It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference. – Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics,” Book II
There are two topics that everyone should avoid discussing the saying goes: religion and politics. They’re too divisive and they pit people against each other. While that’s partially correct, the truth is there is another set of conversations that are much more difficult to broach.
Those tougher conversations are the ones about even deeper issues. What is honesty? What is integrity? What is morality? What is character? Moral issues force us to look deeper into who we are. They force us to have an emotional encounter with our souls.
It’s that last question that’s been haunting me.
I started asking it last year after reading Thomas Jefferson’s letters to Benjamin Rush. In a letter to Rush from January 3, 1808, Jefferson outlined what he called the “qualities of the mind” — good humor; integrity; industry; and science. He was focused not just on a person’s surface qualities, but on their general tenor and makeup. I wanted to develop these “qualities of the mind” in myself.
That’s when the word “character” kept coming to mind, since Jefferson’s qualities all seem to speak to it. Integrity is honesty in all things; industry is the readiness to engage in hard work; and science is a serious and discerning mind (hopefully we all can relate to the definition of good humor).
In the beginning, I didn’t go to deep. I really just started wondering if I had any character. I mean, can you make fart jokes with your friends and still have character? Can you cheat at Scrabble and still have character?
Can you make fart jokes with your friends and still have character? Can you cheat at Scrabble and still have character?
Or, more seriously: If I snap at my wife when she asks me an innocent question or if I lie to my boss about why I was late to work, have I forfeited my claim to character? I cheat, I whine, I’m impatient, and at times, I know I’m immoral. Can I still have character?
The answer came to me, in part, after I heard an interview with New York Times columnist David Brooks on NPR. Brooks was talking about his new book, “The Road to Character.” In it, he makes lots of good points, but his most poignant moment comes in the introduction, where he examines himself:
I was born with a natural disposition toward shallowness. I now work as a pundit and columnist. I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am.
The point: On a surface-level analysis, character may seem like the simple ability to discern right from wrong, but it’s much more complex than that.
The question I was forced to ask myself, and the one Brooks inherently wrestles with, was: Is it possible to train myself to have character, or is it something you are born with (or without)? I think Aristotle provides an answer in Book II of “Nicomachean Ethics”:
[I]t is also plain that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. […] Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit.
So here’s what I’ve learned.
Character is important, but it takes time. One fart joke doesn’t mean you’re doomed. It’s something you must practice to achieve. That isn’t easy. Aristotle compared it to a soldier preparing for war. And that makes a lot of sense. There’s a lot we must put ourselves through if we truly seek to develop deeper character.
The good news (I told myself) is that I’ve at least taken a small step on the road to character: I started asking myself if I truly had any. The first step in fixing a problem is recognizing that one exists, right?
David is a legal writer based in New York City. He lives in Queens with his wife, Elisabeth.