Interviews

Status Anxiety and Bohemia: Alain de Botton

08 March 2011 | Interviews
This is a very short excerpt from my interview with Alain de Botton. The interview can be read in its entirety in Issue Five of New Escapologist.

Employment often seems at odds with the happiness and internal values of the individual. Must it always be this way?

There are broadly speaking two philosophies of work out there. The first you could call the working-class view of work, which sees the point of work as being primarily financial. You work to feed yourself and your loved ones. You don’t live for your work. You work for the sake of the weekend and spare time – and your colleagues are not your friends necessarily. The other view of work, very different, is the middle class view, which sees work as absolutely essential to a fulfilled life and lying at the heart of our self-creation and self-fulfilment. These two philosophies always co-exist but in a recession, the working class view is getting a new lease of life. More and more one hears the refrain, ‘it’s not perfect, but at least it’s a job…’

The strangest thing about the world of work isn’t the long hours we put in or the fancy machines we use to get it done; take a step back and perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the work scene is in the end psychological rather than economic or industrial. It has to do with our attitudes to work, more specifically the widespread expectation that our work should make us happy, that it should be at the centre of our lives and our expectations of fulfilment. The first question we tend to ask of new acquaintances is not where they come from or who their parents were, but what they do. Here is the key to someone’s identity and esteem. It seems hard to imagine being able to feel good about yourself or knowing who you were without having work to get on with.

It wasn’t always like this. For thousands of years, work was viewed as an unavoidable drudge and nothing more, something to be done with as rapidly as possible and escaped in the imagination through alcohol or religious intoxication. Aristotle was only the first of many philosophers to state that no one could be both free and obliged to earn a living. Holding down a job, any job, was akin to slavery and denied one any chance of greatness. Christianity added to this analysis the yet grimmer conclusion that the misery of work was an unavoidable consequence of the sins of Adam and Eve. The idea that work could be fun, as opposed to simply useful and necessary, had to wait until the Renaissance to get any traction. It was then, in contemporary biographies of geniuses like Raphael or Leonardo da Vinci, that one gets the first glimmers of the idea that doing extraordinary work might be better than lying around as an idle aristocrat, indeed, that work might be the highest of blessings. A more optimistic assessment of work as a whole had to wait until the eighteenth century, the age of the great bourgeois philosophers, men like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot, who for the first time argued that one’s working life could be at the centre of any ambition for happiness. It was during this century that our modern ideas about work were formed – incidentally, at the very same time as our modern ideas about love and marriage took shape.

In fact, there were remarkable similarities between the two realms of love and work. In the pre-modern age, it had widely been assumed that no one could try to be in love and married: marriage was something one did for purely commercial reasons, to hand down the family farm or ensure a dynastic continuity. Things were going well if you maintained a tepid friendship with your spouse. Meanwhile, love was something you did with your mistress, on the side, with pleasure untied to the responsibilities of child-rearing. Yet the new philosophers of love now argued that one might actually aim to marry the person one was in love with rather than just have an affair. To this unusual idea was added the even more peculiar notion that one might work both for money and to realise one’s dreams, an idea that replaced the previous assumption that the day job took care of the rent and anything more ambitious had to happen in one’s spare time, once the money had been hauled in.

We are the heirs of these two very ambitious beliefs: that you can be in love and married ­- and in a job and having a good time. It has become as impossible for us to think that you could be out of work and happy as it had once seemed impossible for Aristotle to think that you could be employed and human.