Can We Bring Back “Character?”
While researching a book on personality theory I learned something that has really made me think. Prior to the early 20th century Americans were far more likely to think of self-improvement in terms of “character” rather than exploration of personality. Today’s pop-psychologists and “for-profit prophets” (e.g. Deepak Chopra and Rhonda Byrne) promise riches and success through “positive” self-exploration but in the early 20th century self-improvement was all about building character.
As Theodore Roosevelt stated, having character reflected courage, resolution, self-control, taking initiative, assuming responsibility, regarding the rights of others and of exercising common sense. Sound good? The hallmark of character was a moral quality we expressed through our human nature. This moral quality was rooted in our community and built on values of duty, service and a shared moral vision (that could be but did not have to be religious). In this sense “moral” could simply mean how we agree to treat each other.
When “personality” displaced character in psychological discourse, the emphasis shifted from community to self-exploration; from duty and service to authenticity; and from a shared moral understanding to a more relativistic focus on the individual. In many ways character referred to someone you actively “became” through choices, through effort. Personality is a murkier construct that is often used as an excuse for one’s actions rather than being shaped by one’s actions. Character was cultivated to serve one’s community; personality is developed more to serve oneself.
Think about it this way: Today there is as much focus on “flipping” houses as there is in building them. We are burdened by tons of laws that an ounce of common sense would render obsolete. In higher education dictates of sensitivity and diversity are far more important than courage and initiative. Many of the wealthiest in our society create nothing while true craftsmanship is devalued by indifference. Politicians prostitute themselves to pollsters and donors while the most common leisure activity for citizens is consumerism.
I’m not naïve enough to suggest that a return to character will cure all our ills. Nor am I unaware of many organizations that still strive to cultivate it in members. But I do not see it at the forefront of discourse in America. The word itself does not matter but what it reflects back to us does. Maybe bringing the idea of developing character “out of the moth balls” will give us a way to express a shared direction. Maybe it could help us reclaim our political system, increase common sense, and provide vision and purpose that is the antithesis of being a “good consumer.” Maybe in bringing back discourse about character we will re-discover something about our potential and act on it.