In a previous post, I explained why money cannot buy happiness. But what about celebrity, fame, or, better still, honor? 

In his Symposium, the ancient philosopher Plato says that animals enter into a state of love because they seek to reproduce and thereby to become immortal. Human beings, he explains, also seek to become immortal, and are prepared to take great risks, even to die, to attain fame and honor. Some human beings are 'pregnant in body' and beget children to preserve their memory, whereas others are 'pregnant in soul' and beget wisdom and virtue. As their children are more beautiful and more immortal, human beings who are pregnant in soul have more to share with each other and a stronger bond of friendship between them. Everyone, says Plato, would rather have their children than human ones.

Who when he thinks of Homer and Hesiod and other great poets, would not rather have their children than ordinary human ones? Who would not emulate them in the creation of children such as theirs, which have preserved their memory and given them everlasting glory?

Plato thereby distinguishes between the lesser immortality of leaving behind children and grandchildren, which is relatively easy to achieve but which only preserves one’s memory for at most three or four generations, and the greater immortality of leaving behind a significant artistic, intellectual, or social legacy, which preserves one’s memory for much longer but which is much more difficult to achieve.

Some 2,500 years after his time, the ancient philosopher Thales of Miletus continues to be studied by every student of philosophy, but no one remembers the names of the Milesians who mocked him for his poverty. Even so, a day will surely come when students no longer study Thales (or even Plato), if only because there are no longer any students left. For this reason, to search for happiness in immortality, even greater immortality, is never anything more than a vain attempt to delay the inevitable, a manic defence aimed at fooling oneself into thinking that one is a ‘somebody’ rather than a ‘nobody’ like everybody else. More fundamentally, it is to fall into the trap of searching for happiness in an idealized and hypothetical future rather than in an imperfect but actual present in which true happiness is much more likely to be found, albeit with great difficulty.

Of course, this is not to say that a person should not seek out individuation and self-realization—far from it—but only that he should not do so in some vain attempt to secure immortality, or even to secure celebrity, fame, or honor within his lifetime. This also frees the person from having to rely on public recognition, which can be just as painful as it can be pleasurable, and which is neither dependable nor indispensible. 

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of MadnessThe Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help GuideHide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deceptionand other books.

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