PoW: Plato, pop culture and swag



Angie Hobbs came and spoke at the London Philosophy Club earlier this month. She's an expert on Plato, and in her talk she used Platonism as a way of making sense of last year’s riots. She noted that many media commentators called the rioters ‘shameless’. This wasn’t true at all, she said. The rioters had a sense of shame and honour, it was just warped, or misdirected.

Plato thought a desire for honour and recognition was one of the driving forces in the human psyche. In The Republic, he presents his famous tripartite model of the psyche: we have a thinking faculty, which desires truth; a ‘spirited faculty’, which desires recognition; and a lower appetite, which desires food, comfort and money. In a well-ordered psyche, and a well-ordered society, these three human drives are all there, but in their proper hierarchy. Reason controls the other two drives and steers them in their proper direction, towards God.

This is the difference between Platonic and Stoic philosophy by the way - the Stoics thought that reason should completely overcome the passions, while Plato (and Plutarch, and Aristotle) thought the passions should rather be steered in a certain direction. I agree with Plato, for what it’s worth.

A sick psyche, and a sick society, is one in which one of the two lower drives has got the upper hand, and people become ruled by the desire for fame or money or luxuries, rather than the desire for truth and justice. Plato thought this was what had happened to his own society. He thought the Athenian Enlightenment had done away with the gods, and put the judgement of other people (or the Demos) in place of the judgement of God. His fellow Athenians had become obsessed with fame, status and reputation, with looking good to others, rather than being good. They put all their effort into their public image rather than their inner moral selves. They longed for fame and celebrity at any cost.

This pathological longing for fame reached an extreme during Plato's lifetime, in the notorious case of a man called Herostratus. He was an arsonist who burned down the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the world, a temple 120 years in the making, 400 foot long and 40 foot high. In his trial, Herostratus boasted that he did it so that his name would live forever. The Ephesians executed him, and also forbid anyone to mention his name, on pain of death, in an attempt to deny his wish.

Angie Hobbs suggests that the riots emerged not from shameless or amorality, but from a distorted value system, in which the lower goods of money and fame have become upper-most in our desires. This warped morality is not confined to the underclass. The rioters correctly ascertained that we live in a society in which honour is conferred to those with money, luxury and celebrity, and they sought those things through the most direct route. The value culture that celebrates these things is ubiquitous, from the Financial Times supplement ‘How To Spend It’, to the vain attention-seeking antics of politicians like Lembit Opik, George Galloway, Nadine Dorries or the Speaker’s wife, Sally Bercow, all the way down to street culture.

The good life in street culture 

In street culture, we sometimes see the same desire for money and status as is found in general culture. It’s just more crudely exposed. If you look back to early rap in the 1980s, you can see the desire for basic material goods. In Eric B and Rakim’s Paid in Full (1987), for example, Rakim dreams of one day getting “a nice big plate of fish, which is my favorite dish, but without no money it's still a wish”. It’s poignant in the simplicity of its desire, and sort of reminds me of post-war austerity Britain, where working-class families would dream of eating chicken.

Then gangster rap took off in the 1990s and rappers started making serious money. But even then, there is a sweet sort of innocence to their material dreams. Take the Notorious BIG, supposedly this gangster-dealer living the glamorous thug life, yet in his single Juicy (1994), he raps: ‘Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, when I was dead broke man I couldn’t picture this’. That’s the extent of your ghetto dream? You realise quite how poor Biggie must have been to get so excited about possessing two games consoles.

By the Noughties, rap had become the biggest-selling music in the world. Rappers graduated from aspiring to be gangsters to aspiring to be corporations, which I guess is a good thing. They worked out that the Mafia don’t run the world - Wall Street WASPs do. So the smarter rappers like Kanye West and Pharrell Williams started dressing like WASPs and going on about their Versace pillows. You find rappers like Rick Ross rapping about their yachts and wine collection (‘spilling champagne or is it Merlot?’, asks Rick in one song, betraying a worrying lack of oenology).



The Economist would probably celebrate all this as Adam Smith’s invisible hand in operation - we long for the approval of others, so we slave away to make money and acquire status items, which is all to the good of the economy (ignoring the occasional riot). But the desire for money can, of course, become too dominant a part of our culture. So can the desire for fame and celebrity. I am a big fan of Tinie Tempah’s debut album, Disc-Overy, and of UK hip hop in general. The best of it - like Tinie Tempah and Dizzee Rascal - is not amoral in the slightest. On the contrary, it extols the virtues of hard work and hard graft. Dizzee Rascal for example raps ‘don’t give it half-hearted, give it all, pull your socks up stand up tall...can’t run the marathon without training...whole lotta money little maintainin’, whole lotta complainin’, no plan.’ Norman Tebbit would be proud.

Tinie Tempah’s album is also a hymn to the human desire to make it, to rise above humble origins. Patrick Chukwuemeka Okogwu, as he is called, grew up in the Aylesbury estate in Walworth, and become rich and famous. Good for Patrick - he worked hard and he made it. But there’s a line in the song ‘Wonderman’ that makes me sad. He talks of how he was ‘bored of being nameless, bored of feeling local, when you walk up in the mall and can’t afford a pair of trainers’, and then he rejoices that he has become famous and has ‘traded friends for fans’.

My god, is that the dream? To trade friends for fans? It sounds so lonely. The desire for fame is a desire to be loved, but misdirected, so that you're loved by strangers, people who don't know you, while cutting yourself off from the people close to you. If you’re ruled by the desire for fame, by the spirited appetite, then you can turn yourself into a commodity, an artefact, like a statue or icon. You become bigger and bigger in the eyes of strangers, but also lonelier, cut off from genuine relationships, because people can’t talk to you just as you, they can’t see past your glamour. If we look at some of the icons of our culture, at its most famous figures, this is precisely what happens to them. They follow our culture’s overweening desire for fame, and they become lifeless statues, who only come alive on stage. It's reflected in their own art work, like this album cover of Michael Jackson's:

Or Robbie Williams.



These are both terribly lonely, depressed people, cut off from their humanness because they have followed a false value system and have been unable to free themselves from it. And their fame ends up sucking other people into this same false and harmful value system. The smarter artists reflect on this. Like Drake, whose album cover for his second album shows him surrounded by gold, looking completely bereft. As someone put it to me last night, his whole album 'Take Care' is about someone making it and realising 'it' isn't what he thought:



Yeah I be yelling money over everything, money on my mind / Then she want to ask when it got so empty / Tell her I apologize, happened over time / She says they miss the old Drake, girl don't tempt me / If they don't get it, they'll be over you / That new shit that you got is overdue / You better do what you supposed to do.

It reminds me of Oscar Wilde, someone who did so much to invent the modern cult of celebrity - he even changed his name, like Tinie Tempah. He fed his lust to be discussed, but at the cost of turning himself into a commodity, an icon, a statue, lonely and cut off like his Happy Prince:

High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince. He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword-hilt. He was very much admired indeed.

Wilde was trapped in his own legend, isolated up there like his lonely Prince. His boyfriend Bosie once said to him, ‘when you are not on your pedestal you are not interesting’. Can you imagine how crushing that would be to hear? That he's not allowed to be himself, he must continue playing a part. That’s what happens when you trade friends for fans.

The Director-General of Education

Our personalities and psyches, then, are deeply shaped by our culture. Plato recognised this. He writes in The Republic that there is a profound relationship between a culture’s morality and its taste in the arts. Music, he wrote, "is the most decisive factor in one's upbringing..it sinks deep into the soul and takes the strongest hold of it". That’s why in his dream society, he says the most important public position would be the Director of Education, who has absolute control over everything a society reads, watches and listens to.

We used to have a Platonic view of culture. John Reith, the first Director-General of the BBC, was basically a Christian-Platonist. He thought the masses should be force-fed Bertrand Russell through Radio 3, and if they absolutely must have entertainment, it should be wholesome entertainment. The public’s morality would be shaped by its improving culture. But then ITV came along in 1955, with its game shows and its American comedies, to the absolute horror of high culture champions like Richard Hoggart, and suddenly ordinary people could watch and listen to whatever they want rather than what intellectuals thought was good for them.Sir Hugh Greene then modernised the BBC in the 1960s to make it compete with ITV in popular entertainment. And from there it is a mere hop and skip to X Factor, I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, and the total collapse of western morality. It's all the fault of ITV.

Do we need to bring back Plato’s Director of Education, to re-enforce the hierarchy of the good? Obviously not. But people both making and consuming culture today (that's to say, all of us) need to take responsibility for ourselves and the messages we put out. As the Platonic philosopher Myles Burnyeat puts it in this interesting lecture on Plato and culture (a lecture dedicated to John Reith, by the by):

Plato's problem is still with us. It needs a modern solution...If we agree with [Plato's analysis of the huge power of mass culture] but disagree with his authoritarian solution, then democratic politics has to take responsibility for the general ethos of society.

 My own desire for recognition

I write all this, really, to myself, in so far as I recognise that I am very driven by the desire for recognition (I blame my love of hip-hop). This drive, in fact, is probably what messed me up when I was in my early twenties - social anxiety, or the terror of being criticised, is really the dark side of Oscar Wilde's lust to be discussed. I came through that crisis, got my moral equilibrium back, but the old drive, the passion for recognition, is still there, pretty strong, and I’ve noticed it grow this year as the impulse is gratified. The more you feed the horse, the stronger it gets. Sometimes you have to give the reins a yank and check your motivation.

I wonder if the desire for fame and recognition gets out of control more easily in liberal, secular societies. That’s what Plato thought. If you replace God with other people as the ultimate arbiter of self-worth, you’re creating a false economy of incentives (he believed), and you can end up with a culture of vain narcissists who put all their effort into publicity rather than improving their inner selves. Even religion becomes a public spectacle, as in the book 'The Year of Living Biblically'. We need a genuine devotion to God, Plato thought, to free ourselves from enslavement to our public image and need for applause. I think this may be true, in my case any way. In the words of Bob Dylan, you gotta serve somebody. If God is not your master, then you can easily find yourself pursuing the applause of strangers.



Martin Luther King spoke of this in his final sermon, where he discussed the Drum Major Instinct, "the desire to be out front, to be leading the parade, to be first", in man and in himself:

We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade. Alfred Adler, the great psychoanalyst, contends that this is the dominant impulse...Our first cry as a baby was a bid for attention...Now in adult life, we still have it, and we really never get by it. We like to do something good. And you know, we like to be praised for it.

Like Plato, King argued that “if this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct. For instance, if it isn’t harnessed, it causes one's personality to become distorted”. And it can lead to all kinds of bad things: boastfulness, name-dropping, status-seeking, and the desire to put other people down, or even whole races.

Then right at the end of the sermon, this last sermon, just a few days before he was shot, King imagines his own funeral.  He says:

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important.

I find that revealing - he’s using a rhetorical device called paralipsis, in which you mention something while saying you won’t mention it. To me it reveals the fact that, yeah, he’s proud he has won all those awards. It reveals that he’s human, that he is driven by the same Drum Major Instinct as the rest of us. But then he goes on:

If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness.

In other words, he recognises the desire in him for recognition. He admits it. He does not try to deny or remove it, as the Stoics would. Instead, like Plato and Plutarch recommends, he tries to rein it and steer it in the service of God and humanity. That’s pretty difficult to do. It’s even harder when you’re not a member of a church or religious community. When there’s no God above you, you can end up worshipping yourself.


Here are some more links for you to chew on over Christmas:

Here's Jeffrey Sachs arguing with Republicans over the interpretation of happiness measurements.

David Brooks is going to teach humilityat Yale. What next...Russell Brand on chastity?

More argie-bargie between philosophy and science. Here's a good piece in the New Atlantis arguing against scientism among scientists. And there was a bit of a Twitter dust-up between Brian Cox and various philosophers of science, discussed in this piece (with Cox responding in the comments).

How to improve the world? Educate more girls.

Is Christianity a philosophy? Bill O' Reilly claimed it was. Jon Stewart disagreed. What it certainly is, as these Washington Post graphics show, is by far the biggest religion on the planet.

Jon Cruddas, head of policy in the UK's Labour party, gave a big speech on why he's an Aristotelian. Graeme Smith was not impressed.

A piece in Prospect by a former member of the Bank of England's MPC, on why George Osborne must to more to reform finance and raise the UK's declining levels of business investment.

Finally, a lovely piece by Zadie Smith on joy.

I hope you have a wonderful Christmas, whatever philosophy you hold or God you love. I hope we survive the rest of today, and that we can use this NAE (near-apocalypse-experience) to learn to love one another and help each other through the storm.