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January 2, 2004

dangers of fame

Here are three risks created by the pursuit of fame:

1. Fame tends to accumulate in unjustifiable and unhelpful ways. Just as the rich get richer, so the famous get "famouser." For example, media outlets want to interview the famous; colleges want to hire them or invite them to visit; organizers want them to speak at their meetings. Each time someone agrees to one of these gigs, he or she gets more famous--pretty much regardless of merit. I know of famous academics who are hired simply because they will bring attention to colleges; and colleges that provide professional p.r. services to promote these same scholars even more. (A disclosure: I personally benefit from money spent to promote CIRCLE--which worries me.) In a society with efficient communications media, everyone can get access to the famous, and that's what they demand. It then becomes increasingly difficult for others to get attention. Fame is actually worse than money in this respect. There is a limited supply of public attention, so the struggle for fame can be zero-sum, rather than win-win (as economic markets often are).

2. Those who want to be famous think too much about their potential audience. I am all for being sensitive to one's readers or listeners--patiently giving them the information they need, trying not to bore them, trying to be relevant to their problems, etc. Also, if you have something important to say, I think you should try to find ways to communicate it to the people who need to know it. But desire for fame causes some people to put the cart before the horse. Instead of thinking, "I have something important to say; how can I find an audience?" they think, "I want an audience; what will a large group of people want to hear?" Note that this logic doesn't always cause people to say (or write) popular things. Instead, it may encourage them to promote controversial views, so that they can be the only ones holding particular opinions. But unfortunately, the truth is often unoriginal and complicated, rather than simple and new.

3. People who are famous are asked to comment on all manner of topics. If they agree, they thus lose the intellectual discipline that comes from having to get published (or interviewed) on the merits of one's research. A few extremely famous academics continue to work hard at developing evidence and arguments; they also concentrate on expressing views that they can defend on the basis of their own work. But more frequently, scholars are corrupted by fame; they spend most of their time opining on subjects far afield from their own competence, and thereby set bad examples for students and younger faculty.

I recognize that this blog is full of my own unprofessional, unsubstantiated opinions, which I nevertheless want people to read. I suppose in my defense I would say that this form is more like a conversation with a smallish group of voluntary visitors than a public address. Still, I do sometimes desire fame, and that is precisely why I worry about it.

January 2, 2004 3:05 PM | category: none


I think you are right to sound a cautionary note both about the potential corruptive influence on individuals of the quest for fame and about the distortionary effects on institutions of the general pursuit of fame. But there's fame and then there's fame. We can want to be famous (or just known) for doing excellent work, or we can do excellent work (or what passes for excellent work, or even just pander to popular taste) in order to be famous. Perhaps it's the difference between the Gene Hackman approach and the Christina Aguilera approach?

January 2, 2004 6:37 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Frederick Emrich

Thanks a lot for these comments.

Imagine an actor who always does good work, turns down all cheesy parts, and labors very hard on his craft. One of his motives is to get good reviews from good reviewers. Then we would say that he wants fame, but this desire has no bad consequences. Similarly, there are political leaders who are motivated by the hope that one day historians will record their valuable work. They want credit, but they want to be recognized for doing good. And there are scholars who labor diligently in the archives--because they want their research to be influential for a long time to come.

Reflecting on these cases, we might reach one of these conclusions:

1. Desire for fame is acceptable as long as it motivates good action, but it's not the best motivation. The hypothetical movie star described above might not be a better actor if he cared less for fame, but he would be a better person. Ideally, he should care about art alone.

2. In addition to the points made in #1, we should also worry about desire-for-fame because it's unlikely to generate the best work overall. Wanting to be famous is compatible with pretty good acting, pretty good political leadership, and pretty good scholarship, but it will not encourage the very best work. Sooner or later, everyone faces a choice between fame and excellence, and those who care about fame will make the wrong decision.

3. Desire for fame is actually a good thing, because if can motivate hard and excellent work in public roles. If no one wanted fame, then no one would go into acting or politics, and we would be the worse for that. Perhaps we should reserve our highest praise for those who enter public life simply out of duty, without regard for fame. Nevertheless, we should be glad that fame exists as a motivator.

4. Maybe it is a prejudice to think that there's anything wrong with desire-for-fame. The ancient Greeks admired people (men, actually) who competitively sought glory. They considered this desire a worthy motive, reflecting "greatness of soul." It was the Bible that taught humility. Proverbs 22:4: "By humility and the fear of the LORD are riches, and honor, and life." Matt. 18:4: "And who therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." Matt. 23:12: "And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that humble himself shall be exalted." If you do not believe in the Judeo-Christian God, then you can ignore these warnings (although they have been extremely influential). And even pious Jews and Christians may feel that Biblical talk of humility doesn't quite apply to someone like an excellent actor or politician who is motivated by fame. Matt. 23:12 is specifically directed at "scribes and Pharisees" (mentioned in the subsequent verse), and their pride is unjustified because their ideas are wrong. Perhaps it is necessary to be humble before the Lord, but not always before men. Or perhaps Biblical humility is compatible with desiring fame.

January 3, 2004 9:52 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Peter Levine

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