Publish at March 30 2022 Updated April 07 2022

Merit, Fame and Celebrity [Thesis].

Culture of Fame in Enlightenment France

Silhouette of Marie Antoinette on a blue background wearing yellow sunglasses

Fame makes you feel like everyone knows you, but in reality, you know no one.

Charlie Chaplin - Artist (1889-1977)

How do you become famous? Considering the countless number of videos online offering you fallible methods of being famous, many of us must be asking ourselves this question. But why do we have such an appetite for this form of public recognition that is fame? Why not fame for that matter?

Nowadays fame and celebrity can sometimes be confused. However, these two notions are quite distinct. Fame corresponds to a legitimate pride that can arouse the admiration and respect of a person illustrating himself by an academic contribution, a literary work or even outstanding feats of arms. Fame, on the other hand, is a kind of reputation, a kind of ability to be recognized by the public as a public person. Thus, with fame, the public person takes precedence over accomplishments.

Famousness culture is interdependent with the media coverage of public figures. Today, we are no longer surprised to see the emergence of new celebrities in the media or online. Faces and personalities are interchanged according to the fashions and attractions of the public. We are reaching a point where celebrity becomes a capital of visibility that can be negotiated, monetized or even inherited with the progressive establishment of a social class of celebrities.

But how was this culture of celebrity born? When did this fashion of public recognition come into being? Why did celebrity take over from fame? This is what Marie-Ève Beausoleil sets out to understand in her dissertation "The normative stakes of public recognition in Enlightenment France: glory, fame, merit."

Why read this dissertation

The author invites us into an exploration of moral, aesthetic, and biographical discourses relating to the elaboration, promotion, as well as critique of public recognition in Enlightenment France.

The plan allows the reader to understand the theoretical foundations and rhetorical uses of the ideology of fame to then present the representations surrounding celebrity and end on the different ideological cleavages opposing these two visions of public recognition in this period.

The manuscript is captivating for the reader because of a certain theatricality pronounced by a relevant use of "I" and a mise en abyme of the author's reflections with her subject or these references. This careful construction of the author's reasoning through a gradual establishment of common references between her and her reader engenders a certain intimacy and familiarity while reading.


"Indeed, this problematic takes on its full importance in a period of transition to modernity in which two major phenomena combine. On the one hand, the thinkers of the Enlightenment, questioning the revealed and arbitrary forms of authority, made public recognition a process of legitimation likely to order a harmonious and just society. This is the rise of the ideology of glory, which underlies throughout the century the commemorative, encomiastical [practices of praise] and biographical practices of the cult of great men.

In theory, glory results from a general and sustained admiration for individuals who have demonstrated genuine personal merit. Closely articulating public opinion and truth, the ideal of glory carries the conviction that the mechanisms of public recognition can, over time, organically produce legitimate distinction, generate harmony around universal values, and encourage progress through the emulation of consensual models.

On the other hand, the eighteenth century saw the emergence of a culture of celebrity that favored the multiplication of well-known personalities, especially from the milieu of letters and arts in the capital. This new form of success was based on more immediate public attention, made possible by the development of various means of publicity. While it is believed that fame can be a lever of glory, it seems to be mostly beyond any quality control.

Rather than distinguishing individuals whose merit and accomplishments command unanimous admiration, as the economics of fame would have it, celebrity is fueled by controversy, the exposure of private lives, and the consumption of entertainment, among other things. From its inception, celebrity has been widely perceived as a factor of moral decadence and a symptom of cultural impoverishment. The ideology of fame and the early modern manifestations of celebrity thus create a strong tension that makes public recognition a pressing legitimacy issue."

On laurels

Marie-Ève Beausoleil's work shows the various tensions related to the emergence of celebrity culture in a society valuing fame. This emergence seems to account for the societal changes of the time in which traditional hierarchies fade and new social values and aesthetic sensibilities emerge. We also discover the birth in this period of an advertising logic resorting to a form of mediatization of the public image of famous people through "bibliographical", historical, satirical or private life texts.


Marie-Ève Beausoleil's dissertation opens our eyes to the origins of celebrity culture in Enlightenment France. We realize, without anachronism, that the tensions between fame and celebrity are still very much alive today.

Even though the media of celebrity have evolved from engravings and prints to celebrity magazines and TikTok, we can still question whether or not the media coverage and recognition of these people is deserved.

What about you? What do you choose? Fame or celebrity?

This work was defended on April 06, 2018 in Montreal, for the degree of Philosophiæ Doctor (Ph. D.) in History (University of Montreal - Canada) and Doctorate in Literary Studies (University of Lorraine - France) and was carried out in cotutelle at the Department of History of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (University of Montreal) and the Research Unit Literatures, Imaginary, Societies within the doctoral school Stanislas ED 78 (University of Lorraine)


Marie-Ève Beausoleil. The normative stakes of public recognition in Enlightenment France: glory, fame, merit. History, Philosophy and Sociology of Science. University of Lorraine, 2018. French. ⟨NNT: 2018LORR0071⟩. ⟨tel-01919650⟩




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