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What Did The Stoics Think About Fame?


There’s an old joke: The best way to punish someone is to give them exactly what they wish for. Nowhere is this more true than fame. How many actors and musicians dreamed their whole life of hitting it big, only to find themselves unhappy when it happens for them? How many business people crave recognition and a big profile, only to find it’s made them a target?

They thought it would fill the void, and it didn’t. Worse, it’s actually a huge burden. They are hounded by photographers. Their children develop drug problems. Innocent comments become huge controversies. Rivals attack them and savage them in the press. Soon enough, they pine openly for the thing they used to have: Privacy. A normal life. How things were before.

As Seneca observed in one of his plays:

“If only the hearts of the wealthy were opened to all!

How great the fears high fortune stirs up within them.”

Much of Stoicism has to do with reacting to what comes at us with equanimity and poise. But this, too, is important: Quelling and quieting that voice in your head that becomes seduced by the desires for accolades and applause. You don’t need them. You think you want them but that’s because you don’t actually understand what they are. In truth things are nothing by themselves. In practice, they are liabilities and not assets.

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius has a wonderful phrase for the approval and cheering of other people. He calls it “the clacking of tongues”—that’s all public appraise is, he says. Anyone that works in the public eye, who puts their work or their life out there for consumption, could use to remember this phrase.

In his meditations, Marcus would repeatedly remind himself about the emptiness of fame:

“Consider the lives led once by others, long ago, the lives to be led by others after you, the lives led even now, in foreign lands. How many people don’t even know your name. How many will soon have forgotten it. How many offer you praise now—and tomorrow, perhaps, contempt. That to be remembered is worthless. Like fame. Like everything.”

“People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that the people who remember them will soon die too. And those after them in turn. Until their memory, passed from one to another like a candle flame, gutters and goes out.”

“Give yourself a gift: the present moment. People out for posthumous fame forget that the Generations To Come will be the same annoying people they know now. And just as mortal. What does it matter to you if they say x about you, or think y?”

One of the reasons that someone like Marcus Aurelius would have been indifferent to fame is that it was superfluous, and seeking it out would be particularly demeaning. He would have agreed with the Mike Myers who talked about how fame was really only sludgy byproduct of doing good work. It was a thing created on accident, as extra. And the Stoics were all about ignoring that. They always thought you should do the right thing because it was the right thing, not because you wanted to be recognized for it. The same would be true for doing good work for its own sake, not because it would make you famous.

Similarly, Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden would say in an interview, “I’m not interested in being famous. Fame is the excrement of creativity, it’s the shit that comes out the back end, it’s a by-product of it. People think it’s the excrement that you should be eating. It’s not. It’s the creativity and the audience and being there in the moment.”

Marcus would say, “When you’ve done well and another has benefited by it, why like a fool do you look for a third thing on top— credit for the good deed or a favor in return?” The Stoics see doing good as the proper job of a human being. So why on earth do you need thanks or recognition for having done the right thing? It’s your job. Why would you need to be famous? Because you were talented? Because you were brilliant? Because you were successful? These things are part of the job too.

Instead of chasing fame and applause, the Stoics would urge you focus on doing your best in each and every situation. As legendary coach John Wooden tells his players: Change the definition of success. “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” “Ambition,” Marcus reminded himself, “means tying your well-being to what other people say or do . . . Sanity means tying it to your own actions.”

Let your behavior be the monument you leave behind. Because that’s what you control and the satisfaction you get from it is not worthless. Do such great work and be such a powerful example that people say, “Why isn’t so-and-so more well known? They really deserve it.” And if they don’t? You won’t care—because you earned your own respect and it didn’t come at the cost of worry or fear or the endless race of status anxiety.

Instead of chasing fame and applause, focus on the “good” that the Stoics advocate: wisdom, self-control, justice, courage. Whether the byproduct of fame come from that is not up to you, and at least from these quiet virtues experiences you’ll never experience buyer’s remorse.

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