Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life April 2004
“We are afflicted by a congenital uncertainty as to our own value,” observes Alain deBotton, author of an unfashionably lucid recent work of philosophy entitled Status Anxiety1. This affliction compels us to seek the attention and admiration of others – a quest virtually guaranteed failure since so many are now seeking the same from us.
Having reached much the same conclusion about the deepest human problem in a reflection on the history of Christianity published in 19992, I was intrigued especially by deBotton’s account of the role of Christianity in ameliorating status anxiety down the centuries. This account is not as detailed or complete as one would wish, but his conclusions are provocative and potentially fertile for others who might wish to take up the theme.
To begin with, he brackets Jesus with Socrates as an outstanding example of indifference to the opinion of others, and understands the Gospel concept of ‘worldliness’ as virtually identical to status anxiety – quite correctly in my view. He also correctly credits the Churches with insisting upon the equality of all in the sight of God. However, he goes on to insist that Christianity for most of its history did not seriously challenge, even philosophically, the worldly status pyramids outside the sacred spaces of cloister, chapel and cathedral.
He points out that St Augustine’s ‘two cities’ model of history did not allow for the defeat of the worldly, and therefore status-ridden, earthly city by the Church (the City of God) before the day of judgement. Though Christendom could affirm the dignity of the peasant ploughman – for example through the corporatist social model of John of Salisbury – (for whom rulers supplied the mind and peasantry the feet of society) – it has been less effective in ameliorating the impact of meritocratic ideas upon those of low status in a modern society. So much for the penetration of Catholic social teaching, and of Vatican II, into deBotton’s consciousness – but this is significant in its own way.
Meritocracy has, deBotton insists, increased rather than reduced status anxiety. In medieval society ‘the poor’ tended to think of their work as useful, of their lot as inevitable, and of their status as both acceptable and none of their own fault. However, the eighteenth century changed all of that. In came the ‘new story’ of Adam Smith – that it was the entrepreneurial spirit that not only produced most wealth, but made wealth potentially limitless. Social Darwinism – the theory that ‘success’ was proof of a genetic and even moral superiority – followed in the nineteenth century. This was countered for a time by ideological socialism, but the recent victory of laissez faire economics and liberal democracy has consolidated the status of a new aristocracy rooted in ceaseless energy, shrewd investment and entrepreneurial cleverness. The seemingly absolute and final ascendancy of a so-called meritocracy implies that the unsuccessful are without any merit – a supremely dispiriting conclusion for them at least.
The most entertaining part of the book is a robust treatment of snobbery, a term that may have originated in the 1820s with the use of ‘s. nob.’ to abbreviate ‘sine nobilitate’, inscribed opposite the names of non-aristocrats in Oxford and Cambridge examination lists. The snob is forever fearful of being considered insignificant through association with the common herd. A Punch cartoon of 1892 (reproduced in deBotton’s book) captures the problem precisely by observing a trio of stately London ladies parading through a park. One of these is looking after another similar trio that has just passed by. She says:
“There go the Spicer Wilcoxes, Mamma. I’m told they’re dying to know us. Hadn’t we better call?”
“Certainly not, Dear!” Mamma replies. “If they’re dying to know us they’re not worth knowing. The only people worth Our knowing are the people who don’t want to know Us!”
When we recall that the person at the summit of that Victorian status pyramid was a monarch distinguished only by her longevity (and at one stage ironically hailed as ‘Mrs Brown’ by the London mob for her attachment to a Scottish manservant) we have even more reason to laugh at the follies of snobbery.
Snobbery and status anxiety are, of course, one and the same. Television situation comedy has exploited a rich vein here in recent years in the UK – in series such as
Only Fools and Horses, Yes, Minister and Keeping up Appearances. The belief that advantages such as wealth and education – and country houses and exclusive china – make people somehow ‘better’, more worthy of respect, is, seemingly, a universal and timeless illusion.
That Christian thought and instruction should ceaselessly puncture snobbish pretensions is clear, but the fact is that the mainstream churches have never made a serious direct assault upon snobbery since Constantine. I cannot remember ever hearing a sermon on the subject – although I have been bored to tears all my life by the theme of ‘materialism’. As people acquire expensive property and luxury goods for reasons of status, never for their material composition, that complaint has always missed the mark.
Here in Ireland this failure to indict snobbery from the pulpit and the schoolroom has been especially destructive of the moral persuasiveness of Catholicism in a society aspiring to equality. It has allowed middle class prigs to dominate, and even to characterise, the public face of the church, while the inhabitants of our inner cities now tend to see Catholic bishops as snobbery in purple – simply because they almost always behave as remote grandees rather than accessible and socially relaxed pastors. Bishops generally have been delegating to others the virtue of humility since the fourth century – and this has now become the outstanding scandal in the Church, the root source of its alienation of egalitarian societies.
The part played by Irish Catholic snobbery in the maltreatment of those at the base of the secular period – too often by those at the base of the clerical pyramid – in mid twentieth century Ireland is something that surely needs to be explored in the context of the scandal of child abuse in Ireland. Status pyramids always deprive those at their base of a sense of their own dignity, and brutality is an almost inevitable consequence.
We need to re-evaluate also the devotion by the Irish church of so much educational capital to the children of the middle classes. The assumption that this investment would guarantee the fidelity of the Irish meritocracy to the values and truths of Catholicism was clearly sadly mistaken. There is now not a single national news medium in Ireland that can be said to be sympathetic to and supportive of the church – proof that its efforts on behalf of the middle classes are now interpreted as part of a right wing political agenda rather than as an example of social concern.
And in the context of the growing problem of bullying in our schools, and the self-hatred and self-harming that can follow, the failure of Irish Catholic education to make any explicit connection between social derision and the Gospel account of the crucifixion must be regarded as another disastrous failing.
All of this casts an interesting light upon deBotton’s analysis of the historical failure of the mainstream churches to tackle the spiritual challenge of snobbery in society at large. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that snobbery has become deeply embedded in the church itself.
Just as the secular world is now full of wine, food and all kinds of consumer snobbery, so do we find in the church the liturgy and sacred music snobs who just cannot abide the typical novus ordo mass or folk music hymns. There are even fashions for styles of meditation, for theologians and philosophers – and even ‘spiritualities’ – but little intellectual attention to fashion itself. The awarding of ‘papal knighthoods’ – even to globally notorious pornographers – speaks for itself – as does the English Catholic Herald’s obsession with eulogising supposedly high status converts to Catholicism such as Alec Guinness and Ann Widdecombe. Opus Dei’s recruitment priorities and social attitudes are snobbery incarnate. (It never fails to remind us of its founder’s alleged noblesse.)
Meanwhile we are urged by hierarchs to ‘engage with culture’ – without reflecting upon the very essence of culture itself – its mimetic character. That is what fashion and culture essentially are – the mimesis or imitation of the behaviour of those who have somehow acquired status. No Catholic bishop to my knowledge has yet connected the careerism of bishops – the subject of Cardinal Gantin’s astonishingly frank post-retirement outburst in 1999 – with status seeking in the secular world. This does not bode well for an effective ‘engagement’ by Irish bishops generally with the culture of meritocratic Ireland.
And this means that there is also scant hope at this stage for an effective national response to the challenge of ‘new evangelisation’. True evangelisation elicits an awakening from the mimetic compulsion to seek status and celebrity, an awakening to the good news that one is lovable for oneself and so can be both autonomous and spontaneous. Those who would propose to lead a ‘new evangelism’ in Ireland would need to be sure they have experienced this themselves.
DeBotton reminds us poignantly of one of Tolstoy’s greatest characters – Ivan Ilyich – who discovers on the brink of his own death that the status he has achieved in late 1800s St Petersburg does not mean that he is truly loved by either friends or family. He has sought all his life the regard of others, and so has taught his children to do the same. His supposedly cherished beliefs are the fashionable opinions of others, and nowhere near his heart. His work colleagues’ tepid sympathy cannot disguise their greater interest in who will benefit most from his demise.
Late nineteenth century St Petersburg was no less, and no more, Christian than 1950s Ireland – because (as Cardinal Cahal Daly has acknowledged in the case of Ireland) conformity in pursuit of status had become in both the norm – and conformity is just another word for fashion.
How could Christianity and conformity ever have become confused? It happened, surely, as soon as Constantine’s opportunistic vision was blessed by the Catholic bishops as the real thing, and this Caesarean mass murderer was eulogised in the most excruciating terms by Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, the proto-typical Catholic snob. This set a new priority for evangelism itself: to convert the socially elevated, because this would guarantee the setting of a spectacular conformist fashion among their ‘inferiors’. This fashion was already established in continental Europe before Patrick came to Ireland, and even Patrick could see the advantage of converting political and social elites first of all.
Thus the support of social elites became essential to the power of the Church all over Europe. And it was the social elitism of the Irish Catholic church that placed it in opposition to the equalising, and therefore, in that limited sense, more truly Christian, tide of modern secularism. Clerical elitism is also the root cause of the tide of clerical scandals that we have seen over the past twelve years – scandals that egalitarian secularism could almost gleefully exploit.
Work such as deBotton’s suggest, therefore, an essential preliminary to any attempt at a ‘new evangelism’ in Ireland – a revision of the history of the Church that correctly identifies Christendom as a failed attempt at evangelisation-through-elites – and military elites at that. It failed because it compromised the Gospels which are centrally an assault upon elitism itself, and especially elitist violence. It failed also, probably, because the Christian God could not let it succeed while remaining true to the radical egalitarianism of his Son.
I do not believe that neo-scholastic philosophy has yet produced a book as relevant, fascinating and revealing as this on the problem of status-seeking – one of the key components of the global environmental and social crisis. This too underlines the fact that the best of secular thought has much to teach the church – especially when secular thinkers reflect honestly upon the mysterious failure of secularism to achieve its original 18th century programme. When the apostles asked ‘which of us is the greatest?’ they were revealing what Christianity, and secularism, need to recognize as the basic human flaw – our boundless desire for priority, measured in the deference of others.
- Alain deBotton, Status Anxiety, Hamish Hamilton, 2004
- Sean O’Conaill, Scattering the Proud, Columba Press, 1999