Milton’s belief that the desire to be famous is the last infirmity of a noble mind cannot be accepted without some reservation. In fact, it is a highly controversial issue whether the noblest of men in this world have been guided in their life by the ambition of becoming famous or by a sense of duty regardless of appreciation and recognition. Much can be said on both sides, and yet perhaps no final answer will be found.The highest teachings of religion and philosophy stress the need, of doing one’s duty without looking forward to the fruits thereof.
Socrates championed the cause of reason and truth in the face of the most malignant and fierce criticism which eventually materialized into his arrest and trial and the drinking hemlock. Obviously Socrates did not anticipate such an end and he certainly did not follow his conscience in order to attain the dubious posthumous fame of being a martyr at the alter of reason and truth. He did what he genuinely believed to be right without a thought of becoming famous or infamous.
All great truth begin as blasphemies and their exponents are branded as heretics and enemies of mankind. The course of their lives is. therefore, strewn with the worst difficulties and dangers.Misunderstanding, thoughtless censure, ingratitude for their work and downright antagonism—these are the inevitable reward of their actions. Now if fame is the only motive force behind them they would kave little or no encouragement to pursue their activities. Abraham Lincoln, the dauntless advocate of the abolition of slavery, was in a minority in the beginning of his presidential career, and yet he stuck to his position and launched an offensive against the Southern colonies which were not prepared to accept the emancipation of slaves at any cost.
Lincoln fought and shed the blood of his countrymen not to achieve a niche in the mansion of fame, but because he genuinely believed that the evil of slavery must be abolished.Those who have their eye always on fame cannot be expected to fulfil their mission in life. They cannot stick to their cause and principles. The goddess of fame is a very capricious deity and public applause, consequently, fickle and transitory. Those who aim to please the people with a view to gaining fame have to behave like the weather-cock which shifts its position with every little change in the atmosphere. Time-servers, opportunists and careerists have no principles of their own. They fashion their principles to the changing ‘ hour and often attain public applause temporarily.
Certain clever persons attempt a more intelligent and dubious game of attaining personal distinction along with national good. Napoleon is a classic example. Hitler comes next. Both these persons professed to work for the uplift of their nation and perhaps, in the beginning of their career, the cause of the nation was dearer to them than any other consideration but the successes which attended their initial efforts turned their heads and the desire of fame, the ambition of becoming world conquerors, possessed them so strongly that they led their countries into one disaster after another, each more serious than ts its predecessor. Of course, they did achieve a certain kind of fame in their lives and have also assured a place for themselves in the annals of mankind, but everybody knows what their contribution has been to their country or humanity. The same consuming passion for immortality goaded men like Alexander, Chingiz Khan, Babur, Nadir Shah and the rest of the adventurers and fortune-seekers in every age and clime.
Artists and men of letters have a difficult task to perform. On one hand, they must be true to their self, and on the other, they really have to have an audience or reading public to appreciate their works of art. Art is the reflection of the artist’s personality as prell as a mirror of the times to which the artist belongs. In other words, art is a product of society; it cannot thrive ia isolation or in a vacuum.
The artist is interested in his fellow men and, therefore, what he produces must be enjoyed by them. In an idealistic sense the mere creation of a great painting, a statue, or a poem should be satisfaction enough for its creator and he should not hanker after the applause or the criticism of his fellow men. This would imply that the artist is a sort of recluse, a hermit shut up and satisfied with his own life and work. This may be possible in the case of some artists and some types of art but not in all.
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For instance, drama, one of the greatest literary forms, is meant essentially to be stage before an audience. So is the case with fiction for which a reading public is essential. The arts of dance and music also demand an audience. The ends of these arts will not be fulfilled if the artist remains completely cut off from his reading public or audience. Once the need of these admirers or critics is accepted the question of fame and popularity does come up for } consideration. Should the writer keep an eye on the likes and dislikes of his audience or simply produce what he considers to be the best expression of his genius? Of course, the highest artist is one who would not modify his art to please his readers or admirers, but the history of art and letters points to another inference. Even the great Shakespeare, it is known beyond the least doubt, kept an eye on his audience natural, horseplay, or crude puns and jokes which today appear stale to us. It has been well said that the drama’s laws the drama’s patrons make. A people will have the kind of plays they want. Is the same not true, to a certain extent, of the other arts also?
Thus it appears reasonable to believe that even some of the biggest artists and writers would exercise their genius with an eye on what we may call fame or appreciation. At the same time, there have been many instances of artists who have given a new art to the people, who, in the beginning, did not care for it but later on began to appreciate it. Thus these persons were able to lead their audience and the reading public along with them. In other words, they not only produced literature and art but also produced new fashions in literary taste. The process of educating the taste of their audience is a great service the artist:s can render.
This service is akin to the process of persuasion and guidance which a leader of democracy follows in educating the electorate. The duty of educating the literary and artistic tastes of one’s generation is a great and scared duty and it can be performed only when that artist is strong enough to stick to his principles and face, if necessary, temporary unpopularity. Milton wrote Paradise Lost and got only a few pounds for it,but he did not agree to surrender his genius to the writing of the erotic and chilly poetry and heroic drama which were all the rage in his day. In the last analysis the greatness of a book lies in the sincerity which its author is able to put into it. “A good book is the life-blood of a master spirit,” are the words of Milton, but such a book can be produced only by those whose primary aim is not to win popularity or fame, though these things may follow as an indirect offshore.
The lust for fame, like the lust for, money or powers, may be an undesirable sentiment, for like other passions it deflects a person from his path of duly.However, fame is different from legitimate appreciation of one’s activities. Not all men are absolutely self-effacing and not all have the idealistic zest to carry on one’s duty, completely regardless of the reaction of the people to their work. A certain measure of recognition of one’s work acts as a great impetus in life. It encourages man to higher achievements. For instance, a school boy will not be much progress if he does not receive from his teacher the degree of appreciation which he deserves of his-work. Criticism and constant fault-finding breaks man’s heart, damps his enthusiasm and often paralyses action and further progress.
Moreover, the desire to become known for a particular achievement cannot be called to be essentially evil. When'”a student is anxious to stand first in his class or become the first player of his team he is being filled with a laudable ambition, the ambition of becoming the best student and the best player. It is not the mere name of being the best player or student that attracts him: what makes him ‘shun delights’ and ‘live laborious days’ is the ambition to acquire mastery in his studies and proficiency in games. Thus fame is not mere subtraction, out in fact another name or solid achievement. Quite often fame and true greatness so together. A man is famous, a celebrity, because he has real merit and greatness.
The desire for fame cannot, therefore, necessarily be called an infirmity. It is not always a failing, a weakness of the mind or the heart. It is rather another name for the urge to progress and ever mounting achievements. This world would be a poorer place indeed if this great spur to great actions disappeared from man’s life.
Carlyle says, “Work is worship”. The Holy Quran aims to instil the lesson duty is its own reward. The greatest artists of all times have pointed out that art for art’s sake, i.e., without any strings, such as love of money, desire to reform humanity, or the ambition of becoming a conscious spokesman of one’s age attached to it.
This has been particularly true of men who had a mission in life, who were exponents of new truths, who were reformers and revolutionaries. Many of these persons attained martyrdom for their cause. In their case, it cannot be said that the prime motive guiding their actions was sheer love of applause and Oime. That they did receive recognition and applause either in their life or after their death was a by-product of their actions.
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Joan of Arc, who came forward to liberate her motherland from the clutches of the English, was an inspired woman, a born missionary, who received the call for action through her inner voices, which in modern psychology would be described as the urge of the subconscious. She fought, suffered, and eventually met her end in flames of a cruel fire her persecutors lit up for her, but no account of her life gives the impression that fame was the motive force behind her martyrdom.