The reputation which the world
is like the wind, that shifts now here
its name changed with the quarter
whence it blows.
- Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Italian poet
From Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy) 'Purgatorio' ('Purgatory')
How important is your good name? In the above verse from Dante's Divine Comedy, reputation is portrayed in a very negative manner. It's fickle and flighty and vagrant like the wind. It is not something that is in the least desirable or commendable. A similar attitude is expressed in the following description of reputation from Shakespeare's Othello.
Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving.
- William Shakespeare, English dramatist (1664-1616)
From Othello (Act 2, Scene 3)
These words about reputation are spoken by Iago, the deceitful villain of this great Shakespearean tragedy. Iago dismisses reputation as useless and bogus. It is often earned under false pretences and lost unfairly, he claims, and it is very difficult to argue against him. Yet, further on in the play, this same Iago extols the virtues of a good reputation with this statement:
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash. 'Tis something, nothing:
From Othello (Act 3, Scene 3)
In the Book of Proverbs, the value of a good reputation is declared better than a treasure of silver and gold.
A good name is more desirable than great riches, to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.
Proverbs 22: 1
So, which is it? Can one's good name be compared to a precious gem that must be guarded jealously or is reputation volatile and of not much real significance. Well, as usual, the truth lies somewhere in between. Although some deny they are concerned about public opinion, it's extremely difficult to ignore what others think. Most people seek approval and it is hard to accept the loss of one's good reputation undeservedly. Very few desire to be a pariah, an outcast, a persona non grata, unlike the roguish Rhett Butter in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind who declares:
Until you've lost your reputation, you never realize what a burden it was or what freedom really is.
Rhett certainly wouldn't agree with the ancient Roman philosopher Cicerco who said:
To disregard what the world thinks of us is not only arrogant but utterly shameless.
- From De Officiis. 1. 28.
Publicity seekers claim that they don't care what's being written about them as long as their name is spelled correctly. Then there are some who seek not approval but notoriety. They purposely cultivate a bad reputation for various reasons, most of them psychological. Some criminals, for example, commit heinous acts in order to be noticed and to capture public attention. Others, however, are dissuaded from taking part in criminal behaviour because they do not wish to bring shame and dishonour upon their families.
There are also those who have the strength of purpose to ignore or defy public disapproval. Despite widespread opprobrium, they truly believe that their causes are worthy and their theories have merit. Often they are vindicated and eventually regarded as heroes or great innovators. Yet, they would not have achieved as much if they had been overly concerned about their reputations. Fear of criticism and ridicule would have stood in their way.
Woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you.
Luke 6: 26
|Elizabeth Barrett Browning|
The devil's most devilish when respectable.
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), English poet and author
From Aurora Leigh
The 19th century bard, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, expresses the correlation between evil and respectability quite eloquently in these words from her epic poem/novel Aurora Leigh. Published in 1856, Barrett Browning considered it "the most mature of my works."
Evil is most pernicious when it is cloaked in respectability. It is particularly insidious when someone deemed trustworthy betrays a trust or is revealed as a complete hypocrite.
|Lincoln in 1863|
Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it , the tree is the real thing.
- Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), 16th President of the United States
From Lincoln's Own Stories (Edited by Anthony Gross)
In Lincoln's comparison, "character" is a far better attribute than "reputation." Character is true and authentic. Like a tree, it is solid and consistent. Reputation, on the other hand, is similar to a shadow. It is changeable, depending on the source of light or the angle from which it is observed. Character is one's real nature while reputation is dependent on the opinion of others.
|Henry Ward Beecher|
The American clergyman and social reformer Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) defined the difference between character and reputation this way:
A man's character is the reliability of himself. His reputation is the opinion others have formed of him. Character is in him; reputation is from other people.
Reputation is an interpretation, more or less accurate, of character
- Austin O'Malley (1858-1932). American physicist and author
From Keystones of Thought
Note the words "interpretation" and "more or less." in this quotation from Austin O'Malley. Although a good reputation can often reflect a sterling character, interpretations can be wrong and "more or less" is a qualifier.
A man's reputation is not in his own keeping, but lies at the mercy of the profligacy of others. Calumny requires no proof. The throwing out (of) malicious imputations against any character leaves a stain, which no after-refutation can wipe out. To create an unfavourable impression, it is not necessary that certain things should be true, but that they have been said. The imagination is of so delicate a texture that even words wound it.
- William Hezlitt (1778-1830), English writer
Reputation can be based on perception and not reality. Perceptions, even if false, are extremely difficult to change. That is why a good name can be lost in the blink of an eye and is often difficult to regain.
It takes little or nothing to undo reputations, the merest trifle makes and remakes them, it is simply a question of finding the best means of engaging the confidence or interest of those who are to become one's unsuspecting echoes or accomplices.
- Jose Saramago (1922-2010), Portuguese writer
From Baltasar and Blimunda
Can one repair a severely damaged reputation? According to French author, Francois de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680), it is possible. He stated:
Whatever ignominy or disgrace we have incurred it is almost always in our power to re-establish our reputation.
|Francois de La Rochefoucauld|
Here are some more interesting reflections on the subject of reputation.The easiest way to get a reputation is to go outside the fold, shout around for a few years as a violent atheist or a dangerous radical, and then crawl back to the shelter.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), American author
|Washington Allston, self-portrait 1805|
Reputation is but a synonym of popularity, dependent on suffrage, to be increased or diminished at the will of the voters.
- Washington Allston (1779-1843), American artist and poet
From Memoirs and Essays
You can't build a reputation on what your are going to do.
- Henry Ford.(1863-1947), American industrialist and founder of the Ford Motor Company