Plato and Celebrity Culture

How ancient thoughts are related to a modern phenomenon

May 4, 2023

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A few weeks ago, I settled down for the laborious task of completing the ACT. Stale coffee pervaded the school district office where testing was taking place, and the looks I saw in people’s eyes was enough to convince me that the prospect of 4 hours of standardized testing was not appealing. But excellence must be pursued, and in academia, the ACT is one of the necessary avenues. The writing and math sections went by in a blur, as did the ones for English and science. But when I came to the essay section, I encountered a prompt: “Is celebrity culture a symptom of a declining society?” (Here I hope ACT will be a good sport and not penalize me for discussing the prompt outside the test.) With only forty minutes to write an essay, I did not put much thought into my position: the content was the most important. I decided to settle with the position that “Celebrity culture is a symptom of a declining culture” before feverishly writing two or three pages of undecipherable script. (I have included the person grading my ACT essay in my thoughts and prayers.) When the proctor for the test called time, I was quite relieved to be done with it. But as I considered the prompt later in the day, I started to question if the position I had chosen was truly correct. What follows are some reflections on my perception of celebrity culture, and what Plato might have had to say about it.

The first realization I had when I thought about the position I had chosen was that my thesis was influenced by my philosophical idealism. When I hear the words “celebrity culture”, my mind immediately pictures the horrid forms of fandom that leave fans lacking substantial meaning and celebrities with unhealthy amounts of public pressure, ultimately making both fall short of the ideal. This leads me to the guttural reaction which rejects the focus on celebrities in favor of a focus on excellence. Because my reaction seemed very philosophically sound, seeming to be in line with the many great minds who had preceded me, I figured coming to such a conclusion (particularly when hard-pressed for time) required little in the way of mental gymnastics.

But what about the celebrities that I follow? From Tom Cruise to Elon Musk and John Mayer to Dr. Jordan Peterson, I have participated, in some sense, in celebrity culture. I started to come to the unpleasant conclusion that my thesis for my ACT essay was hypocritical, and the cognitive dissonance forced me to pursue what I really thought about this topic.

I considered what it was that I admired in these celebrities. I knew that Tom Cruise is a handsome, athletic man, capable of performing his own stunts while delivering superb performances. Cruise represented aspects of the physical masculine ideal, as well as those virtues of bravery and courage.

Elon Musk is a visionary. His creative mind coupled with his impressive work ethic have made many consider him the man most likely to change the world. But he does it all without falling into a pretentious attitude, being quite willing to engage in self-deprecating humor and battle with the status quo. He clearly manifests my desire to integrate the conscientious and humorous aspects of my personality into a cohesive and productive human being.

I started to realize that my admiration had little to do with their persons, but everything to do with the ideals which they manifested. This put me in mind of the insights I’d gained from Plato’s “Phaedrus”.

Plato’s reason for why we fall in love is fundamentally related to the reason for why we admire celebrities. When someone embodies an aspect of the ideal, we cannot help but admire them, and in the case of romance, this admiration turns into love. In the case of celebrity, this admiration becomes fandom.

My reason for trepidation regarding celebrity culture was well-warranted, however. Plato cautioned against a lover making the mistake of identifying the object of their affections with perfection, because human beings are fundamentally flawed. Rather, a lover must recognize that when they look at their love, they see a facet of the ideal. A lover loves because they have found a person who brings a small part of heaven into the world.

To some extent, the same happens when we find celebrities to admire. By definition, celebrities are the highest-caliber people in the world. The actors and actresses are the most aesthetically pleasing, the musicians the most skilled, the entrepreneurs and thinkers the most inventive and intelligent. But the same rule applies to celebrities as to lovers. One must never take the celebrity and equate them with perfection. It is this tendency that leaves many shocked when scandals occur, and sentiments along the lines of “He was supposed to be my role model” are shared. One must look at celebrities as manifestations of a part of the ideal, seeing past them to the more sublime reality that they hint at.

Admire people for the ideals they manifest, but never equate them with perfection. Give them enough grace to let them remain human. As Marcus Aurelius said, “What is divine deserves our respect because it is good: what is human deserves our affection because it is like us.”