What is Character?

Alan Sims

Character is not just an upstanding word extracted from a mosh-pit of feel-good terms, used to describe someone’s positive behavior. Rather, it’s a very specific identifier of the nature of a person’s soul. 

The word character has a broad spectrum of meanings. Each springs from the Greek root, charakter, which connotes a “mark,” or “distinctive quality.” This Greek noun further derives from the verb charassein, meaning “to sharpen, cut in furrows, or engrave.” The literal sense of the noun as “an engraved or imprinted mark” existed in Greek, Latin, and French alongside the figurative one, “a distinctive quality.” Both of these were borrowed into English early in its development.[efn_note]Merriam Webster Online Dictionary[/efn_note]

Thinking literally of “an engraved or imprinted mark,” it’s easy to see how the word character came to describe Egyptian hieroglyphics or the symbols of the Chinese alphabet. Traditionally, these characters were etched into parchment or vellum, or engraved into stone, and could be read by those that knew how. We recognize this meaning in a sentence like “She learned each character of the Chinese alphabet in school.”

Similarly, each cast member in a theatrical production portrays a character bearing distinctive qualities that are made overtly obvious, as if engraved or imprinted on their being. This is done so the audience can easily grasp the character of the character in the short span of a show.

Another use of the word character is associated with people that love to cut up inappropriately, or those with eccentric habits or traits. We may hear a comment like “Did you hear what Joe said about the horse race? He’s such a character!” Such comments do not usually point to positive attributes. They are meant playfully, however, suggesting no offense should be taken.

More seriously, the word character is often used when we are discussing the complex set of mental and ethical traits marking a person, group, or nation. These characteristics are the context of anthropological, sociological, psychological and theological inquiry, and taken together, collectively ascribe the attributes, or the character of their object.

The word character is highly elastic. Most dictionaries contain long, colorful lists of its nuanced applications that all trace back to its Greek origins, yet no list can be exhaustive. Despite this, today in English we have little trouble distinguishing between the meanings of this word in “Ralph was the last character to appear in the play,” “Roger is always joking; he’s such a character,” and “Jane has a fine and noble character,” or its many other uses. 

It is this last one – noble character – that best aligns with our discussion. For the purposes of this book, we are not referring to the protagonist in a theatrical production, your eccentric old uncle and his funny habits, or a symbol used in writing or printing. What we’re really talking about here is the idea of moral excellence. 

Character and Virtue

When we say someone has character, we are generally thinking of their upstanding attributes, such as integrity, honor, and moral strength. 

Conversely, we could easily ascribe corrupt, immoral, or unethical traits to poor character, but we generally do not. Rather, we refer to such a person as lacking character, or having no character. The reason our use of the word character is biased toward positive attributes is because character has long been used as a synonym with the word virtue

Technically, the words character and virtue both point to integrity, honor, and rectitude. Yet character carries a greater sense of moral strength, fortitude, and resolve. Virtue, on the other hand, is often more specific and emphasizes many of the softer qualities, like acceptance, gentleness, and moderation. Virtue is an expression of character – not character itself. 

The word virtue possesses a greater Biblical and historical intonation than the word character. In England at the time of King James, almost every positive attribute was considered to be a virtue. This functional emphasis continued through the time of the American Revolution, as the Founding Fathers referenced the importance of virtue prolifically in their writings. Such consistent rendering was partly due to the intimate familiarity of the founders with the King James Bible – more than half of the founders held seminary degrees.[efn_note]Citation Coming Soon[/efn_note]

But by the turn of the 20th century, with the rise of modernity and a corresponding fall in church attendance, we find usage of these terms becoming more substitutionary, and more synonymous with one another. It was then that character eclipsed virtue in common usage.

Despite all this, virtue continued to maintain its prevalence of usage in one sense of meaning – chastity. Traditionally, purity and innocence were still considered virtues, and a woman was considered virtuous if she maintained abstinence. Today, in the wake of the collapse of the traditional sexual mores and norms, this sense of virtue has become all too foreign and unfamiliar.

Despite the convergence of these words over time, Americans still understand the weight of each term, even if they can’t articulate it: Character more heavily relates to moral strength and resolve, whereas virtue carries more weight in terms of honor and purity. Character carries a greater sense of action, while virtue carries a greater spirit of principle. 

Character protects virtue. Its winsome moral strength undertakes the initiative to provide a safe, supportive environment, enabling virtue to selflessly dignify and ennoble the souls it touches. When character is strong, virtue is free to perform every aspect of its transcendent role. 

Virtue cannot truly render its sublime purpose in character’s absence. Without character, virtue is diminished – it becomes vulnerable to domination by selfish ambition. When virtue is groomed and trafficked for personal gain, it is no longer virtue at all, but manipulation by imitation, masquerading as wholesome goodness.

Character cannot be rightfully understood or appreciated apart from virtue. Both of these words remain essential today in order to carry the richness of language and meaning Americans deserve. 

Honesty and Integrity

A similar convergence has enveloped the words honesty and integrity in modern English. Honesty is the quality of being truthful and sincere. An honest person is reliable and accurate in their speech, and refrains from lying, cheating, or deceiving. Honesty breeds trust.

Integrity shares its roots from the Latin word ‘integer’ which denotes wholeness or completeness. A person that possesses integrity has an inner sense of ‘wholeness’ and consistency of character. They are honest with themselves and comfortable with who they are. Free from dissonance and fragmentation, they are fully ‘integrated’ and whole. A person of integrity does the right thing always, even when no one is watching – they are naturally honest.

A person cannot have integrity without having honesty. However, a person who has honesty does not always have integrity. Integrity is larger and more comprehensive than honesty – it includes and envelopes it. It’s a bigger word with a larger meaning. In a healthy soul or organization, integrity is the tree – honesty is the fruit.

Understanding the migration of the use of these words is important to developing our conception of the meaning of national character. Here is character as we’ll need to know it to build a stronger nation:

Character: (n) the moral strength to consistently speak and act with integrity and virtue.

That’s right – character is strong. If it isn’t strong, it isn’t character. During our journey together throughout these pages, we’ll refer to character and moral strength interchangeably. 

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