Distinction Notoriety


C.F.A Voysey



We  are all more or less the product of our time, and it is impossible to measure the extent of our own freedom, either of mind or body. Each man's conscience will tell him the actions he is respon­sible for, and establish without doubt our modicum of independence in cer­tain specific cases. But we, neverthe­less, recognize the difference between distinction, notoriety, and popularity, and that each depends upon a different kind of personality. The notorious man may never be popular and the distinguished man may never be notorious. The murderer is sometimes notorious, but seldom distinguished or popular. The great soldier is often distinguished and popular, but not so often notorious. It would seem that we reserve the term "noted" for those persons who have performed one or more "noteworthy" actions. They may be good or bad, the extent of the notoriety may depend on circumstances quite beyond the control of the noted. The act may be one appealing to the sentiments prevailing at the time, or a person may become notorious quite against his will, by force of circumstances often accidental. It may or may not be quite independent of personality, as, for instance, if anyone fell from a Royal train in rapid motion without being hurt he would, doubtless, be notorious for a while. And so we find popularity depends much more on personality than notoriety ever can do. To be popular we must synchronize with our times, we must sympathize with the thoughts and feelings of the multitude, we must catch the temper of the moment and harmonize with popular sentiment. In a materialistic age we have to make matter our first concern. Good business habits and good bargaining will count for more than ethical qualities. The successful architect to-day is not the spiritual leader and raiser of popular taste, but he who can minister most smoothly to the thirst for ease and comfort, and teach men how to multiply material gain.  Making things look better than they are is sure to be amply rewarded by a people grown indifferent to truth and shy of sincerity. 

It is obviously desirable that in this world we should have both classes of
mind, the man whose mission it is to harmonize with his time – the mind
alert to seize the dominating sentiment and minister to it with all his
might. We could not get on at all but for this amiable, obliging and most
useful class. But let us not regard such qualities as all-sufficing, or forget
the quality that gives distinction. To act according to popular sentiment,
and in accordance with generally accepted principles, as a collectivist and
orderly conformist, is a common attitude quite distinct from the individual, who sets up in his own mind certain fundamental principles and guides for conduct, accordingly. He may be quite mistaken in his ideas of what are fundamental true principles, but he deserves respect for sincerity, as long as he remains true to whatever his principles may be. Most fanatics are worthy of respect on this account, but opposition to the aims of the fanatic will often outweigh and obscure any lingering respect for his sincerity. 

The truly distinguished are always those who act from an inner  conviction of fundamental principles, and they must always be sincere individualists. They are acting from within outwards, more than from without inwards, and it is the amount of reality in their conduct that gives them distinction. This is beyond the reach, and quite outside the pale, of collectivism. No collective forces can possibly produce what we rightly understand by distinction. Collectivism may furnish opportunity for the display of such qualities, but in no sense can it produce them. Sincerity is the quality most conspicuous in the distinguished, and, as we have already proved, the least encouraged by collectivism. It is the one instinct of all others that checks the collectivist, and makes it possible for him to act sometimes for good. 

Distinction is a term too often lightly used, as when we speak of a woman distinguished for beauty, or a man distinguished by his size, any difference, in fact, from the general, is in some degree distinction, but it
is easy to detect that we are speaking on a material plane exclusively when we use the term in these connections. When we speak of Wellington as a distinguished soldier, we are not thinking of his figure or his nose, but of his personal character, his sincerity to fundamentals, and loyalty to the verities of life and death.

It would create a pleasing change in popular sentiment if we could
encourage distinction more than popularity, and tempt our Chancellors of the Exchequer to cease thirsting for the latter. Popular applause is such an alluring poison that we have ever been guilty of-the insane adage " Vox populi, vox Dei." Many a poor character has been led into the valley of unfaithfulness by the fascinating cry of public opinion. To please a crowd is a temptation that few can resist when it comes. Only the strictest vigilance of individual character will enable us to keep our hands and hearts clean, and only through faithfulness to ourselves can we be really useful to others. It is a fatal mistake to set out to please a multitude. The good comedian does not so proceed, nor the bishop, nor the King, or general. One and all act on principle, which they regard as of fundamental importance, and all alike feel the importance of sincerity to those principles. Lesser minds will scorn the idea of being guided by any principle, feeling that custom, ancient history, dogma, and authorised rules of behaviour are much safer guides to conduct. The
collective opinion of the multitude is more reliable, and so they become
controlled from without rather than from within. Both class of minds may be equally sincere, and equally honest. But the effects on character produced by these two distinct methods are of the utmost importance. And hence it is we seek to show that by encouraging the individual to look for the signs of ethical ideas in material things, he will thereby attain spiritual culture and true distinction, and the joys of life will become more rich and fruitful. Life will be more beautiful, and our
influence more acceptable. 



This is Chapter IX. of the book Individuality, originally published in by Chapman and Hall Ltd in 1915.