Cult of the human

Cult of the human

I’ve not read Status Anxiety but it’s on my list. You know, the list – the one that piles up by your bed and gets so long you worry if you’ll have time to read it all before you die. That list.

But I came across this quote from it, which I really love. It chimes with something I’ve thought for a long time about celebrity worship; in my version of this quote I would replace the “vast landscapes” with “celebrities” and “famous people”.

Vast landscapes can have an anxiety reducing effect similar to ruins for they are the representatives of infinite space as ruins are the representatives of infinite time, against which our weak, short-lived bodies can seem no less inconsequential than those of moths or spiders. Whatever differences exist between people, they are as nothing next to the differences between the most powerful humans and the great deserts, high mountains, glaciers and oceans of the world. They are natural phenomena so large as to make the variations between any two people seem mockingly small. By spending time in vast spaces, a sense of our insignificance in the social hierarchy can be subsumed in a consoling sense of the insignificance of all humans within the cosmos. We can overcome a feeling of unimportance, not by making ourselves more important, but by recognising the relative unimportance of everyone. Our concern with who is a few millimetres taller than us can give way to an awe for things a thousand million times larger than us.

– Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety

People who profess to not understand why some people take great pleasure in the actions of those deemed more significant than them, more famous, get this wrong all the time: it’s not the act of raising someone up beyond their worth that’s is so compelling about worship, but the belittling of everyone else (oneself included). That can be paralysing – shutting off the rational part of your brain that tells you you don’t have to live in accordance with other people – but contemplating the sheer significance of another person, who is like you, and everyone around you, but so much better, can also be liberating, as de Botton suggests – perhaps therapeutic even, as therapeutic as imagining our own insignificance against the universe.