The Love of Ambition and Reputation

In a recent blog comment, someone mentioned the struggles that come about from a desire for social approval and feedback, and I admitted that I do check blog stats and that I do feel pleased when I come to know that something I’ve done are meaningful to someone else.

This “instinct to check for approval” was one of the things that was very toxic about Twitter and one of the reasons I’m happy to have stopped posting to my personal account: if we know that a desire for social approval is difficult to manage, and we know that the scientific consensus is that the space is unhealthy for us, what in the name of Plato’s Crito are we still doing there? And how do we channel what is instinctive to each of us as members of a social species in ways that will lead us to what is best for us rather than something that is only good by appearance? Social media platforms are built to profit on this vulnerability of ours, and the less time we spend there, the better.

During my lunch break, while reading Michael Griffin’s translation of Olympiodorus’ Alcibiades I commentary, I stumbled across a passage that made me feel some level of relief at our common condition. It’s at 50,22-51,15 in the first volume, and in the quotation below, I’ve retained all of the translator’s soft and hard brackets:

For as we remarked before, it is not the case that all human beings long for just the same affections (for these are unlimited), but they long for more, because they possess a concept (ennoia) of certain other [sc. higher] things that they are unable to secure.

We should also investigate why the affection of caring for reputation is the most difficult of all to wipe out (dusekniptos). Consider: it is so [difficult] that even those who decide not to care about their reputation, do that out of care for their reputation, that is, in order not to appear to care about their reputation. We assert, then, that the affection of caring for reputation is difficult to wipe out for the following reason: it is closer to reason (logos) than other [affections] are, and is sibling to it, and reason is not something we can cast aside; therefore what is close to reason is also difficult for us to cast aside.

Or here is an alternative reason: the soul, when it descends here and flees slavery to its superiors, but wants to rule over its inferiors, first clothes itself in care for reputation from among the affections; and then, when [in ascending again] it casts [the affections] aside, it discards this one last of all. Since it is also said of [the soul], “Then he stripped off his rags.” And we should recognise that among our vital (zôtikais) capacities, the reputation-loving affection is difficult to cast aside, while among our cognitive (gnôstikais) capacities it is imagination (phantasia) that is difficult to cast aside. For imagination is always available to our soul, as our soul is constantly fashioning impressions (tupous) of what it does not know, and bestowing shapes, sizes, and bodies on the non-bodily, and confining [even] the god in terms of place (topôi).

This echoes what Damascius wrote in his Phaedo commentary about ambition and imagination being the final things that the soul purifies itself from.

This is a clever and interesting way to describe what is almost a trope in human society — regardless of how much people claim to not care, we all actually do. The care merely manifests in different ways, especially as we get older. I can definitely say that there are things I brush off now that would have devastated me when I was younger (by even a few years) simply because I have enough perspective to understand what is happening, and there is no substitute for having that experience, no matter how much I wanted to believe that a miraculous shortcut would appear back then. The trials we undergo as adults also prime us to get down to the essentials of what actually matter to us.

Outside of the notes, translators are restricted in what they do because they have to stay true to the original for provenance and accuracy reasons. Some of the language that Olympiodorus used is very outdated, and I will use dependency to describe what he is getting at by using the term slavery, as he is describing a binary contrast between something that is central/primary and another that is beholden to/following-by-necessity what is central/primary.§ He is saying that we strive to be the provider where we were once the dependent, and we are weighed down by the care of reputation as part of that imitation of what it is to be a provider and to be in charge in the same way that the Gods are. Interestingly, several centuries earlier, Iamblichus placed heavy emphasis on us following the Gods and being in tune with the Gods as the source of happiness, and he describes the end result of our efforts here in terms of rising to a station where we can act providentially and govern the cosmos with the Gods according to the proper station of the purified partial soul:

After the souls have been freed from generation, according to the ancients, they administer the universe together with the gods, while according to the Platonists they contemplate the gods’ order. According to the former, in the same way they help the angels with the creation of the universe, while according to the latter they accompany them.

Iamblichus, De Anima Fragment 53, trans. Finamore & Dillon

Souls that descend in pure states are even behaving that way while embodied.

In contemporary terms, our love of reputation manifests through the constraints and opportunities available to us as souls who incarnated in a social species that instinctively wants to be in an in-group, which for us is safety; the closer we can be in status to the center of the group, the more secure we feel. On a broader level, though, this is a species-neutral thing in the descent of the soul — we’re interested in having an impact and creating and behaving like the Gods, especially when it comes to things like demiurgy, love, harmonization, and so on. A partial soul in a species that is more territorial would manifest the love of reputation through more attention to protecting territory, just to provide one example of something that broadens this out from Homo sapiens. We all mimic the Gods’ love at their ceaseless, timeless banquet-feast, a time when they give freely in delight to one another. In the material world, that cannot happen — it is divided in space and time, and it is a place of war and compromise. We are just as out-of-sorts in our imitation of them as we are with many other things we do.

The solution is letting go, but how does one do that while in the body with whatever instincts one has in this lifetime? They come with the package. Those of us who are very introspective can doubtless think of several major ambition/”care of reputation” elements that we have, with countless examples of how they manifest in our day-to-day. I thought up at least ten examples when I paused while writing this to cook dinner — some current, some in the past. There are also moments we can each think of when we did the right thing and accepted the consequences of following the greater good against our reputation, which takes a lot of strength. It feels like releasing ambition “for good” at the time if it’s harrowing enough, but … life continues. We go on. We discover how layered onion analogies truly are. There are alway ways to grow and improve. The fire that burns is the catalyst for new seeds to germinate.

Goal-setting may come a long way to making this healthy. Delphic Maxim 3 emphasizes that we must worship the Gods, and from that standpoint, I’m addressing some of those things — like the love of likes, or the love of blog hits — by framing to myself, and attempting to drive home, that the ultimate goal isn’t about social approval. It’s about confirming that I am making a difference to at least a handful of others by offering a perspective about worshipping the Gods and making the world better from a theurgic and piety perspective than I found it. I may slip up sometimes and have an ego moment, or I may make errors, but I know myself well enough to understand when it’s an ambition/reputation thing or when it’s just me being blunt, abrasive, or talkative without anything behind it but a lack of social grace or when I’m just putting my foot down about something that truly matters. On the flip side, attention to reputation is a good (albeit limited in its goodness) when it motivates me to ensure that I

might drive  
bitter wickedness from my head,  
my mind bending my soul’s deceitful impulse,  
to restrain my heart’s sharp temper provoking me  
to enter bone-cold battle. But you, Blessed One,  
give me courage to stay within the gentle laws of peace,  
fleeing enemy battle and violent death.

Homeric Hymn to Ares, possibly by Proclus, ln. 11-17, trans. Rayor

because there are some things that need to be let go in favor of longitudinal, real goods. And that itself takes a lot of strength, considering how many times I have repeated those lines from the hymn to Ares in my mind to convince myself to let something go.

It is still, useful or not, something that only matters in embodiment in the context of a specific life. Unlike our education and nurture, ambition is not something we can take with us when we die. We are all judged naked. So perhaps, in the service of that, we should ground our inevitable love of reputation in a careful consideration of the just, using that as a measure against the ways we apply ambition in our daily lives. We can always build better habits.


§ I don’t claim to have the moral high ground over Olympiodorus. I mean, we wear clothes that are likely produced by human trafficking at some stage of their creation, use devices that contain materials mined by child labor, and are causing a new mass extinction due to our treatment of the planet. This vocabulary change is important, though, because slavery/trafficking is morally wrong, and it is not correct to refer to something sacred like our intrinsic relationship with the Gods in such odious terms, in addition to the fact that it is in our power to change this terminology. Modifying it is no different from people in tech changing how they refer to a controller/peripheral setup in electronic devices.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s