in: Character, Knowledge of Men, Podcast

• Last updated: March 20, 2022

Podcast #679: The History of Fame, From Alexander the Great to Social Media Influencers

When choosing among options like becoming a leader, helping others, and becoming more spiritual, half of millennials say that their generation’s first or second most important goal is being famous. When teenagers in the UK were asked what they’d like to do for their career, over half said they wanted to be a celebrity. And amongst kids polled in the US and UK, 3X more said they’d like to become a YouTube star than an astronaut. 

How did fame, and modernity’s particular flavor of fame, rise to such prominence? Has fame always been attractive, and how has its meaning changed over time?

My guest answers these questions in his book, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History. His name is Leo Braudy, and he’s a professor of English literature, film history and criticism, and American culture at USC. Today on the show, Leo takes us on a wide-ranging tour through the history of fame, which he describes as an emotion, an ambition to be somebody, to be known, the shape of which changes depending on the audience to which people look in order to gain the desired attention. We begin, and Leo will explain why, with Alexander the Great, before turning to what fame meant for the Romans, whose audience was not just the public, but their posterity. We then turn to how Christianity changed the idea of fame to something based on private, inward virtue, where one’s only true audience was God. We then dig into how the Renaissance gave birth to the idea of the artist, who, regardless of social class, could gain fame through his talent and creativity. We discuss how the rise of mass media created a new kind of ever more democratized fame, and a dynamic which would come to rest on a reciprocal relationship between the famous and their fans. Leo argues that fame in the 20th century became more about being rather than doing, a trend which has only accelerated in the age of social media. At the end of our conversation, Leo makes the case for a return to a positive, ennobling conception of fame, in which recognition must be earned and connected to actual greatness.

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Show Highlights

  • What can we learn about humanity by studying fame?
  • Alexander the Great and the birth of fame
  • How the ancients thought of fame 
  • The way Stoics and Christians influenced the idea of fame 
  • The invention of the individual and the democratization of fame 
  • Why the idea of the self-made man hurt society in some ways 
  • What does authenticity really mean?
  • The birth of fandom
  • How fame changes in the 20th century with the advent of mass media 
  • The nature of fame in the internet era 

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. When choosing among options like becoming a leader, helping others and becoming more spiritual, half of Millennials say that their generation’s first or second-most important goal is being famous. When teenagers in the UK were asked what they’d like to do for their career, over half said they wanted to be a celebrity, and amongst kids polled in the US and in UK, three times more said they’d like to become a YouTube star than an astronaut. How did fame and the dirtiest particular flavour of fame rise to such prominence? Has fame always been attractive? How has its meaning changed over time? My guest answers these questions in his book, “The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and its History.” His name is Leo Braudy. He’s professor of English literature, film history and criticism and American culture at USC. Today on the show, Leo takes us on a wide-ranging tour through the history of fame, which he describes as an emotion, an ambition to be somebody, to be known, the shape of which changes depending on the audience to which people look in order to gain the desired attention.

We begin and Leo will explain why with Alexander the Great before turning what fame meant for the Romans whose audience was not just the immediate public, but their posterity. We then turn to how Christianity changed the idea of fame to something, based on private, inward virtue, where one’s only true audience was God. We then dig into how the Renaissance gave birth to the idea of the artist regardless of social class, could gain fame through his talent and creativity. We discuss how the rise of mass media created a new kind of even more democratized fame and a dynamic, which would come to rest on a reciprocal relationship between the famous and their fans. Leo argues that fame in the 20th century became more about being rather than doing, a trend which is only accelerated in the age of social media. At the end of our conversation, Leo makes the case for a return to a positive and ennobling conception of fame in which recognition must be earned and connected to actual greatness. After the show’s over, check our show notes at Leo joins you now via

Leo Braudy, welcome to the show.

Leo Braudy: Thank you. Thanks, great to be here, Brett.

Brett McKay: So we had you on the podcast about three years ago to talk about your book about war and masculinity, how war has influenced masculinity throughout time. It’s an epic cultural history. I wanted to bring you back on the show to talk about a book, another epic, cultural history you wrote about the topic of fame. And the book is called “The Frenzy of Renown,” originally published in 1986, and then you did an update with an afterward in 1993. It’s one of my favorite books. I’m curious, what do you think that people can learn about what it means to be human by studying the history of fame?

Leo Braudy: Well, it’s not just being human because that is an important part of it. ‘Cause I think we conceive fame as a kind of more intensified version of how we are in public, our social selves, and often people take cues… This is it, they take cues from famous people. They take cues from celebrities, cues about how to dress, cues about how to engage with other people. So that’s definitely part of the human side. And perhaps learning about the history of fame, I would hope, allows us to stand back a little bit rather than just to plunge in kind of un-self-conscious way, just to imitate other people, other selves, other kinds of models of the public self.

Brett McKay: So in the book, you make the case that the idea of fame as we know it today, gets its start with Alexander the Great. We see it as kind of the birth of it. What did Alexander the Great do that was different from previous ancient rulers? There were famous rulers before Alexander the Great, the Pharaohs and things like that, but you make the case that he did something different. What was it that was different from those previous famous rulers?

Leo Braudy: Part of what makes out what reason that I start with Alexander is actually I went backwards. A lot of my training, my academic training, graduate school, when I did my early academic work was in the 18th century. And one of the things I noticed about the 18th century and about people who wrote then was how often they compared themselves to the Romans, to the Classical period. They wanted to be like Roman writers in a variety of ways. They wanted to invoke Roman ideas. So I went back to Rome, and I discovered that the Romans kept invoking Alexander. So I would go back to Alexander and then it seemed to me that Alexander was a good start because unlike the pharaohs that you mentioned, the pharaohs were famous within Egypt. They built large statues to themselves and things like that. Alexander had a much wider urge to be famous. He wanted to combat with the gods, basically. He wanted to be more famous than the heroes of the Iliad, particularly of Achilles. And not only did he wanna do that, he wanted everybody to know about it. When he took his army over to Persia there in the Persian wars, from which he never returned of course, he took along with him historians, he took along with him painters, sculptors, even people who designed gems, things like that, all in order to memorialize his activities, his triumphs, his fame, essentially.

Well, he also wanted to send the news back to a particular audience as well, to Athens. Remember, Alexander was an outsider. Alexander was from Illyria, Alexander Macedonia. He in fact wanted to become famous in Athens, that Athens was the center of the world then, and Athens… Let’s say the way all the publishers are in New York, things like that or had been certainly for a long time. That is what is the center of the dissemination of fame? Let’s focus on that and let’s make myself famous in that place.

Brett McKay: And another point you made that I thought was interesting about Alexander or made him different, previous rulers like pharaohs or other rulers before then, they were trying to be famous within a role. They were gonna be a famous pharaoh. Alexander wanted to be famous for being Alexander.

Leo Braudy: For being Alexander and for doing the things that Alexander did, like the famous Gordian knot story. That has nothing to do was winning a battle. What that has to do is stepping outside. How does he solve the Gordian knot? No one can untie the Gordian knot, and Alexander just goes there and cuts the Gordian knot. So he steps outside the standards of the tradition of the Gordian knot and destroys it himself. And I think that in the same way when he was going through Persia and into India with his army, he would always try to find out who were the local gods and what did they do? And so he’ll come in… For example, let’s say he’ll come into an area, and the locals will say, “Well, there’s that big hill over there that only Hercules could have climbed, and he did that once, and he was the great hero.” And Alexander says, “Okay,” and he immediately just zips up that hill and he supersedes Hercules. He wants to supersede myth. He wants to become a myth himself.

Brett McKay: So that was Alexander, this idea of superseding myth and being famous for being Alexander. So you mentioned the Romans picked up their cues on what it meant to be famous from Alexander. How did the Romans take what Alexander started and change it?

Leo Braudy: Well, Rome of course is a place, is a famous city, is a city that in fact ruled a large portion of the known world at that time. And so part of what Rome did to this idea of fame was to look at it in terms of, “Who are you in public?” Roman fame, Classical fame in that way, and this is taking a cue from Alexander, is public fame. It’s the fame of the athlete. It’s the fame of the orator. It’s the fame of the politician, standing on the rostrum and speaking to people there. So you achieved fame in the Roman Republic by being present in that big way, by being physically present and by swaying your immediate audience. And in the same way that, say, that Alexander wanted the news to go back to Athens, the news is already there in Rome. You had to establish your fame in the Roman context, in the forum there, in the senate, as did Caesar, as did Cicero, as did so many of the Roman orator-politician types or politician/general types.

Brett McKay: Well, another point you made about the early Roman Republic was that personal fame was often… Well, it was. It was contingent upon increasing the fame of Rome itself, so those interests aligned. If you could advance the fame of Rome, then you yourself would also become famous.

Leo Braudy: Yes. And as we go along, I think there’s an interesting analogy between that and what happens in the 18th century, let’s say, with America, the way someone like Ben Franklin, for example, increases his own fame and increases the idea of being an American and that kind of difference. So Rome comes on to the public stage in that way, not only because it conquers so many people, but because it’s a famous place and it’s a place where fame can be achieved. So it draws people into it in the same way that great cities have drawn people into it ever since.

Brett McKay: And another point you make, as you see the evolution of fame, particularly you see this in Rome and then moving onward is that audiences change. Who were you famous for? Whose approbation were you looking for? Like today, we think of fame, “Well, I just wanna be famous like with people who are alive now and on the Internet or whatever.” But the Romans, that was part of it, but they were also thinking about, “I wanna know, will my posterity be talking about me hundreds, thousands of years from now?”

Leo Braudy: Absolutely. The words for fame goes back to Roman words for speaking. And the whole question of something, of course, again, that as you say, connects with what’s happening to us today, the whole question of whether your fame is immediate and exists in the present moment or whether your fame will be everlasting is a constant issue in the history of fame. If we go back in Indo-European, the kind of mother language of Europe and other places, in Indo-European, there’s a phrase they call the [0:11:05.8] ____ there called undying fame. This is what you want, undying fame. What does that mean? That means in the future, you will be famous. But part of that also is that real fame, real fame in the Roman sense, starts only after you’re dead. That is, there is the immediate fame of speaking to other people of that immediate audience, the people right in front of you, and then there is the long-lasting fame that people will speak of you after you were gone and continue to speak about you after you’re gone.

Brett McKay: So in the history of Rome, there’s the Republic, and then there’s Empire. Did fame change as Rome shifted from Republic to Empire, the concept of fame?

Leo Braudy: Not very much, I wouldn’t think. The real alternative to the kind of fame, Roman fame, I was talking about another sort of Roman fame is what’s established and discussed and delved into by the writers there, Virgil in the Aeneid, Ovid in the Metamorphoses, places like that. And they have a very contrasting view of fame there. For Virgil, Aeneas leaves Troy, Aeneas comes to then to North Africa, meets Dido. He and Dido fall in love, but Aeneas has a destiny, that undying fame. He has to go on to undying fame, and part of going to undying fame is to continue on to found Rome and to establish the great city. So for Virgil, the feminine takes you away from what ought to be your destiny, let’s say. Instead of fame versus fate, let’s say. You want your destiny to be this kind of undying famous person, who has founded Rome. Ovid takes the total other point of view in fact. For Virgil, as I said the feminine, gods and men have to work together to create history.

The feminine takes you away from history into the private world. It has to be dispensed with. He has to leave Dido behind there. But for Ovid, in fact, the gods are really competitors of men and rapists of women and are in fact what hinders true fame, which is a private fame. So once again, you get that contrast between, is the urge to be public, the urge to have that audience or the urge to be private to cultivate your own garden, you might say, as Voltaire did in the 18th century, to turn away from the public world and turn into the world of private life and private values, in fact.

Brett McKay: Well, another group in ancient Rome that attacked that public nature of fame and advocated for the sort of private fame, a private life, were the Stoics. How did they influence the idea of fame?

Leo Braudy: The Stoics are interesting. In terms, let’s say, of the march of the history of fame, I would see the Stoics as kind of progenitors or early versions of a more what we’ll come to talk about a Christian idea of fame, that is a fame about eternal values rather than a fame of public life there. Stoic values, stoic internalism, turning inward, cultivating the self rather than the social self, the inner self rather than the social self, is something that leads, I think, as one of the many things that leads to the kind of things that Christianity brings in when it contrasts Christian fame with Roman fame as Jesus does when he holds up that coin in the Gospels. He says, “Render unto Caesar, and render unto God.” That’s the contrast right there. Caesar is the immediate world, God is the eternal world, of course.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about Christianity ’cause that was a big attack on the idea, the ancient idea of fame, and this is happening during the Roman Empire. And in fact, part of the reasons the Romans thought the Christians were weird and deserved persecution was they retreated from public life, they went to themselves. So how did Christianity change our ideas of fame?

Leo Braudy: Well, Christianity, by emphasizing the soul and emphasizing the community, the egalitarianism, let’s say, of the community of believers, we all have a soul in that way, identifies, emphasizes that kind of inwardness as the essence of personal identity there. Whereas in the Roman context, you might have had an inner life, of course, but in fact, your identity is really social. Your identity is among the other people there. So the community of the faithful versus the community, let’s say, of the orator’s audience or the politician’s audience is a very sharp contrast, and certainly in early Christianity there. And I mentioned that “Render unto Caesar, render unto God,” thing. That is okay, “What kind of fame is it?” It’s a fame that is in the future. It is a fame because… Who is your real audience? Your real audience isn’t other people. Your real audience is God. You act in a way that God would approve, not applauded by other people. And that I think is really an important and crucial moment in the history of fame where the Christian and, let’s say, the Classical, the Greco-Roman views of fame come into direct conflict.

Brett McKay: And what’s interesting too, I think people overlook this, is that Christianity, like the beginning of Christianity, paved the way for our modern concept of the individual. And before that, like you said, the self was social. And basically individualism or what it meant to be an individual was relegated primarily to aristocrats. It was very elite, very few people. Christianity said, “No, everyone’s the same because we’re all children of God,” and slowly that would lead to, I guess, a democratization of the individual.

Leo Braudy: Yes, absolutely. And it’s very important. Of course, [chuckle] it’s changed a lot over the centuries, but that was really incredibly significant at the time and later as it turned into other ways. You were tracing it up through the idea of individuality. I would say that even gets more stressed with the Reformation and with the rise of Protestantism. But in fact, the idea that you are a child of God, as you say, the idea that everyone is, the idea that there’s a kind of equality among people that in fact, what would you call it, the kind of social coincidence that some people are born aristocrats and others are born plebeians or slaves even, that is irrelevant to the way that God sees you and irrelevant to your relationship to God.

Brett McKay: And this would pave… I think one of the big themes in your book is that… You weave throughout the book is that fame, the idea of being known becomes more and more democratized as we get closer and closer to the modern era. So before with Alexander the Great, only Alexander the Great could be famous, and then you move to the Romans and like, well, the Roman aristocrats could be famous. And then you have this shift with Christianity, well, everyone is an individual with worth and dignity, and from there people, “Well, if I’m just as good as the aristocrat, then I should have a claim to being known as well,” and you started seeing that in the Renaissance, this democratization of fame started really going full steam ahead in the Renaissance. How did fame change during the Renaissance?

Leo Braudy: Well, Renaissance is a step, another step in this history of fame. And certainly one of the very important things about the Renaissance, I think, is that the Renaissance looks back to the Classical period, and it looks back to the writers and the authors of that period. So in the arts then, the idea of somebody like, I don’t know, Michelangelo, for example, somebody who, in fact, is not an aristocrat, doesn’t come from a high social background or anything, but is a great artist. The idea of a great artist that is somebody, who has no social cache at all from his family background can be great, that kind of individualization, or Galileo, that is the scientists, the artists, the people who work with their hands and their minds, the creators, the Renaissance really focuses on that. So definitely. And that is another step there. It’s not just everybody that may wait. That’s [chuckle] sort of what’s happening now, but in fact, it’s people with talent.

If you have that internal talent, if you have that sense of self, if you have that ability, you can be that. They can look back, let’s say for example, to someone like Horace. Horace’s Poems are all about, “I’m just this guy who lives off in the countryside on a farm,” but in fact he has this insight and he has his poetic ability. So the breaking down of the hierarchy of class structure, I think, is something that’s pushed forward tremendously by the Renaissance.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I thought the interesting point you made in the section about the Renaissance was during this time, artists started signing their work. Before that, works of art were known by the person who was the patron like the Pope or the king that commissioned the piece. Then in the Renaissance like Michelangelo, “No, Michelangelo did this,” and that was the big change.

Leo Braudy: Well, absolutely, and this is the moment when… The artist before this was an artisan. The artist was hired by a church or a patron or whoever it was under the umbrella of International Catholicism to do an altarpiece, to do a statue of whatever it was. They’re an artisan. So you were hired for your ability, but you were still a hireling. You were still like like a plumber or something like that. But with the Renaissance, the artisan becomes an artist, potentially, not everybody, of course, but that is, you can break out of this because you are in touch with some kind of creativity and you wanna be known for having done this. You look at medieval things, and there’s always a question in art history, “Who actually did this?” So when do we start knowing who did this? It’s really with the Renaissance and with people signing things.

There was an interesting thing I saw in the paper the other day, and I’ve forgotten exactly where. Some big cathedral, again, from the Middle Ages, and they found, they had never noticed this before, but way up in the top there, among all the gargoyles and things like that, the sculptor, the otherwise anonymous, unknown sculptor, had done a little figure, which presumably was a figure of himself. So there’s always that… There was that urge, but with the Renaissance, those kinds of urges come together in the idea of the artist and the artist’s particular creativity connected to the muse, connected to spiritual beings even.

Brett McKay: All right. So the Renaissance was another step in this democratization of fame. You mentioned the Reformation and then also along with the Reformation, like the democratic movements that happened in the 17th and 18th centuries and early 19th centuries also shaped how we think about fame. What happened in the fame during that period of time?

Leo Braudy: Well, with the rise of Protestantism, again, you have a kind of breaking out. You have kinds of fame that didn’t quite exist before. Let’s say, Thomas Aquinas or other kinds of theologians of the Middle Ages were known to their groups and were known to other theologians, but somebody like Martin Luther or somebody like Calvin or Zwingli or the great figures of the Reformation were known for themselves. And part of this is really a crucial element, which I’m sure we’ll talk about further, is printing. Printing comes in, the dissemination of work. You were mentioning about signing a painting, what about signing a sermon, signing a pamphlet. And so in this time of great religious controversy, we have a new medium which allows the image, not only the image, but also the words, the particular words of different kinds of speakers, different kinds of writers to be disseminated to wider and wider audiences.

Brett McKay: And another thing that happened, too, I thought was interesting, during this time, you had the rise of, I don’t know, basically like a middle class, like an upper… It wasn’t aristocrat, but they were middle class. And they were able to afford… They could print their own book if they wanted to, or they could even sit for their own painting, which was something that only kings did before. But now an upper middle-class, I don’t know, lawyer could do that as well if they wanted to.

Leo Braudy: Yeah. So that’s absolutely true. This is the beginning of the great age of portraiture, that people could have their portraits painted by the famous painter in town or whoever it might be, or even let’s say in early America by a traveling painter. This is a little bit later in the 18th century, but traveling painters would go around and do people’s portraits and just portraits of families. So this idea of your personal image, the potential for disseminating or, let’s say, creating posterity, personal image, becomes a possibility. It’s connected to a more intense sense of individualism. I think you might even… Let’s say, and it’s kind of a crude formula, that soul is turning into self here. Soul is the basis for self. Soul as you mentioned earlier has something to do with… In the early Christian context, it has to do with personal identity, with inner self and with the discovery of an inner self, and now that inner self is becoming a self. Soul was turning into self. That is, there’s a secularization of the Christian idea of the soul into the secular idea of the self. And so the personal desires, the efforts “to be somebody” finds its roots in this particular period.

Brett McKay: And again, I think we gotta pinpoint, like reiterate, this is a radical break. Before that time, you were just… Okay, if you were born a peasant, you were born on a farm, that’s where you’d probably die, and you just kind of accepted that. With the, especially things like the Renaissance, the Reformation, democratic movements, the idea was implanted in people said, “No, I can actually run a wrest fate into my hands and shape how I want to be. I have control over my future if I want, and I can be somebody if I want to be.”

Leo Braudy: It’s an interesting question, an interesting point too. To me, in terms of some recent work I’ve been doing, at least in England, this is very England-specific, but it’s an interesting moment, let’s say, because in the middle of the 17th century, the King of England gets his head cut off by the people of England. So this idea that in a monarchy, for example, what’s the fame structure of a monarchy? It’s like a mountain. It’s like a triangle with an apex at the top where there’s only one person there. But if you cut off the top, if you cut off that… Say that in fact that authority can be considered to be illegitimate there, then there are all sorts of different ways. My metaphor for a monarchical view of fame is a mountain, but for a democratic view of fame, it’s like a mountain range. There are all sorts of ways to get to the top, and so the possibility, the idea that, “I have something in me that will make me wanna be more than how I was born,” is a distinct effort on the part of many individuals. Remember, Jesus said… Again, it’s intriguing to me how so much of this secularizes a lot of early Christian ideas.

Jesus said, “You had to leave your family and then join me,” to separate yourself from your background there. So in this more secular view of fame, it’s very similar. You separate yourself. You are not determined by your background. You are not determined by the level of society that you were born into. You are only determined by your ambition, your talent, your sense of self.

Brett McKay: And that can be very ennobling, inspiring that “I have control.” But there are also, you point out in the book, there’s some perils with that idea ’cause the peril is, “Well if you’re not somebody based on your grid and whatever, then it’s your own fault.” And it’s seen almost as like a moral failure if you’re not known publicly for your efforts or merit.

Leo Braudy: There’s definitely that downside. That’s a downside. Individualism, let’s say, brings in the positive side of, “Yes, I’m gonna be untrammeled. I’m gonna… ” Like in that song, Fame. “I’m gonna live forever, I gotta know how to fly.” I can do all these things, but if you don’t do all these things, then it’s a burden. Then say, “Okay, it’s your own fault. You’re probably not that good. You’re probably… ” So that’s the negative side as well. That’s the pitfall of this democratization of fame. If it’s open to everybody, why didn’t you do it? What’s the matter with you?

Brett McKay: And it gets harder to become famous. There’s more competitors for fame, so you’re competing with everybody.

Leo Braudy: Yes, that mountain range [chuckle] is getting lower and lower. It’s gonna get bigger and bigger, wider and wider. Yeah, there are just too many people vying for fame, crowds there. So what comes back in the 19th century among some writers, I think, is a turning away from that competitive world, which we might call commercial civilization, and saying that, “In fact, if I’m really good, my work will last after I’m gone.” That is the idea of posterity. The only real test of your work is the audience of people, who will be around after you’re dead, so it’s a kind of retreat into a moral decision that you don’t even wanna be known in the present moment. So once again that kind of present moment versus the future, fame in the immediate fame versus fame in posterity, undying fame there comes into play.

Brett McKay: And also during the 19th century, you see this idea of authenticity rise up. That’s a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, but what did it mean for like a 19th century artist or writer to be authentic, and how did that shape their ideas of what it meant to be famous?

Leo Braudy: Well, I think part of the definition of being authentic in that way for writers and for artists is what I was referring to earlier about turning away. It’s a kind of, “I refuse immediate fame.” The whole idea is, for example, of the avant-garde or the Bohemian, the idea of people who opt very specifically to step outside the regular social order and refuse to climb the social ladder, what has now become the social ladder of becoming famous, becoming a known person, I think, is really part of this. You are authentic because you are true to yourself there rather than true to an audience, which might be a degraded commercial audience. And I think that is an attitude, which we still have with us, that is, people often who get to be famous, artists and writers, feel very nervous about it. I remember an old friend of mine, who was actually a great artist and a very much celebrated painter, told me this story once of how when he was a young artist, working away, and somebody came to his studio, a rich person and said, “Oh, I’m gonna buy 10 or 12 of your paintings.” And the guy left, and his wife said, “Oh, aren’t you happy about that?” And he said, “No, God, it’s totally depressing. I must be on an awful artist if this rich person wants my work.”

Brett McKay: Well, yeah, like the transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau, they talk a lot about that. They wanted to… You marched to the beat of your own drum, or Thoreau even goes to Walden, retreats completely from public life. But what’s interesting about those guys is they had this idea of like a spiritual fame. They were famous for posterity or famous for… They did what they wanted to do, but at the same time, they still wanted a little bit. They still wanted that public recognition from the right people.

Leo Braudy: Yes, you want the appropriate audience. You want the right people to recognize you. You don’t want to become a commercial success in the same way. Milton, Sir John Milton, in Paradise Lost at one point talks about his audience, and he says, “Fit audience find, though few.” That is, it has to be a fit audience. He said, “I don’t care that my work is not being celebrated. I don’t care that I’m not reaching a lot of people, but I wanna reach the people, who know and the people who can really appreciate me.” So the separation, the march to the beat of a different drummer, the “Go to Walden Pond,” all those efforts of various writers and artists in the 19th century, especially in like the first half of the 19th century, I would say, they want to find that special, that separate audience because in part, what does that mean? In part, it means it’s a more intimate relationship. It’s not being cheered by huge crowds. It’s a very intimate and private relationship with individual readers, viewers, listeners, whoever they are.

Brett McKay: So it looks like there’s a distinction between what we can call like true fame and what we can call like vulgar fame or just plain celebrity. You start seeing that distinction arise the 19th century.

Leo Braudy: Well, it’s also there in the Rome. It’s also there in Rome, the idea of vulgar fame, the fame of the vulgar, of the general versus true fame. It’s there in Virgil even in the Aeneid. You don’t want vulgar fame. You don’t want the fame of large crowds cheering you. You want the fame of people who really understand you and understand your work.

Brett McKay: Another thing, something that happened in the 19th century, a lot of what we know as popular culture got its start there. You see the rise of magazines, sports celebrities, actor celebrities, mass communication, and with it, you see the rise of the fan. It’s the birth of the fan in the 19th century. How did the idea of the fan, how did that change fame and what it meant to be famous?

Leo Braudy: I always thinking of the fan, the idea of fandom has an interesting history. It’s not called a fan for a long time, you could say. In fact, the people who were reading Luther’s pamphlets and the people who were amazed at the paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci or other renaissance artists or Rembrandt could be called fans. They’re kind of an audience to keep looking for those kinds of paintings, but in fact, the idea of the fan, I think, really does rely on a kind of sense of popular culture and a sense of who are the people that you’re paying attention to? Somebody like James Boswell in the 18th century would go and visit Russo. He’d go and visit Voltaire. He became great friends with Samuel Johnson. He wrote the biography of Samuel Johnson. He was like the first fan, mega fan, let’s say, in a lot of ways. But with the 19th century, of course, with the expansion of media in the 19th century, you get the expansion of fandom.

Even somebody like Lord Byron had a screen that had pictures of boxers. He was very enamored of various boxers on it. So there’s this sense of the availability of information about people that you could become a fan of through magazines and of course as the century wears on through photography, later obviously through radio, television, etcetera, there too. So the expansion of media is an expansion of fandom as well and the desire to, in a sense, what would you call it? To kind of be in the aura of the famous person, this is what the fan really wants. The fan gets some shedded fame from being the fan there, a kind of sub-fame. Famous people have that aura, and they have, “Oh, I saw Brad Pitt at the supermarket the other day,” something like that that is, “Ooh, I’m important. I had this sighting.” These are things that happen in Los Angeles all the time, of course. So it’s the fandom is very connected to the expansion of media and to this enhanced sense of self that the fan gets from being next to or in the audience of the famous person.

Brett McKay: And another point you make too is the fan also plays a role in shaping the celebrity or the famous person. Before Alexander the Great, he had complete control over the message of what it meant to be Alexander. He had the coins. Basically, he had complete control over public relations. When you bring in fans like fans, all these different people who look up to you, they have a say in what is said about you, and that can be kind of scary because it could be good or bad.

Leo Braudy: Well, of course, and this is true. We’ve seen it with movie stars, and they’re very aware of this, I think, that is there’s a kind of relationship between the famous person, the celebrity, and the audience. And I would say celebrity almost is more than a famous person because it is really about immediacy. When the fan turns away, when the fan decides that the celebrity has done them wrong in some way, that could be disastrous for the celebrity or even with the passage of time. I mean, we look back at the great actors that we knew when we were younger, and a lot of them are not around anymore and they’re replaced by new people too. So it’s the fan, the audience or the fans is what creates, helps create the celebrity. The celebrity obviously has a lot to do with this. The celebrity draws you in to begin with, but in fact then it becomes a more reciprocal relationship between the fan and the celebrity. And we can see this in politics, certainly. When people who are enamored of a politician or something, and all of a sudden decide that that politician has done them wrong or is irrelevant to the present moment, they turn away.

Brett McKay: So in the 19th century, you see the democratization of fame. You also see this idea of good fame, vulgar fame, turning away from public fame if that was vulgar. What happens to fame in the 20th century? How does it change?

Leo Braudy: Well, from a sour point of view, from a kind of negative point of view, I think fame in the 20th century becomes more and more superficial often, that is, it’s about performance. I mean, superficial to say… Can I use superficial in a neutral way?

Brett McKay: Sure.

Leo Braudy: It’s about surfaces there. It’s about performance. I’m just remembering, Cary Grant had a line supposedly where he said that, “Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. I wanna be Cary Grant.” That is he had had separation from his own image there. In terms of cultural history, who’s a great hero, who’s a famous person in the 19th century? It’s often an inventor. It might be an engineer. It might be somebody, who does great earthworks and things like that. Who’s a famous person in the 20th century? It’s an actor or an actress. It’s somebody who performs in that way. That is, in other words, if we recreate the fame hierarchy, who’s at the top? It’s really the performers who are at the top in the 20th century. And performance is an aspect of self, a social way of being. It’s who you are to other people. It often doesn’t have a lot to do with doing anything. It’s a fame of being rather than a fame of doing there. You don’t have to achieve anything. What did you actually do to become famous? It doesn’t make any difference.

In Los Angeles for many years, there was a woman named Angeline, who would appear on billboards. She drove around in a pink Mustang and everything, and once she was asked, “You’re very famous. We see your image around town on billboards and places like that. What are you famous for?” And she says, “I’m not famous, particularly for anything, because to do anything would undermine the purity of my fame,” just paraphrasing there. But that is, it’s pure. You don’t do anything to become famous. You just be. And I think that kind of fame is something that has become much more pervasive in the 20th century and in the 21st century for that matter.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about that. So you originally published “Frenzy” in 1986. You did an updated afterward in 1996. One of the arguments you make is that as the modes of communication increase and become more democratized, the ability to access fame increases. It’s more accessible, and so basically everyone has a low-grade fever of the frenzy of the renown. 1986, that was right before the Internet really took off, way before social media. Now we have the Internet and social media where anybody basically with a smartphone and the right app can become famous overnight, can go viral. I’m curious, how has your thinking about… What do you think the state of fame is in the 21st century, taking in account all these innovations with communication technology?

Leo Braudy: Well, one thing I feel is that we need another word beside “famous” for this. I’m not sure exactly what that would be because as we’ve been discussing, fame has a lot of positive characteristics to it as we look over the centuries, fame for being a great X, Y or Z, whatever it is. You’re a great painter or whatever, a great general, a great politician, all sorts of greatness that is connected to greatness and that’s connected, let’s say, to the eye of posterity that will look upon you even after you’re gone and will think that you did something worthwhile. But these kinds of fames are so evanescent. Andy Warhol, of course, had that… I’m not gonna call it famous. I’ll say, his notable saying that in the future people will be famous for 15 minutes, but now they can be famous for 30 seconds. And the question to me always is, “Which 15 minutes?” Is it something that you really value? Is it something that’s really worthwhile, or is it just because you’re an influencer, because you’re on TikTok, because you did something funny or something idiotic or whatever it is?”

The democratization of fame doesn’t mean that everybody is famous. It means that everybody could be famous, but the real question is, “How do you stay famous? How do you stay on top? Once you get that toehold in the mountain of fame, how do you maintain it? How do you keep on climbing? How do you change? What do you do next? [chuckle] Scott Fitzgerald said, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Maybe he was talking about this, that is you get in there, you do your first act, it’s fantastic. Then you say, “What else do you have?” “I don’t have anything. I’m gone. This is it.” [chuckle]

Brett McKay: As a cultural critic, what effects do you see this desire to go viral on TikTok or YouTube? What do you think it’s doing to our culture?

Leo Braudy: Well, I think it’s fragmenting our attention for real fame, let’s say, for real possibilities. Of course, I have to say, because of the pandemic, I think people are looking for distraction, people are looking. They’re playing video games. They’re doing crossword puzzles. They’re checking out TikTok or Instagram or whatever it is there, so maybe that has enhanced it. I wonder what will happen, when keeping our fingers crossed, we go back to [chuckle] the old normal or some version of the old normal, mixed with the new normal? That is the need for distraction won’t be as intense as it is now. So I think that sort of hot-housed a lot of what’s been going on with social media in the last nine or 10 months or so. But my main point remains the same, that is, in terms of these individuals who are doing this on social media, what are they gonna do next? Are they gonna stay famous? Do they actually have good taste, those people who are saying, “These are the kind of clothes you should wear,” and various clothing companies and places like that are paying them to do this or are they…

Taste moves on too. Taste changes as well. So much of our lives are lived online now that these people, influencers and etcetera, have a role to play. Whether they’ll continue to play that role, I’m not sure. I would think things are gonna change. It’s gonna change in some way, and I think, I hope it will change a little bit more for the better.

Brett McKay: Well, yeah. In the afterward, in the 1996 edition of “The Frenzy of Renown,” you made a call for a restoration of personal honor and dignity to counter this, I don’t know, what would we call it? You don’t wanna call this social media fame fame, but you’re making a call for something, kind of harkening back to that really, I guess, ennobling idea of fame, that a fame of doing good and helping, making the world a better place and being famous for that.

Leo Braudy: Well, I think, I suppose I would still stand by that 1996 afterward in that way. It’s just a question of, “What does personal honor and dignity mean to counter the frenzy of renown?” And maybe in terms of our overall discussion of these different things is kind of going back to that internal sense of values, let’s say, that the Stoics and other more philosophic groups we’re looking for, as opposed to the standing in front of other people in large crowds kind of thing. What is integrity? Remember, we were talking about authenticity before. Now we might say, “Connect authenticity to integrity.” Do you believe in laws? Do you believe in values and ethics and things like that, and do you act in accordance with your belief? Certainly, a lot of people have stepped up recently during the pandemic, have contributed in a variety of ways from a position of values that is, “What are the values that are involved with this?”

It’s fun. Celebrity fame is fun, but it is… I’ll go back to it. It’s superficial. It’s about performance. It’s not about a kind of acting that has a weight that impresses history almost, that connects with values across time or whether those values are eternal values, political values, legal values, whatever they are, something a little more abstract, let’s say, something a little more connected to a conception of how my behavior affects other people and how I belong to a living, breathing community that needs to be continued and needs more people to establish those values and to live by those values.

Brett McKay: Well, Leo, this has been a great conversation. Thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Leo Braudy: Oh, my pleasure, Brett. Really enjoyed it.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Leo Braudy. We talked about his book “The Frenzy of Renown.” It’s available on I highly recommend you pick it up. It’s one of my favorite books. It’s one of those books where the footnotes are just as interesting as the main text, so check it out. Find out more information about his work at his website, That’s Also check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources, and we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website at where you can find our podcast archives, which holds thousands of articles written over the years. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to, sign up, use code MANLINESS at check out for a free month trial or just download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already. Thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but to put what you’ve heard to action.

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