Wednesday, March 31, 2010


O empty glory of human endeavour!

How little time the green remains on top,

Unless the age that follows is a dull one!

Cimabue thought he held the field

In painting, and now the cry is for Giotto,

So that the other’s fame is now obscured...

Earthy fame is nothing but a breath of wind,

Which first blows one way and then blows another,

And brings a fresh name from each fresh direction.

What greater name will you have, if you are old

When you put aside your flesh, than if you had died

Before you had given up baby-talk and rattles,

Once a thousand years have passed? And that is a shorter

Space to the eternal than the flash of an eyelid

To the circle which turns in the heavens most slowly.

- Dante

Many celebrities sour on fame as their careers progress. The rock star Pat Benatar told an interviewer that she was desperate to become famous at the age of twenty-two, indifferent at twenty-six, and by the age of twenty-eight had come to detest fame. The famous face higher expectations, greater demands on their time, and greater pressures to succeed, given the large sums of money at stake. Many people underestimate these costs when they start to seek fame. The television actor Jason Priestley said, “You never think about the price of fame when you start out. You’re far too busy trying to work. All of a sudden you find yourself a working actor and six months later you’ve got Hard Copy camped out on your doorstep.” And the actor Michael Maloney said that “anyone who craves fame is not aware of the consequences.”

The search for fame derives in part from personal insecurities. Both Blaise Pascal and Adam Smith argued that individuals look to others for approval when they are uncertain about the quality of their decisions and contributions. According to Pascal, if someone tells us that we have a headache when we do not, we are not upset. We know that the opinion has no merit. If someone criticizes us and tells us that an opinion of ours is wrong, however, we are greatly disturbed. We cannot be certain that our opinion is correct, and the expressed disapproval makes us nervous. Approbation has its greatest force when insecurity is most prominent.

Adam Smith compared poets and mathematicians. The quality of poetry, he thought, is difficult to judge, which makes poets insecure about their work. They seek favor with great ardor, and divide themselves into cabals and factions. Mathematicians, by contrast, have greater assurance about the quality of their work, even when they receive little or no public recognition. Since right and wrong answers usually can be proven, time will validate the merit of their contributions. According to Smith, mathematicians enter into less intrigue than do poets, and they reject participation in factions and cabals.

To the extent that fame-seeking is based in personal insecurity, the attainment of fame will not eradicate performers’ underlying feelings of inadequacy. The receipt of approval of ten feeds upon insecurities. It nourishes and magnifies fears, rather than alleviating them. The fame-seeker is trying to fill a personal void by addressing symptoms rather than causes, by looking for external approval instead of internal self-respect. The magnification and intensification of fame brought by modernity can heighten these tendencies and spread them to larger numbers of people. Hegel viewed the attainment of recognition as alienating for both parties, since it elevates the status of one human being over another.

- Tyler Cowen

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