English Essay on “Popularity and Merit” for School, College Students, Long and Short English Essay, Speech for Class 8, 9, 10, 12 and Competitive Exams.

Popularity and Merit

The question propounded for discussion in this Essay involves a great many issues, and therefore presents some perplexity. People are far from agreed as to what is meant by real merit, and what popularity exactly signifies. The standards of merit differ not only with different people, not only in different ages, but also in different spheres of life. The standards also vary in degree, there being a complete scale of it, ranging from dazzling brilliance to dim obscurity. They also vary in nature, so that we cannot apply the standard for measuring one kind of merit to another. We cannot compare, for example, literary merit with political ability, —there often being as much difference between literature and politics as between the Arctic and the Antarctic circles. Nor is the variety of standards the sole difficulty in judging the question: there are equal difficulties in arriving at a definite notion of ‘popularity’. There are many degrees of popularity, and many kinds of it too. The popularity of a writer cannot be spoken of in the same terms as the popularity of a military commander, or the popularity of a sovereign.

Inspite of these difficulties which are inherent in the subject, we can arrive at a fairly definite idea of the real nature of both merit and popularity. There is such a thing as false merit, which consists in qualities of the head and heart that attract notice and even evoke admiration, but which do no real good to any one save bringing some measure of popularity to their possession of an accomplishment such as drawing or sketch-ing,—these often pass as merit in certain circles, or at least they command a certain degree of popularity; but such qualities do no real good to the world, nor even to the narrow world in which they are so warmly applauded. Real merit, it seems, is something that leaves a permanent mark behind it, doing lasting good to others more than to its possessor; and the popularity that attaches to such merit cannot be properly known by the name of ‘popularity,’ but by the more honourable name of ‘renown.’ Popularity is a term that signifies their approval by the common people of the conduct or character of a certain person. The very derivation of the word, which is derived from the word people, shows that it is a quality that can only be associated with things that generally fall within the province of the common people.

Now the common people are sharply distinguished from the aristocracy,—the aristocracy not only of rank and blood, but also of taste and refinement. The likes and dislikes of the common herd must necessarily be different from those of the cultured few; so that their judgments cannot be taken as authoritative or binding upon the whole world. The chief reason for this is that the principles which regulate their likes and dislikes are either no principles at all, or merely the whim of the moment. Hence it is that the common people are so fickle in their choice. They are as eager to applaud a man one day as they are to hoot him the next. They are as lavish in their praise of apparent merit as they are fierce in their condemnation of apparent demerit. The wise man’s judgments are, on the contrary, based on fixed and immutable principles of right and wrong; he is neither guided by caprice nor bedazzled by mere outward luster. He is therefore as slow and deliberate in his approbation as in his disapprobation. He knows the true worth of things; he can distinguish tinsel from gold; he can penetrate the surface and look into the heart of a thing. Hence it is that his judgments often clash with those of the general public, who are mostly misled by the exterior look of things and can-not stretch their gaze beyond the immediate present.

The contrast between popular verdicts and the judgments of the wise can best be shown by one or two illustrations. A dexterous pugilist or a champion wrestler is, in the popular estimation, a greater hero than an eminent reformer. A skillful actress is more ‘popular’ than the dramatist whose plays she acts. Some of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century were far from ‘popular’ with their contemporaries. When Carlyle made his first appearance as an author by contributing articles to Fraser’s magazine, his writings were so unpopular that the magazine lost a great number of its subscribers. This was because his writings lacked those flashy qualities that find favour with the general reader, who consequently found them too heavy. Carlyle is thus as typical an instance of merit with-out popularity as, for example, Ghulam Pahalwan is of popularity devoid of merit.

Instances can be multiplied to any extent to show that popularity is not always a safe test of merit; but that the absence of it is often an indication of real worth. There is a story that when Disraeli made his first speech in Parliament he was actually hissed at; and as every one knows, the day soon came when those very men who had laughed at him, laughed with him, at his political triumphs. The younger Pitt had risen to the height of unpopularity just when he had attained the highest summit of greatness. On the other hand, the popular novelist of the day adds not a grain to his merit even when his books are selling by hundreds of thousands. If mere numbers were a correct measure of popularity, and mere popularity were the sole test of merit, some of the Nautch-girls of India would probably be the most meritorious of human beings.

Some of the most popular men of the present day are our great orators. Oratory is a gift that compels attention, and this is the secret of their immense popularity. But it does not follow that because men are so popular therefore they are men of no merit. Mere oratory is, of course, no great virtue; but if with fine speaking there is combined more solid talents, the luster of the latter is surely heightened thereby. It is because our Indian orators—at least many of them—possess the sterling qualities of self-sacrifice of desire for the good of others, of a burning love for their own country, and of an equally burning loyalty to the Government, that they are so popular and at the same time so great. Probably the social leaders of every country furnish the best illustration of popularity combined with merit—a combination which nevertheless is exceedingly rare.

But the question is whether it is their popularity that makes their merit. It is because these social leaders are so beloved by the people that they are so great ? This cannot be; for mere popularity can be as good a test of greatness as mere yellow can be a test of gold. Popularity is born of mere outward glitter, and does not concern itself with inward qualities. The popularity of our social leaders may be due to their eloquence of speech, but it is not merely because of their eloquence that they are held so high in the estimation of the public. Their greatness, like all human greatness, must be based on the solid foundation of good deeds : mere fine speech can no more form the basis of real worth than a heap of sparkling sand can serve for the foundation of a building. An orator, if he is a mere orator and nothing more, may be exceedingly popular; he may continue to address crowded audiences; he may be hurrahed and applauded at the end of every sentence; but if his sole virtue is gift of fine speaking, his popularity is no better than a bubble. On the other hand, there are men who love to do good in secret, to be contented with an obscure lot in life, and to find happiness in doing “little nameless unremembered acts of kindness and of love.” These men can enjoy no popularity, for their acts are not performed before the public gaze, nor is there any ostentation in their lives which would help to attract popular notice in any shape. And yet from their retirement and their solitary nook they do more good to the human race than has ever been done by the loudest drum-beating. Of this species of merit clouded by obscurity, the poet Milton is perhaps their most striking illustration. It was in the undisturbed calm of his country retirement at Horton, that Milton prepared him-self, by assiduous labour to write a work “that posterity would not willingly let die” and which posterity has not yet let die.

Leave a Reply