Reading about the lives of ‘Great Men’ became a popular pastime during the 19th century.
Most worked soul-crushing hours at miserable, backbreaking jobs, so immersing themselves in exciting, dangerous tales provided a much-needed form of escapism. Fueling this new hobby was the advent of modern technology and increasing literacy rates across society.
Stories of great Napoleonic battles and the fierce, unforgiving lives of Roman gladiators injected some much-needed adrenaline into the factory-like repetitiveness of life during the Industrial Revolution. Thinkers such as Voltaire and Byron rose to prominence, Mozart had his legions of adoring fans, and Franz Liszt concerts often caused mass hysteria amongst his female spectators.
The enduring fascination with Great Men sowed the seeds for what we’d now refer to as celebrity culture. The weathered hardback books of our Victorian ancestors may be long gone, but our obsession with famous (or infamous) people is more alive than ever.
From Plato to Presley
In fact, celebrity worship is a billion-dollar industry. Every year, millions of us tune in to the Oscars to watch our favorite actors, directors, and animators receive a pat on the back from Hollywood’s elite. Celebs’ outfits are scrutinized, their performances analyzed, and their acceptance speeches often go viral.
To analyze how we became such unapologetic celebrity worshippers requires us to explore a behavioral trait endemic to the human race – the state of reverence.
Historical studies show us that human societies have always had a need to ‘worship’ things — and sure enough this was often special people in society — the best hunters, athletes, the most beautiful, the smartest, the most spiritual.”James Houran, clinical psychologist.
Even the earliest human societies had celebrities. A master hunter-gatherer would’ve used his skills to illicit his share of respect, adulation, and female attention. Other males would’ve envied him, whilst others would have liked to have been him.
Ancient Greece cherished their great thinkers. Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates seemingly possessed the solutions to all of life’s problems, and would’ve had a flock of admirers themselves. Despite our technological advancements, humans haven’t changed a lot since then.
What Makes Celebrities so Alluring?
History shows that humans are no strangers to putting people on pedestals. A big component behind our celeb-obsessed culture is good old fashioned envy. Whilst this is hardly a groundbreaking observation, it remains true whether we like it or not.
Celebrities have, undeservedly, taken the place of Greek philosophers and Neolithic hunter-gatherers. They’re presented as society’s most talented, most interesting, and most beautiful, and we gladly lap it up.
However, the jealously that we feel towards our celebrity overlords can quickly sour – sometimes with even fatal consequences. Take Mark Chapman for example. His adulation of John Lennon took a dark turn after the singer’s ”bigger than Jesus” remark was one of the driving forces behind Chapman’s mission to kill Lennon.
We develop deep bonds with celebrities. We watch them grow up, we become immersed in their love lives, we emulate their fashion senses, and we see their mistakes and mishaps. Whether or not we know them personally is irrelevant. There’s a bond with our favorite stars that is built on envy, admiration, and, sometimes, borderline obsession.
Sometimes we even use our all-encompassing knowledge of celebrities as a coping mechanism. promoting in people the illusion that we can actually know and develop a relationship with celebrities. ”In essence, people seem to confuse having a lot of information about a celebrity with genuine intimacy,” states James Houran.
Real-life relationships can be scary, hurtful, and plain disappointing. Therefore, developing a far-away infatuation with a movie star or rock musician provides a low-risk alternative. The fantasy relationship can never hurt us due to the simple fact that it’s not real in the first place.
I think the biggest reason why we become so enamoured with the rich and famous, however, is because they help us escape our often-monotonous lives. As Hunter S. Thompson said:
Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality.”
It’s one of my favorite quotes because it is so true. Perhaps we’re not so different from our 19th-century ancestors. We’re still reading about Great Men as they give us the license to escape the office cubicles, gridlocked traffic, and obnoxious fluorescent lights that are such big parts of our lives.
Though the Great Men of yesteryear have been replaced by actors, socialites, and billionaire app developers, our obsession with celebrities remains.