The Fragility of Magnificence

Unlike the Stoics or Aquinas, Aristotle was quite haphazard with his list of virtues. The one that has caused possibly the most consternation among philologists and philosophers in general is megalopsuchia. “Greatness of Soul” is probably the best translation we have of it, but it is usually translated as “magnificence”. Aristotle’s account raises a lot of questions, questions which Julia Annas at least does not believe he provided the resources to answer.

Instead of sticking with Aristotle’s account, then, let’s simply speak of magnificence as greatness under the most extreme of circumstances. Sticking with my fellow Sweet Talker’s example, it need not even be moral greatness, necessarily.

As I have said, willpower is a scarce internal resource that must be managed. And as Heath and Anderson have said, most of the tools for managing our willpower are “external”; in our environment rather than in our bodies. Heath and Anderson worry that the transition from agrarian societies to modern societies has not resulted in a parallel transition in the institutional and social mechanisms for managing our willpower. It seems to me that this must be all the more so for those who strive for magnificence.

“It takes a community” not just to raise a child but to maintain our character and manage our willpower. In his critique of virtue ethics, Heath emphasizes how important our current peer environment—much more than our parents or the peer environment we grew up in—is for getting us to construe our circumstances in a way that promotes pro-social behavior. Putting it all together, virtue requires an embedded, institutional context.

Let’s return to the example of the NFL player. As boatfloating put it:

Within the current framework and rules of American professional football, certain traits are selected for. Just having the desire to hit, the tolerance to be hit, and the willingness to drop your factory job for a couple of weeks a year was no longer enough. You had to win the genetic lottery and be a physical and mental specimen of such rarity that one might scarcely believe you share the same genus as some your lesser fellow humans.

This also means that other, non-essential-to-football traits are disregarded. Does it really matter if an NFL-level talent is also a supertaster? Does it really matter if an NFL-level talent enjoys foreign films? Does it really matter if an NFL-level talent is a conscientious father or husband? Fuck no. But, of course, they are still of such rare quality, their relative weaknesses in other non-essential-to-football traits are hardly detriments to their career prospects.

Tantalizingly, the title of the post is “Even MLK Cheated On His Wife”, but the content is solely about the selection of professional athletes. Where David Duke hides his arguments inside of stories, boatfloating is our resident argument-by-hint specialist.

Football is an industry. The process of finding, “developing”, and moving talent up the ranks is all very streamlined. There are big institutions involved—including universities, among others. The resources for providing that external moral environment are there. That end simply has not been prioritized. We know that non-essential-to-football traits can be prioritized because some teams, like the Patriots, will punish players for what might be described as being un-classy in the media. Of course, this could be interpreted as being for the franchise—maintaining a certain image and all that. But surely the same logic could apply to not having domestic abusers and dog fight hosts on their roster?

On the other hand, the domestic abuse and dogfighting example are not, perhaps, the best ones for the angle I’m going for here. Those crimes take place at home; we wouldn’t expect any employer to be held responsible for what their employees do at home. A better example would be how players behave when the team is on the road, something that takes up a significant part of a player’s year. For all I know, NFL teams are actually good at providing an environment that encourages their players to behave during this time; I admit to total ignorance on this mark.

Some areas where the moral environment really is quite bad (from what I have heard) are the music and film industries. At least back when Johnny Cash was alive and doing drugs (a late in life interview of him serves as a point of reference for me here), the drug pushers were in the industry itself, you had a working relationship with them. Moreover, you were probably a young nobody who all of a sudden had rocketed to be a rich megastar, and the institutional environment certainly wasn’t set up to manage that transition well. And to top it all off, what peers you do have at this point are largely on drugs, too. Not all famous actors and musicians face this situation of course, but for those who do it becomes a black hole of self-destruction. And it seems to happen for at least some part of their careers to quite a large proportion of actors and musicians who make it big.

This is all very different from the case of Martin Luther King, Jr. in some very crucial ways. MLK truly was magnificent, in the sense of doing great things, taking hard stands, doing more than it seems possible for a long individual to do to bring justice where it was most needed. If justice was his cause, charity was his guiding star, and he pursued it with more courage than most. As an icon he has perhaps more glamour than any other figure in 20th century American history, perhaps more than any figure in all of our history.

Though his infidelity stains that glamour, it seems, in context, to be a highly forgivable sin. Some ideals, by their nature, cannot be attained in full, and so part of those ideals must involve an understanding of when “good enough” crosses the threshold into “good”. Would the content of MLK’s character have been improved if he had remained faithful to his wife? Certainly. And I hope that others do not take his infidelity to be an excuse to commit it themselves (“if even MLK cheated, how can I expect to be good enough to control myself?”).

But overall, the content of MLK’s character was extraordinary. He was magnificent, and it did not really come to the exclusion of other virtues, for the most part. His flaws were by and large the flaws of ordinary people, and his great qualities stand out as examples for us all.

I do think that aiming for magnificence makes us more vulnerable, as it necessarily involves goals that require nearly all of your focus and all of your time to have a chance of accomplishing. In a way, the Stoics were on to something when they spoke of virtue as being a necessary skill for even being able to properly enjoy external goods (which they referred to, oxymoronically, as “preferred indifferents” because of the fact that they were not necessary for happiness but we still prefer to have them rather than not). The people who are in a best position to stand firm against the temptations of sudden fame and fortune are those who are already virtuous and good at surrounding themselves with people who will help them stay that way.

But the risks of fame and fortune are very well known these days. And as I said, MLK did not, on the whole, lose his virtue after his rise. And so I remain skeptical of the claim that began this conversation.


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2 thoughts on “The Fragility of Magnificence

  1. I find the initial claim plausible, but it has nothing to do with failures like cheating on your wife. It’s about extreme focus, to the exclusion of many of the everyday actions that maintain relationships and that most people do as a matter of course. On the other issues, I suspect a big question is, How hard is it not to do that? How hard is it not to commit adultery? How hard is it not to do drugs? How hard is it not to engage in dog fighting rings? There, context makes a big difference.

    1. Yes, definitely. The way the two points connect is that when you’ve got that extreme focus, it may be harder to maintain self-control in other domains. And the perfect storm may happen to famous people who gain their fame through activities that require extreme focus, and then—because of their fame and the specific area their fame is in—are put in a situation where drugs and potential lovers are not only freely available, but perhaps social pressure even encourages substance abuse and promiscuity/infidelity.

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