What does character mean?
Suppose we are at a conference in a lecture hall and we hear a loud explosion inside the room and following that you see a fire breaking out.
Our base animal instinct drives us to selfishly and mindlessly pursue a course of action to ensure self survival. This could drive us to seek our own safety regardless of those around us, probably in a brutal and/or pretentious manner. This is the action of a brute.
The next level of character reaction might be called conformity, seeking to follow the crowd to safety. Like the baser reaction, this is still driven by fear, but it also engages our mind to figure out what others are doing. This could drive us to huddle into and follow the crowd trying to rush out through the main exits. This is the character of a conformist.
The next level of character reaction is being responsible and prudent. Overcoming fear and engaging our minds to assess the situation and to determine the best course of action for us. We might look around for other emergency exits and find a less crowded, quicker and ultimately safer exit. This is the character of an egoist.
The best character reaction would be to consider what is best for everybody and to act to bring this about. This could drive us to not just exit using other less crowded emergency exits but to direct some of the crowd that way too so that everybody might get out in the quickest possible way. Adam Smith referred to this type of behaviour as superior prudence, combining prudence, “of all the virtues that which is most useful to the individual”, with that of courage, strong benevolence and a due regard for justice, “the greater and more splendid virtues”. He said “it is the best head joined to the best heart”. This is the character of a citizen.
These four types of reaction broadly fall into the classical character categories of the brute (barbaros), the conformist (doulos), the egoist (idiôtes) and the citizen (politēs). In reality, individuals will usually demonstrate a combination of all four types of behavior to some extent or another. The relative balance of the behaviors is the important practical factor in determining an individual’s character.
The aim of true education, the aim of knowing yourself, is to lead out the citizen character from within you.
In the example above, the citizen character is not just helping others, they are demonstrating a wherewithal that they can use to create the life they want to live.
To help you better understand the four character types, a deeper look at each one is outlined below. That is followed by a section discussing how we might assess character in practice.
“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”John F. Kennedy
In his ‘Of the Social Contract’ Jean Jacques Rousseau bemoaned that “the true [character based] meaning of this word [citizen] has been almost wholly erased in the modern world”.
Citizens are responsible, self-reliant and self-ruling. They can engage their thought and use reason. They are willing to participate beyond their own self-interest for the greater good and have a general proportionate care for the welfare of other people (though they also differentiate by character). With citizens, justice can win out over expedience. They aim at progress and indeed their behaviour is a necessary pre-condition for progress. Their super-ego has a bigger influence on them than their ego. They are often reformers and sometimes revolutionists. They are also willing to take on brutish behaviour, despite the costs that may be involved – though they are winners so will not become needless martyrs.
“To be a man/woman is, precisely, to be responsible. It is to feel shame at the sight of what seems to be unmerited misery. It is to take pride in a victory won by one’s companions. It is to feel, when one is setting one’s stone, that one is contributing to the building of the world.”Saint-Exupery
They are polite individuals (politēs is the Greek word for citizen). Their ethics are based on doing the right / best thing, and are based mostly on the quality of the end result (rather than efforts or intentions). They aim at superior prudence rather than mere prudence. They rely on their superego, along with courage, strong benevolence and justice, which will be stronger than ego. They are most powerful when working with other citizens. Freedom for a citizen is a virtue to be won rather than something that can be given and it is mostly defined as the opportunity to make ethical progress. They are willing to unpick the narrative for the greater good – sometimes even when the personal price is unknown. Classical democracy was only possible with citizens – and indeed they regarded those who only took care of themselves as ‘idiotes’ – lost in their own little ego worlds.
Citizens aim at what is best rather than what is expedient.
Citizens aim at “The line of least resistance versus the line of greatest advantage” using the thoughts of George Bernard Shaw
“All of us knows, not what is expedient, not what is going to make us popular, not what the policy is, or the company policy – but in truth each of us knows what is the right thing to do. And that’s how I am guided.”Maya Angelou
Arguably being a citizen is innate to all human beings – though many become closed to it due to fear and for other reasons:
“Don’t force your way by badness; for the just nothing succeeds as well as doing good”Theognis
The citizen naturally aims at progress – this is the normal and best route for them.
A citizen is ‘kurios’ – the Greek word ‘kurios’, from where we get our word curious, originally meant ‘self-sovereignty’. The citizen is a natural innovator and sees innovation as an essential tool to achieve progress. Einstein stressed this point, he said, “I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious”.
Using the analogy of construction, a citizen will aim to build a Roman road or aqueduct, one that is built to last forever.
“I don’t want any pursuit, apart from excellence and learning. I would like always to make these my concerns; then, too, I want to find my pleasure in the lyre and in the dance, and singing and to keep my mind alert, in noble company.”Theognis
The classical example is the character of Brutus in ancient Rome. He was considered to have nobility of character – where he would put the greater good first. Brutus chose the side of Pompey in the Roman civil war against Cesar as he considered it to be in Rome’s best interest. This was despite Pompey having put his father to death the previous year and being on very good terms with Cesar.
In the modern world, we have wonderful examples like Nelson Mandela. There are also many unsung citizens who do their work quietly for the greater good.
“Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.”Nelson Mandela
Egoists are responsible, self-reliant and self-ruling – they can engage their thought and use reason. However, their effort to participate beyond their self-interest, and the interests of those close to them, can be marginal or non-existent. They have less care for others than citizens and are more open to actions for selfish reasons, which are detrimental to others. Egoists present a behavioural risk when self-interest is not properly aligned to achieve progress.
Egoist behaviour is better than that of conformists and brutes, but it does not come without problems. By failing to fully know and rule themselves, egoists create a power vacuum – they can be open to the idea of having a tyrant or ‘benevolent dictator’ to fill this vacuum as long as their interests are being met or being furthered. Egoists can be at risk of turning into these tyrants, distortedly seeing it as a good thing. Egoists create cultural/political risk because the optimum cultural/political environment (a democracy) is not possible with them.
“When the whole state is on the right course it is a better thing for each separate individual than when private interests are satisfied but the state as a whole is going downhill.”Pericles
Their ethics are based on doing the best thing for them (or those closely related to them) and based mostly on the end result rather than efforts or intentions. Their ethics are based on the principle of ‘minding your own business’. Freedom is seen as the opportunity to accumulate wealth without obstacles and to keep it in safety. The egotist will probably recognize that things could be otherwise, but will only challenge the narrative when either the price is not too high or when the personal benefits outweigh the price.
The egoist naturally aims at what is best for them.
Egoists will strive to take the most progressive path or to give the most progressive advice that they can for their clients, but only to the extent that their interests are aligned towards doing so. Their behaviour poses a risk when their interests are misaligned with the common interest.
Using the analogy of constructing a building, an egoist will aim to construct the best building that is politically possible without taking any personal risk, other than that, which is likely good for them.
Conformists cannot, or will not, rule themselves. They would prefer not to engage their thought and fully use their reason. They are inclined to be slavish and willing to sacrifice some freedom in return for a reduction in their responsibilities. They are more inclined to learn the shape of the spoon rather than to learn to discipline themselves. They seek security through being dependent on a boss / employer, in order to have a quieter life. They are unlikely to initiate significant progress, since their aim is often to find a more ‘benevolent boss’. They represent a more passive type of behavioural risk to others. They can behave like: critics, knowing the way but not knowing how to drive the car; as moaners, projecting their negativity onto others; or as radicals, seeing a minor problem and advocating a solution to that problem, without realizing that their solution would bring things generally into a worse state of affairs.
Conformist ethics are based on what’s good in the norm. They are based on efforts extended or good intentions, with some ego distortion likely, rather than on the quality of the end result. They usually have some degree of expectation that others should give things to them or do things for them, especially the government – as the way a child might develop unrealistic expectations of what they should get from their parents. They only carry out analyses within their narrative as challenging the narrative is considered too dangerous – and creating their own narratives considered too onerous.
They have a distorted view of freedom. To them, it’s mostly about having less responsibility. Real freedom would be felt as great anxiety and terrible agony for a conformist.
Action and courage are mostly absent from conformist narratives. They mostly want somebody else to do it – as a child would want their parents or an adult to do things for them. They get upset as children do and often need to be looked after as we care for children.
Conformists will strive to follow the path of ‘progress’ that conforms to their norm – though this norm will probably be based on a weak narrative. They will act mostly in the interest of achieving a quieter life for themselves – though in a manner unlikely to achieve much quality in such a life. Better regulation requiring more of the conformist can be likely to improve the quantity of work carried out by them, but the quality will depend on the quality of the regulations.
If they were constructing a building, it would likely be shoddy with superficial or disproportionate conformity to standards and regulations. Their primary aim will be to safeguard their own security.
“Barbarians have nothing trustworthy or true.”Herodotus (by the Spartans to the Athenians)
Brutes are willing to be brutal and pretentious in their actions if they consider it in their interest. They are cowards who are typically enemies to anyone better than themselves, who often despise those who treat them well and look up to those who make no concessions but are mostly filled with nonsense. Their consideration for others is often quite limited. Brutes typically want to bring things down to their level. Their behaviour is the biggest obstacle to progress. Power vacuums are likely to attract or necessitate brutes for reasons of expedience. Freedom is about unconditionally getting what they want. They can behave like trolls, sadists or psychopaths.
“Brutes can sometimes be not in the least disturbed by the harm that befalls them, provided they can see their enemies’ downfall first.”Aesop
Brutish ethics are based on brutes getting what they want – once they have some nonsense excuse created to justify the actions (nonsense to others but believed by their egos).
Brutes will rape, pillage and pollute the earth and do so without conscience. Brutes will strive to get the most for them from any actions they take that are pretentiously put forward as progressive. They will pretentiously look after their self-interest with very little if any regard for the others. They will not have much regard for conforming to norms, e.g. regulations, other than in a pretentious manner. They represent a behavioural risk to others.
If they were to construct a building, it would be a death trap like the Grenfell Tower in London.
Brutes consider ok to get their own gratification in a brutal way, using nonsense excuses to justify the actions (nonsense to others but believed by their impregnable egos).
Examples of brutish excuses made to themselves:
- The world is bad so I need to be bad / can be bad too, get out of my way
- It’s all bullshit, I’m just doing what they’re doing so it’s ok
Some examples of Brutish rhetoric
Brutish rhetoric is pretentious and full of distorted logic
- It is designed to stimulate but mostly to confuse, so as to distract from their real motives
- The use of ‘seeming truths to entrap the wisest’
- Their project, their wrong-doing on to others, e.g. imputing corruption on others to distract from their own corruption
- They often use a form of malignant projection known as DARVO, “Deny, Abuse, Reverse the Victim and Offender”.
Sometimes they forget to add the pretentiousness. For example, Beppe Grillo’s verdict on Donald Trump’s win in 2016: “It is those who dare, the obstinate, the barbarians who will take the world forward. We are the barbarians!”. And the Brexit voter who said, “I voted for Brexit, maybe it’ll bring those Londoners down a peg or two”.
Brutish rhetoric typically uses scapegoating, e.g. of Jews, Muslims or Mexicans.
The brutish energy of their rhetoric is designed to intimidate, e.g. with statements such as “who do you think you are”. They will mostly use classic misdirection, to deflect from engaging in reason or persuasion.
“Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear.”Bertrand Russell
Their rhetoric is designed to appeal to brutish tendencies, such as fear and anger. They mostly aim to prey on peoples’ fears. They try to encourage extremes as this helps create confusion because extremes turn things into their opposite, making it more difficult for others to understand what is happening.
Taking Hitler as an example, they rely on “small levels of understanding and great levels of forgetfulness “.
They mix some good behaviour with a brutish one. The classical analogy is that they are like the sausage-seller in The Knights of Aristophanes. They then use the ‘repentant sinner appeal’, as people we usually praise or blame according to our difference between reality and our image. So, when a Brute does something good, it can seem much better than it actually is. Their strategy is to distort our ability to judge the proportionality of their behaviour.
Reading and understanding the material above on character is not sufficient to be able to assess a person’s character. To assess their character requires observing them over time and when they are under stress.
But we cannot access a person’s character until we also know ourselves first. Otherwise, we can be likely to project our character’s deficiencies onto others and misjudge their characters. To assess a person’s character, we need to know our own inner brute, our own inner conformist, inner egoist and inner citizen.
By knowing ourselves, we will know others.
A fable about character by Charles de Montesquieu
In his book, Persian Letters, Montesquieu tells a timeless fable about character. The fable is recommended reading for those who want to gain a better understanding of character. The fable is contained in Letters 11-14.
Link to Persian Letters
“Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it. The man who knows how will always have a job. The man who also knows why will always be his boss. As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”Harrington Emerson