And your fifteen minutes starts now, should you choose to accept them …

Paris HIlton famous for being famous.

Reanimating a very old pedagogical technique, we decided recently to reframe Deakin’s history of ethics course. Each week, competing arguments for and against a disputed proposition are presented and defended: that pleasure is the goal of life; that we should try to wholly conquer negative emotions like anger; that to live well one must premeditate one’s death

The basic idea is to ‘bring the mountain to Mohammed’. Students will each, from the start, have some opinion about these questions, even if they have not explicitly thought them through. They cannot by contrast be expected to have informed ideas about the thinkers the course gradually introduces them to: Socrates, Aristotle, the Stoics, Epicureanism, Natural Law

We use the questions to animate the philosophies, then the philosophies to challenge the students’ ideas.

In the discussions which ensued last year, it became very clear that the predominant idea students bring to the table about “happiness and the good life” is that being famous—preferably very famous—is the best life imaginable.

We happy few

It should probably have been news to none of us that we live in a society obsessed with ‘fame and fortune’ in ways that are historically novel, although hardly unique.

The desire for fame is probably as old as civilisation itself, at least amongst male_ homines sapientes_. Offered the choice between a safe but unsung return home to Ithaca and staying to die in Troy to be remembered forever, Homer’s Achilles (8th century BCE) chooses death and immortal fame.

The desire for such poetic immortality, alongside more transcendent promises of eternity, remains a principal motivator for warriors like Achilles, alongside sportsmen and women, their more peaceable successors. As Shakespeare’s Henry V promises his men, immortally, before the battle of Agincourt:

… our names,
Familiar … as household words …
[will] be in … flowing cups freshly rememb'red … 
From this day to the ending of the world …
Kenneth Branagh as Shake-speare’s Henry V delivering the legendary Saint Crispin’s day speech to

Aristotle in the opening book of the Nicomachean Ethics suggests that the desire to be remembered as a benefactor is likewise the principal goal of that class of men (and today, women) who enter public life. How else to explain this “strange desire to seek power and to lose liberty” which seems for some people to need no explanation, when so often, as several recent Australian Prime Ministers can confirm:

The rising unto place is laborious; and by pains men come to greater pains; and it is sometimes base; and by indignities men come to dignities. The standing is slippery, and the regress is either a downfall, or at least an eclipse, which is a melancholy thing …

Of course, it is rarely the desire for military or political fame that our students assume that ‘everybody knows’ is the best game in town. In this age of mass and social media, the goal is to be a ‘star’ in the entertainment industry: as a singer, maybe, or an actor; or in a smaller number of cases, a sports star.

The milky way like Hollywood a galaxy of stars.

Reality television is set up around the promise of people being suddenly ‘discovered’, and catapulted from obscurity to the limelight with just one rub of the genie’s lamp. Gossip magazines and their televisual cousins have long traded in publicising every possible image and moment of the lives of the ‘rich and famous’.

Along with the fame, of course, there is the money, and all the material goods it can buy. For the guys, there is the promise of the unlimited female attention that seems to come with stardom. For the women, there is the promise of being courted by a different cut of eligible suitors, and of being their own mistresses in a world still mostly ruled by males.

Yet since these other goods somehow come to or with fame, let’s leave them to one side. The prior question is of why something as intangible as being famous should be almost universally considered such a magnet and a boon.

Live unknown?

For Aristotle is not alone amongst the classical philosophers when he devalues fame (in his case, beneath the pursuit of knowledge) relative to the high esteem in which it was held in wider Hellenic culture.

Epicurus advised his students to shun public life and ‘live unknown.’ The Stoics, while maintaining a much more public-spirited ideal, agree that to desire fame as an end in itself is irrational. Pyrrho the sceptic, accounted by many a sage, lived at home with his sister and tended to hogs.

The ironically stern visage of the hedonist philosopher Epicurus.

What then are these philosopher’s ‘arguments against’ our students’ intuition that being famous—small matter for what—is the best thing to aspire to?

Fame, yes, and fortune’s wheel

Francis Bacon, reporting through crocodile tears a “flourish” of “the poets”, tells us that they describe fame “in part finely and elegantly, and in part gravely and sententiously. They say, look how many feathers she hath, so many eyes she hath underneath; so many tongues; so many voices; she pricks up so many ears …”

The essay from which this passage comes reflects an older, broader usage of the word than ours today. “Fame” used to signify any and all rumours and reputations: all the tales relayed by “many voices” to “many ears” about someone or something, whether true or false.

Fortune’s wheel, quite a ride.

But the sense in which our narrower, many-feathered “fame” resides wholly in the opinion of others remains. And this is the principal thing that Aristotle targets, as do the Hellenistic philosophers.

If fame is the highest good, this good is also something we can never wholly control. Public opinion is fickle, fashions pass, and the popular media is more glutted and diffuse than ever. To “tame this monster [fame], and bring her to feed at the hand”, one will thus need many eyes underneath (to make sure the right ‘PR’ is being circulated, for instance), if not eyes in the back of our heads (whence Bacon’s “in the daytime fame sitteth in a watch tower …”)

The opinion that fame is the highest good is accordingly an “unnatural” and “empty” one, says Epicurus. We know this because people who achieve it very often remain unsatisfied. They need to keep returning to the well; all the while holding envy and competitors at bay—or perhaps, these days, counting their facebook friends, ‘likes’, or twitter followers.

The pursuit of fame, far from delivering a person to tranquil self-sufficiency, readily becomes its own dependency—a thought that the apparent link between extensive use of social media and depression confirms.

Some Stoic meditations

Many people are spoiled by fame, the Stoics observe. They cannot manage the temptations and demands it creates. There are always ‘falling stars’ in the gossip magazines trailing broken marriages, scandals, substance addictions and the like in their wake.

Besides, very many people who deserve fame do not get it. Many who attain it are not deserving. But if fame were truly the best thing we could aspire to, its achievement would always make its suitors completely happy. And only the most worthy could win its dowries in the first place.

Finally, in Marcus Aurelius, we find a different kind of reasoning against fame.

Marcus Aurelius philosopher king.

To want to be famous is to want to be admired by people you will never know or meet. Many of these people, if you did meet them, you would yourself be unlikely to admire. So it is unreasonable to long for their approval.

As for the good graces of generations yet unborn, at most, these mortals too will know us indirectly and imperfectly, through whatever works we leave, and whatever partial reports of our words and acts are passed down. In this case fame, the philosopher-emperor muses, resides in nothing more substantial than a name; and a name in breath or marks on stone or paper.

But these are “things of nothing”, not worthy objects of our highest wishes.

Echoing ideas in the Jewish and Christian traditions, Marcus like Seneca before him argues that the good action is sufficient unto itself. To long for witnesses to celebrate it is one motivation too many—as if trees should wait for passers-by to bear fruit, or flowering plants admirers before they bud.

Turning things back around

Well: I do not know whether these arguments are likely to impress or convince the students, or many readers. Most of them—and perhaps most of us, too—will probably find the very idea that philosophical reasoning of this kind could tame what seems to be a “force of nature” quaint. It’s like trying to convince a raging bull that desisting from the red rag is a wise thing to do:

Carneades was head of the contrary opinion, and maintained that glory was to be desired for itself, even as we embrace our posthumous issue for themselves, having no knowledge nor enjoyment of them. This opinion has not failed to be the more universally followed, as those commonly are that are most suitable to our inclinations.

Carneades is not alone, even amongst the philosophers. Cicero his Roman admirer, and never one to play down his own achievements, takes this side against the Stoics.

The ‘oarsome foursome’- rowing the right way backwards.

Plutarch in a savage attack on Epicurus’ “live quietly” argument against seeking out fame shoots back that Epicurus’ act of publishing these ideas reveals the philosopher as like a rower who achieves his real goal while facing the other way—teaching admirers in his classes to live without admirers, and compiling epitomes of sayings to be passed down to future generations, so his lasting fame was assured …

What do you think?

So which side carries the day, for or against the celebration of fame?

Either way, by the week’s end, we will hopefully have taken our unsuspecting cohort a long way from today’s multimedia-fuelled adulation of stars and starlets, as if they were truly what this epiphet suggests: immortals walking amongst us.

The aim of teaching this way—in ‘both directions’ or ad utramque partem, as it used to be called—is to get students to see and weigh both sides of issues they will have to consider in the lives they lead and the choices they make.

Hopefully, by staging the competing, often highly cogent arguments on both sides of the issue, each student will also glimpse to what extent we are the prodigal inheritors of an ethical tradition that—with all due respect to the historicisms of the last two centuries—remains every bit as insightful as it was 2500 years ago, when Socrates “brought philosophy down from the heavens, placed it in cities, introduced it into families, and obliged it to examine into life and morals, and good and evil”.

If we do our job well, some among the better students will soon enough start asking about our own opinions on each of the subjects we debate.

The best students will see that, whatever reasons their teachers find compelling, one aim of the exercise is to get them to critically think through all the arguments for themselves.