Democratizing κλεος, or, Keeping The Great World Spinning

By the nature of our species, everyone has a birthday.  A quick calculation (7.9 billion divided by 365) shows we each share a birthday with something like 22 million other living people, which gives us claim to about 4 milliseconds of unshared birthday time.  Yet, if you are anything like me, you have a feeling about your birthday that makes the whole day feel somehow like “your day,” a day to mark you as special in some way, a day to commemorate you.  Surely this comes in part from our traditions of birthday parties, cakes, cards, and gifts, but the human need to be recognized as a unique, authentic self goes beyond these traditions since it has fueled centuries of philosophical consideration and exploration.  (For one summary example, take the often-assigned essay by Charles Taylor that has hovered around undergraduate courses in composition, philosophy, and rhetoric in the decades since it was written:  http://elplandehiram.org/documentos/JoustingNYC/Politics_of_Recognition.pdf)

In the ancient world, standing out from the crowd (being outstanding) and being worthy of remark (being remarkable) were highly desired outcomes.  The Greek poets gave us epic stories in which heroes sought κλεος, (kleos), often translated as honor or glory, by facing, well, heroic challenges or by exhibiting bravery in combat.  That word, κλεος, probably came from a Proto-Indo-European wood root, kleu-, that meant “to hear,” carrying a meaning of one’s honor or glory being heard by others beyond the limits of time and place.  So the greatest thing one could do was perform some feat that made people talk about you for many, many years to come.   Some of the famous names of Ancient Greek myths and literature bear the mark of this idea:  Hercules, or Herakles (Glory of Hera) and Sophocles (famed for wisdom), for example, contain this word root and so carry the idea of being heard about, talked about, being worthy of being remembered for their deeds and qualities (https://www.etymonline.com/word/Hercules).  Of course, any body of myths or poetry worth its salt considers the complexities of an issue beyond a single valued dimension.  So, Homer tells us in The Odyssey that in the underworld Achilles reconsidered his decision to choose κλεος over long life and would have preferred longer life over fame, once his life was over.

Also, if there is great value in a thing, there is a kind of great loss in its absence.  With the sometimes slippery sort of attribution that attends our internet age, the artist Banksy is credited with the lines “they say you die twice.  One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”  https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/28811.Banksy  The cessation of being talked about, the end of κλεος, is surely the case for most of the humans that have ever lived.  Think of the number of people outside your direct experience of time and place who are outstanding enough, are remarkable enough, for you to know and repeat their names, therefore keeping them alive in the internet-Banksy sense.  Compare this to the number of humans that have ever lived, maybe 110 billion (extrapolating from:  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12288594/) and you have some idea of how rare and fleeting κλεος, being kept alive in speech and memory is.

Colum McCann, author of Let The Great World Spin, told in that novel some of the stories of August 7, 1974 in New York City, the day Philipe Petit strung a wire between the World Trade Center Towers and walked, suspended, a quarter mile above the city streets.  McCann uses this signal event to tie together the otherwise unremarkable and commonplace lives of a sprawling set of characters, from a Jesuit priest, to a pair of prostitutes, to a couple of aspiring artists, and to a group of mothers grieving the loss of their sons in the Vietnam War.  While the novel speaks powerfully for itself, McCann said in response to a question on his driving impulse for writing the book, “what interests me is the democracy of storytelling; it goes across gender, it goes across borders, it goes across boundaries.  Really what interests me is the people who are in the real world, the anonymous lives, the little corners of human experience that we don’t necessarily always think about.  One of the great privileges of being a writer is that you become alive in a body that’s not your own.” https://youtu.be/kAMZSpHfURg