One of the apparent corollaries of the maxim that “character determines fate” is that character is static and unchangeable. In the majority of cases this is undoubtedly true; but this truth should not be used as a license for us to lie supinely on our backs and let the swerve of the atoms in the void determine our future. As volitional beings, we must act. Forward movement is one of the imperatives of masculine virtue. The negative personality takes refuge in the apparent indifference of the universe; but the active man, the healthy man, is too busy with his own affairs to fret over such exculpatory abstractions. Each of us is responsible for his own fate. Having accepted this, we will now ask how character can be modified to suit the will.
Bodily Health. It was a common belief in the ancient world that a physical flaw or defect was the manifestation of a defect in one’s personality. We cannot be sure they were wrong. Vices have a habit of warping the body of their bearer, and eating away at the health of the flesh; vice is not just a corruption, but a parasite. Health begins with the consumption of food and drink; we must take care to watch what we put in our stomachs. So much has been written about food and diet that little remains left to be said, other than to offer this simple suggestion: we should monitor our moods and bodily operations, and shun the foods and drinks that inhibit them. Exercise, of course, ties directly into this. It must be so ingrained, so essentially a part of us, that it becomes instinctive.
If we cannot choose a career that imposes physical demands on us, then we must go out of our way to impose physical demands on ourselves. Not a single day should pass without some form of physical activity. Abandonment of personal hygiene and cleanliness is the first step on the road to Tartarus; no man can be taken seriously who believes more in dirt and grime than in sanitation. As the Roman medical author Celsus (one of the most sensible of men) says,
A healthy man who is of sound body and master of his own affairs, ought to be beholden to no rigid rules. Neither should he need a masseuse or someone to rub him with oil. His lifestyle ought to give him varied settings: to be in the countryside, in the city, and more often on a farm. He ought to take to boats on the water, to hunt, to relax sometimes, and frequently exercise. Lack of activity is corrupting to the body, but labor makes it strong; the sedentary life makes a man old, but healthy activity begets an extended youth. [De medicina I.1]
External Environment. Climate, scenery, and the people we interact with every day affect our mood and well-being. Some bodies are accustomed to the cold, and feel at home skidding and slipping on icy sidewalks; others, fearing for the circulation of their extremities, seek the languid softness of the globe’s hotter regions. Environment is not just a passive landscape in which we move; it is a living, breathing participant in our lives. We are bombarded every hour of the day with its stimuli, and if these are not to our liking, we should take steps to change them. Frequent travel or permanent relocation can do wonders for the soul; and it is a mistake to think that we are always the same person wherever we go. The truth is that we are many people, and that every facet of our character vibrates at a different frequency depending on our external environment.
Friends. A life without friends, says Cicero in On Moral Ends, is a life of mortal terror. One man adrift alone in the ocean has no chance at survival; but place him in a raft with several others, and he at least has a fighting chance. But friends do not magically appear on our doorstep; we must make efforts to put ourselves into circulation. Frequency of contact is the mother of friendship. Our educational system, with its unremitting emphasis on the primacy of the individual ego, trains us hardly at all on how to make and keep friends. The modern man (and woman) is a thin-skinned, fragile creature; he is too quick to take offense, and too lacking in patience to tolerate the oddities of his fellows. It was not always so. But we should want friends who keep us in check, who prevent our runaway egos from crashing into the other cars on the human freeway.
So if you want to have friends, learn to set aside your ego; learn to laugh at yourself and your foibles. Realize that you are only one human organism out of a countless multitude in the world, and that the world will little miss you when you are gone. Bottle the acid, quell the rage, and shut your mouth. Learn to listen more than to speak; remember that the world has heard many times before your brilliant opinions of it, and that the only thing different is the sound of the voice. We may not be able to pick our family, but we can pick our friends.
Love. Love can both move mountains and shape character. But what is love? This question was discussed at length in Chaper 35 of my book Pantheon. According to the mystic Plotinus (Enn. VI.9), it is that instinctive gravitational force drawing us to our creator (the One), the source from which we originally came. He tells us:
I have seen a beauty wonderfully great and felt assurance that then most of all I belonged to the better part; I have actually lived the best life and come to identify with the divine; and…I have come to that supreme actuality, setting myself above all else in the realm of Intellect. [See Pantheon, p. 223].
Love is part of our eternal quest to know our true selves, a part of our desire to achieve union with the source that created us. A man cannot be said to have lived unless he has both loved and been loved. Even if we fail in our quests for friends or lovers, we will still in some way feel redeemed; for there is no pursuit so noble, no endeavor so eternal in its calling, that will yet bestow the laurels of the victor to the vanquished. The day we give up the chase is the day our souls begin to shrivel and die.
Let us allow these elements, then, as the ingredients for the changing of our characters. How we mix them, season them, and knead them to expansion in our personal bakeries will be up to us. The positive man, the vigorous man, will not cower behind a barricade of complaints or timorous equivocations at the difficulty of undertaking the task. For he has long ago accepted the reality that life is for the living, and for the brave.
More on this and related topics can be found in my book Pantheon: