Alain de Botton Talks Christianity, Anxiety, and Death

“What would Alain de Botton do?” — Mark Corrigan, Peep Show, Season 4 In a passage […]

Will McDavid / 12.20.13

“What would Alain de Botton do?” — Mark Corrigan, Peep Show, Season 4

In a passage eerily reminiscent of Paul Zahl’s Panopticon, emerging Mbird-favorite Alain de Botton speaks about death and the counterintuitively comforting perspective sometimes offers on life and our ‘status anxiety‘. Turns out we’re all anxious about downward mobility of some sort, and the ultimate equalizer, the inevitable rock-bottom, can speak to this:

Status_Anxiety_(Alain_de_Botton_book)_cover_art“Whatever other differences there may be between them, Christian and secular concepts overlap substantially on the subject of what is meaningful in life when viewed from the perspective of death. There is a strikingly similar positive emphasis on love, authentic social relations and charity, and a common condemnation of the pursuit of power, military strength, wealth and glory. These and other ends and activities seem almost universally inconsequential beside the thought of death…

‘Vanity of Vanity, all is vanity,’ lamented the author of Ecclesiastes (1:2)… Examples of ‘vanitas art’, so named in tribute to Ecclesiastes, were hung in domestic environments, most often studies and bedrooms. Each still-life featured a table or sideboard on which was arranged a contrasting muddle of objects. There might be flowers, coins, a guitar or a mandolin, chess pieces, a book of verse, a laurel wreath or a wine bottle: symbols of frivolity and temporal glory. And somewhere among these would be set the two great symbols of death and the brevity of life: a skull and an hourglass.

The purpose of such works was not to send their viewers into a depression over the vanity of all things; rather, it was to embolden them to find fault with particular aspects of their own experience…


Christian moralists have long understood that to the end of reassuring the anxious, they will do well to emphasize that contrary to that 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 recognise how closely our miseries are bound up with the grandiosity of our ambitions. To consider our petty status anxieties from the perspective of a thousand years hence is to be granted a rare, tranquilising glimpse of our own insignificance.”