Dear Reputation

Transylvania has a reputation. Literally the ‘land beyond the forest’, Transylvania is known for its beautiful countryside. The Carpathian Mountains arc majestically for over 900 miles from the north to the east of the country. The rural landscape is largely unchanged since medieval times. It’s like going back in time.

Not many will have visited Transylvania – as I recently did – but pretty much everyone has heard of it. The ‘Hotel Transylvania’ films may have done their bit, but Transylvania has long had a reputation. Mention Transylvania and the same things will come to mind. Castles; forests; wolves – and vampires. The legend of Count Dracula.

Bram Stoker’s epistolary novel, Dracula, first published in 1897, draws heavily on Transylvanian folklore. For example, there are many tales of the Strigoi, un-dead souls that rise from their graves and haunt the villages of Transylvania. The defence against them? Garlic and incense. Some scholars say that Dracula is part-inspired by King Vlad, who was ruler of Wallachia in the 15th Century. Arguably one of the cruellest rulers of all time – he was known as Vlad the Impaler – it’s easy to imagine how he earned his grim reputation.

125 years on from its publication, Bram Stoker’s Dracula enjoys a reputation as the archetypal horror novel.  Reading Dracula in Transylvania made me think about reputations – fictional and real.  How reputations are earned; shaped and carried through time; lost and recovered.  I’ve always felt rather uneasy with the word ‘reputation’: ‘beliefs or opinions that are generally held about someone or something’. Just because a view is ‘generally held’ does it necessarily mean it’s true?  Surely a reputation depends on perspective: how much we know and where we are viewing things from?  Thirdly, a concern for reputation might make us suspicious that things are being done for appearance rather than out of sincerity.

But, like it or not, reputation is a reality.  Individuals have reputations.  Our digital reputations precede us like avatars.  The media shape our views of people and institutions.  Businesses and organisations invest in their reputations as they navigate change.  (We might look at what’s going on at Twitter as a current example).  Countries, and their leaders, have reputations; markets turn on perceptions.  In general, we do seem to care about reputation.  But should we?

Shakespeare cautions wariness on the matter of reputation, calling it “an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit; and lost without deserving”.  True, that a reputation that took 20 years to earn could be lost in a few minutes.  Remember Gerald Ratner?  However, it would be easy to find examples where reputation is lost unfairly; or indeed earned unjustly.  Because, to a great extent, our reputation exists in the minds and hands of others.   

More reassuringly, Abraham Lincoln observed that “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”

The two are inseparably related. Interestingly, Count Dracula himself casts no shadow; his image does not appear in mirror. It is as though he has no true character. His reputation, however, travels before him. In the end – spoiler alert! – Dracula is defeated by a small group of brave individuals working together in the face of his fearful reputation.

The Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus said: “If you are ever tempted to look for outside approval, realize that you have compromised your own integrity.  If you need a witness, be your own”.  He went on to remark that “skilful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests’’.  Socrates advises that the “way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear”.  In other words, be good, be wise, be kind – and the reputation will follow. 

At a time of Remembrance, and in the week when we welcomed Poet Laureate Simon Armitage to School, it’s appropriate to call to mind the life and reputation of Sir Philip Sidney.  Poet, scholar, MP and soldier, Sidney earned his reputation.  A pupil at the School in the late 16th century, Sidney stands in statue form by the Moss Gates.  His statue casts its shadow on the War Memorial that carries the names of Salopians who gave their lives for their country.  

Sidney died leading his troops in the battle of Zutphen in 1586, aged 31.  The story goes that he took off his thigh armour on the grounds that it would be wrong to be better armoured than his men. As he lay injured on the battlefield, it is said that Sidney gave his water to another wounded soldier, saying: “Thy necessity is yet greater than mine“.  Sidney died of a wound to the thigh.  A model of virtue and character, he is an icon of what we would now call ‘whole person education’.    

Our School aim is to educate and empower young people to flourish as individuals and contribute positively to the world around them.  Our motto – ‘If right within, worry not’ – reminds us of the centrality of virtues above superficial perceptions.  The reputation we strive for day in day out, through the efforts of our pupils and staff, is the delivery of truly excellent whole person education. 

Posted 11 November 2022

1 thought on “Dear Reputation

  1. Thank you for a timely reminder of “the 7 habits of highly effective people” by Stephen Covey, the second being “begin with the end in mind”, which encourages us to think – what do we want others to say about us after we have passed?

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