– Dr C.K. Mathew, IAS (Retd)
The world is filled with famous men and women. There is a surfeit of them, you can see them on Page 3, in bold headlines, on the glossy pages of fashion magazines, under the bright lights of the entertainment world. But as to the really great men and women; how does one recognise them? It struck me recently how easy it is to be confused between greatness and fame.
When Roman emperors marched back after victorious battles, acknowledging the admiring chants of their people, bound slaves in tow, cartloads of treasure dragged in by their marching cohorts, they demanded, and got, a wizened old man to whisper in their ears, “all fame is fleeting.” The old man merely repeated what they already knew, but required reminder of, that the applause would be as short-lived as the momentary light of a glow-worm.
So what distinguishes greatness from fame? As all thoughtful and wise men should know, there is a simple measure to weigh greatness. And that is service. The truly great are those who expend time, energy, blood, sweat and tears in the service of others not as fortunate as they. Fame feeds only the famous; all the rest must take succour from the great. Too much of the one can choke in the throat, there is no excess in the other but helps the poor and unfortunate.
Emily Dickinson, in her own inimitable way, wrote:
Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate….
Whose crumbs the crows inspect
And with ironic caw
Flap past it to the Farmer’s Corn –
Men eat of it and die.
Even the crows show disdain for it. Men eat of fame and die. Short-lived starry lives that fade in a minute. But the great do not die. They live forever in the hearts and minds of those whose lives have been touched by them. Now here’s the rub of what I want to write. How many of us, given the choice between fame and greatness, would choose the latter. How many of us would choose the sack cloth and the spare food, the anguish and the awesome responsibility of greatness. Some saints, as we can attest, can be tiresome and make the lives of their votaries miserable by their unbearable idiosyncrasies. But they are forgiven for their achievement is judged by what they achieve for their unfortunate brethren.
Not only this, but one has to be consistent in greatness. It is not a garb worn once and thrown away; it is more like a goad stinging against the body for as long as one lives, an indelible mark in the heart and the mind. One cannot be great one day and crass the next. It is a coherent, holistic philosophy that rules over every minute of one’s life. Worse, there is no money it.
As for fame, why, you can be famous one day and a nobody the next. And almost certainly, you can have more money than you could possibly spend in a life time. Look at the IPL stars, for example, what they earn must be almost the GDP of a sub-Saharan country. And what of our Bollywood actors. But will humanity remember them when the season is over?
So let me ask myself the question I have posed. How many of us would choose greatness over fame?