Help support New Advent and get the full contents of this website as an instant download or CD-ROM. Includes the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers, Summa, Bible and more all for only $19.99...
Quite distinct from the technical meaning which the term character possesses in theological controversy is that attached to it in the language of common life, as well as in the literature devoted to psychology, ethics, and education. The interest surrounding the conception of character in these latter branches of speculation has been constantly increasing during the past hundred years.
Different shades of meaning pertain to the term in different contexts. In general we may say that character is the expression of the personality of a human being, and that it reveals itself in his conduct. In this sense every man has a character. At the same time only human beings, not animals, have character: it implies rationality. But in addition to this usage, the term is also employed in a narrower sense, as when we speak of a man "of character". In this connotation character implies a certain unity of qualities with a recognizable degree of constancy or fixity in mode of action. It is the business of psychology to analyze the constituent elements of character, to trace the laws of its growth, to distinguish the chief agencies which contribute to the formation of different types of character, and to classify such types. If anything approaching a science of character is ever to be built up, it must be a special psychology. French psychologists during the last thirty years have given us a large quantity of acute observations on the topic of character. Chief amongst them have been: MM. Azam, Pérez, Ribot, Paulhan, Fouillée, and Malapert. Still these contributions do not constitute a science.
The behaviour of each human being at any stage of his existence is the outcome of a complex collection of elements. The manner in which he apperceives or takes in certain present impressions, the sort of thoughts which they awaken, the particular feeling with which they are associated in his mind, and the special volitions to which they give rise are, in spite of the common nature in which he participates with other men, in a certain measure peculiar to himself. Taken collectively they are said to constitute or, more accurately perhaps, to reveal his character. At any epoch in mature life a man's character is the resultant of two distinct classes of factors: the original or inherited elements of his being, and those which he has himself acquired. On the one hand, every human being starts with a certain nature or disposition--a native endowment of capacities for knowledge, and feelings, and tendencies towards volitions and action--which varies with each individual. This disposition is dependent in part on the structure of the bodily organism and especially of the nervous system which he has inherited; in part, perhaps, also on his soul which has been created. It forms his individuality at the beginning of life; and it includes susceptibilities for responding to external influences, and potentialities for developing in various ways which differ with each human being. A fundamental error in English psychology from Locke to John Stuart Mill was the ignoring or under-estimating of this diversity of native aptitude in different individuals. Much of the Associationist treatment of the development of the human mind proceeded on the assumption of an original equality or similarity of mental faculty, and consequently tended to ascribe all subsequent differences to a diversity of circumstances. It vastly exaggerated what has been called the part played by nurture as compared with that of nature. It overlooked the fact that the original capacity and disposition of the individual mind largely determines how it shall appropriate the experience presented to it by its environment. This error was peculiarly unfavourable to the affording of an adequate account of character. Since Darwin there has been a return to the older and truer doctrine which recognized fully the importance of the original endowment of each individual. For, although the author of the "Origin of Species" himself exaggerated the influence of the environment in his biological theory, he and his followers were driven to lay great stress upon heredity and the transmission from parent to offspring of individual variations and acquired habits.
The original endowment or native element in character with which the individual starts life is practically identical with what the Ancients and the Schoolmen recognized under the term temperament. From the times of Hippocrates and Galen they distinguished four main types of temperament: the sanguine, the choleric, the phlegmatic, and the melancholic. Curiously enough modern speculation from Kant to Wundt and Fouillée tends to accept the same general classification, though sometimes under other names. These different types of temperament the Ancients held to be due to the predominance in the organism of different humours. Modern writers variously account for them by differences of texture and varying solidity of the tissues of the body, by varying development of different parts, by diverse rates of activity in the processes of nutrition and waste, in the changes of nerve-energy, or in circulation, and by differences of tonicity in the nerves. Whatever be the true physiological explanation, the fourfold classification seems fairly to represent certain markedly contrasted types of disposition, though they leave room for subdivision and intermediate forms. Moreover, though scientists are still far from being agreed as to the precise elements in the organism on which temperament depends, the fact that different forms of temperament have an organic basis seems certain. The transmission from parent to offspring of hereditary dispositions, therefore, involves no conflict with the doctrine of the creation of each human soul.
Although our original temperament is thus given to us independently of our will, we ourselves play an important part in the moulding of our character, and we thus become responsible for certain ethical qualities in it. Character has been defined as "a completely fashioned will". It would be more accurate to say that character is "natural temperament completely fashioned by the will". It is, in fact, a resultant of the combination of our acquired habits with our original disposition. As the quality, shape, and structure of the organism and of its different parts may be variously modified in the process of growth--especially during the plasticity of early life--by variations in nutrition, exercise, and environment, so may the faculties of the soul be variously developed by the manner in which it is exercised, and by the nature of the objects on which its faculties are employed. Among the acquired elements which go to the building up of character may be distinguished those pertaining to cognition, whether sensuous or intellectual, and those belonging to the emotional and volitional activities of the soul. Exercise strengthens the power and widens the range of each faculty, creating, not uncommonly, a craving for further exercise in the same direction. The regular use of the intellect, the controlled activity of the imagination, the practice of judgment and reflection, all contribute so the formation of habits of mind more or less thoughtful and refined. The frequent indulgence in particular forms of emotion, such as anger, envy, sympathy, melancholy, fear, and the like, fosters tendencies towards these sentiments which give a subconscious bent to a large part of man's behaviour. But finally the exercise of the will plays the predominant part in moulding the type of character which is being formed. The manner and degree in which currents of thought and waves of emotion are initiated, guided, and controlled by the will, or allowed to follow the course of spontaneous impulse, has not less effect in determining the resultant type of character than the quality of the thoughts or emotions themselves. The life of the lower animal is entirely ruled by instinct from within, and by accidental circumstances from without. It is therefore incapable of acquiring a character. Man, through the awakening of reason and the growth of reflection, by the exercise of deliberate choice against the movements of impulse, gradually develops self-control; and it is by the exercise of this power that moral character is especially formed. Character is in fact the outcome of a series of volitions, and it is for this reason we are responsible for our characters, as we are for the individual habits which go to constitute them.
Starting from the basis of the four fundamental temperaments, various classifications of types of character have been adopted by different writers. The intellectual, the emotional, and the volitional or energetic stand for the chief types with A. Bain. M. Pérez, taking for his principle of division the phenomenon of movement, distinguishes characters as lively, slow, ardent, and équilibrés or well-balanced. M. Ribot, proceeding from a more subjective ground of division and excluding indefinite and unstable types as strictly speaking characterless, recognizes as the most general forms: the sensitive, subdivided into the humble contemplative and emotional; the active, subdivided into the great and the mediocre; and the apathetic, subdivided into the purely apathetic or dull; and the calculateurs or intelligent. By combination these again afford new types. M. Fouillée takes sensitive, intellectual, and volitional for his scheme and by cross-combinations and subdivisions works out an equally complex plan. MM. Paulhan, Queyrat, and Fouillée and Malapert have each different divisions of their own, thus establishing, at all events, the impossibility of attaining agreement on the subject.
These efforts naturally suggest the question: Is a science of character possible? Mill devoted an important section in Book VI of his "Logic" to answering this query. He argues that there may be a true science of human nature, though not, as in the case of the physical sciences, an exact science. The laws which it can formulate are only approximate generalizations expressive of tendencies. It may not attempt exact predictions, owing to the complexity and uncertainty of the causes at work. Though mankind have not one universal character, there exist universal laws of the formation of character. The ascertainment of these laws constitutes the object of the science of ethology. The phenomena being so complex the method of investigation must be deductive. We have to draw inferences from general psychological principles, and then to verify them by study of concrete individual cases.
It is very unwise to lay down limits to the progress of knowledge; but it may be affirmed that, at all events, we have at present nothing approximating to a science of character. As we have said, there is already in existence a considerable literature devoted to the psychological analysis of the constituents of the different forms of character, to the study of the general conditions of its growth, and to the classification of types of character. But the results, as yet reached, have little claim to the title of a science. There are moreover two obstacles, which though not, perhaps, absolutely fatal to the possibility of such a science are graver difficulties than Mill realized. Firstly, there is the element of individuality lying at the root of each character and variously determining its growths even in like circumstances, as we see in two children of the same family. The mistaken view as to the original equality and similarity of different minds naturally involved an erroneous under-estimation of this difficulty. Secondly, there is the fact of free-will, denied by Mill. We do not maintain that free-will is irreconcilable with a science whose laws are approximate generalizations as Mill conceived those of ethology to be. All anti-determinists allow enough of uniformity in the influence of motive upon action to satisfy this condition. Still the admission of free-will in the building up of character does indisputably increase the unpredictableness of future conduct and consequently of a science of character.
Whilst psychology investigates the growth of different types of character, ethics considers the relative value of such types and the virtues which constitute them. The problem of the true moral ideal is, in some ethical systems mainly, and in all systems partially, a question of the relative value of different types of character. The effect on the agent's character of a particular form of conduct is a universally accepted test of its moral quality. Different systems of ethics emphasize the importance of different virtues in the constitution of the ideal moral character. With the Utilitarian, who places the ethical end in the maximum of temporal happiness for the whole community, benevolence will form the primary element in the ideal character. For the Stoic, fortitude and self-control are the chief excellences. The egoistic Hedonist would seem bound to praise enlightened prudence as the highest virtue. For the Christian, Christ is, of course, the true example of ideal character. The vast multitude of varied types of moral perfection presented to us in the lives of the saints who have striven to copy Him show the infinite many-sidedness and rich fruitfulness of that ideal. In all conceptions of ideal character strength forms an essential feature. Firmness of will, fortitude, constancy in adhering to principle or in pursuit of a noble aim hold so important a place that in common language to be a man of character is frequently equivalent to being capable of adhering to a fixed purpose. But strength of this kind may easily degenerate into irrational obstinacy or narrow fanaticism. Another essential is the virtue of justice, the constant, practical recognition of the rights and claims of others-involving, of course, all our duties towards Almighty God. In addition to these, habits of charity and magnanimity, with temperance and self-restraint in the control of our lower appetencies, will be included. Finally, the richer the culture of the mind, the larger the intellectual horizon, the broader the sympathies, and the more balanced the springs of action in the soul, the more will the character approximate to the ideal of human perfection.
The true aim of education is not merely the cultivation of the intellect but also the formation of moral character. Increased intelligence or physical skill may as easily be employed to the detriment as to the benefit of the community, if not accompanied by improved will. Both do not necessarily go together. As it is the function of ethics to determine the ideal of human character, so it is the business of the theory or science of education to study the processes by which that end may be attained and to estimate the relative efficiency of different educational systems and methods in the prosecution of that end. Finally it is the duty of the art of education to apply the conclusions thus reached to practice and to adapt the available machinery to the realization of the true purpose of education in the formation of the highest type of ideal human character.
APA citation. (1908). Character. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03584b.htm
MLA citation. "Character." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03584b.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Rick McCarty.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at newadvent.org. Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.