Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Glory

The recent 3:AM interview with Sophie Grace Chappell has reminded me of a paper in Ethics that I think is all too underappreciated: Chappell's "Glory as an ethical idea" (originally published as, and sometimes still only found under, Timothy Chappell). I don't have a great deal of sympathy with Chappell's overall aversion to theory, but I think there is a real value in recognizing gaps in the works of modern ethicists, and I think Chappell is quite right that glory is one of them.

Chappell suggests that we could get a first approximation to what is meant by glory by coining the word 'hurrahability'; more specifically, "glory is--typically--what happens when a spectacularly excellent performance within a worthwhile form of activity meets the admiration that it merits." This can in turn be clarified by appeal to MacIntyre's account of practices, that is, developed and socially established cooperative activities with internal goods, internal goods being goods that can be had in and through the activity on its own, as opposed to external goods like salaries or awards. That is to say, a practice is a cooperative activity of a recognizable kind in which we find the activity itself provides part of the reason for engaging in the activity to begin with. Sports are practices, professions (like medical professions) are often practices, arts (understood not as individual skills but as community endeavors) are practices, politics and citizenship when taken seriously tend to be practices; they are things you don't merely do, but do as a community of people engaged in the activity, because the activity is worthwhile. Money, fame, awards, and the like are added, by means of institutions, in order to sweeten the deal, make the activity more sustainable, and so forth, but the root reason for having the activity in the first place is that the activity itself involves things worth having. Because practices have internal goods, we can (and do) define better or worse ways of engaging in the activity. Better ways of being a football player are those that achieve the internal goods -- the love of the game, the athleticism, the teamwork, and so forth. Worse ways are those that raise unnecessary impediments to achieving these goods that make the practice of football worthwhile to begin with. And as we become familiar with how this works, practices naturally form standards of behavior that are peculiar to that practice.

What Chappell notes is that this means that you can identify the glorious within the context of a practice by looking at those performances or engagements in the practice that not only meet the standard but do so very conspicuously (spectacularly, dazzlingly) so that the person engaging the activity is manifesting the worthwhileness of the activity in doing so. The glorious in a practice is found in its moments of "Yes! This is what it's all about!"

The glorious is the hero-making feat, although sometimes it can be subtle or hidden from those who do not have the requisite background. Because it is tied to the achievement of standards of excellence in a practice, it follows that the glorious is, as Chappell puts it, narrative and perspectival: it needs to be contextualized so that we can understand why it is spectacular. Someone who knows nothing about a sport cannot generally recognize the glorious moments in it; someone who knows nothing about music cannot fully grasp why someone's musical accomplishments make them not just competent but in some way heroic.

Glory, however, has another aspect, which is that it provides something that we can, for lack of a better word, call "meaningfulness". Practices come in all sorts of different grades of complexity and comprehensiveness; you can have a practice that includes and organizes other practices. And part of MacIntyre's argument is that living a human life is itself something that we recognize as a practice. And as our achievements in lesser practices can contribute to the achieving of internal goods in a fully human life, so too the glory of great achievement in these practices can mark an extraordinary contribution to living well. Indeed, I think you can argue that glory is itself one of the internal goods of a human life; it is certainly a major part of the stories we tell about ourselves.

Chappell muddles all of this a bit by suggesting that this is merely the typical course for glorious feats, and that you can in fact have glory outside of worthwhile activities. I think this is a mistake arising from mixing together standards of excellence that really belong to different practices. Practices can adapt over time to new things, their standards of excellence likewise adapt, and we can be involved in a lot of them at a given time, which can occasionally leads to complications and contradictions in our assessment of the worthwhileness of things. In any case, this is enough to show that glory is an idea relevant to ethics; certainly, it is at least as important as pleasure to ethics, and we never stop hearing about pleasure and satisfaction and related terms.

It's interesting, actually, that we do so emphasize pleasure and so often forget glory, given the latter's historical importance and the fact that we clearly can still identify it all over the place today. My suspicion is that this is an artifact of the structure of our society; I think there is a good argument (one with excellent Platonic pedigree) that broadly democratic societies will tend naturally to overemphasize the importance of pleasure, because the integrity of such a society is heavily dependent on pleasing as many people as possible, while you will find a much greater emphasis on glory in broadly aristocratic societies, by which I don't mean the broadly democratic societies with residual aristocratic institutions that you find in Europe today. What makes you noble in an aristocratic society? Ultimately it is (at least in principle) glorious deeds; some extraordinary contribution that is so great that society has to recognize it formally. Aristocratic families arise because merely recognizing you for it does not seem to be enough; it is the sort of contribution for which we cannot sufficiently reward you in your lifetime, so how do we reward you for it? We do it by rewarding your family; but the expectation is that your family will carry on the tradition -- you having done great deeds and your children having been rewarded for your greatness, they then have the obligation not to be the link in the chain that gets the reward of greatness but acts shamefully. Of course, in practice, it's messy and there's a lot of maneuvering, and people are always trying to subvert the whole system for their own benefit, just as we find in broadly democratic societies. But that's the structure of aristocratic thinking in general. And you can well imagine that in such a society duty will take precedence over preference and glory will be regarded as more essential to happiness than pleasure. One would expect such a society to overemphasize the importance of glory and honor and related terms, just as we overemphasize pleasure and related terms.

Which brings me to one of the most important discussions of glory in the history of ethics, that which is found in Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy. In the Consolation, Boethius who of course has been accused of treason and put under house arrest while refused the right to defend himself, portrays himself as entering into a discussion with Philosophia herself, Lady Philosophy. Philosophy is out to cure Boethius of his illness, by which she means his distress over having lost power, reputation, and the like and being in imminent danger of losing his life. And the course of her cure is to identify a series of false goods, or goods of Fortune, things that we tend to identify with human happiness, that we pursue as if our happiness depended on them, even though they clearly have characteristics showing that they are incapable of fulfilling this function. They are mutable, they are limited, they are fragmented, they are incomplete by their very nature, and they are really in great measure outside of our control, so that our pursuit of them can be successful only as a matter of chance. The goods that she identifies as goods of Fortune are wealth, office, power, glory, and pleasure. Glory fails to be a genuine source of happiness because it depends so much on the opinion of others; and reflected glory, like that you get from having parents who did glorious things, has the obvious problem that it's not yours.

But that's not really the end of the story, because Philosophy notes that the only real explanation for why we pursue goods of Fortune as if they were real goods capable of giving us happiness is because they seem like the latter. So there must be something about glory that reflects or imitates some genuine aspect of happiness. Philosophy calls this celebritas, a sort of self-revealing clarity or splendor. This is what we are really trying to get when we pursue glory. But celebritas, the work goes on to argue, is something that can really only be found in being God. That's the secret of true happiness: Be God. Of course, Boethius is a Christian Neoplatonist, so while it's obvious that we are not God by nature, we can participate in divine life, and our particular human way of participating in divine life is virtue.

This makes it sound like a very sharp break: you have glory, which is a false source of happiness, and then there is celebritas, which we are really trying to get in our pursuing of glory, and which glory cannot give us. But, of course, you could also argue on Platonic principles that it's precisely the fact that glory is celebritas-like that is confusing us; it is an imitation or shadow of glory, a trace outline of it, and the problem is not so much that we are entirely wrong as that we are confusing a crude picture of celebritas with the celebritas itself; it doesn't really help Boethius any, languishing under house arrest with a ruined reputation while he is waiting to be executed, but you can still recognize some good in glory as a picture or reflection of something higher.

We find some minor modification of Boethius's view in Aquinas. Aquinas's account of happiness is essentially Boethian, but, being more Aristotelian than Boethius, he modifies a few points. In particular, he recognizes a distinction between perfect/complete happiness (which we cannot have in this life) and imperfect/incomplete happiness, which we can. This leads him to give a slightly different account of our mistakes in pursuit of glory (ST 2-1.2.3). Human glory -- glory depending on human opinion -- cannot be a source of real happiness for precisely the reasons Boethius states, and these are all tied to the fact that glory is an after-the-fact thing. Human recognition of our excellence depends on signs of the excellence. Thus when it is right, we already have what is the real source of happiness. When it is wrong, it's because people were misled by the signs. In either case, glory is superadded. However, there is a kind of glory that does not work this way, namely, glory depending on divine knowledge. This is more than just being recognized as excellent by omniscience; the point is that in this case we find the reverse of what we find in the human case, because divine knowledge of our excellence precedes our excellence; God's knowledge of our excellence is in fact a practical knowledge of what He does with us in union with us, and therefore it is the cause of our excellence. Human glory recognizes that we seem to have done something spectacular; divine glory makes us spectacular.

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