On Character

First, I would like to admit a certain limitation that I have found in myself in terms of thinking of the human subject:  a rather embarrassing residue of dualism, a thinking of the subject primarily, almost entirely, as split between mind and body.  I have thought a lot about the dualism over the years, and determined that it is harmful and does not take into account present knowledge about the close linking of the two.  The mind is generated by the body and lives through the body, and likewise the body in many ways has mind:  our thoughts are indelibly influenced by the patterns of the body from which it is generated, and our thoughts occur through the mechanisms of the body.  Neural cells exist throughout the body, including in the spine and in the gut, and these take part in what we call consciousness.

But nonetheless, no matter how enlightened I become of these close connections between body and mind, I still think along the lines of dualism much of the time.  Two things have bothered me a great deal about this split: first, the incredible disappointment I feel when very intelligent people behave badly, which happens a lot; and second, the thought of what happens when someone is neither intelligent or physically strong or well.  Intelligence, although modified greatly through experience and the patterns of thinking we adopt, is primarily a 'given', an example of what Heidegger referred to as 'throwness', but what you might just as easily call fate.  Physicality in the same way, through learned habit and through planned exercise can be modified, but primarily it too is also a given.  Yet many wonderful people are neither intelligent nor physically strong/well.  Many people who I would rather spend time with fall into this category.  Hell, I even fall into this category.  What of us?  We will not win Olympic medals or become ivy league professors - but this doesn't make us any less deserving, does it?

And so I have come to add a third category to the dualism that I have inherited, and for this I would like to adopt an old term: character.  It is a word that you would normally associate with 19th Century brits or with American football coaches, but I think it could be useful!  I think of this third category as being of equal merit to the body and mind.  However, it is notably different, what one could call an operational category:  it stretches through a skein of connections in and around the first two categories, organizing them and energizing them. 

So what is this thing that I want to call character?  Character is in many ways similar to love, but I would like to say it includes love.  Character is the ability to carefully draw a circle of empathy around oneself, and to adjust this as you see fit to include certain things and exclude others.  Character is personal discipline.  Character helps us responsibly choose the rules by which to live and to honestly and strongly enforce them.  Character is the ability to recognize the opinions of others as the waves upon which we float, different from ourselves.  Sometimes we will be rocked and swayed by these opinions; character helps us steer through them in the direction which we choose.  

Many of these things are often associated with intelligence, but I don't think they should be.  It is character and not intelligence that allows us to see creeds for what they are and to be skeptical of them, & to keep our heads afloat amidst the onslaught of confusing information, and amidst the swirling torrents of emotion arising from our own depths.  It is character and not intelligence that allows us to simultaneously stand by our convictions and allow them to be questioned. 

Another good way to think about character is to say that it is what guides us in how to spend our time.  We only have precious limited time in this life and so the question of how to use it is incredibly important.  Exercise?  Hobbies?  Work?  Spending time with friends and loved ones?  Spending time and work in the service of a cause you believe in?  Pursuing ideas?  Pursuing leisure?  Character guides these decisions although they are enacted by mind and body. 

Like the mind or like physicality you cannot say that someone has less or more character - it is rather a question of the quality of their character.  This sounds so anachronistic!  But, one of the things I like most about this old idea, and hence see it as worth revisiting, is that character is far less an issue of 'throwness' and more an issue of development.  It is something you can adjust, and build.  Ergo, while I'm at it, the following are some key aphorisms that I personally find useful in thinking about what makes good character:

1)  As the philosopher Martin Buber once said: "you shall not withhold yourself";
2)  Plato popularized the ancient Greek entreaty to "know thyself";
3)  As Shakespeare's Polonius advised, "To thine own self be true";
4)  In the Christian New Testament, Jesus says "do unto others as you would have them do unto you";
5)  Kant, very similarly, wrote that you should "act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature";
6)  Jeremy Bentham said that "the greatest happiness for the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation," a phrase that is often reworked as the imperative that "one should act in favour of the greatest good for the greatest number of people";
7)  And finally I have always enjoyed Donna Haraway's argument for "‘pleasure’ in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction".

For me, these aphorisms point diversely in good directions for the development of personal rules to live by, and most of them I'm sure you've seen before.  I have, however, found for myself it to be a useful exercise to aggregate them here, and I hope, should you happen upon this, that you find them useful too, and likewise consider this outmoded idea of character worth revisiting for yourself.  For, to think about it yourself, and aggregate your own rules is the whole point, after all.