Stoicism and personal values: fame

Fame.pngBack to Irvine’s Guide to the Good Life, and in particular chapter 14, on seeking fame. It starts with a reminder of a fundamental Stoic doctrine, that people are unhappy because they go after the wrong sort of things, thinking that they will bring them happiness while they manifestly don’t. One of these is fame, at all levels from the world’s stage to that of one’s neighbors.

The basic problem, of course, is that fame is an external good, over which we have no (or no full) control. But there is more: even when we do obtain it, it comes at a price, which we too quickly dismiss or underestimate. Here is how Irvine puts it:

“Stoics value their freedom, and they are therefore reluctant to do anything that will give others power over them. But if we seek social status, we give other people power over us: We have to do things calculated to make them admire us, and we have to refrain from doing things that will trigger their disfavor. Epictetus therefore advises us not to seek social status, since if we make it our goal to please others, we will no longer be free to please ourselves. We will, he says, have enslaved ourselves.”

At the very least, the Stoics say, we should ponder whether the values of people whose approval we seek are compatible with ours, otherwise we will have to give up quite a bit to gain their favor.

Marcus Aurelius also comments on the futility of seeking fame after one’s death, for the obvious reason that we will not be there to enjoy it.

An interesting bit comes when Irvine discusses some Stoics’ practice of purposefully doing things that others dislike, with the goal of practicing indifference to disdain:

“Cato made a point of ignoring the dictates of fashion: When everyone was wearing light purple, he wore dark, and although ancient Romans normally went out in public wearing shoes and a tunic, Cato wore neither. According to Plutarch, Cato did this not because he “sought vainglory”; to the contrary, he dressed differently in order to accustom himself “to be ashamed only of what was really shameful, and to ignore men’s low opinion of other things.” In other words, Cato consciously did things to trigger the disdain of other people simply so he could practice ignoring their disdain.”