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The Cult of Celebrity

Based on a podcast featuring Dr Angie Hobbs, Department of Philosophy

Published August 2011

Big Brother is among the long list of TV shows that catapults people to the heights of fame. But has it always been this way? In this podcast Dr Angie Hobbs, Department of Philosophy, explains that in the past people were only famous for acts of heroism, bravery or extreme creativity. How did people gain fame and notoriety before the advent of reality television and the internet? What are the views of philosophers such as Plato?

paparazziFame and celebrity is not a new concept. Before the rise of ancient philosophers like Plato, there is evidence of fame being recognised in Ancient Greece. The views of a poet like Homer varied from our current perception of fame, but there was still an interest in this abstract concept. "Some of the characters in Homer even want fame, partly for fame's sake", explains Dr Angie Hobbs, Department of Philosophy. Dr Hobbs, a Senior Fellow in the Public Understanding of Philosophy, suggesting that the idea of fame goes back as far as Ancient Greek poetry, "Achilles actually says ‘I’m returning to fight, partly to avenge Patroclus, but also because I want glory’ ".

In Ancient Greece, general views of fame were based on specific acts or deeds, rather than appearances or exposure. “The only way for an Ancient Greek to obtain glory or fame, was to do something of notable benefit to society, which was going to get talked about or discussed.” This may have been linked to the lack of mass media at the time. People did want fame; it was desirable to be famous for doing a heroic deed “they were attracted by the notion of fame and glory as some kind of compensation for death”. The idea of fame was attractive, but individuals knew that they had to earn the right to exposure.

Around this time, philosophers like Plato began writing on the subject of fame, suggesting a different, psychological-based way of thinking. Dr Hobbs goes on to explain that Plato had a theory of a tripartite psyche, in order of ‘worthiness’:

  1. The highest aspect was one of rationality. This aspect desires truth and reality.
  2. Second is the thumos, based on our position in society and how we feel others view us. This part desires glory and fame.
  3. Finally, the appetitive part of our psyche. This part is material-based, and focuses on our want for material items.

"Plato does allow for the fact that humans are motivated by a desire for glory and fame and success. But it shouldn’t be our most important driving force." Dr Hobbs goes on to explain that Plato suggests that we should harness the thirst and psychological want for fame and apply it to a worthy cause. Plato’s work focussed on an individual’s mission in life, "The thing to do is to try to save your soul, by being as a good a human being as possible... fame is only ever helpful if you want to be famous for being virtuous."

Television cameraThis view differs greatly from the current public perception of fame and being famous. The ‘fame for fame's sake’ ideology that is prevalent in current society is of great interest to Dr Hobbs, "some of the things that people can get famous for these days, is even lower, Plato would say, than the desire for fame itself". But is this more recent desire for fame part of the individual or down to society as a whole? Dr Hobbs suggests that Plato would regard our society as having gone wrong if people desired fame, even though they had done nothing to deserve it: "It’s a phenomenon we need to take seriously. Why people are confusing fame and celebrity with the type of activities and creations that are greatly worth celebrating." The rise of mass media makes it much easier for people to gain exposure and get themselves recognised across the world, but what is it that people hope to gain from this yearning for fame? "Is it that people want to be famous in itself, and if so, why? Is it because they don’t want to be invisible?" It could be explained by the fact that we now live in much larger communities but with a high level of anonymity. Becoming famous makes individuals less ‘forgettable’ and their memory live on after their death.

Dr Hobbs points out that because individuals have many followers on Twitter or often feature in glossy magazines they may think that they are fending off death and making themselves more successful. Living in a culture that ranks fame and celebrity as measures of success will no doubt encourage people to aim for notoriety. "If you live in a culture that does have a culture of celebrity and fame for fame's sake, then these people are successful in those narrow and sterile cultural conditions. I find that very sad."

What interests Dr Hobbs is the other side of the argument, the consumers of celebrity culture. "What is interesting is the people who are watching all this, who don’t necessarily want to be famous themselves, but want other people to be famous, want it to exist. That’s a separate issue of the psychological conundrum that is absolutely fascinating. They want these glittering, glamorous people to exist to know it’s possible." There is a pattern of consumers seeing the celebrity life as ideal and perfect, something to aspire to and idolise. Dr Hobbs compares this to a Greek tragedy, living vicariously through the glamorous lives of the rich and famous: "There’s a lot of vicarious living going on, not only are people building up these, often quite ordinary characters, into glamorous creatures that they aren’t. They are also then pulling them down."

g_red_carpet.jpgWith the differences in the perception of fame from the past to now, what does Dr Hobbs think that Plato’s view would be on the current cult of celebrity and programmes like Big Brother? "He would be deeply, deeply sad. He would be very sad that people are being ruled by the wrong elements in their soul, the Thumos."

But it is not always the individual who can be blamed for this celebrity-driven culture, "He (Plato) would blame the culture more than the individuals caught up in the culture." Says Dr Hobbs. "Our cult of celebrity, manifested in Big Brother is stopping people living the most flourishing and productive lives they could, it stops them being as virtuous as they could and stops them being as happy as they could". This said, the desire for fame can be harmful, especially if it is your primary desire. As a secondary desire, fame and celebrity can be a good one, as long as it is harnessed to another goal or benefit to the individual or society.

Finally, Dr Hobbs focuses on what the future may hold for the cult of celebrity and fame, "You can have your name out there yet no one will be talking about you. The more people that appear on programmes like Big Brother, the less they are going to be talked about."

You can now listen to the full podcast of Dr Angie Hobbs being interviewed by Fatima Anwar below.

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Dr Angela HobbsDr Angie Hobbs is Associate Professor in Philosophy and created the UK's first Senior Fellow in the Public Understanding of Philosophy in 2009. She is Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Most of Dr Hobbs' work is in ancient Greek philosophy and in ethics (both ancient and modern), and she has a broad interest across both fields. Topics that Dr Hobbs particularly focuses on are: the ethics of flourishing and virtue ethics; courage, heroism and fame; concepts of 'manliness'; war and peace; love and desire; mental health and illness; relations between philosophy and literature; relations between ethics and aesthetics. In
Plato and the Hero, Dr Hobbs concentrates on Plato's critique of the notions and embodiments of 'manliness' and courage prevalent in his culture (particularly those in Homer), and his attempt to redefine them in accordance with his own ethical, psychological and metaphysical principles. The question of why courage is necessary in the flourishing life in its turn leads to Plato's bid to unify the noble and the beneficial, and the tensions this unification creates between human and divine ideals.

Image: Miley Cyrus Mobbed by Paparazzi by Kevin McShane (via Flickr)