The word character has lost its true meaning. Today, it is thought of as a novel trait we know we should have but can’t define in a meaningful way. We say things like “men of good character” but we mistakenly define it as a man of good qualities or of good values. The term we use today is more closely linked to a person’s personality.
Character is something different. Warren Susman researched the rise and fall of the concept of character during the 1800s and wrote that it was a keyword in the vocabulary, but it was described as something men would have to strive to attain.
Good character was something that came from within and a person of good character was a person of noble virtue.
Their actions yielded their character: what they did was who they were.
The culture surrounding the idea of character came with a shift from self-sacrifice to self-actualization. The rise of the self-improvement era was the engine behind this cultural shift. Classics like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People encouraged personal fulfillment, where people aimed to build an image based on perception.
The virtues of work, good conduct, and noble heart began to slip with this shift.
Performance became more important than achievement. Personality trumped character. A further examination of the words associated with each during the 19th and 20th century proves this point:
Character in the 1800s: “citizenship, duty, work, outdoor life, conquest, honor, reputation, integrity, manhood.”
Personality in the 1900s: “fascinating, stunning, attractive, magnetic, glowing, creative.”
Character is the foundation, personality is the roof’s top. Personality is shallow, whereas character is deep. It is strong and unbreakable, a contrast to the fragile nature of personality.
With a solid character grounded in work, effort, and toil, we can form a personality that is true to one’s self. The 20th Century idea of getting something from nothing, or that something is owed to you, does nothing for a person’s character. Character is a sole reflection of a person’s willingness to create something for themselves.
In 1908, author William Bruce wrote that character is the “ultimate habit of will, into which the man’s whole activities at last shape themselves.”
In its essence, character is the habits that you allow to run your life. It is the thoughts that drive your actions and the things you do every day.
Rather than perception, character is formed through the cultivation of one’s will. It is wrought in the iron of effort and sowed in the field of work:
By means of the will man passes from an intellectual state into act and deed. And these activities of the mind are not merely isolated movements; they become links in a series of actions and acquire permanence. The agent throws himself into these acts; and in the exercise of knowing and willing he becomes characterized by his own deeds. The more frequently he does the act, the more easy and pleasurable does it become. And this blending of pleasure and volition creates that tendency or bias towards doing it that we denominate Habit. Therefore it is that we have spoken of character as a habit of will.” – Robert Elliott Speer, in The Stuff of Manhood, Some Needed Notes on American Character
We build our character through our actions and our ability to follow through on our intentions. We gain respect for ourselves through this action, as noted by cultural author Joan Didion:
Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs. Self-respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about. They had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts. Self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth. It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable.”
Character is self-mastery. It is the ability to control one’s impulses in pursuit of something meaningful and long-lasting. It is the ability to discipline oneself, people of character are dominions of their fate.
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Character is sprung from the deeds of man. Speer would note that it is “hardness that makes a great soul,” and it is hardness that builds the greatest character. Likewise, it is softness that makes the weakest of character.
We cannot live an easy life and also possess a strong character. It is why the grandchildren of Genghis Khan were weak. They had grown up rich, and despite the Mongols culture of combat, they had grown to expect victory. They did not understand that victory came from years upon years of effort.
When we need to be strong, we must lean on the inner strength that we have built. If a person’s character is weak, then there is nothing to lean on. We must seek the power that comes from building our character, or else we will be lacking when we need it most.
Living a life of lush is the surest way to become a person of weak character. We must seek out the darkness within. We must strive to overcome the weakness that surrounds us. Speer would call it the indulgent life:
[The] indulgent life [is worthless] because it cannot connect men and women with the real springs of strength and of power. No strong man was ever made against no resistance. We develop no physical power by putting forth no physical effort. All the strength of life we have we get by pushing against opposition. We acquire power as we draw it out of deep experience and effort.”
We acquire power as we draw it out of deep experience and effort.
That power is our character. It is wrought in the iron of effort and sowed in the field of work.
- Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century by Warren Susman
- The Formation of Christian Character by William Straton Bruce
- The Death of Character by James Davison Hunter
- The Stuff of Manhood: Some Needed Notes in American Character by Robert E. Speer
- On Self-Respect by Joan Didion