Few contrasts in character traits are as sharp as the difference between petty pride and true usefulness. The former elevates vanity as a virtue, while the latter represents the practical skills required for life’s unending challenges.Continue reading
The Roman writer Aelian makes an interesting comment in his Varia Historia (II.39) about the education of Cretan youths in ancient times. He says that the children of citizens (presumably both boys and girls) would learn the laws of their island with musical accompaniment as an aid to memorization.Continue reading
General Jacob Bayley remains one of the most obscure figures of American Revolutionary War leadership. Yet in our present age of debilitated moral strength, feeble character, and flexuous purposes, the details of his life and deeds are both instructive and edifying.Continue reading
We have here very frequently discussed the necessity of training in character and the virtues as a lifelong activity. This subject is the concern of moral philosophy: that is, the study of conduct and the virtues. It is through moral philosophy that a man’s passions are bridled, directed, and channeled for positive use. Without this discipline, he never learns to sublimate his ego to a higher purpose; he begins to think of himself as an emperor, a man beyond the reach of the rules and obligations that apply to everyone else. Selfishness, arrogance, and close-mindedness creep into the subconscious, eventually to dominate every waking impulse.
Does it sometimes seem as if there are no leaders of substance any more? That, as we look around the world, or around our nation, every so-called “leader” is a mediocrity who does nothing of consequence? Did leaders of previous eras have better character and overall fortitude? We ask whether this sweeping generalization has some elements of truth, and make some related observations.
The Roman writer Aulus Gellius relates an anecdote about his discovery of the meaning of an old proverb. He tells us that he read the following line in one of the speeches of Marcus Cato Censorius:
One of the first and greatest classics of Arabic prose is the Book of Kalila and Dimna. It is a collection of fables told with an allegorical purpose, but it is presented with such wisdom, poetic eloquence, and engaging humor as to make it one of the treasures of world literature. Its pedigree verifies its merit. The stories it contains were originally derived from a Sanskrit classic called the Panchatantra, but a Persian scholar and translator named Ibn Muqaffa’ (ابن المقفع), writing around 740 A.D., reworked the stories into something that was entirely original.
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.
The great Theban general Epaminondas is most famous for his crushing victory over the Spartans in the Battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C. With this battle the long military influence of Sparta on the Greek peninsula was brought to an end. He was a man of few words; but when he did speak, his words were worth recording. The historian Cornelius Nepos relates two anecdotes that are revealing of his character and temperament.
He was from youth a strong-willed and charismatic man, certain of the correctness of his ideas and the importance of his mission. It is probably true that in the beginning he genuinely wanted the best for his country, and he was possessed of a burning desire to right the wrongs he saw all around him. Cuba under his predecessors was little more than a huge plantation, exploited at will by corrupt elites and foreign powers. His certitude gave him a charisma which the credulity of the commons mistook for leadership.