How Philosophers Have Viewed Fame

Fame may no longer be what it once was. In a world with so many entertainers, actors, filmmakers, athletes, supermodels, enterpreneurs, with so much competition for the ever-ephemeral spotlight, no one persona can steal all the glory for any prolonged period of time. Nevertheless, only a tiny few can command $20 million for a lead role in a film, or sign a multi-million-dollar contract for playing baseball, or convince a board of directors to agree to a compensation package a thousand times what the average worker makes in a calendar year. So fame, like all other things, may be decentralized and have lost its luster, but our culture today still exalts it, perhaps unduly.

What have philosophers throughout the ages thought about fame? Did they, as might be expected, deride it as futile or vain, or did they hold views that were more nuanced? Here is a small sampling of viewpoints:

Lao Tzu: What the world recognizes as beautiful is ugly

Heraclitus: The best aim for immortal glory

Marcus Aurelius: Take a long look at those seeking fame

Boethius: Fame a shameful thing, and so often deceptive

Arthur Schopenhauer: The truly great doesn't delight at once

Francois de La Rochefoucauld: How to judge fame

George Santayana: Love of fame the highest form of vanity

Lin Yutang: Fame is one of the humbugs of this life

C. Wright Mills: The celebrity aspect of fame

Robert Nozick: Do the famous seem "more real" to us?

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, trans. D.C. Lau

"The whole world recognizes the beautiful as the beautiful, yet this is only the ugly; the whole world recognizes the good as the good, yet this is only the bad."

"The court is corrupt,
The fields are overgrown with weeds,
The granaries are empty;
Yet there are those dressed in fineries,
With swords at their sides,
Filled with food and drink,
And possessed of too much wealth.
This is known as taking the lead in robbery.
Far indeed is this from the way."

Heraclitus, The Fragments

"The best of men choose one thing in preference to all else, immortal glory in preference to mortal goods; whereas the masses simply glut themselves like cattle."

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations, Book VII, trans. George Long

"Look at the minds of those who seek fame, observe what they are, and what kind of things they avoid, and what kind of things they pursue. And consider that as the heaps of sand piled on one another hide the former sands, so in life the events which go before are soon covered by those which come after."

Boethius, The Consolation Of Philosophy, trans. V.E. Watts

"Fame, in fact, is a shameful thing, and so often deceptive. Euripides was right to make Andromache cry out

O Fame, o Fame! -- many a man ere this
Of no account hast though set up on high.

"Many, indeed, are the men who have wrongly acquired fame through the false opinions of the people. There is nothing more conceivably shameful than that. Men who are unjustifiably commended cannot but blush at the praise they receive. And even if the praise is deserved, it cannot add anything to the philosopher's feelings: he measures happiness not by popularity, but by the true voice of his own conscience.

"If it is thought a fine achievement to have spread this fame far and wide, it follows that it must be judged shameful not to have spread one's fame. But, as I said just now, there must of necessity be many peoples to whom the reputation of one single man can never extend, so that you may consider a man famous, whom the next quarter of the globe will never even have heard of. This is why I don't consider popularity worth mentioning...; its acquisition is fortuitous and its retention continuously uncertain."

Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga And Paralipomena, vol. 2, trans. E.F.J. Payne

"...envy is the soul of that league of all the mediocrities which is formed secretly and informally, flourishes everywhere, and in every branch of knowledge is opposed to the distinguished and outstanding individual. Thus in his own sphere of activity no one will hear of or tolerate such eminence, but the universal watchword of mediocrity is everywhere: si quelqu'un excelle parmi nous, qu'il aille exceller ailleurs ['if anyone makes his mark among us, let him go and do so elsewhere.'] Therefore in addition to the rarity of an excellent work and to the difficulty it finds in being understood and acknowledged, there is that envy of thousands who all agree to suppress it and, where possible, to stifle it altogether.

"There are two ways of behaving towards merit; either to have some of one's own, or to admit none in others. On account of its greater convenience, the latter is in most cases preferred...

" is easy to see that fame is admittedly very difficult to attain, but when once attained is easy to keep; and also that a reputation that comes quickly soon disappears, for here also quod cito fit, cito perit ['what rapidly originates rapidly perishes']. Moreover, on account of the law of homogeneity, already frequently mentioned, a reputation that quickly appears is a suspicious sign, for it is the direct approbation of the masses. Phocion knew what this meant, for when he heard the loud popular applause over his speech, he asked friends who were standing near him whether he had unintentionally said something bad and worthless (Plutarch, Apophthegms). For opposite reasons, a reputation that is to endure for long, will be very late in maturing and the centuries of its duration must often be purchased at the price of the approbation of contemporaries. For whatever is to keep its position for so long, must have an excellence that is difficult to attain; and even merely to acknowledge this calls for men of intellect who do not always exist, at any rate in sufficient numbers to make themselves heard, whereas envy is always on the watch and will do everything to stifle their voice. Moderate merits, on the other hand, are soon recognized; but then there is the danger that their possessor outlives them and himself, so that fame in his youth may mean for him obscurity in his old age. On the other hand, with great merits, a man will remain long in obscurity, but in return for this will then attain to brilliant fame in his old age. (Death entirely appeases envy; old age half does.)...what Mahlmann has said so well in his Herodes vor Bethlehem proves to be true:

'What's truly great in the world, it seems,
Is never that which delights at once.
The idol whom the mob creates
Its altar very soon vacates.'

"...a principal condition for achieving something great, for producing something that will outlive its generation and century, is that a man shall not pay the least attention to contemporaries or to their opinions, views, and the praise or censure arising therefrom.

"...those eminent and remarkable works which are destined to belong to the whole of mankind and to live for centuries, are too advanced when they are produced and are, on that account, foreign to the cultural epoch and sprint of their times. They do not belong to, and are in no way connected with, them; and so they do not gain the interest of those who live and work in such times. They belong to a different age, to a higher cultural stage, which is still a long way off. Their course is related to that of ordinary works, as is the orbit of Uranus to that of Mercury. And so for the time being, no justice is done to them; men do not know what to do with them and, therefore, leave them alone in order to proceed at their own snail's pace. Indeed, worms on the ground do not see the bird on the wing."

Francois de La Rochefoucauld, Reflections; Or Sentences And Moral Maxims

"The fame of great men ought to be judged always by the means they used to
acquire it."

George Santayana, Reason In Society

"The highest form of vanity is love of fame. It is a passion easy to deride but hard to understand, and in men who live at all by imagination almost impossible to eradicate. The good opinion of posterity can have no possible effect on our fortunes, and the practical value which reputation may temporarily have is quite absent in posthumous fame. The direct object of this passion -- that a name should survive in men's mouths to which no adequate idea of its original can be attached -- seems a thin and fantastic satisfaction, especially when we consider how little we should probably sympathise with the creatures that are to remember us. What comfort would it be to Virgil that boys still read him at school, or to Pindar that he is sometimes mentioned in a world from which everything he loved has departed? Yet, beneath this desire for nominal longevity, apparently so inane, there may lurk an ideal ambition of which the ancients cannot have been unconscious when they set so high a value on fame. They often identified fame with immortality, a subject on which they had far more rational sentiments than have since prevailed.

"Fame, as a noble mind conceives and desires it, is not embodied in a monument, a biography, or the repetition of a strange name by strangers; it consists in the immortality of a man's work, his spirit, his efficacy, in the perpetual rejuvenation of his soul in the world. When Horace -- no model of magnanimity -- wrote his exegi monumentum, he was not thinking that the pleasure he would continue to give would remind people of his trivial personality, which indeed he never particularly celebrated and which had much better lie buried with his bones. He was thinking, of course, of that pleasure itself; thinking that the delight, half lyric, half sarcastic, which those delicate cameos had given him to carve would be perennially renewed in all who retraced them. Nay, perhaps we may not go too far in saying that even that impersonal satisfaction was not the deepest he felt; the deepest, very likely, flowed from the immortality, not of his monument, but of the subject and passion it commemorated; that tenderness, I mean, and that disillusion with mortal life which rendered his verse immortal. He had expressed, and in expressing appropriated, some recurring human moods, some mocking renunciations; and he knew that his spirit was immortal, being linked and identified with that portion of the truth. He had become a little spokesman of humanity, uttering what all experience repeats more or less articulately; and even if he should cease to be honoured in men's memories, he would continue to be unwittingly honoured and justified in
their lives.

"What we may conceive to have come in this way even within a Horace's apprehension is undoubtedly what has attached many nobler souls to fame. With an inversion of moral derivations which all mythical expression involves we speak of fame as the reward of genius, whereas in truth genius, the imaginative dominion of experience, is its own reward and fame is but a foolish image by which its worth is symbolised."

Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living

"There is a wealth of humbug in this life, but the multitudinous little humbugs have been classified by Chinese Buddhists under two big humbugs: fame and wealth. There is a story that Emperor Ch'ienlung once went up a hill overlooking the sea during his trip to South China and saw a great number of sailing ships busily plying the China Sea to and fro. He asked his minister what the people in those hundreds of ships were doing, and his minister replied that he saw only two ships, and their names were 'Fame' and 'Wealth'. Many cultured persons were able to escape the lure of wealth, but only the very greatest could escape the lure of fame. Once a monk was discoursing with his pupil on these two sources of worldly cares, and said: 'It is easier to get rid of the desire for money than to get rid of the desire for fame. Even retired scholars and monks still want to be distinguished and well-known among their company. They want to give public discourses to a large audience, and not retire to a small monastery talking to one pupil, like you and me now.' The pupil replied: 'Indeed, Master, you are the only man in the world who has conquered the desire for fame!' And the Master smiled.

"From my own observation of life, this Buddhist classification of life's humbugs is not complete, and the great humbugs of life are three, instead of two: Fame, Wealth and Power. There is a convenient American word which again combines these three humbugs into the One Great Humbug: Success. But many wise men know that the desires for success, fame and wealth are euphemistic names for the fears of failure, poverty and obscurity, and that these fears dominate our lives. There are many people who have already attained both fame and wealth, but who still insist on ruling others. They are the people who have consecrated their lives to the service of their country. The price is often very heavy. Ask a wise man to wave his silk hat to a crowd and make seven speeches a day and give him a presidency, and he will refuse to serve his country. James Bryce thinks the system of democratic government in America is such that it is hardly calculated to attract the best men of the country into politics. I think the strenuousness of a presidential campaign alone is enough to frighten off all the wise souls of America...Who is he that he should want to reform other people and uplift their morals and send other people into an insane asylum? But these primary and secondary humbugs keep him happily busy, if he is successful, and give him the illusion that he is really doing something and is therefore 'somebody'."

C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite

"The celebrities are The Names that need no further identification...Wherever the celebrities go, they are recognized, and moreover, recognized with some excitement and awe. Whatever they do has publicity value. More or less continuously, over a period of time, they are the material for the media of communication and entertainment. And, when that time ends -- as it must -- and the celebrity still lives -- as he may -- from time to time it may be asked, 'Remember him?' That is what celebrity means...

"The professional celebrity, male and female, is the crowning result of the star system of a society that makes a fetish of competition. In America, this sytem is carried to the point where a man who can knock a small white ball into a series of holes in the ground with more efficiency and skill than anyone else thereby gains social access to the President of the United States. It is carried to the point where a chattering radio and television entertainer becomes the hunting chum of leading industrial executives, cabinet members, and the higher military. It does not seem to matter what the man is the very best at; so long as he has won out in competition over all others, he is celebrated. Then, a second feature of the star system begins to work: all the stars of any other sphere of endeavor or position are drawn toward the new star and he toward them. The success, the champion, accordingly, is one who mingles freely with other champions to populate the world of the celebrity."

Robert Nozick,The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations

"Magazines, television, and films bring many faces to our attention. Do these people seem more real and vivid to us; does the focused light of public attention enhance their reality? What people find exciting is not only to be close to a celebrity but to be noticed by one, to come into his or her ken. It is as if, because they are subjects of so much public attention, when they take cognizance of us, all that attention for a moment gets turned upon us, reflected toward us. We bask, however briefly, in the public attention they have received, and feel our own reality is enhanced. The general public, craving heightened reality, does not say, even when fed the most empty glitter, that the 'emperor has no clothes.' But why doesn't it cry out that the clothes contain no emperor? Or is it the very reality without substance that the public craves, excited by the power of its own attention to create reality ex nihilo?"