“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man, true nobility lies in being superior to your former self” (Ernest Hemingway)

Character (or perhaps ‘honour’) is a trait that most would like ascribed to them and yet the standards of its attainment have become somewhat vague in our modern age. It’s certainly not a word that’s used as much as it once was. Cultural historian, Warren Susman, did a study on the rise and fall of the concept of character, tracing its prevalence in literature and the self-improvement guides popular in different eras. He found that the use of the concept of ‘character’ started gaining momentum in the 17th century and peaked in the 19th century – “men were spoken of as having strong or weak character, good or bad character, a great deal of character or no character at all. Young people were admonished to cultivate real character, high character and noble character, and told that character was the most priceless thing they could ever attain”. With the onset of the 20th century, however, Susman found that the ideal of character began to be replaced with the concept of ‘personality’.

Susman suggested that ideas of what constituted “self” began to transform – “the vision of self-sacrifice began to yield to that of self-realisation. There was a fascination with the peculiarities of ‘the self’ – in a culture of character, good conduct was thought to spring from a noble heart and mind; with this shift, perception trumped inner intent”. He concludes that the words most associated with a concept of character in the 19th century were “citizenship, duty, democracy, work, building, golden deeds, outdoor life, conquest, honour, reputation, morals, manners, integrity and above all, manhood”. The words most associated with personality in the 20th century were “fascinating, stunning, attractive, magnetic, glowing, masterful, creative, dominant and forceful”.

The etymology of the word “character” originated in the Greek word for “engraved mark” or “symbol or imprint on the soul”. In earlier times, a ‘character’ was the marked impression of a stamp into wax or clay – the signature of the artist or artisan, giving the article marked a distinctive individuality. It became the visible token by which a thing is distinguished from every other thing with which it might otherwise be confounded. Isn’t this exactly what character is about? The sum of the qualities (thoughts, ideas, motives, intentions, behaviour, judgement and many more) which define a person, shape and colour a man’s character. William Straton Bruce (1908) suggested: “Character is nature and nurture. It is nature cultured and disciplined so that natural tendencies are brought under the sway of the moral motive”.

In his book (The Death of Character), James Davison Hunter speaks of three qualities of true character, as follows:

  1. Moral Discipline – self-mastery over impulses and desires, exercising self-control and subjecting character to needed training. It involved making choices based on what is right rather than succumbing to devious and selfish desires.
  2. Moral Attachment – character has a greater goal than just the cultivation of ‘self’. Susman notes: “It is in fact a group of traits that have social significance and moral quality”. Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested of ‘character’ in the 19th century: “Moral order through the medium of individual nature” – character has always been something greater than self and included the self as part of the community. So character here means acting and even sacrificing for the greater good of one’s community.
  3. Moral Autonomy – character cannot develop in an environment in which ethical decisions are forced upon the individual. Character is a product of judgment, discretion, and choice – born from a man’s free agency. A decision that is coerced cannot be a moral decision and thus cannot be a decision of character.

Davison Hunter summarised the definition of character as: “Character, in a classic sense, manifests itself as the autonomy to make ethical decisions always on behalf of the common good and the discipline to abide by that principle.” Albert Einstein put it this way: “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value”. Robert A Cook suggests: “There is no substitute for character. You can buy brains, but you cannot buy character”.

Developing character excellence is a disciplined and nurtured process. Company and political leadership need to take heed of the grave moral responsibility here and start nurturing the development of an internal moral compass to guide behaviour. Nobility does not come from a title, but rather from a steadfast character.