In part 7 of Status Anxiety Alain de Botton looks at how living standards in the West have hugely improved in the last 200 years with major increases in life expectancy, economic opportunity and wealth generally. Despite these improvements it can be argued that we are much more status conscious and status anxious than we every were in the days of horse drawn carriages. Older societies despite all their disadvantages had one big advantage when it came to status. Before the mid 18th century, status was handed out in very particular ways: it did not matter what you did but who you were, who your parents were, what kind of background you had. People at the top of society had been handed their priveleges on a plate, secondly there was very little social mobility and thirdly people had very low expectations of the kind of life they could have. Under the old feudal system only a very few could aspire to wealth and fulfillment.
Alain de Botton claims that religion taught many people to accept their unequal treatment as part of a natural and unchangeable order. The English Christian medeival author John of Salisbury, who in 1159 published Policraticus, compared society to a body and used this analogy to justify a system of natural inequality. The ruler was like a head, the parliament like the lungs, the treasury like a stomach, the army like the hands, the working classes like the feet and the peasantry the toes. Behind this rather insulting metaphor lay the idea that everyone in society had been accorded an unalterable role.
Gradually in the middle of the 18th century a way of distributing status emerged, a way that gave hope to millions of people and dramatically changed their lives but which at the same time also brought new levels of anxiety. This new system was called meritocracy. Alain de Botton travels to America to see how the creation of the United States in 1776 fundamentally changed the way status was distributed. The constitution of this new country was based on an idea which was to affect almost every aspect of life right across the Western world – the idea of meritocracy.
Thomas Jefferson drafted these words in June 1776:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit if happiness”
Part 7 of this series continues to look at how this Declaration of Independence and the ideals of meritocracy led to the belief in the American Dream – that anyone with enough talent is capable of achieving anything. An aristocracy of talent rather than birth right emerged.
Posted by Shona Lockhart, 20th June 2012.