On Wisdom: Practice: Character

Music: Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.
By J.S. Bach. Sequenced by George Pollen.

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Nicholas Gordon

1. Character is made up of the virtues that engender trust--honesty, integrity, loyalty, courage, self-discipline, and devotion.

2. Trust is the greatest external reward for good character, although the internal rewards are greater. If one is in business, trust is a commodity of inestimable value, while if one is in love, it is the house in which one lives.

3. Trust is hard-earned and easily lost, as one lie or act of disloyalty can throw into question years of honesty and fidelity. But a consistently good character can stand a bit of battering.

4. Society requires a certain level of trust to function, which is why societies that value good character function better than those that don't. For wealth comes from productive labor, which requires order and cooperation, which require trust.

5. Thus each person of good character is a contributor to the general wealth and happiness, and each person of bad character is a detriment. As a model for one's family, friends, and acquaintances, one multiplies one's character, good or bad, throughout society, and so each individual, perhaps more than is commonly realized, is truly responsible for the proper functioning of society, upon which the personal well-being of all depends.

6. The greatest internal reward for good character is self-esteem, which, although enhanced by the comments of others, sits squarely upon the rock of one's self-evaluation. And because one trusts those of good character oneself, one knows very well whether one is oneself trustworthy and in possession of those qualities that win the esteem of others. The greatest penalty for bad character, then, is low self-esteem, rarely admitted even to oneself, but still the source of much internal suffering.

7. Another internal reward for good character is idealism, since when one knows that one is oneself capable of pursuing virtue, one is more likely to see that capability in others and to have faith in the power of human activity to improve life. The corresponding penalty for bad character is cynicism, since one refuses to see the possibility of goodness in anyone as an excuse for the lack of it in oneself.

8. Both idealism and cynicism are self-fulfilling prophesies, the one spiraling upward, the other downward, as one's own activity and perception create evidence of their truth. Thus one makes a heaven or hell of one's existence through one's choice of character, which means that one is always free to remake it, though slowly and with difficulty.

Next: The Practice of Wisdom: Patience, Tolerance, and Humor
Previous: The Practice of Wisdom: Habit

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