its beauty?  And if painters have traditionally disdained art historians who come in their wake, it is perhaps not so much out of inverted snobbery as out of a sense that the language of paint [the language of beauty] could not be collapsed into the language of words.” 

Unlike the Platonic understanding of aesthetics, which insists beauty can be tallied and totaled using an established rubric, the Kantian school of thought maintains beauty is particular rather than universal:

“It was not beauty that I had hence hoped to describe, only my own subjective response to Chloe’s appearance.  I could not claim to be laying down an aesthetic theory of universal validity, I could simply point out where my desire had happened to settle while allowing the possibility that others would not locate the same perfections in the same body.  In so doing, I was forced to reject the Platonic idea of an objective criterion of beauty, siding instead with Kant’s view that aesthetic judgements were ones ‘whose determining grounds can be no other than subjective.'” 

When we fall in love, what draws us to our beloved?  Is it his brawny arms?  her long legs and ample chest?  No, we’re charmed by their idiosyncrasies, those endearing quirks that precariously flirt with weirdness.  Those attributes that are normally considered “desirable”— for men, a tall, muscular body, for women, a tiny waist and big breast— don’t mesmerize us as much as those features that are deemed unattractive: the mole on their right shoulder, the perfume of their particular scent.  For our narrator, Chloe’s crooked smile is adorable for the exact reason that it isn’t perfect:

“Yet what was distinctive about my attraction to Chloe was that it was based not on the obvious targets of desire as much on precisely those features that might have been imperfect by someone considering her from a Platonic perspective.  There was a certain pride in locating desire in the awkward features of her face, in precisely those areas where others would not look.  I did not for instance see the gap in between her two front teeth as an offensive deviation from an ideal arrangement, but as an original and most love-worthy redefinition of dental perfection.  I was not simply indifferent to the gap in between the teeth, I positively adored it.”

platonic vs. kantian

Though we understand beauty as the antithesis of ugliness, beauty most often contains a degree of the grotesque.  Beauty and ugliness are an interdependent marriage, not an estranged couple with irreconcilable differences:

“True beauty cannot be measured because it is fluctuating, it only has a few angles from which it may be seen, and then not in all lights and at all times.  It flirts dangerously with ugliness, it takes risks with itself, it does not side comfortably with mathematical rules of proportion, it draws its appeal from precisely those areas that will also lend themselves to ugliness.  Nothing can be beautiful that does not take a calculated risk with ugliness.”

To be conventional is to be based on or in accordance with what is generally done.  If in the Platonic worldview there is a conventional notion of attractiveness, then it must follow that Platonic beauty is formulaic and, thus, tediously unoriginal.  After all, it doesn’t take much artistic sensitivity to find beauty in the obvious; any one can appreciate the grandeur of exquisite surroundings, an exhibition of Cezanne paintings, a cobblestone street, a French cathedral.  In the realm of romance, most can recognize the enticing allure of a debonair man in an impeccably tailored suit or a full-figured vixen in a too-tight sweater.  It requires more imagination to locate beauty in what most disregard as ugly or unremarkable.  As Proust would say, the true artist knows beauty exists not just in Italian Renaissance paintings but underdone, unsavory cutlets on half-removed tablecloths.

Because our beloved has the capacity, like Wittgenstein’s duck rabbit, to be both hideous and beautiful, we the viewer become essential.  In a purely platonic relationship, a person’s crooked teeth or freckles remain limitations; in a romantic relationship, love transforms these supposed inadequacies into something lovable.  “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?” the old philosophical conundrum goes.  If we were to reframe this question in terms of love, we might ask: “If a person has the potential to be beautiful but no one is around to witness it, is he/she still beautiful?”  For Alain De Botton, the answer is no: an object (the loved) depends on the subject (the lover) to exist.  Perhaps this is why we become so enthralled with the beloved— not because they are paragons of some unattainable Platonic ideal, but because their physical flaws, their too small eyes, their disproportionately large arms, render us, the observer, refreshingly indispensable:

“Because her face had evidence within it for both beauty and ugliness, my imagination was given a role in holding on to the precarious thread of beauty.  In its ambiguity, Chloe’s face could be compared to Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit, where both a duck and a rabbit seem contained in the same image, much as there seemed to be two faces contained within Chloe’s features.

In Wittgenstein’s example, much depends on the attitude of the viewer: If the imagination is looking for a duck, it will find one; if it is looking for a rabbit, then it too will appear.  There is evidence for both, so what counts is the predisposition, the mental set, of the viewer.  What was of course providing me with a beautiful image of Chloe [rather than a duck] was love.  I felt that this love must have been more genuine because it had not settled on a face that was obviously, unambiguously proportioned.  The editor of Vogue might have had difficulty including photos of Chloe in an issue, but ironically, this only reinforced my desire, for it seemed confirmation of the uniqueness that I had managed to find in her.  How original is it to find a classically proportioned person “beautiful”?  It surely takes greater effort, greater Proustian imagination, to locate beauty in a gap between the teeth.  In finding Chloe beautiful, I had not settled on the obvious.  I could perhaps see in her features things that others could not see.  I had animated her face with her soul.” 

rabbit or duckIn the end, On Love suggests beauty is not something that can be computed and calculated according to an unambiguous scale— it’s manufactured and magnified by love.  For more penetrating insights into this at times maddening, mysterious human emotion, read De Botton on the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning, dating as a form of performative playacting, and love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment.  If you’re more interested in his philosophical musings on success and status, revisit him on status as the construction of culture, how gazing upon once great ruins can cure us of our status anxiety, and how expectation causes anxiety, malaise and discontentment.

Alain de Botton on Dating as Performative Playacting

When I was young, I was deeply committed to a life of love: my twenties were a string of on loveintense affairs and serious long-term relationships interrupted only by brief periods of singledom.  I loved to love, to be loved: the tender kisses, the holding hands, the constant person to lean on.  I loathe to admit it but I’ve always devoured sappy romantic comedies and weepy chick flicks: my earliest memories are singing along with Roy Orbison during the ending credits of Pretty Woman (a movie, I now realize, for a four year old was wildly inappropriate).  These movies all seemed to say one thing: love is an integration of two inadequate, incomplete halves to make a perfect whole; to be happy, you had to have someone.  I blame these enduring myths of modern knights in shining armor for my deep-seated terror of being alone.

Because I thought love was a need rather than a want, I leaped from relationship to relationship, becoming a sort of serial monogamist.  The result?  I lost who I was (after all, isn’t that, to some extent, what a relationship is: a steady dissolution of self?).  Perhaps love is always a kind of osmosis, a process by which our personality passes through a semipermeable membrane and intermingles with that of someone else.  In a relationship, two independent, autonomous “I’s” merge into an indivisible “we”: we adopt their preferences, we trade tastes in books and movies.  In an ideal relationship, this would be an equal exchange between partners.  But in a lopsided union, only one partner is assimilated into the culture of the other, absorbing their viewpoints, their philosophies, their beliefs, their ideas.

This subsumption of self begins with the very first date.  During the initial stages of infatuation, we long for one thing: our beloved.  In order to allure our lover, we’ll do almost anything from pretend to be obsessed with their favorite band to overstate our admiration for Jack Kerouac.  Dating is a masquerade ball where we conceal our real self behind many masks.  Existing at the intersection of psychology and philosophy, the idea-orientation of an essay and the narrative-orientation of a novel, Alain De Botton’s On Love explores this phenomenon with great wit.  Though a portrait of a single couple, a nameless narrator and Chloe, his beloved, the story gives us broader insight into the riddles of attraction and seduction, desire and love, the most mysterious of human emotions.  In one of my favorite chapters “Authenticity,” our narrator takes Chloe to Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a chic new French restaurant on Fulham Road.  In an exquisite sentence that superbly captures the timidity and tension of a first date, De Botton writes:

“I had lost all capacity either to think or speak, only able to draw silently invisible patterns on the starched white table cloth and take unnecessary sips of bubbled water from a glass goblet.” 

But why is it so nerve-wracking to get to know someone?  Why do we get the first date jitters, even the most seemingly self-assured among us?

When we go on a date, especially with someone we’re fond of, dinner is no longer casual, convivial conversation over the clink of champagne glasses and beef bourguignon— it’s a performance carried out with the intent to seduce someone.  The label of “date” transforms a simple evening out into a blinding extravaganza of sparkling costumes and Oscar-worthy drama.  If, as Fitzgerald wrote in his quintessential American masterpiece, personality is an “unbroken series of successful gestures,” so is seduction.  In many ways, seduction is a form of acting, a theater where our behavior is not spontaneous but carefully calculated and rehearsed.  Dating requires we play a part.  After all, if on a first date we were completely, unreservedly ourselves, would anyone ever love us?  Probably not.  No potential paramour would be enthralled by our annoying habit of always arriving at least thirty minutes late or won over by our troubled history of abusive relationships and alcoholism.  Just as we adopt the role of perfectly punctual, reliable candidate when interviewing for a job, on the stage of seduction, we craft ourselves into the character we imagine our beloved most wants:

“Out of this perceived inferiority emerged the need to take on a personality that was not directly my own, a seducing self that would locate and respond to the demands of this superior being.  Did love condemn me not to be myself?  Perhaps not forever, but, if it was to be taken seriously, it did at this stage of seduction, for the seducing position was one that led me to ask What would appeal to her? rather than What appeals to me?  I asked How would she perceive my tie? rather than How do I judge it?  Love forced me to look at myself as through the imagined eyes of the beloved.  Not Who am I? but Who am I for her?  And in the reflexive movement of that question, my self could not help but grow tinged with a certain bad faith and inauthenticity.”

On some level, dating always requires we exchange our authentic self for a fictitious one.  Though he desires one of Les Liaisons Dangereuses’s delectable wines, the narrator resists for fear of looking like a drunkard when Chloe only orders a glass of water.  Abstaining from a glass of pinot noir may sound trivial but it represents one of a million ways seduction demands we reject who we really are and assume a persona:

“If staying true to oneself is deemed an essential criterion of moral selfhood, then seduction had led me to resolutely fail the ethical test.  Why had I lied about my feelings toward a delicious-looking selection of wines, prominently advertised on a blackboard above Chloe’s head?  Because my choice had suddenly seemed inadequate and crude next to her mineral thirst.  Seduction had split me in two, into a true [alcoholic] self and a false [aquatic] one.”

In a witty if not altogether serious moment, the narrator encounters a serious roadblock on his route to seduce his beloved: he knows little about her.  How, he wonders, can he mold himself into the role of her ideal lover if he doesn’t have the script for the part?

“Given my wish to seduce Chloe, it was essential that I find out more about her.  How could I abandon my true self unless I knew what false self to adopt?  But this was no easy task, a reminder that understanding another requires hours of careful attention and interpretation, teasing a coherent character from a thousand words and actions.  Unfortunately, the patience and intelligence required went far beyond the capacities of my anxious, infatuated mind.  I behaved like a reductive social psychologist, eager to press a person into simple definitions, unwilling to apply the care of a novelist to capturing the polyvalence of human nature.”

When we first meet someone, they are black-and-white, as bare as the stark outlines of a spaceship in a coloring book.  It is only with time that we can color in the lines and a clearer, more three-dimensional picture of who they are can emerge.  Because they’ve only just met, the narrator sets out to get to know Chloe better.  In a painfully relatable scene, he fumbles clumsily through first date conversation, asking canned questions with the stiff formality of a job interviewer: 

“Over the first course, I blundered with heavy-handed, interview-like questions: What do you like to read?[“Joyce, Henry James, Cosmo if there’s time”], Do you like your job? [“All jobs are pretty crappy, don’t you think?”], What country would you live in if you could live anywhere? [“I’m fine here, anywhere where I don’t have to change the plug for my hairdryer”], What do you like to do on weekends? [“Go to the movies on Saturday, on Sunday stock up on chocolate for getting depressed with in the evening.”].”

What I love about De Botton is his ability to extract weighty philosophical significance from the seemingly mundane.  For him, a first date isn’t just friendly chit chat at a cafe: it’s an occasion for in-depth examination of human mating.  Much like the peacock displays his magnificent iridescent feathers to attract a mate, we homo sapiens put on countless poses to impress a potential partner.  A man on a first date, for example, might boast about his six figure salary or make it a point to pick up his paramour in his brand new Tesla.  A woman, on the other hand, might entice a lover with a tantalizingly low neckline or a spritz of her most mesmerizing perfume from Dolce & Gabbana.  Ultimately, dating is a spectacle where we wear innumerable costumes.  And what is a costume but a kind of impersonation?  a means of convincing our audience that we are someone infinitely more interesting than ourselves?

Though an elaborate ensemble might dazzle with its embellishment, it will always be uncomfortable compared to our workaday clothes.  The contraptions of a costume, the zippers and clasps and buttons, are far more confining than our usual uniform of jeans and a tee shirt.  Dating is exhausting because we can’t fuss with a too tight blouse or a sexy but too revealing short skirt— we have to keep up a charade.  But just as an actor must eventually take off his stage attire and return to real life, we can’t maintain a facade forever: in time, if we are to truly love and be loved, we have to unveil who we are.  In an analogy that aptly captures the laborious difficulty and overall uneasiness of pretending to be someone we’re not, Botton parallels his authentic self to a corpulent man and what he imagines Chloe wants to a too small suit:

“The evening was a process resembling a fat man’s trying to fit into a suit that is too small for him.  There was a desperate attempt to repress the bulges that did not fit the cut of the fabric, to shrink my waist and hold my breath so that the material would not tear.  It was not surprising if my posture was not as spontaneous as I might have liked.  How can a fat man in a suit too small for him feel spontaneous?  He is so frightened the suit will split, he is forced to sit in complete stillness, holding his breath and praying he can get through the evening without disaster.”

On Love penetrates the complexities of the human heart and is brilliant from start to finish (as is always the case with Alain De Botton).  For more penetrating insights into this at times maddening aspect of the human experience, read De Botton on the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning, love as the origin of beauty, and love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment.  If you’re more interested in his philosophical musings on success and status, revisit him on status as the construction of culture, how gazing upon once great ruins can cure us of our status anxiety, and how expectation causes anxiety, malaise and discontentment.

Seduction as Subtext: Alain de Botton on the Lover as a Detective Obsessed with Decoding Symbols and Discerning Significance

What is the secret to seduction?  For Marcel Proust, the answer is two words: denial and delay. on love “There is no doubt that a person’s charms are less frequently a cause of love than a remark such as: ‘No, this evening I shan’t be free,'” he once said.  What makes a potential paramour so appealing is their very potentiality: the fact that they remain a distant horizon instead of a familiar shore makes us desire them all the more desperately.  First love is exciting because there’s an element of uncertainty.  When a crush is just a crush instead of a long-term partner, we’re not certain of anything: does he/she like me?  if I declare my love, will my feelings be reciprocated?  or will I be met with the most demoralizing rebuff in the English language (“Oh, I really like you but not in that way…”).

The early days of love are equal parts excitement and torture.  On one hand, it’s thrilling to get to know someone: on the stage of dating, each party performs a role and exhibits only their best behavior.  Before a heart-racing one-night stand transforms into monogamous matrimony, we don’t really know our possible lover: he/she is simply an embodiment of our fantasies and desires.  Each silence in the conversation, each lingering, too-long glance offers the opportunity to project what we most long for.  But therein lies the torture.  Was our beloved’s invitation to a movie Saturday night really a bold romantic gesture?  or was it simply the request of a purely platonic friend and not a lover?  When he/she holds our hand as we stroll through the aisles of the grocery store is it a sign of deeper commitment or an act merely undertaken out of obligation because we’re sleeping together?

No one explores the obsessiveness of first love with more charmingly British wit and humorous insight than Alain De Botton.  In his best-selling part-novel, part-philosophical inquiry, On Love, Botton maps the topography of romantic relationships from the exhilarating heights of initial attraction to the devastating deserts of heartache and despair.  When his nameless narrator first falls in love with Chloe, he exhibits all the tell-tale signs of lovesickness: an undying, irrational devotion to the beloved, a mind made mad by obsessive-compulsion, a pathological tendency to locate meaning in the smallest deeds from an innocent “hello, how are you this morning?” to a passing text.  As Botton writes, love is a language brimming with indecipherable words and meanings that are difficult to detect:

“Every smile and every word reveals itself as an avenue leading to a dozen if not twelve thousand possibilities.  Gestures and remarks that in normal life [that is, life without love] can be taken at face value now exhaust dictionaries with possible definitions.  And, for the seducer at least, the doubts reduce themselves to one central question, faced with the trepidation of a criminal awaiting sentence: Does s/he, or s/he not, desire me?” 

To be in love is to be in a state of perpetual distraction.  Whether we’re only pretending to listen to our best friend or are absent-mindedly looking out the window while our tweed-jacketed professor is lecturing about Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when we’re in love, we can think of only one thing: our beloved.  He/she is an all-consuming obsession, the epicenter around which all other thoughts pivot:

“Though under pressure to complete plans for an office near King’s Cross, my mind drifted irresponsibly but irresistibly back to her.  There was a need to circle around this object of adoration.  She kept breaking into my consciousness with the urgency of a matter that had to be addressed, though these thoughts were part of no agenda; they were [objectively speaking] desperately uninteresting, having no development or point to them.  They were pure desire.” 

Why is love at once ecstasy and agony?  Botton would say the answer is uncertainty.  After all, the initial stages of love are defined by a lack of knowledge.  Is the man we’re sleeping with actually interested in us or merely using us for our bodies?  Does our crush view dinner and drinks as a rendezvous of lovers or a platonic evening between friends?  Is he/she as enamored of us as we are of them?  Behind every exchange lies a mysterious subtext.  Words that at one time only had a single meaning now have countless definitions.  Take, for example, a smile.  Oxford English Dictionary defines smile (v.) rather unambiguously as “to form one’s features into a pleased or kind expression, typically with the corners of the mouth turned up and the front teeth exposed.”  But in the romantic arena, the meaning of a smile is manifold: it can be a coy come hither invitation to greater flirtation or simply a sign that our love interest is carefree and convivial; it can express smugness or amusement, derision or approval.  And what of a graze of the arm?  Does he gently caress you to establish intimacy?  Or does she only brush the arm of your blazer to entice you to buy her one more round?  In love, there are endless questions but few answers.  As the narrator recounts his first date with Chloe, he writes:

“Questions pursued me throughout seduction, questions relating to the unmentionable subtext of every word and action.  What did Chloe think as we made our way to Trafalgar Square from her office in Bedford Street?  The evidence was tantalizingly ambiguous.  On the one hand, Chloe had been happy to take the afternoon off to tour a museum with a man she had only briefly met in an airplane a week before.  But on the other, there was nothing in her behavior to suggest this was anything but an opportunity for an intelligent discussion on art and architecture.  Perhaps all this was simply friendship, a maternal, sexless bond of a female for a male.  Suspended between innocence and collusion, Chloe’s every gesture had become imbued with maddening significance.  Did she know I desired her?  Did she desire me?  Was I correct in detecting traces of flirtation at the ends of her sentences and the corners of her smiles, or was this merely my own desire projected onto the face of innocence?”

Ideally, words are mathematical equations: a single word equals a single meaning.  But in love, words (not to mention actions) are no longer solid anchors affixed to one singular stable definition— they are bobbing buoys floating free of fixed significance: on a first date, it’s just as likely that a man’s offer to pay is a generosity demanded by old-fashioned heteronormative notions of gender as a genuinely thoughtful gesture.  Similarly, an “I had such a good time” text after a date can mean he sincerely enjoyed your company and can’t wait to see you again or he’s only texting as a common courtesy— there will be no part two in the saga of your short-lived romance.  In love, text messages become cryptic codes to decipher, incomprehensible foreign languages in need of translation.  Why, we wonder, did he use a period instead of his usual lack of punctuation?  What is the significance of a strategically placed smiley face?  What do all his conventional expressions of endearment (“honey”/”cutie”/”babe”) really mean?  Does he only address us in these affectionate terms because he’s performing his socially defined role as masculine courter?  Is all love a stage and are we merely players?  Or do his adoring words contain hints of genuine feeling?  When we’re besotted with a beloved, anything and everything has meaning:

“As soon as one begins looking for signs of mutual attraction, then everything that the beloved says or does can be taken to mean almost anything.  And the more I looked for signs, the more there were of them to read.  In every movement of Chloe’s body, there seemed to be potential evidence of desire— in the way she straightened her skirt [as we crossed into Early Northern Painting], or coughed by van Eyck’s The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini, or handed me the catalogue in order to rest her head on her hand.  And when I listened closely to her conversation, it too revealed itself as a minefield of clues— was I wrong to read a degree of flirtation in her remark that she was tired, or her suggestion we look for a bench?”

Ultimately, love is a maddening form of reading, the lover, an enigmatic text.  Romance operates by hints and implication— little is directly said.  After all, when we’re lovesick for someone, do we confess our infatuation?  When someone is smitten with us, do we expect them to simply state, in no uncertain terms, the depths of their devotion?  Of course not: the language of love consists not of easily understandable modes of expression, but a series of strange symbols as inscrutable as ancient hieroglyphics.  To solve the puzzle of our paramour, we have to read between the lines of what is done and said.

The result?  We become romantic schizophrenics and drive ourselves mad with over-analysis.  Desire behaves like a drug, injecting an intoxicating, addictive surge of dopamine straight to our brains and impairing our intellect.  Soon the most trivial things take on colossal significance: a tender kiss over coffee and breakfast is an indication our connection is not purely physical but also romantic, an invitation to the family dinner of our sort-of-boyfriend is a sure sign things are getting serious.

Struck by Cupid’s bow, we begin to read less and less critically.  Because we so hopelessly yearn for our lover to love us, we can no longer distinguish what we see from what we want to see.  Rather than use rationality to interpret the raw data of our experience, we have a tendency toward confirmation bias, a systematic (and tragic) error of reasoning:

“It was desire that had turned me into this detective, a relentless hunter for clues that would have been ignored had I been less afflicted.  It was desire that made me into a romantic paranoiac, reading meaning into everything.  Desire had transformed me into a decoder of symbols, an interpreter of the landscape [and therefore a potential victim of the pathetic fallacy].

[…]

“Nothing of what she said could I take at face value.  I clung instead to the underbelly of her words, sure the meaning lay there rather than its obvious location, interpreting instead of listening.  We were talking of love, my Venus idly stirring her now-cold tea, but what did this conversation mean for us.  Who were these “most people” she spoke of?  Was the man who would dispel her cynicism? 

[…]

Or was this a ridiculous suggestion?  Was there nothing on the table but a half-eaten carrot cake and two cups of tea?  Was Chloe perhaps being as abstract as she wished?  Did she mean precisely what she was saying, the diametrical opposite of the first rule of flirtation, where what is said is never what is meant?  How hard it was to keep a level head, when Cupid was a biased interpreter, when it was so clear what he wanted to be true.  Was he attributing to Chloe an emotion that only he felt?  Was he guilty of the age-old error whereby the thought that I desire you is mistakenly equated with the corresponding thought You desire me?” 

Quintessential lady’s man Casanova once said, “love is three quarters curiosity.”  In On Love, Botton’s narrator recognizes this fundamental law, noting the key to seduction is concealment, not disclosure:

“Yet whatever my impatience, nor were these questions free of the inflaming power of all things enigmatic.  The ambiguity promised either salvation or damnation, but demanded a lifetime to reveal itself.  And the longer I hoped, the more the person I hoped for became exalted, miraculous, perfect, worth hoping for.  The very delay helped to increase desirability, an excitement that instant gratification could never have provided.  Had Chloe simply shown her cards, the game would have lost its charm.  However much I resented it, I recognized that things needed to remain unsaid.  The most attractive are not those who allow us to kiss them at once [we soon feel ungrateful] or those who never allow us to kiss them [we soon forget them], but those who coyly lead us between two extremes.” 

An astute analysis of the human heart, On Love is a delight from start to finish.  For more witty insights into this at times maddening aspect of the human experience, read De Botton on dating as a sort of performative play-acting, love as the origin of beauty, and love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment.  If you’re more interested in his philosophical musings on success and status, revisit De Botton on status as the construction of culturehow expectation causes anxiety, malaise and discontentment, and how gazing upon once great ruins can cure us of our status anxiety

Alain de Botton on the Two Stages of Love: Idealization & Disillusionment

Has any other emotion inspired more philosophical inquiry or tormentedon love heartsick sonnets than love and its loss?  Love is the organizing principle of our lives: we do everything we do in hopes of attaining love.  As exquisitely erudite British philosopher Alain De Botton once said, every adult life is defined by two great love stories: the story of our quest for sexual love and the story of our quest for love from the world. The fulfillment of the former, we believe, will finally make us whole.  But if that’s the case, why is love so often disenchanting?  How can love so unexpectedly mutate into hate?  How can the flames of desire so cruelly cool?  Why can our lover begin as an object of adoration but end as an object of ridicule?  And why when a distant crush becomes a long-term partner does the thrill of longing transform into passionless boredom?

Mathematically speaking, almost all love culminates in heartbreak, nearly half of all marriages end in divorce.  So if love is such a fundamental human yearning, if we all supposedly want to love and be loved, why can’t we sustain love over the long haul? 

These are the questions the brilliant De Botton ponders in his marvelous masterpiece On Love, his best-selling part-novel, part-philosophical inquiry into the mysterious and maddening nature of romantic love.  The story opens when our nameless narrator first meets Chloe on a Paris to London flight and immediately falls head-over-heels.  On Love follows their affair from the ecstatic excitement of initial attraction to the torment of helpless obsession, from the bliss of reciprocation to the despair of rejection, from the hope of love’s beginning to the despondency of love’s inevitable demise weeks, months, sometimes years later.

On Love begins with romance’s first stage: idealization.  Swept up by the giddiness of infatuation, we worship the beloved as if they were God, the alpha and omega, the beginning and ending of our existence.  In our eyes, they are just as faultless.  What would be an inexcusable flaw in someone else is somehow permissible in the beloved: the tendency to tell long, meandering stories is a charming quirk, not unforgivably eccentric, the gap between their two front teeth is attractive rather than repulsive.  In the early stages of a relationship, our affection for a potential paramour is directly proportional to our ability (or, rather, inability) to see their flaws.  This is certainly true in On Love.  As the narrator’s interest in Chloe increases, his endearment for her grows exponentially:

“Chloe’s holiday story was dull, but it’s dullness was no longer a criterion for judgement.  I had ceased to consider it according to the secular logic of ordinary conversations.  I was no longer concerned to locate within its syntax either intellectual insight or poetic truth; what mattered was not so much what she was saying as the fact that she was saying it and that I had decided to find perfection in everything she might choose to utter.  I felt ready to follow her every anecdote, I was ready to love every one of her jokes that missed it punchline, every reflection that had lost its thread.  I felt ready to abandon self-absorption for the sake of total empathy, to follow Chloe into each of her possible selves, to catalogue every one of her memories, to become a historian of her childhood, to learn all her loves, fear and hatreds— everything that could possibly have played itself out within her mind and body had suddenly grown fascinating.” 

We’ve all known incurable romantics who are in love with being in love.  From the time they hit puberty, they’ve always had a significant other.  They’ve almost never had to suffer the existential loneliness of being single.  Why do some people always seem to be one half of a couple?  Do they possess some mysterious magnetism that eludes the perpetually single?  Are they simply more irresistible?

Botton posits that the chronically in love are searching for something they perceive to be lacking in themselves.  Embedded in the Platonic myth of our other half is the conviction that we are incomplete— we need someone else to make us whole.  We are so quick to fall in love because we have so little love in our lives.  It’s hard to love anything, most of all ourselves.  Biologically, we’re hardwired to focus on the negative; culturally, we’re encouraged to endlessly criticize.  Too often we regard ourselves with a dislike that borders on disgust; though we can readily forgive other’s faults, we find it impossible to forgive our own.  Our relationship with ourselves is founded on the belief that we are fundamentally flawed.  But intoxicated on the heady liqueur of love, we become drunk with delusion, convinced we’ve finally found a Platonic ideal instead of just another pitiful mortal with foibles and frailties of their own.  As Botton’s analytically-minded narrator notes:

“I must have realized Chloe was human [with all the implications carried by the word] but could I not be forgiven— with all the stress of travel and existence— for my desire to suspend such a thought?  Every love involves [to adapt Oscar Wilde] the triumph of hope over self-knowledge.  We fall in love hoping we will not find in the other what we know is in ourselves— all the cowardice, weakness, laziness, dishonesty, compromise, and brute stupidity.  We throw a cordon of love around the chosen one and decide that everything that lies within it will somehow be free of our faults and hence lovable.  We locate inside another a perfection that eludes us within ourselves.” 

And so we arrive at the age-old question: when we fall head over heels, are we really in love with the person themselves or just the experience of being in love?  For many, the answer is the latter.  Often times in love, the object of adoration is irrelevant.  We’re not in love with the qualities of their character, the depths of their psyche, the particulars of their personality nor are we in love with the geography of their specific face or their specific body: we’re in love because we want to love.  The longing to love precedes the beloved: because we want love, we find it.  Why do you think love is so often equated to madness, to blindness, to intoxication?  Because it robs us of our rationality and good judgement.  In the heady days of first love, we cannot see the object of our obsession: our longing to love makes gods of men; our desire to love transforms their flaws and imperfections.  If we’re interested in a man who is objectively only average looking, our love will render him as attractive and irresistible as Brad Pitt.  And if we’re charmed by a woman who most would find loud and obnoxious, our love will paint only a flattering portrait, conveniently airbrushing her less than desirable characteristics:

“If the fall into love happens so rapidly, it is perhaps because the wish to love has preceded the beloved— the need has invented its solution.  The appearance of the beloved is only the second stage of a prior [but largely unconscious] need to love someone— our hunger for love molding their features, our desire crystallizing around them.  [But the honest side of us will never let the deception go unchallenged.  There will always be moments when we will doubt whether our lover exists in reality as we imagine them in our mind— or whether the beloved is not just a hallucination we have invented.”

alain de botton

But after idealization must come love’s second, more disheartening stage: disillusionment.  To some degree, attainment is always disenchanting.  In the same way that Gatsby fabricates a grand, romanticized image of Daisy only to finally attain her and be disappointed, our fantasies of our lovers rarely coincide with their reality.  The crush who at first showered us with compliments becomes mysteriously inattentive once he sweet talks us into bed.  The debonair guy who was so irresistible at the beginning of our relationship eventually exchanges his impeccably tailored suits and Armani sunglasses for an unkempt beard and sweatpants.  Like Daisy, our beloved was more attractive as the green light, a hazy, faraway ambition made appealing by its inaccessibility.  As De Botton so eloquently writes:

“There is a long and gloomy tradition in Western thought arguing that love can ultimately only be thought of an unreciprocated, admiring, Marxist exercise, where desire thrives on the impossibility of ever seeing love returned.  According to this view, love is simply a direction, not a place, and burns itself out with the attainment of its goal, the possession [in bed or otherwise] of the loved one…Montaigne had the same idea of what made love grow when he declared that, ‘In love, there is nothing but a frantic desire for what flees from us—’ a view echoed by Anatole France’s maxim ‘It is not customary to love what one has.’

[…]

According to this view, lovers cannot do anything save the oscillation between the twin poles of yearning for and annoyance with.  Love has no middle ground.  It is simply a direction, what it desires it cannot desire beyond its capture.  Love should therefore burn itself out with its fulfillment, possession of the desired extinguishing desire.” 

At first, love is the profound relief of discovering we are not alone.  Our lover belongs to the same country as us: they find the same stupid things funny, they have the same preoccupations and predilections, they hold the same political views.  Reflecting on him and Chloe’s first days of flirtation, the narrator recalls:

“When philosophers imagine Utopian societies, they rarely envisage melting pots of difference; rather these societies are based around like-mindedness and unity, similarity and homogeneity, a set of common goals and assumptions.  It was precisely this congruence that made life with Chloe so attractive, the fact that after endless irreconcilable differences in matters of the heart, I had at last found someone whose jokes I understood without the need of a dictionary, whose views seemed miraculously close to mine, whose loves and hates kept tandem with my own and with whom I repeatedly found myself saying, ‘It’s amazing, I was about to say/think/do/tell you the same thing…’” 

However, if love is enchanting, it’s just as often disillusioning.  The trouble with romance is inherent in its very definition is a denial of reality.  When we fantasize about a lover from afar, we can imagine they are who we want them to be.  In the giddy first days of getting to know someone, we conceive we’re infinitely compatible, two indistinguishable circles of congruent circumference and length.  But when a distant crush becomes a committed partner who unpacks their emotional baggage with the intent to move into our lives and stay, we realize relationships are more like Venn diagrams, a union of separate individuals who are similar but ultimately distinct.  Tragically, the one we love is their own person with their own beliefs, their own philosophies, their own tastes— some of which will not correspond to our own.  Botton handles this law of love comically.  When Chloe buys a hideous pair of shoes, our narrator begins to question their compatibility:

“Chloe’s choice of shoe was an uncomfortable reminder that she existed in her own right [beyond fusional fantasies]…and however compatible we might be over certain things, compatibility did not extend indefinitely.  It was a reminder that getting to know someone is not always the pleasant process that common sense makes it out to be, for just as one might strike on delightful similarities, one may also encounter threatening differences.”

A dazzling cartography of the human heart, On Love will console those who’ve been dopamine-drunk/devastated/otherwise driven mad by love.  For more witty insights into this at times maddening aspect of the human experience, delight in De Botton on dating as a sort of performative play-acting, love as the origin of beauty, and the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning.  If you’re more interested in his philosophical musings on success and status, revisit De Botton on status as the construction of culture, how gazing upon once great ruins can cure us of our status anxiety and how expectation causes anxiety, malaise and discontentment. 

Alain de Botton On How Gazing Upon Once Great Ruins Can Cure Us of Our Status Anxiety

ozymandias

In the 13th century BCE, Ramses II was the most powerful man in Egypt.  Over the course of his reign, the great pharaoh, also known as Ozymandias, was beloved by his subjects.  From the Delta to Nubia, Ramses built grand monuments to immortalize his greatness.  So obsessed was he with preserving his legacy that he constructed more statues of himself than any other monarch.  But today what remains of this once legendary leader?  a brief mention in our history lesson on ancient Egypt?  perhaps an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica?  Despite his egotistical efforts to defeat eternity, time- as always- triumphed: three thousand years later, nothing remains of Ramses’s worldly accomplishments, as romantic poet Percy Shelly wrote in his 1817 poem “Ozymandias,” but a “shattered visage.”  

It is a cruel irony that we squander so many of our limited hours on earth trying to acquire power and prestige when, in the end, neither much matters.  Much like Ramses hopelessly attempting to erect an everlasting monument to his earthly success, we in the modern age hysterically scramble for status: envy-inducing job titles, degrees from esteemed Ivy Leagues- anything that signifies we are worthy of admiration and respect.  When we’ve captured that majestic-if elusive- butterfly of professional, material success, we feel like who we are may finally be enough.  But if that butterfly manages to slip from our grasp or if- god forbid- we never catch its shimmering wings in our nets, we’ll never respect ourselves.  Because we in the modern meritocracy attach moral significance to social standing, if we fall from the social ladder or never ascend to its highest rungs, we’ll contend our underachievement is a result of a character deficiency.  “Why did we fail to make something of ourselves?” we’ll wonder, “had we been lazy?  or had we simply not been intelligent/talented enough?”  This is why over-achieving straight-A students leap in front of trains when they’re rejected from Harvard: to go to a lesser school- they’ve been told- is to be lesser.  And if you’re lesser, why live at all?  

This may be a drastic example, but similar feelings of inferiority at one time or another beset us all.  According to erudite and edifying explorer of human history Alain De Botton, the same brilliant mind who elucidated how status is a construction of culture and expectation causes malaise and discontentment, status anxiety, or the worry that we’re nobodies in the eyes of others, is “capable of ruining extended stretches” of our existence.  If we’re unsuccessful in our quest to secure the love of the world, if we never receive its tokens of affection, renown and distinction, we foresee one shameful word engraved on our tombstones: “failure.”  Believing achievement equates to worth, we hustle to gain admission to the most exclusive universities, land that million dollar book deal and make six figures.  We fritter away a significant portion of our lives either chasing validation or fretting that what we have accomplished is still not good enough.  

So how can we cure ourselves of this destructive notion that the world is divided between winners and losers?  How can we alleviate the psychological anguish that accompanies the belief that we’re only as lovable as our accomplishments?  In his immeasurably interesting Status Anxiety, De Botton offers an unexpected remedy: gaze upon the decaying beauty of ancient ruins.  Thousands of years ago, Ramses II’s commanding statue beheld the ancient world’s most magnificent civilization- today, both his statue and kingdom have disintegrated to dust, as insignificant as a speck of Saharan sand.  At the height of Rome’s power, the Forum bustled as the cultural and political epicenter of the world’s mightiest empire- several millennia later, only the skeletons of a few buildings remain, their pillars looking out at the decay with the solemnity of defeated kings.  Instead of host lavish banquets for dignified statesman, today the Forum is just another “must-see” for pushy, poorly dressed tourists in cargo shorts and jeans.  As Genesis 3:19 so poetically says, “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”  

That we all return to dust seems to validate the bleak nihilistic belief in life’s inherent meaninglessness.  Yet the fact that all things must end is not cause for despair.  The crumbling fragments of ancient Rome and the declining figure of Ramses II make us conscious of our ultimate insignificance, yes, but- if anything- this awareness puts our petty status anxieties into proper perspective.  No matter how brave our military exploits or how vast our lands, the disquieting truth is no one will remember them a thousand years hence.  Countless important figures have been lost through the ages: once influential world leaders dim into the oblivion of irrelevance and obscurity, all-powerful empires topple over, nations’ borders are drawn and redrawn.  Because our mortal accomplishments inevitably perish in the almighty face of eternity, De Botton suggests it’s pointless to worry too much about our status in society:

classical ruins

“Ruins reprove us for our folly in sacrificing peace of mind for the unstable rewards of earthly power.  Beholding old stones, we may feel our anxieties over our achievements- and the lack of them- slacken.  What does it matter, really, if we have not succeeded in the eyes of others, if there are no monuments and processions in our honor or if no one smiled at us at a recent gathering?  Everything is, in any event, fated to disappear, leaving only the New Zealanders to sketch the ruins of our boulevards and offices.  Judged against eternity, how little of what agitates us makes any difference.

Ruins bid us to surrender our strivings and our fantasies of perfection and fulfillment.  They remind us that we cannot defy time and that we are merely playthings of forces of destruction which can at best be kept at bay but never vanquished.  We enjoy local victories, perhaps claim a few years in which we are able to impose a degree of order upon the chaos, but ultimately will slop back into a primeval soup.  If this prospect has the power to console us, it is perhaps because the greater part of our anxieties stems from an exaggerated sense of the importance of our projects and concerns.  We are tortured by our ideals and by a punishingly high-minded sense of the gravity of what we are doing.

Christian moralists have long understood that to the end of reassuring the anxious, they will do well to emphasize that contrary to the first principle of optimism, everything will in fact turn out for the worst: the ceiling will collapse, the statue will topple, we will die, everyone we love will vanish and all our achievements and even our names will be trod underfoot.  We may derive some comfort from this, however, if a part of us is able instinctively to recognize how closely our miseries are bound up with the grandiosity of our ambitions.  To consider our petty status worries from the perspective of a thousand years hence is to be granted a rare, tranquillising glimpse of our own insignificance.”

In the poem “Ozymandias,” Ramses II declares, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings.  Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”  But, as Shelley observes in the next line, a few millennia later, “nothing beside remains.”  Ramses II’s ruins remind us of the futility of acquiring worldly fame as, in the end, nothing is eternal: somebodies will become nobodies just as surely as buildings will be reduced to rubble.

Alain De Botton on How Expectation Causes Anxiety, Malaise & Discontentment

If the whole of human history was a book, each page spanning several hundred years, the last status anxietypage would be more heart-racing than all the previous pages combined: in the last few centuries, we’ve increased life expectancy, completely eradicated many once widespread diseases, and drastically reduced poverty.  In contemporary society, the majority of people live in prosperity unimaginable only a few decades ago.  In 1950 alone, three-quarters of the world lived in extreme destitution; by 2015, that number had dropped to below 10%.  But while our particular page in human history has seen unprecedented economic growth and astounding technological and scientific progress, it also recounts a more distressing tale of hard-to-place malaise and pervasive dissatisfaction.  Though the 21st century man’s material quality of life is doubtlessly better than the ancient hunter-gather’s or medieval serf’s, he suffers a malady that very rarely afflicted his ancestors: status anxiety, or the near constant fear of being perceived as a failure.

Why status anxiety is a distinctly modern phenomenon is what Alain De Botton explains in  Status Anxiety, the same philosophical masterpiece that revealed status as a construction of culture.  Pondering the paradox that we’ve become less satisfied as we’ve accumulated more things, De Botton writes:

The benefits of two thousand years of Western civilization are familiar enough: an extraordinary increase in wealth, in food supply, in scientific knowledge, in the availability of consumer goods, in physical security, in life expectancy and economic opportunity.  What is perhaps less apparent, and more perplexing, is that these impressive material advances have coincided with a phenomenon left unmentioned in Nixon’s address to his Soviet audience: a rise in the levels of status anxiety among ordinary Western citizens, by which is meant a rise in levels of concern about importance, achievement and income.  

A sharp decline in actual deprivation may, paradoxically, have been accompanied by an ongoing and even escalating sense or fear of deprivation.  Blessed with riches and possibilities far beyond anything imagined by ancestors who tilled the unpredictable soil of medieval Europe, modern populations have nonetheless shown a remarkable capacity to feel that neither who they are nor what they have is quite enough.”

The idea that we’re more plagued by discontent today than in previous generations defies common sense.  How is it possible to live in an affluent society with every conceivable luxury and convenience and still feel as though who you are and what you have isn’t enough?  For De Botton, the answer is expectation.  What, exactly, qualifies as “enough”- enough prestige, enough wealth- is relative: we determine what is enough based on our peer group, or those we deem similar to us.  If those in our immediate social circle- family, old high school and college friends- have impressive job titles at glamorous Fortune 500 companies or can afford luxurious trips across the continent, we’ll begin to expect ourselves to attain similar heights of success.  

But what happens when we perceive ourselves to be falling behind while our more talented, well-regarded friends hurry ahead?  Even if we objectively occupy rather high rungs on the social ladder, most of us are stung by bitter envy at the news of our peers’ success.  The idea that we could potentially be someone other than who we are tortures us with a sense that possibilities are boundless.  The result?  We in the modern era never quite feel content: 

“Such feelings of deprivation may seem less peculiar if we consider the psychology behind the way we decide precisely how much is enough.  Our judgement of what constitutes an appropriate limit on anything- for example, on wealth or esteem- is never arrived at independently; instead, we make such determinations by comparing our condition with that of a reference group, a set of people who we believe resemble us.  We cannot, it seems, appreciate what we have for its own merit, or even against what our medieval forebears had.  We cannot be impressed by how prosperous we are in historical terms.  We see ourselves as fortunate only when we have as much as, or more than, those we have grown up with, work alongside, have as friends or identify with in the public realm.  

If we are made to live in a droughty, insalubrious cottage and bend to the harsh rule of an aristocrat occupying a large and well-heated castle, and yet we observe that our equals all live exactly as we do, then our condition will seem normal- regrettable, certainly, but not a fertile ground for envy.  If, however, we have a pleasant home and a comfortable job but learn through ill-advised attendance at a school reunion that some of our old friends (there is no more compelling reference group) now reside in houses grander than ours, bought on the salaries they are paid in more enticing occupations than our own, we are likely to return home nursing a violent sense of misfortune.  

It is the feeling that we might, under different circumstances, be something other than what we are- a feeling inspired by exposure to the superior achievements of those whom we take to be our equals- that generates anxiety and resentment.  If we are short, say, but live among people of our same height, we will not be unduly troubled by questions of size.  

But if others in our group grow just a little taller than us, we are liable to feel sudden unease and to be gripped by dissatisfaction and envy, even though we have not ourselves diminished in size by so much as a fraction of a millimeter.

Given the vast inequalities we are daily confronted with, the most notable feature of envy may be that we manage not to envy everyone.  There are people whose enormous blessings leave us wholly untroubled, even as others’ negligible advantages become a source of relentless torment for us.  We envy only those whom we feel ourselves to be like- we envy only members of our reference group.  There are few successes more unendurable than those of our ostensible equals.”  

alain de botton status

Before the paradigm-shifting political and social revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was believed that God ordained social class.  Just as God granted Adam dominion over the beasts and babes, he gave certain men command: kings were meant to reign over kingdoms, masters over slaves, the oppressors over the oppressed.  Because your station was understood as an expression of God’s will, it would be both immoral and futile to revolt against your designated rank.  Unlike in modern egalitarian societies, in the aristocratic states of the past, status was determined by one’s family name- one could not transcend the destiny of his born social class.  To suggest that a lowly peasant could aspire to one day be king would be preposterous- as nonsensical as proposing a lion was once a rat. 

Though the medieval serf’s life was undoubtedly more arduous than the modern man’s, in many ways it was less troubled.  Unlike we in the 21st century who are tormented by a terrible sense that we can be anyone and do anything, the impoverished of earlier eras were satisfied with their stations: they didn’t begrudge their lord’s lavish manor or resent the rich.  Because they never expected to overcome the limitations of their parentage, they suffered none of the insecurity about stature that we do today.  After all, if it was predetermined that you should sit on a certain stratum of the social ladder, if it was impossible to raise your reputation because social orders were fixed and unchanging, what else could follow but acceptance?  If you were born a serf, you’d die a serf, simple as that:

“It follows that the greater the number of people whom we take to be our equals and compare ourselves to, the more there will be for us to envy.  

If the great political and consumer revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries caused psychological anguish while vastly improving the material lot of mankind, it was because they were founded on a set of extraordinary new ideals, a practical belief in the innate equality of all human beings and in the unlimited power of anyone to achieve anything.  For most of history, the opposite assumption had held sway, with inequality and low expectations being deemed both normal and wise.  Very few among the masses had ever aspired to wealth or fulfillment; the rest knew well enough that they were condemned to exploitation and resignation.

‘It is clear that some men are by nature free and others are by nature slaves, and that for these latter, slavery is both expedient and right,’ Aristotle declared in his Politics (350 B.C.), voicing an opinion shared by almost all Greek and Roman thinkers and leaders.  In the ancient world, slaves and members of the working classes in general were considered to be not truly human at all but a species of creature, lacking in reason and therefore perfectly fitted to a life of servitude, just as beasts of burden were suited to tilling in the fields.  The notion that they might have rights and aspirations of their own would have been judged by the elite as no less absurd than, say, an expression of concern for the thought processes or level of happiness of an ox or an ass.  

The belief that inequality was fair, or at least inescapable, was also subscribed to by the oppressed themselves.  With the spread of Christianity during the later Roman Empire, many fell prey to a religion that taught them to accept unequal treatment as part of a natural, unchangeable social order.

[…]

A good Christian society…took the form of a rigidly stratified monarchy, a design said to reflect the ordering of the celestial kingdom.  Just as God wielded absolute power over all creation, from the angels down to the smallest toads, so, too, his appointed rulers on earth were understood to preside over a society where God had given everyone his and her place, from the noblemen down to the farm-hand.”

coronation of virgin in paradise

It wasn’t until the birth of democracy that societies adopted a more egalitarian perspective.  Whereas in the Middle Ages it was believed that God granted dominion to a privileged few, in the 17th century, philosophers began to argue all men- not just the elite upper classes- were endowed with certain rights by virtue of their humanness.  No historical event captured this shift in thought more dramatically than the American Revolution, whose founding document declared with unparalleled poetry that among these rights were “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  The idea that all men- king and subject, nobleman and peasant- were more or less equal represented a radical departure from the severely stratified class system of the past.  In the New World, democratic ideals razed rigid class barriers to the ground.  No longer was your status at birth an inescapable fate; through persistence and perseverance, even the poorest man- it was thought- could surpass his humble social class.  Rather than be dictated by family lineage, standing in the modern meritocracy was allocated on the basis of ability and talent: the most distinguished positions were now available to everyone, both the wealthy and the penniless.

Because democracies offered more equitable social and economic opportunities, they broadened what the masses thought possible: for the first time, a commoner could aspire to be a gentleman, the most ordinary drudge, a fashionable member of high society.  With this rise of meritocratic ideals came a historic upswing in expectations.  On one hand, the ability of democracy to increase what the majority of its citizens expected of themselves represented a monumental achievement: never before had a such a large number of people had such grandiose ambitions; but on the other hand, it’s a law of life that the higher your expectations, the more likely you are to meet dispiriting disappointment.  If happiness is as simple as reality meeting your expectations, it’s logical to conclude that the probability of being happy is inversely proportional to your expectations: the lower your expectations, the more likely you are to be satisfied and vise versa.  As the democratic philosophy of equal opportunity attracted more and more adherents, the average person’s aspirations inflated to previously unheard of proportions.  In the old aristocratic class system, you only compared yourself to your direct peer group: if you were a servant, you compared yourself to other servants, etc.  But in the egalitarian era, everyone was your supposed equal: it was now reasonable for a servant to compare his fate to a president’s- and expect that he, too, could achieve great things.  And though fairer accessibility to opportunities made such upward mobility possible for a fortunate few, the vast majority of the working class had their dreams disappointed.  So while the medieval peasant had only the most limited notion of what was possible, he possessed a certain peace of mind that eludes us today.  Because he harbored no lofty aspirations, his heart was spared the embitterment of thwarted expectations:

“The rigid hierarchy that had been in place in almost every Western society until the late eighteenth century, denying all hope of social movement except in the rarest of cases, the system glorified by John of Salisbury and John Fortescue, was unjust in a thousand all too obvious ways, but it offered those on the lowest rungs one notable freedom: the freedom to not have to take the achievements of quite so many people as reference points- and so find themselves severely wanting in status and importance.”

we the people

The advent of mass media in the late nineteenth century raised expectations to even loftier heights.  For the first time in history, ordinary people- through the glossy fashion spreads of Elle and Vogue– gained access to the rich’s extravagant lives.  With just a quick stop at the corner newspaper stand (or in today’s terms, one effortless click on a vapid celebrity gossip site), a man of modest means could glimpse his parallel lives- grander, more glittery fates in which he could sip champagne and caviar and sail a yacht with John Jacob Aster.  In this new world where anything was possible, no citizen was too poor- to borrow the words of Alexis de Tocqueville- to “cast a glance of hope and envy toward the pleasures of the rich.”

But the effect of this near constant exposure to the rich was to make the poor feel poorer.  It stands to reason that if you spend the majority of your time gazing at gorgeous, impeccably dressed supermodels in Chanel sweaters, your life will seem lacking by comparison.  It’s the same phenomenon that occurs when you read about the hottest Hollywood parties: suddenly your weekend seems far less exciting.  The rise of celebrity culture has convinced us in the contemporary era that who we are and what we have isn’t enough- we need more: more stylish handbags, more luxurious home furnishings, more glamorous friends.  

The fact that the media relentlessly stokes the flames of our desire explains our current happiness crisis.  Both the Buddhists and Jean-Jacques Rousseau had it right: happiness is relative to our desires.  Being happy doesn’t mean possessing many things; rather, it means possessing what we yearn for- we only suffer if we don’t procure what we lust after.  That’s why it’s possible for a billionaire to have a magnificent mansion and still feel discontented: if his estate is only 6,000 square feet but he longs for 8,000, his stately palace will seem little more than a shack.  But if a homeless drifter sleeps in train cars yet has no desires, he will be at peace, even content.  This resolves the seemingly irreconcilable paradox of our age: though we’ve managed to tremendously increase material wealth, by simultaneously multiplying the average person’s desires, we’ve made happiness harder and harder to attain:

“There are two ways to make a man richer…give him more money or curb his desires.  Modern societies have done the former spectacularly well, but by continuously whetting appetites, they have at the same time managed to negate a share of their success…Insofar as advanced societies supply their members with historically elevated incomes, they appear to make us wealthier.  But in truth, their net effect may be to impoverish us, because by fostering unlimited expectations, they keep open permanent gaps between what we want and what we can afford, between who we might be and who we really are.”