There is something innate in human beings that desires to be honoured, recognized, admired, respected. Without that something, many of our greatest accomplishments would be unthinkable.
In connection with virtue, I’m sure there are quite a few good habits that I never would have started on if I hadn’t convinced myself at the outset that they could lead me somewhere glorious, help make me into someone impressive.
I started trying to lose weight about five and a half years ago, and in that span of time I’ve lost well over a hundred pounds. I feel better now, I’m healthier, and I look more normal — but before I started, what motivated me was not any of those things, but the fantasy of developing an amazing, impressive, slim, muscle-bound body. I haven’t achieved it, and likely never will, but without that original desire I would never have started trying, and would never have derived the benefits I now have.
I started studying philosophy in large part because I was tired of losing arguments, or ending them deadlocked. I wanted to be able to win every debate, to fill my adversaries with shock and awe at my immense knowledge and logical proficiency. That’s no longer my primary motivation, and I certainly haven’t achieved it, but I’m glad that I wanted it enough to take action.
When I started studying languages again a few years ago, it was because I figured it would be inexpressibly cool to be fluent in some languages as strange, difficult, and important, as Russian and Mandarin and Arabic. (And truly, when I was doing my languages lessons once in the morning and my wife asked if I was some kind of a spy, it felt pretty glorious.) After getting a good foundation in Russian, some rudimentary Mandarin, and just scratching the surface of the Arabic script (what a difficult language to read!!), I switched gears to something less James Bond. I’m now using those same habits for learning to read academic and philosophical German texts. Still, I wouldn’t be doing that now if I hadn’t been formerly shooting for something to make me look a bit more impressive.
The longing for glory is often a cause of vice, folly, ruin, but Cicero was one thinker who saw how it can be turned to virtuous ends. Too much ambition will harm us, but in the right kinds and the right amounts it can lift us to feats that would otherwise be outside our ability to consider.
Heidegger somewhere points out the double meaning of the Greek word “doxa” (δόξα), which is at once glory and also opinion. I had never really thought about the connection of the two in this word before. Through the way we live in the world and the people we reveal ourselves to be, we place boundaries around the ways that other people can think of us. The opinions of others are guided to some extent by the reality of our life, and that is our glory.
In caring about the opinions of others, then, we turn our focus to ourselves, to shaping who we are, and to the glory or lack of it that flows from how we live. This can’t be everything, but if we do it within reasonable bounds, it can be a powerful incentive to beginning on the path to self-improvement.